The Nearest Vessel

by Michael J. Albers

 

She appeared next to him only half-materialized, the stars visible through her body and an incoming comet’s tail extending from her head like a bad cowlick. “We’re not going to Breenken.” She had appeared as a rather average girl with long brownish-red hair, looking vaguely like a composite of the girls he’d dated in college, at least the ones he wanted to remember.

Roland shook his head. “What do you mean ‘not going to Breenken?’ We’ve got a full load of colony start-up supplies. I thought the captain told me, who told you, who made sure we got there, not vice versa.”

“There’s a ship in distress, and we’re the nearest vessel. New jump time is fifteen hours. I’ve modified course.” The Ship’s image turned and walked off dissipating into the star field.

Roland yelled after her, “Fifteen hours! What star? Details, please! I’m the damn pilot and suddenly I don’t have a damn clue where the hell we’re going.” But the figure had faded to nothingness against the stars of Orion’s Belt. “Shit, Captain Wilson will go supernova! Not that I ever really have a bloody clue about this Orbber ship, but at least it has always gone where I told it. He’s going to go bloody supernova.”

No, the captain will not be happy at all, Roland thought, especially since I don’t even know the name of the star we’re going to. Or even if it’s a single jump. Shit, I better tell them. 

Roland sighed and mentally signaled the system to return to normal haptics and he once more felt himself half reclined in the pilot chair’s deep padding.

A touch on his forearm. His view of his arm didn’t have anyone touching it, but then, he sat alone in his view of the control room. A control room he had designed as a spacious gauge-filled, geeked-up image from one of the campy flat-image movies he liked to watch. His jacked-in world appeared nice, crisp, and clean; it never contained other people. Yet, he knew reality was much different. Roger, an engineering assistant, would be sitting beside him in the cramped confines of the real control room, maintaining the auxiliary systems. In addition, one of the other pilots, Jenny or Rick, or Captain Wilson, or any other crew member may be standing around. With the change in the jump clock, he knew Wilson would be standing there, building to a full head of steam.

This was going to hurt. He opened a chat window and thought the words on it. “Who’s touching me?” Interacting with the outside world while jacked-in was difficult, the Orbber drive fed so much input through the jack that his brain had a hard time handling any additional inputs. Unlike some pilots, his brain simply refused to simultaneously interact with both ship control and the real world. The difference in perception gave him a splitting headache within seconds. The Ship could show up in his jacked-in vision, but no one else could.

Words appeared below his. “It’s me, Jenny.”

“Hi.”

“What’s going on? We changed course, increased speed, and decreased the jump clock by nine and a half days.”

“We sped up?” Roland mused, more to himself than Jenny, “I always sort of thought we traveled at top speed.” His head started pounding.

“Umm, yeah, me too, I guess. But the Ship?”

“It said we’re going on a distress call with jump in fifteen hours.”

“And?”

“And then it turned and walked away. Not unlike most other women I’ve known.”

A playful dig of fingernails bit into his arm. “Told you to bathe. The captain wants to see you when you unjack.” He felt a brushing motion across his forearm, their simple signal to return back to the private pilot’s world.

Closing the chat window, Roland willed the ship’s walls to fade away. Jet-black sky sparked with stars all around him except for the light yellow disk of the Sun which blocked a major chunk of his dead-ahead vision. Earth was a blue dot behind the ship, as they were already over halfway to crossing Venus’ orbit line. Sweeping across Roland’s foot, looking almost like he could stand on it, the long comet tail which had earlier sprouted from the Ship’s head, glowed. Behind him shimmered a translucent image of the ship populated by greenish images of properly working sub-systems, the yellow image of the fan with a bad bearing, and the red image of the sanitary pump being overhauled. As long as everything remained mostly green, all was well with the ship’s systems. He had the strangest feeling that if people were included in this vision, they would be turning red, especially the captain. Not a patient man at the best of times, Captain Wilson was going to be spun up with this undetermined jump change. Yes, most definitely, he’d appear as a bright red flame. Maybe even as bright as the pulsing red-hot iron hammer flailing inside Roland’s head.

He sighed. So we all ride a ship on a rescue mission to somewhere. On a ship that doesn’t see fit to tell its pilot where the hell that somewhere is. Only an hour and half eternity of this pounding headache until Jenny relieved me.

After his watch, Roland sat, eyes closed, in the dim light of his stateroom, willing the brain fog to clear. His bare arms and legs tingled as the fan wafted air over their hair. He breathed deep and slow, drawing the vanilla-cinnamon spiced cabin air deep into his lungs and completely expelling it. It was a routine every pilot went through; each pilot developed his or her own method of returning to the real world. After six hours of virtual inputs from the ship jack, essentially being disconnected from the universe, reconnection was a dizzy fuzzy time.

The bunk trembled slightly with the vibration of the ship’s various fans and pumps. Captain Wilson had done his own stint as a pilot and understood the futility of trying to get coherent answers from Roland until the brain fog cleared. But Roland also knew he didn’t have much time to shake it off. Headache still pounding, he sipped a glass of juice, a tangy mix of berry-flavored something or other.

Fog tendrils still formed a tangled web across his thoughts and vision as Roland refilled his juice glass and stepped out of his cabin to go find Captain Wilson. He discovered Wilson waiting, not so patiently, outside Roland’s stateroom, reading something from a tablet.

“What distress signal?” Captain Wilson said. His finger tapped rhythmically on the side of the tablet, a sign he was tense and not in a mood for anything.

“I don’t know,” Roland shrugged. “She walked up, said we were going on a rescue mission since we were the closest ship. And then she left.”

“What system? What distressed ship?”

“Not a clue. I asked; she didn’t say. I have no idea what star or even if it’s a human ship. Hell, it could be an Orbber ship for all I know.”

The tapping grew faster and louder.

The captain shook his head. “Great. There’s too much here I don’t blasted understand. The ship suddenly seems to have received a distress signal from another star. We change course and start going faster than I thought possible. What is it with those Orbbers? They give away star drives but not interstellar communicators, even though their own blasted drive AIs seem to talk between stars just fine.”

“True, the Orbbers haven’t given any of the space-faring races an interstellar radio. But somehow every ship drive knows what every other ship is doing.” Tap, tap, tap. Roland choked back his next words, realizing he had fallen into his habit of over-explaining the obvious. There were times when it was best to keep interactions with Captain Wilson as terse as possible, and he was suddenly very sure this time was a list topper.

“And we suddenly find out our ship has these unknown speed capabilities,” Wilson slammed his palm into the bulkhead. “Damn it, it’s my ship and we are supposed to be going to Breenken.”

Roland winced as the slamming sound reverberated through his head. “Yes, your ship, but Ship says we’re going to rescue something.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. Rescuing something. The question is exactly what is that something. Scheduling boys on Earth are not happy about this.” The captain stomped off toward the control room.

Roland retreated back into his stateroom. He lay down and resumed his deep breathing exercises. Staring at the stars painted on the ceiling, he wondered if it really was an Orbber ship that was in distress. Would they finally get a chance to actually see an Orbber? Thus far, none of the six space-faring races claimed to know what an Orbber looked like. Orbber ships everyone had seen, including the first time, when three of them had come flying out of the sun, stopped at the moon’s L4 and L5 points to drop off a bunch of spheres, did a close flyby of Earth’s atmosphere, and dove back into the solar glare. The spheres proved to be 257 star drive units; all that humans had to do was build ships around them. But even learning that required a Kreen trading ship to enter the system and explain to Earth what those 27-foot jet-black spheres were and how to use them. And to explain the jet-black tube which melded itself around a potential pilot, who was shoved back out 47 minutes, 18.3 seconds later with a system jack at the base of the neck, a full set of pilot skills, and no memory of the process. Or, for about thirty percent of potential pilots, a boring wait, until the rejected pilot crawled back out with no clue about why he or she had been rejected.

The fifteen hours until the jump passed uneventfully. The Ship never appeared to either Rick or Jenny with more details. Not that that was really unusual. On routine trips, the Ship typically only appeared once. Space tugs pushed them clear of a station dock, then after the ship drifted clear of the station, the Ship appeared to the pilot, asked for the destination, and then disappeared again. The job of a pilot was not to actually pilot the ship, but to act as a go-between with the Orbber drive. Maybe thirty seconds of contact per six- to eight-week trip, but if there wasn’t a pilot jacked in, the drive shut down instantly and the ship, defying all known laws of physics, stopped dead in space without so much as rippling water in a glass. All of the six space-faring races had Orbber drives and were puzzled by the rule. No one had any real theory as to why the Orbbers insisted on having a pilot who obviously wasn’t required. Some comedian claimed it was because the Orbbers were an overly unionized species and the pilot was a leftover from early space travel days. Sadly, while made in jest, Roland conceded it was as good a reason as any he had heard. Likewise, and much more important to each race’s leadership, none of the space-faring races had any solid explanation of why the Orbbers made star drives and just dropped them off without fanfare or communication. Or why they delivered more when the previous shipment had ships built around them. Or how they knew when to deliver more. Or why they kept taking survey vessels only to inhabitable planets, unless the survey team wanted to examine something specific. Or, as hyped by the paranoid and conspiracy types, why all six space-faring races had received their Orbber drives within the last 35 years. This impromptu rescue mission would really provide fuel to those people.

The jump clock in the control room counted down the final minute. Four people occupied the control room. Jenny was jacked in as pilot, sitting slack in the control chair, head rolled to one side. Roland and Wilson stood to either side of Jenny, looking out the viewports. Karen, the ship’s engineer, sat at her panel with its green glowing holos of the ship systems. The question on everyone’s mind was just how far and where were they going. They had crossed inside Mercury’s orbit line five hours earlier, a trip which should have taken two weeks. The sun filled the viewport; without the protective shield of the Orbber drive, the ship’s skin would have melted. As far as they could tell, this was the deepest into the solar gravity well any ship had ever penetrated before jump. Normally a jump occurred well outside of Mercury’s orbit line. The physics types of all the races agreed the drive used the energy of the gravity-warped space close to a star to power a jump, but also admitted they were clueless about the physics. Jumps from bigger stars definitely gave more distance; no one had come up with a better answer than hand-waving about gravitational energy. But if closer meant farther, then how far was this jump with the ship this deep in the solar gravity well?

Roland sighed, for when he was jacked in that instant of jump repaid the isolation of being a starship pilot with a million-fold interest. He always made the entire ship transparent and floated among the stars, waiting for the sudden shift in their patterns. Watching from the control room was not nearly as exciting.

The jump clock reached zero and abruptly the stars changed. The jump felt different. Normally, a jump had no feeling, no lurch, no bump—the visible stars simply changed. People not watching a viewport had no indication a jump had occurred. But this time both Roland and Captain Wilson felt it, a deep gut-level twist that had no real physical basis. Their confused, surprised eyes locked for a few seconds.

The sun, which had filled the space ahead of the ship, was replaced with a huge bright star in the rear viewport. Two large sunspot groups marred the surface and a tall looping prominence soared from the top like a feudal Japanese topknot. A jump to a large star was expected; class O and B giants were common intermediate jump destinations with their huge masses providing longer jumps. Seconds later, the navigation computer beeped: “No constellation matches on visual star maps. O class star has no specific stellar spectral match. Approximately twenty minutes for pulsar triangulation.”

Jenny murmured, “One hour and four minutes to contact and stop. Configure and power up two containers with life support suitable for Clen-Clen, but they are not Clen-Clen.”

Karen groaned as she pushed up her VR visor and turned to the captain. “Clen-Clen. We’ve only got four containers with integrated life-support and those are designed for humans, not those aliens. That nasty corrosive Clen-Clen atmosphere will totally trash those containers. Honestly, I’m not even sure how long they’ll function in that configuration. Plus, they’re configured to snap in as a space station component, not transport. Whoever they are, they’re in for a rough ride back without seats.”

“Prep three,” the captain said, “take two all the way and have the other ready as a quick replacement backup. But leave out the nasty stuff on the third. Wait, if you don’t know about length of time till no-op, leave out the nasty stuff until the last possible minute. ”

“Leave out the nasty stuff in a Clen-Clen atmosphere and it’s called vacuum.” The engineer dropped her visor back down as her fingers flicked the air working virtual controls only she could see.

“By the way,” Karen said, “the containers are not on the outer surface. Getting to them will require our guests to move through access tubes.”

“Finally, something good, “ Wilson grumbled. “At least we’ll see what they look like.”

The Orbber drive, when it was active, provided Earth-standard gravity, regardless of their actual acceleration; an acceleration value no one really wanted to know right now. Slightly under an hour after jump, during which the star had shrunk to a much smaller size than it should have, they acquired a visual on a damaged ship. At a high magnification, they could see it visibly growing larger at a much faster rate than when they approached a station. It was almost like an animation of a vehicle coming in at top speed, slamming on the brakes, and skidding to an abrupt stop inches away from a wall. Exactly one hour and four minutes after Jenny announced it, the ship stopped 100 yards from the alien ship. A ship that was ripped and twisted almost in half with the two halves out of alignment by almost 45 degrees. In one half, a large hole occupied the center of the section. Stars shone through the gap. Halfway down the other section was a second hole, smaller but it didn’t seem to penetrate completely through the ship.

The center break and twist was the same place as the Orbber drive occupied on Roland’s ship. But this ship was a completely different design. All six space-faring races had similar designs, dictated by the Orbbers. Every race had to use the same design; any variation and the Orbber drive simply said it was wrong and refused to move. Their ship had a 700-foot long, 30-foot diameter central hexagonal tube which just fit around the Orbber drive sphere which sat at the middle. The control room and crew quarters occupied the shaft from the drive to the front end and life support and other control systems occupied the other half. Around that center shaft, attached in a 14 by14 configuration, were cargo/passenger containers which were all 48 feet long and 10 feet square.

Roland thought the damaged ship, on the other hand, looked more like a space luxury liner out of those campy old movies he based his virtual control room on. Undamaged, it would have been a huge cylinder with numerous dimples projecting outward. It was also at least twice as long as their ship and much wider, even when they carried a full container configuration. Plus, it seemed to be a single unit, nothing resembling containers broke up the surface.

“Interesting,” Roland said, “that smaller hole doesn’t show any signs of melting or pressure damage. It looks like a giant punch just removed a chunk of hull.”

“My scan results are even more interesting,” the engineer said, her face still hidden in the VR helmet. “Or lack of scan. I can tell the ship is there, but I get nothing clear on either magnetic or spectral scans. All fuzzy wuzzy.”

The captain released a long deep-throated growl, “What do you mean, fuzzy?”

“I mean like spread thick translucent grease over a viewport and then look at a spaceship. Everything blurs into a meaningless blob with enough detail for shape and little else.”

“Shit.” Captain Wilson turned toward Roland. “Grab a camera and take pictures with the highest telephoto we’ve got. I don’t know how it’s blocking our scan, but we need to figure this out. Right now, I don’t trust integrated sensors to record anything.”

“My bet is on Ship filtering the scan signals,” Roland said, “Never heard such a thing before, but everything about this trip seems to be unique. What’s that? At the far end from the damaged section?”

Everyone’s eyes shifted toward a couple of small vessels with long manipulator arms that had moved away from the damaged ship and approached Roland’s ship. Everyone watched silently as they crossed the distance and started pulling cargo containers loose.

“What the hell are those tugs doing with my cargo?”

“Interesting,” Karen said, “they’re pulling exactly the ones needed to get to the containers I prepped. How do they know which ones?”

“I’m more interested in how quickly they work. We take a hell of a lot longer to move containers.”

Roland moved up to the viewport, taking pictures of both the damaged ship and the small tugs.

As each container was pulled free, the tug backed up, swept the container to the side, and released it before moving in to grab another. Soon, a collection of containers hung free around both spots which held the prepped containers. None of the free containers drifted with respect to the ship. Roland wondered how you can swing a large container and stop it on a dime with no drift adjustments. The captain’s fingers tapping echoed through the control room.

The work continued until the prepped containers pulled free. Then, as efficiently as they were removed, the other containers were repacked with the two prepped containers fitted into the top layer. As the second one was being put in place, a third, larger vessel left the damaged ship. It mated with the nearest newly positioned container. After a few minutes, it drifted over to the other container. While it was at the second container, both tugs mated with the first container and then drifted free, slowly tumbling and obviously no longer under command. Through all of this the alien ship never tried to communicate with Roland’s ship.

Everyone stood silently watching the operation. Roland jerked at the sound of Jenny’s voice, “Three seconds to acceleration. One hour twenty-four minutes to jump.”

Wilson slapped the control panel. “So glad I get to make decisions about my ship.” The wrecked vessel was already visibly smaller.

“Eng, where are we?” the captain asked.

“I don’t know. No pulsar match. We’ve got six pulsars IDed, but none match the database.”

“Damn it, calibrate that fucking equipment. We cannot jump far enough from Earth to not have matches.”

Roland shook his head thinking about the 3D pulsar charts he had studied during his Earth-based pilot training and how the instructors had assured the class that almost every pulsar in the galaxy had been mapped. Now they had six pulsars that didn’t match.

“The equipment is in cal. I think it’s all scrambled, just like my scan toys,” the engineer said.

The drumming of the captain’s fingers shifted to all five fingers trying to punch through the hard plastic panel. “My ship goes where I want it to go.”

When it was time for the return jump, Roland had relieved Jenny. Strangely, he couldn’t shift everything to transparency this time. Also, none of the normal container telemetry existed on the two containing their guests. All he could see were black boxes. Kerry, an engineering assistant, had volunteered to go container diving to read direct monitors, but Captain Wilson had nixed the idea. The Ship seemed intent on ensuring the contents remained hidden and he didn’t want to risk anyone physically approaching them. Plus, the access tubes hadn’t been reconnected to those containers, so the idea was moot. The containers fit tightly together with interlocking ports. Under drive, the ship’s surface was inaccessible since the Orbber drive wrapped itself tightly around the ship structure in a pure mirror-like coating.

Roland watched the jump clock countdown to zero and had to be content with sitting in his empty virtual control room watching through virtual viewports as the stars changed. But jump brought darkness instead of new stars. They floated in a black nothingness close to a single blazing star. “Great gods,” Roland muttered, “are we sitting someplace between galaxies?”

A ship hung 100 yards away which looked to be a twin of the damaged one they had seen during the rescue. Four tugs with their long manipulator arms floated close to their hull. Within seconds, they pulled the two occupied containers free and moved back.

The Ship appeared directly in front of Roland, with only a poorly rendered head rather than her normal full body that looked totally real. “Jump in six seconds.”

“Jump in six seconds? With no star?” Roland wondered if he had said it aloud.

The Ship blinked out as the jump clock floating before Roland counted down. Stars appeared around him. A full bodied Ship appeared looking like she always did and spoke, “Twelve days, 14 hours, 43 minutes to first jump. Then 18 days, 3 hours, 39 minutes to Breenken jump.”

“Two jumps! We made it here in one.”

“It’s a long trip.” The Ship faded away.

Unheard by Roland, Wilson was still releasing a string of profanity which had begun when he saw six seconds on the jump clock.

After clearing his brain fog, Roland went to the wardroom to eat. He found Captain Wilson, Karen, and Kerry staring at a display of a highly pixilated image.

Kerry looked up, “Hey, Roland, welcome back to the land of the living and home of the highly confused.”

Roland looked at the image; an involuntary shudder ran through his body. “What is that?” he asked.

“This is a super-duper blowup of one of the pictures you took of the ship we rescued. Jenny spotted this little blip just over the edge of the wreck. So, we enlarged it and found what looks like a huge station.”

The captain tapped the keyboard and an image of the wrecked ship filled the upper corner with an arrow pointing to a white smudge peeking out below the hull. “I don’t think we were supposed to see it at all. That wrecked ship was too perfectly positioned between us and it. But the wrecked ship drifted enough that this came into view in the last photo as we departed for the jump point.”

Roland dropped into a chair, looking at the image. “So it only shows in this one image?”

If it was a space station, it was either totally mangled or designed by someone with no sense of smooth assembly. Even highly pixilated, it was obvious that many sections hung at strange angles and looked as if they were ripped wide open. Two small blips only a couple pixels long, possibly ships, floated nearby. Assuming they were the same size as the damaged ship from their rescue, the station was huge, dwarfing the ships. Much larger than any station either humans or any other space-faring races had considered building.

“Did a big chunk of space debris hit it? Or maybe… no, never mind.” Roland asked. Yet, even as he asked, he knew it wasn’t caused by space debris. He had the strange sensation of knowing, but not really knowing, and not knowing how he could possibly know.

The captain looked at him. “You feel like you know but can’t place it, right?”

Roland nodded.

“I was watching you when you first looked at it and I saw that shudder. Jenny and I both felt that way when we saw it. It took a little bit to realize we both felt it.”

“So, all three of us with pilot jacks feel we know without knowing what is going on? Has Rick seen it?” Roland leaned back and shook his head. “I’m still too brain fogged for this type of discussion.”

“After two hours of staring at this, we’re all brain fogged,” Karen said. “It seems the only thing we really know is that all of the pilots here have a deep feeling they know the answer, but haven’t a clue what that answer is. What we do know is we have a single image of a huge space station ripped to shreds which the Orbber drive tried to hide. It’s too big for an internal explosion. Likewise for a single hit of space debris, although a highly fragmented asteroid might have done it. Perhaps they blew it up before it hit, but the pieces didn’t spread enough. But it seems any race that can build that thing can push an asteroid out of the way. Or it was attacked.”

Roland stared at Karen. “You’re saying the Orbber drive took us into the middle of a war zone?”

Wilson sighed. “Their war zone, someone else’s war zone, who knows. We weren’t there long enough to even start a pulsar match and no spectral match for either that star or this big baby we’re falling into now. So we have no fricken idea where we were or where we are now. Hell, it might be a science research project gone bad for all we know. Maybe just a highly explosive atmosphere that rips everything apart.

“The science and intel guy and gals on Earth will have a heyday with this.”

“They’ll have more theories and fewer answers than we do.”

Roland’s head spun and it felt like everything shifted to the right and back again. Hands against his forehead, he stood up. “Be back later.”

Lying on his bunk, Roland stared at the stars he had painted on the ceiling and considered how everything formed a bigger swirl than the galaxy painted in the corner. A strange rescue comes out of nowhere. A mangled space station. And his head starts spinning every time he thinks about it; no, the head of anyone with a pilot jack starts spinning. Something was definitely wrong here, but specifically what? Ok, he had always accepted the Orbbers had some ulterior motive and now there was a data point to prove it. He had never been one of the paranoids, but also wasn’t one of the overly accepting types who believed the Orbbers were just a super benevolent race freely giving away all the star drives you can build ships for—the Ancient Ones in the Engineer’s cheesy science fiction novels. As he drifted off to sleep, the image of the mangled space station popped into his mind and his whole body shuddered; the answer existed right at the edge of his thoughts and yet did not. His last thought before drifting off to sleep was that the real answer would come sooner rather than later and he didn’t think humans were going to like it.

 

The Ghost Lost Ship

by Scott D. Coon

 

Ed was cool.

His body filled the space behind the round table. The wall buckled as he leaned back, smoking a menthol cigarette. Only Ed smoked menthols; that made him even more cool. He had salvaged them from an old space freighter. Of course, to him, they were just freighters. I mean, he’s in space so why would he call them space freighters? Really? It’s just a writer’s device to let you know this is science fiction and he’s in space.

But, I digress.

He got the menthols from a “space” freighter. He got his muscles there too. He had a forty-five inch chest, a thirty-two inch waist, and biceps that he hadn’t gotten around to measuring yet. They came from moving heavy cargo off of derelict “space” freighters before he realized that if he turned the gravity off before he looted… I mean… salvaged the cargo it would be soooo much easier. And so he did.

Next to him sat Bob. Or, rather, Bob’s head since the table only came up to Bob’s chin. The guy’s short. Really short. There was something definitely wrong with Bob beyond the disembodied head at the table thing. You could tell just by looking at him. He had a face that demanded he wear one of those beanie hats. You know the kind, the ones with the little propellers on them. Yeah, the rainbow colored kind. Just looking at him without it made people want to scream, “I just can’t take it any more! Put the damn beanie on!” It was very useful in interrogations.

So, where were we? Oh yeah. Ed was slowly compromising the integrity of a wall in a sleazy bar while Bob just sat there freaking out the other patrons just by looking the way he does. Just then, a man in full Egyptian regalia walked in—white linen dress, gold neck thingies, sandals, the whole bit. “There’s going to be a bar fight,” Ed said to Bob.

“Yeah?”

“One of Them just walked in.”

“Them?”

“You know… ‘Them’.” He made the curling-finger bunny-ears quote thingy with his fingers. “They’re going to be fighting The Leather Spies.”

“Who?”

“Those guys over there by the bar. The ones in the trench coats and fedoras. They wear them to cover up the leather body suits. You can spot them because you can see the leather going up the back of their necks, and covering their faces, and who wears trench coats and fedoras anymore, really?”

“Oh.”

“They’re both chasing The Lost Ship. It’s filled with all kinds of lost nifty stuff. I read in Salvager’s Monthly that it was believed to be drifting through this area about now.”

“Is that why we’re here?” asked Bob.

“Don’t be stupid, it’s just an old science fiction story,” said Ed as he watched the Them march in unison to their table. “There’s no such thing.”

“What if it does exist?” asked Bob, his fingers nervously gripping the edge of the table. “Would that mean we’re in a story?”

Ed took a long, slow drag of menthol. “We are in a story. Look out there. Someone’s reading us right now.”

“Hello out there Mr. Reader Person,” said Bob, waving at you. “I thought The Ghost Lost Ship was coming. Ain’t that the thingy we’re going after?”

“You mean The Lost Ghost Ship?” asked Ed.

“No, it’s a ship that was lost that became a ghost ship,” explained Bob, “so it’s The Ghost Lost Ship.”

“That’s stupid.”

Then the fight broke out. I’m feeling lazy today so I’m not going to explain the whole thing about the pushing and the shoving and someone calling someone a poopy head. You just fill all that in for yourself and be glad I have enough coffee in me to write this at all. Now, get back to reading the story.

As the Them and the Leather Spies (no relation to the leather mafia, whoever they are) threw each other around the bar, Bob hid under Ed’s chair, crying and shaking, maybe wetting himself a little, maybe. Ed just smoked and nursed a beer. Then one of the Them fell in his lap. She was beautiful and familiar, so he said her name. “Egg!”

“Ed!” replied Egg, since he had gotten her name right.

“I haven’t seen you in…”

“A long time,” completed Egg.

“You’re as beautiful as ever. Why did I ever leave you?”

“To go salvage, jackass. You could have left me the key for the handcuffs. It took me three days to get out of those things!”

“I guess that’s why you weren’t home when I got back. I knew I had forgotten something that day,” said Ed scratching his chin. “How’d you end up with Them?”

“I joined for the uniform but I stayed for the game night. You haven’t lived until you’ve played Uno™ with Them.” She shivered at the very thought of it. “Bob’s here, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“He’s sucking on my big toe.”

“My thumb was all pruny but I wasn’t done being scared yet,” called Bob from under Ed.

“After The Lost Ship?” asked Ed.

Salvager’s Monthly?” asked Egg.

“Yup.”

“Yup.” Egg stood up and wiped her toe on the carpet. “I have to get back to the bar fight.”

“Good luck finding The Lost Ship,” said Ed. “You know it doesn’t exist, right?”

Egg shrugged, “Everyone needs a hobby.”

And so she went back to the fight and Ed and Bob went back to their ship to get another beer for Ed. They weren’t serving at the bar during the bar fight, local statute and all.

A day later, or so, Ed and Bob cruised the emptiness of space looking for stuff floating around. While Ed went to the hold to get another pack of menthols, Bob saw something in the blackness and steered toward it. As he approached, he saw its registry, “NNN.”

“It’s The Lost Ship!” he screamed.

Ed came running up from the hold, struggling with the cellophane on his new pack. “What the hell are you screaming about?”

“The Lost Ship! The Lost Ship! Look at the designation! NNN! Nifty Nick Nacks!”

“That’s, um… yeah. Wouldn’t that be Nifty Knickknacks? Which would be NK?”

“You know I can’t spell.”

“But,” said Ed, holding his head, “the ship.”

“Ships can’t spell,” snorted Bob. “Let’s get it!”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“At least we know it’s not The Ghost Lost Ship.”

“Uh huh. Why’s that?”

“’Cause it’s not all grey and translucent and wavy and stuff.”

“Bob,” said Ed, “shut up.”

They did all that technical docking stuff. You know what I mean. And then they were in the lost ship. Maybe it was The Lost Ship, we don’t know yet. Just hang in there and we’ll sort all this stuff out together.

Anywho…

As with most derelict ships, only the life support and gravity were still working. As with most cockpits on most derelict ships, there was a skeleton at the helm. Creepy, huh? Ed and Bob made their way to the hold where the good stuff was. It was full of boxes of various sizes. Bob picked up a small one, read the label, and opened it. It held an old, copper cup—filthy thing. Looked like it had spent a couple thousand years in a cave, kind of like the cups in that bar where the fight thing happened. You remember, it was in the first half of this story. Go check. I’ll wait.

Done?

Good.

Bob called to Ed, “We’ll have to open these boxes.”

“Why?” replied Ed still looking around for the gravity control so he wouldn’t forget to turn it off before moving the heavy boxes. I say “still” because he started looking for it while you were off checking the first half of the story just now.

“They’re labeled wrong,” explained Bob. “This one has just a cup in it and it’s marked ‘The Holy Grail’. It’s not a grail, just a cup, and not a hole in it.”

“Hmmm.” Ed picked up a small box for himself. It was marked “The One Ring.” He opened the box and said, “Yup, one ring,” and tossed it back over his shoulder.

Bob was scanning the labels on some other boxes. “The Golden Fleece, Cupie Dolls, Declaration of Independence… Hey, wait a minute. Ed!”

“What?”

“Check this out. The label on this one has been torched off. Isn’t that the thing on your girlfriend’s uniform? Not Egg—the new one.”

Ed took a look at the mostly torched-off marking. “That’s a swastika. And, she’s not my girlfriend. She’s a prostitute. Have some respect; the woman’s a professional. But, yeah, that’s what’s on her uniform.”

Bob sniffed the burnt crate. “Why would someone torch this?”

“They didn’t; it was torched from the inside. This is the Ark of the Covenant. I saw it in a movie once. This is what the Them was looking for. I guess this is The Lost Ship, after all. I owe you a dollar.”

“Told you so,” said the smiling Bob. Looking over the loot, something caught Bob’s eye, figuratively. He rushed to the back. “Please, oh, please be marked right!” He threw open the lid and a golden shower of light caressed his tiny cheeks. “Twinkies™!!! Wonderful, glorious Twinkies™!!”

Ed stood over him and said mockingly so as to mock him, “Yeah, Twinkies™. Get off your knees, you look like a doof.”

But then Ed saw the label on the box next to it. He rushed over to it even though he was only two steps away. “Please, oh, please be marked right!” He threw open the lid and a golden shower of light caressed his not so tiny cheeks. “A complete Jenna Jamison video collection!” He fell to his knees.

Before Bob could mock him in a mocking way for having mocked him before, someone kicked in the starboard door to the cargo hold. No, not the one into space. I mean, come on, try to keep up with the story here, we’re in outer space. It would have let all the air out or all the vacuum in, whichever. Then someone else kicked in the port door—and don’t make me go through all that again.

It was the Leather Spies and Them coming in through opposite doors. Once again the poopy head thing happened and they started fighting. Stuff just going everywhere and so forth and et cetera while Bob and Ed hid behind the Twinkies™ and a crate of naughty tapes.

“This salvage is ours!” called out one of the Them. Not Egg, one of the other ones. You don’t need to know who; he’s just a minor character. Go with it. “We’re taking the Ark of the Covenant and that’s all there is to it!”

“No, this salvage is ours!” replied an equally unimportant character from the Leather Spies dudes. “We’re taking the Maltese Falcon and that’s all there is to it!”

Did you catch that? They’re both after different things so they’re really fighting for no reason. It’s silly if you think about it.

They had lasers this time. And the lasers were just tearing things up. Ed and Bob soon became bored because all these people were bad shots. They just kept firing at each other and hitting everything else in the room. Worse of all, Ed was down to his last menthol. They had to get back to the ship. That’s when Ed noticed a switch on the wall behind them labeled Gravity

On

Off

…with that switch I mentioned before in between the “On” and “Off.” I know it doesn’t belong there at the back of the hold with no other switches around it but I’m writing this story at work and it’s almost lunch time so I want to get this done. You’re with me on that, right? Good. Let’s continue.

So, Ed hit the switch. The gravity went off. The poopy heads went floating around the room. So did all the boxes. In the floating confusion, Ed and Bob escaped with the Twinkies™ and the naughty tapes. I know you were expecting to see more of Egg in this part of story but there you go.

As they pulled away, the poopy heads battled for control of the things that only they wanted but were too rash to figure out. Safely away from the poopy heads, Ed offered Bob the dollar.

“Hold up,” said Bob. “Let’s go double or nothing on The Ghost Lost Ship.”

Ed snorted a laughing kind of snort. “Yeah, lets do that.”

As they left the area, another ship, also marked NNN, drifted by. Only this one was all grey and translucent and wavy and stuff.

Ooooo, creepy!

 

By the Light of a Dying Sun

by Michael Caswell

 

“No, Mom. I see much more than empty space.”

Derek Quesnal toggled the exterior camera and watched Mercury clarify on the screen. He sighed, envying the screen. His life was losing focus. His dream of deep space exploration faded with each passing year—scientists had yet to lick the problem of faster-than-light travel—and all he had to go back to was an empty room and a forced desk job.

The screen revealed a surface pockmarked with thousands of craters, cliffs, and hills that would have given mountain climbers a worthy challenge if the gravity hadn’t been so low. The quiet, tortuous landscape, devoid of any atmosphere or life, had remained unchanged for billions of years; which made Derek all the more puzzled as to why, three days earlier, an energy source had emanated from the planet’s surface.

Derek released the toggle and leaned back in his chair to give his cramped legs some room. His straightened his faded red coveralls—last worn by his father who had pioneered space travel among the gas giants over fifty years ago—and ran a hand through his short white hair. Who was he kidding? He was a derelict, and heading in the wrong direction.

Derek studied the indicators on the console. He keyed the computer for voice mode. “Tych, picking anything up on sensors?” Derek’s voice betrayed a slight lisp from an injury he’d received in his youth while playing in one of the derelict commjets—he’d rolled down a ramp with his mouth open into an antenna wire.

“Negative,” the flat, male voice responded. “Infrared, radio, gravity, and spectra-analysis read normal.”

“Could the energy source have been a solar flare?”

“Negative. The source of a solar flare is the Sun. This particular energy source clearly originated on the surface of Mercury, and at present there is no coefficient that would link the two.”

“Speculating with you, Tych, is useless.” He reached to key off voice mode.

“Derek?” Tych said quickly.

His hand paused above the keyboard. “What?”

“I am receiving a transmission packet from Central Command on the Moon.”

Derek closed his eyes and rubbed the pain off of his temples. “Let it spin off into space.” He smiled at his play on words. Central Command must have discovered the tests and issued his dry-dock orders.

“This is a priority message and you must–”

Derek cut him off. He darkened the keyboard monitor to avoid reading the rest of it. He laughed suddenly. Trip-Tych was going to be mad when he didn’t return with their new Tych-IV computer. He glanced about his zero gravity compartment and considered the many ways he might go out: he could let the ship burn up in the Sun, or he might simply let the ship drift off into space until his air ran out, or he could rig some kind of detonation and go out quickly. He smiled as he pictured the look on his Catholic mother’s face when she received the news.

The printer sounded off. Derek swiveled around to read the printout. He smiled and shut the printer off before the message was complete.

“Nice try, Tych.”

A yellow indicator light flashed next to the screen listing the planet’s statistics.

“Tych, enough of these foolish…” his voice trailed off when he noticed the screen. He keyed voice mode. “Go.”

“I am picking up large traces of hydrogen from the surface immediately below the ship… now it is gone,” Tych said.

Derek toggled the viewer downward. “Circle back and get us directly over the point of highest concentration.” All he could see was a series of huge craters. Heck, he might have to take the ship down into one of them. “I want a visual on the amount of hydrogen detected.”

One of the many monitors that littered the console filled with dark red colors shaped into a chart. “Spectra-analysis,” Tych clarified.

The screen wavered in Derek’s eyes and he had to shake his head to re-focus on the chart. “This has nothing to do with the Sun,” he said, squeezing his stomach to relieve the queasiness he felt.

“Derek, I have ascertained the contents of that priority message and its message is unequivocal: you are suffering from vertigo. We have been ordered to return.”

Derek wondered if he could reason with this computer that had been programmed to react and respond with certain human abilities. “Tych,” he said, “I know we have to go back; but aren’t you the least bit curious about this energy source?”

“Derek, I agree that this needs to be investigated by us,” Tych responded. “I just wanted to make it clear that after we discover the source of this energy we will return promptly. I am now positioned over the crater which is the source of the hydrogen. I am also getting a reading on the infrared and radiation indicators.”

Derek was intrigued enough by this mystery to delay his other plans. “Care to speculate as to what might be down there?” he asked.

“It is something that has some element of hydrogen, gives off heat, and is highly radioactive.”

Derek tried to gaze through the veil of darkness that covered the crater. “Sounds like a miniature sun,” he said.

“It could also be a malfunctioning hydrogen bomb.”

Derek’s brow furrowed. “How big is it?”

“Two meters in diameter,” Tych replied.

“How deep is the crater?” Derek asked, trying to decide whether or not to enter; the crater was certainly wide enough.

“Two kilometers at its deepest point.”

“Can we–”

“It is moving,” Tych cut in.

Derek cocked his head. “Which way?”

“Upwards at the rate of eleven kph.”

“Tych,” Derek put his hands together in prayer-like fashion, “I believe it’s safe to assume this isn’t man-made.”

“It could be a natural phenomenon hitherto unknown to man. Derek… are you feeling well?”

Derek bent over the console as pain unexpectedly raced through his head; it felt like rough hands massaging his skull. “Tych,” he gasped, “this isn’t from the vertigo.”

“Can you describe the pain?” Tych asked.

The pain increased and Derek moaned; the keys on his keyboard blurred and he lost focus of the rest of the console. He closed his eyes and let out a forced sigh. Suddenly he had visions of a much larger sun darting about his mind. It was a dying sun that he saw; a red giant. A small, scarred planet that Derek somehow knew had once been green and fertile circled this dying sun, a white halo illuminating its poisoned skies and overheated landscape. No wonder, Derek thought fleetingly, that early man had worshiped the Sun as a source of Godhead. The small planet looked like the once favored son in the shadow of its proud father.

Everything faded to black and consciousness faded away.

* * * * *

Derek awoke to a cutting headache that throbbed with every heartbeat. He was startled to realize that he was happy to still be alive. He surveyed the ruins of the vessel. A faint red glow illuminated the main compartment and revealed that the ship now rested on its side. He barely made out his chair—bolted down on what was now the wall—twisted sideways with seatbelts hanging from the back. The scattered remains of a keyboard littered the area near his head; which explained the headache. The console remained fairly intact; a few of the indicator lights still flashed an occasional red or yellow. All four monitors were either cracked or shattered. An open cabinet rested against his legs; its contents, which consisted mainly of dehydrated food and computer accessories, were scattered about the compartment.

Derek rolled onto his side, breaking a red emergency light, and assessed his own personal damage. Besides the headache, which had grown worse, his chest hurt with every intake of breath—probably a few broken ribs. His left wrist ached dully; he felt a large bump on the underside: definite fracture. He carefully flexed his legs and felt no pain. A large bump protruded from the top of his head; caked blood attested to the severity of the blow he’d received from the keyboard.

He tried to collect his thoughts. What had caused him to pass out? And where had those visions come from? Somehow the approaching energy source must have overloaded the system and triggered a shutdown. Backup, however, should have kept the ship in orbit around Mercury for at least seventy-two hours. Had he been out that long?

“Tych?” No answer. Well, he thought, he no longer needed to decide how he was going to die.

Time passed slowly as Derek settled into his “coffin”. The first thing he did was reset the safety switch and run a system check via a laptop that had survived the crash. The main console was inoperative, with the exception of life support, stabilizers, and climate control—although climate control was running at only twenty-two percent. He estimated that he had about thirty-six days before the temperature dropped to zero. He touched the cold walls and laughed. In less than two months, Mercury would fully expose him to the powerful rays of the Sun. He would last less than a day. The distress signal had been automatically sent upon shutdown, but Derek knew that was useless. There was no way a rescue ship could reach Mercury in anything less than three months. He was a dead man.

He eyed the only emergency light still working; it sputtered and gave off little illumination. He reached for a food packet. Why try? He barely acknowledged the taste as memories filled his mind.

“What do you see now?” the woman asked angrily as she and her son stared down at the black, polished headstone whose epitaph read: Faster Than Light. The woman squeezed the little boy’s hand and shook her head.

The young boy grimaced at the pain his mother inflicted, but he turned away to stifle a sob. “I see…” he couldn’t continue; the description eluded him. How could he tell his mom that his head filled with visions of far away planets that held creatures of all shapes? Or that one day he hoped to follow in his dad’s footsteps, this time succeeding at FTL drive, and be the one that ventured into deep space to discover alien life. He couldn’t think of a way to tell his mom that he didn’t want to go back to Earth; that he wanted to remain here, on the Moon, to study and explore the universe.

“I see more than just empty space,” he said, his voice crackling with pride. He shed more tears as he once again read the epitaph.

“Just like your father,” she said, bending down to face him. “But your father is dead… and so is space.”

Derek sighed and let the empty food packet fall to the floor. She never understood. He wasn’t surprised. The last time he had talked to her was twelve years ago when he’d passed pilot’s school. The more he explained how happy he was the angrier she got. He never really understood her either.

Time passed. It grew colder much quicker than Derek had anticipated. He tried to get the computer to run power through the door to his sleeping compartment so he could get a blanket, but the connection to the seal had shorted out and the door refused to be opened manually. He knew that a heating unit had to be located on the ship somewhere, but without the schematics—which had to be with the unit—he was powerless to repair it. He didn’t want to make the attempt anyway; he still couldn’t decide whether he wanted to freeze to death or be cooked to death; freezing sounded less painful.

His headaches also produced several unwanted side-effects: nausea, dizziness, blurred vision—which might be from the vertigo—and blackouts that occurred frequently. He sorely needed medical attention and was happy he hadn’t the means to ask for it. At least he would go out like his father: killed in space.

He passed out.

He awoke to the blurred sight of a small white light hovering just above the cabinet. When he focused on it the light expanded and developed into a shape. The form was indistinct at first, the light expanding more than shaping. But when the light reached past the chair it became more defined. The light split at three feet into two long sections which remained connected to an upper half that had also split into three sections. It was a human shape. Derek wondered, and worried, about his sanity. He didn’t know hallucinations were so vivid.

A tall male stood before him. His white face, with its many wrinkles and even whiter blotches, held a frosty countenance that shed no warmth. He had narrow black eyes and a goatee that hung down over a fuzzy blue vest which was held shut by black buttons. The hallucination had no roundness at all; a cardboard figure that somehow was able to stand.

Derek knew who the identity of this person he now envisioned. He faced a fable, a child’s story, the manifestation of cold.

“Jack Frost,” Derek whispered.

Jack smiled eerily and bowed deeply, then, as Derek’s headache increased, imploded and disappeared.

Darkness.

Derek’s eyes narrowed and his mind raced over the implications of what he had just witnessed. Visions, headaches, and hallucinations all added up to more than just a cracked skull.

“Derek?” a fractured and weak voice sputtered out of a speaker near the ruined console.

“Tych, is that you?”

“Derek,” the voice continued, “I have repaired and rerouted some of the communication lines, but for how long I don’t know.” Tych actually sounded concerned. “The temperature is now at forty-three degrees and dropping, and I can’t reach most of the ship. I am sorry.”

“That’s okay, Tych, I wasn’t going back anyway.” Derek laughed. He was sure that Tych was exuding more warmth at this time than his mother ever would.

“I can record anything you wish to say,” Tych said with seeming delicacy. “Do you have any desire to leave behind any final words?”

“Yeah, tell my mother—no, forget it,” he said. What good would it accomplish? “Tych can you override the doors?”

“No… try your laptop.”

Derek, for the thirtieth time, typed in the override code.

ACCESS DENIED.

He typed an expletive and pushed the laptop away.

“Derek, the com-link has been damaged,” Tych said. “Statistically this is a remote chance, but you might affect repairs in hopes of a ship being nearby.”

Derek laughed. “Most ships are heading out towards Jupiter and beyond now, Tych.”

The next question surprised Derek.

“Do you wish to set off a detonation that would destroy this ship and terminate your life with no suffering?”

Now that was a good idea. “Can you do that?” he asked with some trepidation.

“It might be possible to overload some units near the drive and stabilizer engine which might set off a chain reaction that would cause a small explosion. Coupled with that ‘malfunctioning hydrogen bomb’ outside, this might be enough to end your life quickly.”

“Maybe we can wait a few more days before we try it,” Derek said.

“Why?” Tych asked.

Why indeed? “I guess the desire to live is a strong emotion to overcome,” Derek said. Tych was right: there was no reason to wait. “Let’s do it.”

“Derek, why are you moaning?”

Derek’s head was besieged by a barrage of pain that caused a sob to escape his lips. He felt his consciousness fading away—but he did not black out.

The pain suddenly stopped, but he was unable to move or talk. Wow, he thought, he must have some serious brain damage.

“Derek, unless you tell me otherwise, I am initiating the sequence to destroy this ship.”

But Derek had stopped listening to him. He once again saw a small planet circling a dying sun. But this time he felt uneasy. The sun was about to consume the planet and Derek was going to die. But salvation had come! He witnessed an advanced civilization on this planet with the ability to manipulate energy and cheat death. Thousands of the planet’s occupants shed the planet like a butterfly its cocoon and were dragged into the core of the sun where most were torn into a million bits of energy and scattered throughout the universe. One, however, was not ripped apart!

Derek was overwhelmed by sadness. All of his people were dead. He was the only surviving member of his race; an artificial race created by masters long since dead. It was time for him to die.

The feeling slowly faded and Derek regained control of his thoughts and bodily functions.

Alien life! And it had been under Earth’s nose for centuries. He let out a whoop that echoed about the compartment. The energy source outside the ship housed a sentient mind of the lone surviving member of its race. Derek sobered a bit, however, when he realized how profoundly sad the alien was. It had been drawn into the sun, down to the core, and then hurled, intact, into space. How long must it have traveled before it settled on Mercury, waiting for other survivors to come? Derek guessed from the alien’s thoughts that it must have been a thousand years.

The entity had waited long enough. It was ready to die.

Derek marveled at its ability to exchange thoughts. He wanted to learn more. “Tych, don’t blow the ship.”

“It is too late, Derek,” Tych responded with little emotion. “I estimate twelve minutes before the explosions start.”

“Shit!” Derek roared. He screamed in frustration. Why now, at the end of his life did he have to discover alien life? This was all so… unfair. “Tych, I have discovered that the energy source is an alien entity housed in energy,” Derek said. “It can actually manipulate energy,” he said with wonder.

“This is fascinating,” Tych said. “I hope you are not suffering from a mental breakdown.”

“I’m not,” Derek said.

“I will encode a message of your discovery onto the data banks of the black box in hopes that whoever reads it can act on it. It is interesting, if it is true, to note that such a creature that could control and manipulate energy would, well, have few boundaries.”

Boundaries, Derek thought, something about boundaries. He was missing something. But what? The alien had the ability to live forever; all it needed was a constant source of power, and suns provided plenty of that.

“Derek, talk to me,” Tych said, “I can’t read your mind.”

“That’s it!” Derek shouted.

He was mistaken when he thought that the alien was able to send thoughts and images into his mind. The alien actually entered his mind. That explained the pain and, at first, clumsy attempts at communication. It was searching for a way to communicate. It must use pictures instead of words. Dad would’ve loved this, he thought.

The alien was back. Derek’s head was filled with the previous vision of that dying sun. But it was quickly replaced by the most intelligent, strong, and bravest person he had ever known: his father. But the father he looked at came from his childhood; it was too flawless to be real. It didn’t matter.

“Dad?” Derek cried out.

His father beckoned with a wave of his hand. The alien was using Derek’s memories to get across what it wanted; and Derek knew what it wanted. He sensed the utter loneliness and despair the entity emanated. Like Derek, it also wanted to die. It was proposing a trade—a trade of shells. Why not, Derek thought. It would be a while before he grew bored and restless.

With a shock he realized the transfer had already happened. He now occupied the energy shell. Sight was useless. He could detect other energy sources and, with some manipulation, was able to stretch his shell in any direction he pleased, but only a short distance.

He was alone. Had he totally assumed, or consumed, the alien’s mind? No. He sensed the alien housed in his old body; excited and confused at the new sensations. So be it, Derek thought.

He was about to depart when he detected a third presence. Tych. He decided to leave a final message in the data stream that made up the message on the black box. He then left.

He shifted away from the ship and felt a massive surge of energy sweep over him. It felt good; too good. It was the Sun. Time to leave, he thought.

He sped toward the Sun, hard pressed to hold his senses and shell integrity the closer he got. He shot through the atmosphere and down into the surface, reaching the core in seconds. Here he paused for but a moment, then exploded outward faster than he had entered. What kind of technology created such a form that could withstand the immense pressure of a sun—actually feed off it—and use it as a springboard to the stars? Incredible, he thought.

He broke away from the Sun and headed out into the universe. Eight minutes later he passed Earth, and the message he had left behind quickly came to him.

“No, Mom. I see much more than empty space.”

 

If a Tree Falls in Space

by Alex Shternshain

The blue glow, which was until now filling the cabin of The Sparrow, went dim as the Earth began disappearing behind the lunar horizon. The orbital module, with its sole occupant, entered an eighteen-minute period of silence. Currently, Lt. Col. Jeff Olsen (USAF) was the loneliest person in the universe. Not the Columbian-era mariners on their leaky wooden ships, nor the polar explorers in the Arctic wilderness, not even the first astronauts in their Mercury capsules, knew what it was like to be 2,500 miles away from the nearest human beings—Cmdr. Tom Frost (US Navy) and Captain Pete Nakamura (USMC), who were right now busy digging up some rocks down on the slopes of the Tycho crater.

And if you discount those two, it was almost 250,000 miles, over a full light-second, to his home base in Houston. Not that it mattered now—light, or any other electromagnetic radiation, could not reach him from Earth. The huge dark body of the moon was firmly stuck between him and the blue planet, blocking all communications.

By now the azure disk of his home world descended below the horizon in its entirety, and Jeff only had a handful of stars and control lamps to assist his vision. He raised his gloved hand and touched a panel above him. A small source of soft light came to life. It was synthetic and orange colored, not at all like the friendly blue glow he had left behind. Its unnaturalness disgusted Jeff.

But work was work, and soon he set his personal feelings aside, and welcomed the orange light, if not as a friend than at least as a useful companion. It was time for a routine scheduled systems check. “What if I skip the check?” thought Jeff to himself bemusedly. “Will anybody know? If a tree falls in space, does anyone hear it? If an astronaut on the other side of the moon doesn’t do what he is supposed to do, does Mission Control know it?” But Jeff was too well trained to let those thoughts distract him, and even now his fingers were pressing buttons and pulling levers, and his eyes were examining the consoles.

The Sparrow had no surprises in store for him, all its systems operating within accepted parameters. Jeff announced his results into the flight recorder, and glanced at the clock. In six more minutes, the Earth will rise over the other side. Six more minutes of solitude. Jeff tried to look down and discern some elements of the lunar terrain, but his hatch was pointing up into the black sky. He gazed on the fuel gauge: more than enough for orbital maneuvers, reconnection with the landing module and for the trip back home. Yes, it was not something he was supposed to do, but… he made his choice.

The quiet murmur of the rotation-control nozzles was a signal for The Sparrow to start turning gently around its axis. Soon, he had the softly starlit lunar surface in his view. Sharp peaks, steep ravines and deep craters, as old as the world itself, passed with neck-breaking speed, below him. Or was it above? The lack of gravity really confused things.

Two more minutes. He better straighten his ship into proper position again. Another shot of the nozzles, and there it was, back on its feet again. Ten seconds… five… three… two… one… and right there, beyond the jagged edge of the moon, the Earth, in all its beauty and splendor WAS NOT. Jeff gave the clock a thorough examination. Yes, the time was right. The place was right. All the stars were at their proper locations. There was Regulus, and there, three degrees below it—ahem, a patch of black sky!? What the…? Was Mother Earth playing a cosmic game of Where’s Waldo? with him?

Befuddled, he tried the radio, at first calling Houston Control, then the Tycho base, then Houston again, until finally admitting: something went extremely wrong. There are things we take for granted, which form the core of our existence, and when they are gone, all we want is to end the nightmare. Jeff looked above him. The red button. No, he would have none of that now. As strange and inexplicable things looked now, there are still plenty of things he can do.

He checked his flight course: his path was to lead him 171 miles south of Tycho. Slowly and methodically, he started to run some calculations with the help of the abysmal number crunching ability of the on-board computer. If he could only outsource some calculations to Houston… But then again, if he could contact Houston, he wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place, right?

After some time, he had his results: As he suspected, he couldn’t make the necessary change in his trajectory with one engine activation. He needed to alter it by a small angle now, and a make a small adjustment after continuing one more loop around the moon. He performed all pre-burn procedures, and programmed the main engine for an 11.5-second burn. The pressure glued him to his seat, restoring the welcome feeling of gravity once again, if only for a very short time.

Soon, he was on the dark side of the moon again. At least so his clock told him, because now both sides were equally dark and devoid of the familiar blue glow. Tick tock, tick tock. Time for the second burn, a shorter one this time. He descended lower. Even at this speed, he knew he could see the Tycho base, an island of civilization on the face of this maiden world. He passed less than a quarter-mile above the rock-strewn patch where Frost and Nakamura landed yesterday, his eyes alert to every change to the terrain. No huge reflective antenna (25 yards when unfolded). No landing module. No rover. No tracks from the rover in the lunar dust. Nothing. Another second or two, and the crater was already far behind him. Jeff tried the radio again and again. No response.

Reluctantly, his eyes rose again to observe the round red button in the ceiling of the command module. It was safely covered with a Plexiglas protector, to prevent an astronaut from pressing it inadvertently in a split second of momentary distress or even turbulence. No, pressing this particular button was only done in moments of absolute dire straits, when not a glimmer of hope loomed ahead, and after a heavy and long contemplation. At least it was a better way to end it all than crashing on the moon’s unfriendly surface.

His fingers caressed the Plexiglas cover. His thoughts roamed around from Earth to the moon and back. He didn’t want it to end like that. But if not the button, then what? Just circling around a dead planet, waiting for a miracle? A whole world doesn’t just disappear like that, you know… It’s not a minor malfunction that can be fixed in no time. He drank some water and tried the radio again, scanning every available frequency. No response. He checked his air supply. It was supposed to keep a crew of three alive during the week-long voyage back to Earth. If he used it sparingly, he could last almost a month. And then—who knows? He could still try all sorts of orbital maneuvers… But Jeff knew he was merely kidding himself. He touched the cover again, and this time he opened it, leaving the button exposed.

Two more revolutions around the moon didn’t produce any meaningful change. Jeff made up his mind. His arm went up towards the button again. With one swift motion, he replaced the cover and it closed with a light ‘click’. No. He will not end it like that. He was sent here with a job to do, and even if nobody in the universe will know that he’s doing it, he will proceed as planned. But first things first. Just in case the radio came back to life, he pushed the “Send Auto Beacon” button and increased the volume in his earphones to maximum. The next systems check was due in 2 hours and 43 minutes. He could use the sleep. Leaning back in his flight chair, Jeff closed his eyes. Soon, not only the Earth, but also the stars were gone, and he drifted into darkness.

* * * * *

“What’s he doing?”

“You wouldn’t believe it. He’s sleeping.”

“Did we have problems with the ‘Abort simulation’ button?” asked the Chief Training Coordinator.

“No, he just didn’t use it,” replied the Simulation Technician.

“That’s a first.”

“Should I wake him up?”

“No, he’ll need the sleep. Some pretty exhausting tests coming up next.”

And the Chief Training Coordinator walked away, but not before making a big fat check-mark on his clipboard, right in the middle of the “Mental Stability” box—which was located below “Intellectual Capacity” and above “Physical Stamina”.