The Voyage Chapter 3

“So, what the hell are we talking about? Little green men?” Commander Griffin’s reaction was mainly sour due to the impossibility of our situation having a strong dose of the bizarre added to it. “I don’t know sir, all I know is that I have checked the signal five times, and it is exceeding the maximum bandwidth of our communications array” I’m trying to conceal my excitement about the signal. Considering the horrors, we have faced, I am more than happy to have something so strange and peculiar to distract me. “Well in the end, what do you want me to do about it?” the commander’s manner was too jagged to continue to push him about the situation, he turned and started to head out of the room and towards the airlocks, “if it’s aliens, we’ll know in about, what 2 maybe 3 days? if not it’s probably some CLF goons trying out some new tech that we aren’t supposed to know about” Seeing that he had not only reached, but exceeded his limit for news that day, I decide not to disclose my science experiment setting up the second CPU to handle the message as well as Sheila. “Yeah, that’s true enough sir. You’ve been up for at least what, sixty plus hours now?” I ask sympathetically.

We were in the final stages of preparing the bodies of our companions for burial in space. Sometimes by request a deceased crew member can be placed into what’s called “the locker”, it’s a storage system on the exterior of the ship, used for this very purpose, so a body can be buried once we reach our destination. Sadly, due to our maneuver taking us close to the star in this system, and our still having another gravity assist to our destination, this option was not available. When the ship is in deep space, the deep cold is always present, but as we approach the star the exterior of the ship will heat to a couple hundred degrees for up to a day as we make our trip around the star; far from acceptable conditions for body storage. So, everyone was loaded into bags, these bags were designed to prevent any possible contamination that could occur should a body make a re-entry to another planet. The human body is a remarkable bit of biology, it also harbors enough bacteria that one body could potentially contaminate and destroy a developing eco system on a planet. So, these burial bags were designed. Once sealed, a chemical is released inside the bag, it will permeate the body, and sterilize it, it also serves as an ignition fuel so if the bag were to hit an atmosphere, it would completely incinerate the contents of the bag.

“Look, umm, I hate to do this, but…” Commander Griffin looks at me, “It’s okay sir, I understand, give them a good send off for me.” I reply as we get to the main airlock. The commander usually would be the one in the airlock, releasing each body one at a time out into space, but he’s the captain now, his duties are to deliver an elegy for our dead. I would take his place in the airlock, I would listen to the elegies on the communications system, then release the bodies in the appropriate order. Seeing how most of us were prior military, the services were very regimented. The commander had wonderful, thoughtful, and emotional, thoughts and memories to share for each of our dead. Everyone paid their respects, and displayed their honors to each of the dead, and in turn, I would ceremoniously life the bag containing the body, push it out of the airlock, and salute it as it drifted out from the ship into space. The ceremony took a little over four hours to complete. I had to admit, that I was glad to be out of the airlock, and out of the confines of the space suit, but I was not thrilled to be around the rest of the crew. I’d seen too many of these ceremonies in my life, and this one was another in a long list that I would love to never think about again.

I was in the galley having a cup of coffee before my shift when I noticed that the assistant engineer Andersen was sitting at the table across from me, he looked pale as a sheet, which I would have expected, he was one of our civilian crew members, death is not something he would have as much experience with. But there was something more in his manner, I could see his hands, and his leg fidgeting. He was staring at me, as if he was debating on talking to me, but was unsure. I decided that I would save him the hassle of deciding and went to him. “How’re you holding up?” I ask sitting down across from him at the table. “It’s been difficult, but, umm…” there was obviously something he wanted to ask, but was nervous to do so. “What’s the question man, I can tell you want to ask, something, so just ask it…” I try to keep an even tone, but am unused to dealing with people who are not direct. “You, were in the ULF, right? A pilot I remember?” he asks the question almost under his breath, taking me by surprise. “Yes, two jumps, one as a transport pilot, and one as a fighter pilot” I answer, staring straight at him, Andersen has always been a little peculiar about military people, frankly I was surprised that he was even on our crew, being one of, well, now only two civilians on the crew. “What’s your real question?” I ask. “Jumps… Is it true they kick you out of an airlock, and that’s where the term jump comes from?” Andersen was deflecting his real question now. Asking about an initiation that flight crew and line officers underwent at the academy. You were loaded into your E.E.S Emergency Expedient Space suit, one that had minimal life support, and shielding, then purged from a hangar bay airlock, I say purged, because the airlock was not fully equalized before opening, it was ostensibly to show you what to expect if there was a catastrophic hull breach, so about 30 or so cadets were blown out into space. It was one of the largest causes of washouts from the academy, because we would have to float out there until we were recovered, many people refused to join just because of the terror at the thought of free floating away in space. “What’s this about Andersen, I have a shift in less than an hour, and I haven’t slept in two days.” I was done with the indirect approach to getting his question. “Well, it’s just, that program, you know, the one you’d setup on CPU two, to process the data?” glad that he was getting to the point of asking his question, I nod, “Well, it’s found something. But I just wanted to know, before I talk about it, I just have to know. Were you a part of the ULF incident on Titan, back in forty-two?” Referring to a time that the ULF was called to quell a riot on the colony on the moon Titan. “I know the Commander was there… I remember him… not that I have any beef with him now…” And it all made sense, Andersen must have been one of the colonists at the time. There had been an uprising by a separatist movement called the N.C.R. for New Colonial Resistance, and the ULF was sent in, to… quiet it, shall we say. Allegations were that a settlement was miss-identified as being a separatist stronghold, and that some of the civilians there had been killed as a result. “No, I was with a different outfit, that was the five oh third, I was with the two hundred and thirty second.” Having a little more back story for his mistrust of ULF officers, I decide to cut him a little slack with my patience. “Look, Andersen, if you’ve found something, I need to know.” I ask. “Well, I’m still analyzing the data, myself too, but it’s definitely a Terra Corp signal, and from what I can tell it is a distress signal, but there’s something wrong…” he’s still looking at his hands while talking to me. “You mean besides, it’s outside any coms frequency we use?” I ask glibly. “No, not just that, look you understand packet structure for messages, right?” he asks looking up to make eye contact with me. “Of course, it’s a standardization to make sure that fragmented messages can be reassembled and extra important data can be conveyed easier” I recite the standard reasoning for the process of breaking the message into specific segments to make receiving them easier. “Well, there’s a field in the packet, it’s the iteration count, it’s one way we know this is a distress message, it specifies how many times the message has repeated, so you can get an idea of how long the message has been getting broadcast.” Andersen is speaking just above a whisper without breaking eye contact. “And?” I ask. “Well the counter, it’s got junk data in it, it makes no sense, the ship identification code too, it doesn’t conform to the coding standard for a message packet” Andersen whispers leaning in towards me. “So, could this just be coincidental? Could the fragment, just appear to be a TC distress call?” I postulate the question back to him. “No, there are other parts of the message that are accurate, and do decode, the chances of them lining up as many places as they do have to be a couple hundred trillion to one.” He says looking back down to his hands. “I’m sorry to ask about the ULF stuff, I guess I just wanted to know. I don’t know why, I just did” he mutters almost to himself. Sighing, I reassure him “Look, I get it, from what I gather you were there? and it was traumatic. Commander Griffin is a good officer, and you can trust me, you know me, I spend half my time hanging out with you tunnel rats…” I say as I pat him on the shoulder. “Yeah, and I appreciate that, you’re not like most military types, you let us be, and don’t stand on all that ‘yes sir’, ‘no sir’ crap.” He nods and says smiling. “Look, I’ve got to go get ready for my watch, if you find anything, let me know, it’s not like I’m going to be hard to find for the next 12 hours” I tell him laughing as I stand up. As I leave the galley, it sets in on me, twelve-hour shifts, every day, for the next six years. Almost made me miss being in that airlock again.

My shift was going more or less normal, every once in a while, I would get a message from Petersen as they would be replacing another coil, to check the readings on the shield systems. I was in the middle of re calibrating our course into the rapidly approaching system when I got a message from the program I had been running. “Partial fragment recovered, fragment [231] segment (8::32) = [Ships Identification, Common] – ‘Pioneer’”, I sat there staring at the message on my screen for I don’t know how long. The signal we were tracking, was a Terra Corp ship, and her name was “Pioneer”. While I had no claim to knowing every ship that had ever been manufactured, nor their names, but not even the computer could call up a ship in the active fleet, with that name. Many things were not right, and this was just one more to add to the pile. Something was seriously wrong here. The answer was right in front of me, I knew that much, I just couldn’t figure out what it was, then there was Andersen, his behavior in the galley, there was something more going on that he just wasn’t telling me.

We were all still on edge over the malfunctions, there was more to the story and we all knew it. Every time Sheila delivered an update, or some new information everyone glanced at each other, as if to ask, “Can we trust this information?”. Night bridge watch was as boring as ever, but now it had an extra element to it, almost a paranoia, what if the computer starts taking us out one by one, I’d be the first to go. The daunting task of now having the entire eight-year trip ourselves, no respite of hibernation for the second four-year leg of the trip. Although based on the condition of our poor flight surgeon, Alyona Petrov, I’m not sure any of us will ever go into another stasis chamber as long as we live. Evidently, when the computer started to malfunction, the stasis bay was one of the malfunctions, the drugs used to maintain stasis were being delivered at much too high a dose, and as a result, her condition is grim. We will probably leave her on the new colony we are bringing out to settle, that is if she lives that long even. She is suffering from multiple conditions, and potentially even some organ failure. Doc Harris has some good tricks up his sleeve, so he’s keeping her comfortable, or as comfortable as she can be. She made a trip out to the galley last night as I was coming on shift. Eyes sunken, and pale, she was too weak to eat, or really talk. Besides, conversation is difficult these days, just what do you say to a sole survivor of possibly the worst stasis sleep accident in any of our lifetimes.

It was on the third day, Alyona was regaining a little strength, able to eat little bits at a time, the mood aboard the ship was returning to some semblance of normality. We were already within the outer region of SNP-842X, with the observations we were making of the star system we could almost get ready to drop the ‘X’ moniker signifying that the system had not been explored. So far, we could tell a bit more about the system definitively, the star at the center, was a type F star, it was approximately 10 billion years old, and there were 8 massive planets within the system. We were not here to survey the system so most of the observations were made by discrete means, sensor displays of large objects with in detection range, solar spectroscopy, and radioactive monitoring of the planets we had passed as we entered the system. There was still a planet or two to pass before we would be close enough to start looking for the signal source in earnest, perhaps tomorrow, maybe the day after, it was decided that since we had determined that there was a ship identifier, and it was in English, that we would commit to a deceleration around the 5th planet. Once we were down to a more manageable speed, we could start searching for the source, but this also meant that we just committed to adding 6 months minimum to the trip, because that’s how long it would take to get the ship back up to the impressive speeds used for transit flight. Everyone was settled back into their work; the engineers had finished the replacement of the shield coils. We had been able to get the shields back up to nearly 92%, impressive considering it was all with spare parts, but still if we encountered another field like the one we passed through as we exit the system, no one knows what our survivability would be. Life was resuming normalcy, a comfortable routine developing, we should have known it wouldn’t last.

“Time till we reach the breaking point?” Commander Griffin asks, Axelson. “Approximately, five hours forty minutes, to grav break” Axelson replies, “Both computers have the plot, right?” the Commander asks cautiously. “Yes sir, both computers, are plotted, and set, we should be good for breaking maneuver to begin in about five hours forty minutes, by computer execution” Axelson says with half a chuckle, not only will Sheila plot the path around the planet, how deep to descend into the atmosphere, and about 1,000 other variables, but the second CPU that was brought on line will do the same. “CP?” the commander asks for my confirmation, “Roger sir, all plots are set, and confirmed, computer will execute the maneuver in five hours forty minutes. “Alright then, Stark, you’ve been up too damn long, grab some rest, we’ve got this one” the Commander tells me confident that this maneuver will go as planned. Being as tired as I was, I didn’t even pretend to resist, getting up, I head off the bridge, I can’t even remember getting to my room, much less going to sleep, but sleep finds me, not as restful as would be nice, but sleep none the less, I’ll take whatever I can get.

There are sirens, seriously confused sets of alarms sounding throughout the entire ship, they wake me out of a state somewhat resembling sleep, and I struggle to get my flight suit back on as I scramble out of my quarters. Doc Harris is sprinting down the corridor towards med bay, as he sees me stumbling out of my room, he screams “Port side airlock, B deck! NOW!” his voice going shrill and hoarse with the urgency and fear. Immediately I spring to life, and begin my own sprint in the direction the doctor had come from. The main deck access was the closest way to B deck, but it was in the middle of the ship, the airlocks were on the fringes of the ship on that deck, which happened to be the widest on the ship. As I slide down the ladder between decks, I see Axelson come running by carrying a large tool kit, almost the same size she was, the ½ gravity on the ship did have serious benefits to it. “What the hell’s going on!?” I yell as I run alongside her. “No time! Andersen, Airlock 3 Port side!” is all she can manage between breaths. As we get to the airlock, we can see Commander Griffin, head pressed against the inner airlock door, his arms outstretched gripping the sides of the door as if he could pull it off the wall with his hands. Dumping the toolkit by the maintenance panel, Axelson and I scramble with the tools trying to get the right ones to open the control access panel. “Andersen, listen to me, you don’t have to do this.” The commander says in the calmest and coolest voice I have heard since my time in the service. Immediately the apparent situation becomes blatantly obvious, and horrifying. “What type suit?” I ask Axelson as I begin removing the retaining screws on the panel. She emits a sound, again something I had not heard since our time in the service, or the memorial service just a few days ago. Horrified I pause for a second, I look to Axelson who is sobbing nearly uncontrollably trying to sort the tools that we know we will need, I look up to the commander. And there is that face, everything that could go wrong with this situation has, every millisecond counts, and he nods towards me and the panel. If I was thinking at that point I don’t know what I would be able to call the thought. Another friend was about to die, and a thin plate of aluminum was between me and his rescue, the top half of the panel was already loose, and without thought I arced my shoulder leaned forward and smashed down on it with all my weight, only half of the weight I would be on earth, but it had to work. The panel bent slightly then completely snapped off, the jagged edge tearing into my forearm as my arm passed where the panel once was. Ignoring the pain and the blood I feverishly start pulling out the control cables. The manual override has somehow been disabled, I can see the commanders hand still gripping the control lever in a death grip.  As I try to identify the proper connections to cut to prevent the outer door from opening, or the sensor that monitors the inner door, if I cut either connection, Andersen should be safe. The outer door will not open if the sensors think the inner door is open. “Where’s Petersen!?” I yell in frustration as I pull at wires and trace their routes. At this point the commander drops his head against the door again, out of the corner of my eye I can see Axelson, the entirety of life drains from her face as she looks up at me, tears blinding her eyes, and her hands drop what she’s holding as she falls into a fit of sobbing. I can hear the commander’s cool calm voice talking to Andersen in the airlock. “Hey, Andersen, you can come out of there, it’s going to be fine.” Frantically working I use a free hand to dig my coms set out of my pocket and put it in my ear. “eight four zero, nine six zero, zero zero zero, zero zero one…” I can hear Andersen’s voice, it’s hollow, there’s no life, nothing. Just a set of numbers, he keeps saying it, over and over again. I look up to the commander with a questioning look, to which he shakes his head and shrugs. Tapping my mic control, I decide to talk to Andersen, “Hey buddy, what’s with the numbers?” I’m trying to keep my voice calm as I frantically search for the right wire to cut. “Daniel? The numbers, it’s the count… the numbers…” his voice still remains lifeless and cold. Hearing some sort of response, the commander, and Axelson come alive with new energy, looking at me, for some clue as to what the numbers mean. “Look man, how about you come out of there, we go to the galley, suck down a really bad cup of coffee, and you can tell me all about them?” I ask, finally! I find the inner door sensor wire and cut it. A wave of relief washing over me. “You’re probably just getting the panel off, on the main conduit, right?” I can hear his voice still lifeless as ever. “One step ahead of you buddy, you know us ULF grunts, all muscle no brains… Broke that bastard right off” I am now searching for the second connection, the one that will override the computer’s ability to open the airlock outer door. “Stop looking Daniel…” Andersen asks from within the small room. “Never buddy, I’m gonna get your ass out of there, and make you drink that shitty coffee” I joke back to him, hoping to get some emotion back into the engineer. “No, not that, stop looking for the signal, looking at this signal, it’s the count… fire the engines, get as far from here as you can…” his voice still sounds as hollow and dead as can be. Finding the final wire, I cut it with an exaggerated sign of relief. Then as soon as I cut the wire, the port viewing window on the wall near by closes. “You didn’t think that a tunnel rat would have thought of that…?” Andersen’s hollow voice calls over the coms.  As I look up at the panel, I see the readout signals the environment is severely over pressurized inside the airlock. “You bastard…” I whisper, this was the final missing part for his history to me. There was an old trick that the N.C.R. would use when a spy was caught, they would seal themselves in an airlock and over pressurize it. The pressure would prevent the inner door from opening, literally pushing the door against the frame so it couldn’t open. Then once they opened the outer door, the displacement of pressure would rip them out into space, ensuring they died before anyone could reach them. “It wasn’t me, the computer, she saw it long before any of us. She saw the signal long before she even let you know about it… it’s the count Daniel, get out, get out while you can…” and in that moment, there was a thundering crash, knocking us back from the door. The outer door just opened. “Get airlock 1 pressurized, we can still try an EVA rescue” Axelson said defiantly standing. Both the commander and I looked at her, the defeat draining our faces away. “FUCK!!” She screamed at the top of her lungs as the doctor was returning with the med kit. The ship was still flying at transit speed, the instant the airlock opened, Andersen was ripped out of the ship and flung far away, and with the energies and speeds of the ship, and the transfer from the airlock to deep space, he would be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of kilometers away from the ship by the time we could get suited up and out there for him.

Doc Harris stared at the inner door to the airlock, fierce anger burning in his eyes. “Petersen?” the commander asks now sitting on the floor against the airlock door. Doc Harris looks down at the ground, “I’ll be in med bay, checking on Alyona” and he turns and walks away dropping the kit absentmindedly as he does, not bothering to recover it as he leaves the section of the ship. “Sir?” I look at the commander, defeat in my eyes, still not entirely processing everything that just happened. “Get to operations, tear that fucking message apart, I don’t care if you have to shut down every fucking system on this ship to do it… find out what those numbers mean…” the commanders voice is a bare whisper. As I stand to leave the section I realize how hopeless our entire situation has become. At this point it almost seems trivial to figure out what this message is. As I look over at the view ports that are still open, I can see the immense planet designated 842-5X, it’s shape is turning, and shifting… The ship is getting ready to commit the deceleration program. I look back to the commander again, nodding to the window, almost as if the ship has sensed the perfect timing, “Alert, alert, secure the ship for zero gee, followed by gravity assist breaking maneuver, the ship will automatically disengage A.G.S. in ten minutes” at that moment both the commander, and I pick up on the problem with Sheila’s announcement, her emotional AI was still functioning. Something that I had disabled previously, or at least believed I had. “Do we have-“ I begin to ask, already knowing the answer. “Secure the ship, get these tools stowed, and that med kit!” the commander yells as he rushes off to secure other areas of the ship. Axelson looks up at me, and in that moment, I see her in a new light, we began as superior, and subordinate, then we were friends, then we became like family, now I saw a different side, a fragility that I realize that she always kept so well hidden. Her beautiful eyes red from tears, pleading, begging for this all to be a nightmare. “Secure the med kit, I’ve got the tools, stop by med bay, see if doc needs anything.” I say as gently as I can, afraid that any sudden or jagged moment could shatter what composure she has left. “thank you” she whispers as she stands and gathers up the med kit. As we get to the bridge, we can see Hoffmann sitting at his station, staring out the window at the looming gas giant planet before us. At this point we are so close to the planet that it’s all that we can see from the view port, any minute this will all change. As Sheila maneuvers the ship into a carefully plotted path, that will bring us into the planet’s atmosphere, to create drag on the ship, slowing us to a reasonable speed that we can maneuver around the planet easier. From best we can tell, the signal is originating somewhere on the dark side of this planet, perhaps a moon, perhaps a ship in orbit, we don’t know.

“Plasma field?” the commander asks, “Steady at nine two” I reply watching the field indicator, the ship begins its roll, the perspective of the planet swings around, and we are looking at the seemingly flat horizon. Since the computer is executing the maneuver, I decide to take a look at the planetary conditions reported by the sensors. After all, if something should go wrong with this maneuver there is a bout a 50/50 chance that this planet will become our new home. Looking down the screen I find the science readings, Ambient surface temperature 975degrees Celsius, surface wind speed 600 k/ph, mass 20g/cm3, radius 130,000km at detected mean surface, constituent atmospheric gases CH4 (methane) 32%, NH3 (ammonia) 18%, He (helium) 15%, H (hydrogen) 10%, F (fluorine) 5%. I stop reading there… perhaps the company will want to come back and mine this place too someday, but if we must land, we may as well point our nose straight into the ground. I am brought back from the grim report as the ship begins to shudder. “Interface, one thousand eight hundred kilometers, in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, mark” Axelson was back in the pilot seat and nothing was going to distract her from her duty. Again, I see her in a new light, before while in the service, the sorrow for the loss of our crew were from a distance, so her demeanor in the pilot’s seat was easy to understand, she knew, we lost people, but she didn’t see, it happen. Yet now here she was, only minutes before a friend, murdered his boss, and best friend, then blew themself out of an airlock for no explainable reason, and here she was again, rock steady, focused, I was proud of her, as a friend, as a ship mate, and as an old superior. I look back to the display, showing our projected path across this foreboding alien sky, I could see plasma forming around the front of the ship, so long as the plot was accurate we would be fine. Ships use this breaking method all the time, but if anything were off, if our approach angle was wrong, if our escaping velocity were calculated wrong, then we would go crashing into the surface of the planet within minutes, as it was our altitude from ground level of the planet will sink as low as 900 km at our apex. The ship is shuddering and shaking violently now, everyone is strapped into their seats, but even then, talking is practically impossible. If anything were to go wrong at this point the shudder and shake of the ship, and the artificial gravity we are experiencing would make correcting the maneuver impossible. I watch in fascination as the hull temperature monitors are spiking, and warning lights are flashing like mad. We are experiencing 3 gees at this point. Literally the only way to breathe is to practice deep breathing from the sides of your mouth. The crushing pain of the force feeling like it is going to shatter every bone. Watching the countdown, I start to pace my breathing to it, there’s still another 3 minutes of this, once we have slowed to about 10,000 meters per second, the ship will pull us back up to a safe altitude above the planet about 2/3 of the way around it. As I am buffeted with gravity, shakes, and shudders of the ship, the entire thing seems so violent. I take myself back to the academy, I remember my jump, when the airlock door opened, someone had forgotten to equalize the pressure of the bay to the safe levels used for this maneuver. We were all gathered in a large 30, by 20, by 30-meter drop ship bay, there was a lot more atmosphere here than a standard airlock. When the doors opened, we were not just sucked out, but more of blown out, thrown with more velocity. By the time the rescue crews picked the last of us up, out of 40 cadets, 12 had frostbite in their extremities, 5 were in shock, and 3 nearly drowned from being sick in their helmet. I was one of the ones that came back unscathed, which was made even more odd by the fact that I was one of the furthest from the ship. While I was out there in the cold dark of space, I felt a peace, there was a serenity to floating out among the stars. It was much of why I enjoyed night watch, and why I loved being in space in general. I feel the gravity begin to ease up slightly, and I am brought back to the situation at hand. Watching the counter, we are now merely seconds from finishing the breaking maneuver, we will still be moving at an estimated 11,000 meters per second, seems so funny to consider that slowing down. I can see that everyone else is beginning to feel the ease in the pressure, Axelson is maneuvering her jaw, and looking down at her controls, I can see Hoffmann in the corner of my vision, he’s flexing his hands, and twisting his neck. And then once again, as mysteriously as it began, the pressure was gone, you could feel your entire body literally lift up in the zero gravity. “maneuver complete, exit velocity, 11,560 meters per second. Approximately 2 hours to transit for dark side of the planet” Sheila delivers the update to us. Regardless of her report I notice everyone looking at their indicators and reading for themselves. “Stark, get started on those fragments, I want, an answer before we transit” Commander Griffin delivers the order to me to continue the work on the message fragments.

The operations room was cold and quiet, as I sat at the computer terminal, I was looking at the message fragments. “Daniel, Petersen had this in his… he had this… it looks like it could be some data about the fragments…” Axelson walked over to me from the door, handing me a scrap of paper with some numbers scribbled on it. Looking at the paper, I can see where the paper was torn, and there was blood still semi wet on it. I look up at Axelson, “Please, don’t ask…” she says tears still welling in her eyes. “In… in, the service, I flew transports, people died, yes, but never like… never, li..” I can see her shuddering. “It’s never easy, as a trans pilot, fighter, or lander… I’ve done them all… and all I can tell you, is it’s never easy… get some rest, you did everything you could lieutenant, sometimes they don’t come home…” I’m fighting the urge to scream, to break down in a fit of crying and beating my fists on the wall. I know it might make me feel a little better, but I know that Axelson feels the same, and that she’s looking for strength, and for courage… “Yeah… rest…” Axelson turns to leave, as she reaches the door, she stops, “Sir…”, she says, addressing my higher rank, I look up, and she salutes hand trembling tears perched to spill down her cheeks. “As you were lieutenant, I have the duty roster, get some rest…” I say softly, one of the things that Axelson and I always agreed on, was to never bring up our ranks, or experiences together. She and I had served in the 232nd ULF Combat force. She was a pilot aboard the main transport ship, and I commanded one of the drop ship groups, and later a fighter group. We had seen a lot of conflict from different angles, but we were friends very early on. When she was first assigned to ULF-TS84 (our ships designation) she had only just got to take off her Ensign marker, and was promoted to Lieutenant Junior Grade, she only served 1 full tour or Jump as we called them, and left the service as a Lieutenant. In that one jump, she piloted the 8,4 into, and through several conflicts, she watched drop groups go down as 5 groups of 6 ships, only to come back as 3 groups of 3 maybe 4 ships. She knew it was not the life for her, and she beamed with excitement the day she was accepted as a full pilot with T.C.S.C. Terra Corporation Space Corps, we would never imagine being assigned to the same flight again, and she would never have in her worst nightmares dreamt that the horrors of deep space combat and war would follow her onto a civilian jump. I felt sorry for her, I didn’t know how we would manage the rest of this flight, but I was certain that with her at the helm, we had a better chance than any other flight would.

Looking down at the paper again I see just two numbers in hasty writing “hdr 231 293” They could have been a hundred different ways to interpret the numbers, but I had to start somewhere. I pulled up message fragment[231], and look at the 293 marker, looking for any sign of the mysterious number that Andersen had been talking about, it made sense fragment 231 was where we had gotten the ships name from, so perhaps there was something else to find. Nothing, it was either empty space, or marked as corrupted data. Then I decided to try a different approach, I brought up fragment[231] and fragment[293], I saw that both fragments were actually very similar, and quite complete. In fact they were remarkably familiar, except fragment[293] had a couple numbers different in its “header” section. “Computer,” I had decided not to name the extra CPU that we had brought online, opting just to call it ‘computer’, “Display, only header segments from message fragments, 231, and 293. Show encapsulation areas side by side” I instructed the computer to show the actual ‘containers’ within the headers of the packet, this would display where the individual sections start and end for the various fields of data in the header, Ship ident, IDC (Identification Code), message Iteration, duration, and checksum. The read out came to the screen, the Ident, made sense, it was the hexadecimal code for the ASCII characters to say “Pioneer” which the computer already caught, the next section IDC would be the identification code for the ship, this is and always has followed the same standard between TCSC, and ULF. It’s how we can tell who owns the ship, and what it’s registration number is. The field was all wrong though, even converting the hexadecimal characters, it came out all wrong. Then the Iteration field, this field was a number between 1, and 999,999. The numbers in this field were all wrong too. For message fragment[293], It was all zeroes, an impossibility since the first broadcast of the message would count as 1. Then I looked at the fragment[231] and my stomach fell through the floor.

“I don’t know how to tell everyone this, so I’m going to explain how I found it, first” I have the remaining crew assembled in the Operations room, even Alyona decided to come, although personally I would rather her not be exposed to what I had to say. “The note that Axelson brought me from Petersen was what it took to connect the dots so to speak.” I begin to explain. “We had always been looking at earlier message fragments, from the 200 up to 231, but the data was all corrupted, until we look at fragment 293, the iteration count becomes zero, this is impossible.” The commander who’s leaning against one wall on the other side of the room listening to this comes to life, “Unless the iteration is over the max count, but what would that be? A hundred million? That’s absurd”. “hundred thousand sir, and yes, it rolls at one million… now, take a moment. I have some news, and you’re not going to like it.” I pause for a moment to collect my thoughts. “The number that Andersen was saying while in the airlock, eight four zero, nine six zero, zero zero zero, zero zero one…” I pause to ensure everyone is with me. “The math got kinda crazy here, the IDC field is encoded as Hexadecimal, but the iteration is standard integers…  or basic numbers, by feeding Andersen’s number into the computer, and having it do the math for me, it’s… I mean, it’s the number… It’s the number of times the message has repeated… The message length field says that the message is 5 minutes long…” I look at everyone, and see that they haven’t made the connection. “This 5-minute message, has repeated eight hundred, forty billion, nine hundred sixty million times… in other words, this TCSC distress signal, which originated from the ship ‘Pioneer’, registration code FD38, on a frequency we are only just barely able to receive, with recently updated communications hardware, has been repeating for roughly eight million years.”

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