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.

 

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