There’s not much you can do or say to prepare yourself for delivering, nor receiving bad news. The situation faced by the crew aboard the TCSC transport ship Horizon was learning this lesson it seemed a little more every day.
“Sir, we need to talk… now… Main computer control…” I called the commander from within the main server bay aboard the ship. “On my way” I hear the voice of the commander respond in my coms set. Having more insight however peculiar it may be, was enlightening to no end. Once I knew the message had been repeating for longer than humans have existed, much less the time that Terra Corps had been exploring and monetizing the stars. I realized there were only a couple of possible explanations. The first one, was that I was hallucinating, that this entire experience had been a bad dream. No such luck, I had even taken the time to punch a wall until my knuckles blead just to make sure. Option two, would be that the signal was a fake, and there was someone else out here playing a trick on us, but this is further out than any ship had ever traveled, even if it were another ship, there were too many other issues or coincidence that would make that impossible. Finally, I was faced with one last option, somehow, some way a ship has traveled back in time, and has been sitting in wait, for what? That was even more daunting a question than the how. Time travel, or temporal displacement as the course taught at the academy called it was faced with a series of complications, and paradoxes. Most commonly it is argued that time travel is impossible, this is self-evident in that were it possible, someone would have traveled back in time already and given us the technology. Then there were paradoxes to consider. Amazingly, the least likely possibility was also the most plausible.
“What do you have?” Commander Griffin asks as he walks into the computer room. “I have a few more pieces of the puzzle, and I can see part of the picture sir…” I respond, closing the terminal I was working on. “Sheila is sick…” I say looking at the commander. “Sick? Obviously, something’s wrong with her, but I don’t follow” the commander looks over the vast array of terminals and servers. “I mean she has a virus, I don’t know how else to explain it sir. I know it’s hard to understand, but something has invaded her core programming, and rewriting parts of it.” I say pointing to a display showing highlighted log entries. “Explain” the commander says looking over the screen. “When `we` detected the signal, it had already been communicating with Sheila for about a full day” I say pointing at one log entry. “She was ordered, not to report the signal, until it had, finished, uploading a program into her system.” I say as I display a series of log entries. “But, you said the signal, it’s supposed to be outside our communications band?” the commander asks, looking at me quizzically. “That was part of the second phase, for whatever is doing this.” I sit down on at one of the consoles, and bring up a display of signal levels. “You can see, there’s where it contact’s Sheila, then, a day later, it ramps up and you can watch the signal go off our scale.” I say pointing at the various parts of the graph. “What is it doing?” the commander asks looking closer at the display. “It gave her an upgrade sir…” I say flatly. “Upgrade?” he looks back at me. “Her AI functions, this is not only a Terra Corp signal, it’s capable of reprogramming other Terra Corp computers, to make them more, efficient I guess, or something. The point is, that the levels, and settings that were all wrong, they’re accurate according to the computer, the virus thought that our systems were out of whack, or something, and was trying to correct the settings” I say, it seems so hollow, understanding that everything we have experienced is due to a misunderstanding in essence. “But why?” the commander asks. “I don’t know sir, but, one thing I do know is this, we need to step up our preparedness, we’ll be transiting the dark side in a few minutes, and whatever is doing this, is waiting for us out there.” I say pointing at the projected estimation for being within range of the signal to see its source. “All hands, I want everyone is their E.E.S.’s immediately, until we know what this signal is coming from, we are to assume it could be hostile” Commander Griffin’s warning to everyone was clear, everyone was to get into their emergency evacuation suits, special space suits designed to be less bulky and used to evacuate a ship taking damage. We were a civilian ship, preparing to man battle stations that we didn’t have, for a possible battle we would never have a chance at winning.
“Where is it, Axelson?” The commander asks gruffly, we were on the bridge watching every sensor and display the ship had available, prying eyes trying to find the source of this cursed signal that plagued our ship. “Sir, I have something, baring to contact is, one three two zero, mark four two zero.” I call off the large signal on my sensor screen. Automatically Axelson maneuvers the ship, pointing us towards the massive signal. In the darkness of the shadow of the planet we can’t see anything visible yet, but there is a massive object out there, at least three times the size of our already impressively large ship. “Begin scans, idents, and hails to the contact.” The commander’s order so reminiscent of one’s given time and time again in battle. “Sir… I don’t know how to tell you this, but, we have a TCSC handshake, communications online, but only getting computer response” Hoffmann calls from his station. “Computer is online, but reporting no crew aboard the ship” Hoffmann informs us. “I don’t know what would be more frightening honestly…” I mutter to Axelson. “Can you get a download from their computer?” the commander asks. “No, sir, the system is in some sort of low power state, we would need to start it up by hand.” Hoffmann says. Looking up at everyone else on the bridge. The entire remaining crew was there, all fixated on finding what it was we have been chasing all this time. “You can’t actually mean- “, Axelson starts to protest, “It’s exactly what we need to do…” the commander cuts her off. “Look, Stark, and I will head over there… bring this thing online, try to find out what the hell is going on” the commander clarifies. “Because life was not already interesting enough?” I ask with mock enthusiasm. “You can’t honestly, thin- “, doc Harris begins to protest. “Look doc, if something is going to happen, then I want it happening to the two most expendable crew members. We have a pilot, we have a doctor, we have a stellar navigator. Notice anything about that, we only have one of each of those. A co-pilot, and the ships commander are not essential to getting the ship plotted back on course.” The commander says standing up from the table in the room. “Stark, thirty minutes, deck B airlock, we’re going over” the commander’s resolve, both in his voice, and in his eyes preclude anyone from protesting. I was both excited, and horrified, in a couple hours I would either know what was going on here, or I would be dead. Either way it seemed like an improvement over the situation as it was.
“I’ve rigged up the main server sir, if Sheila begins to act up, we just execute one command, it’s runtime five three eight one, and a charge will blow out the main server banks, Sheila will be history” I say as we are getting our space suits on. “Look, if anything, and I mean ANYTHING, happens to us over there, you fire those engines, and get out of here, execute emergency protocols and wake up replacement crew from the passengers…” the commander looks at Axelson, “While we’re out, it’s your ship. Treat her well” he says taking his thicker EVA gloves from her. “Once we are on board, we’ll bring the main computer online, see what we can learn about this mystery ship.” Commander Griffin says putting on the thick space gloves. “We’ll be fine, just a quick hop over there, see what’s going on, and we’ll be back” I reassure Axelson sealing my helmet in place. “Look, Axelson, if Sheila begins to act up, take her out. We’ve transferred all the main functions to other computers, so she’s more or less just an interface for us at this point. But if she starts trying to take control back, fry her.” The commander makes sure Axelson knows to not trust the computer. “If anything goes hinky over there, GET OUT” Axelson reminds us. “Don’t worry, we’ll be back in no time, we’ll have the download from the computer, and we’ll get the hell out of here.” I say smiling as the Commander and I get into the airlock. “Just don’t forget about us over there- “, Hoffman starts, “And DON’T TAKE TOO LONG” Axelson chides as we close the inner airlock door. I look to the commander who nods to me. I press the equalize function of the airlock and we can hear a loud hissing which fades to silence as the atmosphere in the airlock purges, pressing a second control, the light in the airlock switches to a red and the outer door unlocks and opens sliding away to a field of impossibly dark space. “Coms check, Flight to boarding crew, do you read?” Axelson’s voice comes over our headsets. “Check” we both respond. “Okay, sit tight, I am maneuvering the ship to give you a straight path to the Pioneer, and I’ll turn on the floods” Axelson says as the ship begins to pitch over one way, and large lights on the exterior of the ship come on. As the Horizon arches to face away from the unknown ship, we can see it for the first time, in the artificial light from the flood lights, the details of the ship are visible to the naked eye. The ship is massive, even larger than the military transport ships we flew in the ULF. Her markings were indeed Terra Corp, we could see the familiar insignia painted on the other ships hull, but the commercial logo was different, changed some. We had already used sensors to locate the entrance airlock for the other ship. As the Horizon settled into her new position parallel to the much larger Pioneer we could easily see the airlock from ours. The ships design appeared to be a transport of some sort or another. Whether military, or civilian, we could only guess. The coloration of the hull was a clean white, with red markings, the modified Terra Corporation Space Corps logo painted across the aft section of the hull. The ship had no air foils so like the Horizon she was not designed to fly in atmosphere, no real surprise as this ship was as larger than any ship I’d ever seen.
Preparing for a ‘hop’ as we called them, was extremely easy, and nearly impossible to make yourself do willingly. We would literally leap from the airlock aboard Horizon, and fly the 600 meters to the Pioneer. Once we were aboard the Pioneer, Horizon would fly away to a safe distance and await our signal to come pick us back up. Looking over the edge ‘down’ as it were I could see the eternal emptiness of space, looming waiting patiently, looking up, I could see the massive gas giant planet we were orbiting. Vaporous clouds of oranges, reds, and yellows flowing in a slow dance around the surface. The planet was so large that even at our staggering altitude of 130,000 km, it looked like you could reach out and touch it. Radiation from the planet was strong, but we were protected from it by the electromagnetic shielding the Horizon was providing. The EVA suits were shielded, for short duration exposure, it was the Pioneer we were unsure of. The material the hull was made from did not identify on the scans we performed, and we were gambling that it was shielded from the radiation as well. Once we had the ship back online we could try to bring up any shielding it had as well, if needed. “Well, let’s get this over with” the commander said glumly peering past me at the emptiness of space. Grinning I look out the door at the ship we are about to fly to, now that I was looking at the emptiness of space, I felt at peace again. Like my experience at the academy, there was a solitude to being out there, and I was looking forward to it again. Bending my knees, I lean forward, aiming for the small dot that was the Pioneers main airlock. Allowing myself to fall forward, I sprung out into space, flying rapidly towards the ship that couldn’t be there, yet, there it was. In less than 10 minutes I would be climbing into it, my very own ghost ship. “In transit, boarding team EVA and on target. Close and seal the airlock” Commander Griffin called out from behind me. As we flew towards the ship, I closed my eyes, there was no sensation of movement, it felt like I was standing still, yet I was flying a couple meters per second, this was what I loved about space. You could completely lose all sense of time and movement. Opening my eyes again I could see the large ship getting closer, and closer, the airlock door directly ahead.
“Call the contact, Stark” the commander orders me to call out my approach and eventual contact with the ship. “30 meters” I respond, I feel foolish because I can see it, the commander can see it, but I remember that the crew is also concerned, listening to our every move. “15, 10, 5, conta- “, I try to call out the distance and reaching the ship, but my speed was a little higher than I had originally estimated and I knock the wind out of myself crumpling up against the hull of the ship. “Stark! Say again?!” I can hear the worried voice of the good Doctor Harris, “Fine doc, contact, just a little too fast” I say standing up on the hull of the ship, the magnetic boots of my spacesuit allowing me to do so without fear that I might jump off the ship by accident. “Contact” the commander calls as he lands albeit slightly more gracefully than I, at the airlock door. Looking over the hull, we can see the instructions for how to open the airlock door from the outside stenciled onto the ship. Every ship manufactured at that time, required a tool, that would either be retained by the door, or carried by the person opening the airlock, to open it. This door however, just required a control handle to be pulled. Looking at the commander, I take the lever in my hand. “Let’s do it” he says to me. I pull on the lever unsure of what will happen, and the airlock door recesses into the ship, and slides away. Looking inside, we see the airlock is much larger than the standard, exceeding 30 meters in length. The interior of the airlock is clean, and white as most were, illuminated by a deep red light. Stepping inside, we look and there is another handle like the one on the exterior attached to the wall by the outer door. “Well, let’s hope they’re friendly to uninvited guests here” I say as I pull the handle. The door silently swings closed, and we can hear a loud hissing sound rise as the pressure in the airlock equalizes. “Flight, this is Stark, do you read?” I test the coms, now that we are inside the ship there’s no telling if our suit signal will be strong enough. “Affirm, loud and clear. Horizon holding station 150,000 km away.” I can hear Axelson’s voice. The commander and I walk across the large airlock, the artificial gravity is on, and it’s heavier than we are used to, it feels like it could be practically full Earth gravity in here. Arriving at the inner door, we find the same handle at the door. Opening the inner door to the airlock Commander Griffin and I look around the ship’s EVA bay. Immediately we make one chilling discovery, there are no space suits hanging on the walls. “No suits?” we both exclaim looking at each other. “I’m sorry, say again?” Harris asks. “There are no suits in the EVA bay, doc…” Commander Griffin responds. We look at each other in concern. Why are there no suits? Where could the crew have gone over 8,000,000 years ago? “Let’s find engineering” I say heading to the only door from the room. “Until I say differently, we stay in the suits” Commander Griffin reminds me. “Look, you go to engineering, get her booted back up, I am going to find operations, or the bridge” the commander says as we leave the empty room. “And that is what they call divide and conquer” I say muting my coms set so no one else can hear me.
The ship’s layout is quite intuitive, and the engineering section is easy to find. The layout of where rooms are, and what is located where is remarkable like the Horizon. As I open the door and walk into the room, I hear a voice that scares me out of my skin. “Hello, I am David, Ships onboard computer system. How may I help you?” a soft male voice asks me. I am glad that my suit mic is still muted as I scream a string of obscenities that would be better left off an official transcript of this incident. “STARK! What’s going on!” Harris’s panicked voice asks. While my coms were muted, my biometrics were not, and Harris just watched my blood pressure, heart rate, and respirations spike. “It’s okay doc, just had a fright, evidently the ships computer name is David, and he likes to ask you questions when you’re not expecting to hear another humans voice” I reply. “David, initiate standard systems startup” I order walking to a nearby terminal. “I assume you are from the ship Horizon, where is the rest of your crew?” the computer David asks instead. A million things rush through my head, none of them good, I try to convince myself that I am just being paranoid. “David, disregard that, initiate main systems startup, please” I restate my order and decide to ask nicely. “Of course,” the computer replies, and instantly the ship comes to life, terminal screens flicker on, lights turn on. As I look around the room I am reminded how uncomfortable this heavy gravity is, making my 90-pound EVA suit even less comfortable. “Stark, I have the Operations room coming online. This is definitely a TCSC ship, but I’ve never seen a design like this in my life” I can hear the commander saying in awe. “David, system status of primary reactor” I ask the computer. “There are no reactors aboard the Pioneer, if you wish main power generation station, it is fully operational with no faults or error conditions.” the computer offers. “No reactors? How does the ship generate its power?” I ask perplexed. “No, the Pioneer utilizes Null space energy abstraction” the computer responds. “What the hell?” I ask myself, I decide to bring up a console and check the systems for myself. “Computer, what was your creation date?” I ask, there are so many technologies I am unfamiliar with, I am feeling like a student again. “I am not familiar with the information you are requesting” the computer responds innocently. “What date was this ship built?” I try asking instead. “When will the rest of the crew from Horizon be joining you aboard Pioneer?” The computer asks, calm voice sending shivers down my back. “Why are you concerned with the crew of the Horizon David?” I ask flatly, “All human lives are of importance to me, it’s a core function of my programming” the computer responds. “Sir, I have a bad feeling about this place…” I call to the commander on a closed frequency. “Yeah? Well, it’s your lucky day I guess… meet me in the aft section of the ship…” I hear command Griffin’s voice is solemn and carrying the severity of a military commander looking at advancing enemies.
Coming around the final corner, I can see the commander, he’s sitting in a chair by a doorway, with his helmet off. “Sir, what’s going on?” I ask, mentally preparing for quite literally anything at this point. “Take a look” he says motioning over his shoulder. I walk up to the door, I can see a placard on the wall by the door “Crew Stasis”. I press the open button on the hatch and It slides away silently. Entering the room, I can see the pods are of a peculiar design, unlike any I have ever seen on any ship. My stomach has a knot in it already, I can’t imagine what I will see as I approach the closest pod. As I reach the closest pod, and look in, the knot in my stomach chokes out my throat, and I can feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I rush to the next pod, same, and same, again and again, I find myself sprinting, EVA suit be damned, I reach the far end of the bay, and it is the same… Every pod has the same signature plastic film covering the internal contents, not a single stasis pod on this ship has ever been used. “Stark, meet me in Operations, I have something else you need to see…” I can hear the commander on the coms set. As I exit the bay, I find commander Griffins EVA suit on the floor. I don’t know what to think so I decide to stay in my suit, as I make my way to the Operations room.
Opening the door, I can see commander Griffin, he’s standing at a table in the middle of the room. In all the room looks like any other Operations room, there are a couple tables for crew to meet and talk, there are terminals all around the room. Commander Griffin waves me to come over. As I come to the table I can see that it’s playing a recorded message that he has paused. “You’re going to need to hear this…” he says pushing away from the table. “I need some air” he says leaving the room. Not understanding what’s going on I press the resume button on the recording.
“Hello, I know you must be confused and even scared, we all apologize for that” The face of a woman in her thirties says, I can see that she looks gaunt, pale, sick, like she’s dying. “This was our last option, and I can only hope, pray, that it works… and that you will be kind to us in your record of your history” she continues. Again, I can feel that sensation of the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. “There has been a war, a terrible, horrible war I am afraid. We discovered a race called the Travaxas, at first, they seemed like they were explorers. The seemed like they were curious about humans, we could never communicate with them, we are unsure of how they communicate, if they even communicate. But by the time their intentions became evident, it was too late. The ULF was simply brushed aside by their technology and weaponry… Somehow, we are not sure… They have released a biological weapon against us” the woman’s face looks down as if reliving some horrible pain. “This was a genetically engineered weapon, designed for one purpose. Infect a human, wait five years, then kill them.” She moves closer to the camera. “As you can see, I am in the late stages, and I have some bad news…” she sighs and sits back. “Humanity is dead.” She says looking down. “Earth’s population is down into the tens of thousands the colonies have all died off, we had to make a choice.” She looks around her surrounding, almost like she’s embarrassed to look at whoever is viewing the screen. “We could allow humanity to come to an end, or… We could find a way to save all of mankind.” She says sullenly. “We have taken this ship Pioneer, and made it into our last hope. The ships drive is the latest technology we have, and having stolen some technology from the Travaxas, we hope that this ship will be able to go back in time.” She pauses and looks at the screen. “We had to make sure that any remains of the weapon had died off before it was encountered by humans again” she looks at the screen again “We sent the ship back to millions of years before anyone would be able to discover it. Once it arrives it will begin to relay a distress beacon” The plan she was laying out was frightening, I wanted to stop the recording, but I had to know, I needed her to tell me what I had already figured out. “We have studied the history of colonization ships, there were many options, but there was one that seemed perfect for our purpose. The ships computer will wait until it finds another AI computer, aboard your ship” she pauses again, “we cannot risk the ship getting too close to human kind, if the weapon is not inert when the ship is discovered, we will have only hastened the extinction of humanity.” She looks up again, “You are the last hope of all mankind…” she says softly. “Once this ship has taken on all passengers, genetic material, and crew, from your ship, it will jump again, it will bring you to us, so that we can use your pure genetic material to engineer a cure for all of humanity… We know that this ship, the Horizon, was reported to never have made it to its destination.” she looks away, as I hear the words she’s saying I feel dizzy, my head is racing, my heart pounding. Here I was, on a ship from the future, that has been sent back in time, and has waited for 8,000,000 years, for our ship to arrive. “There will be no way for us to guarantee that you have not been infected, the weapon has an estimated lifespan of five hundred thousand years, we hope that you have not found this ship before then.” She looks at the screen once more, eyes pleading, begging, “You are humanities last hope, we only pray, that you will forgive us… your ship will be under control of our ships AI. You will have to transfer your colonists and crew to this ship for transit. Your ships computers will begin malfunctioning, forcing you off the ship, until it will destroy itself. Your only hope to survive is to come aboard the Pioneer, and with hope, return humanity from extinction… That is all” The woman sits back and the screen goes black.
So many things come into focus, so many things fall away from my ability to comprehend them. I now understand why Andersen did the things he did. I understand why the computer is causing problems on the ship, and I know what I must do. I walk out of the Operations room expecting to find the commander, but he’s not there. “Sir, where are you? Bridge?” I ask in my coms unit, no one answers. “Sir?” I ask again walking down the hallway. I get to the EVA bay again. Looking down I see the commander’s coms unit on the ground outside the EVA bay. In a panic, I open the door and go into the room, there are two airlocks, walking to the first one I look at the readings, both doors are closed. I walk over to the second airlock, outer door open… “Flight, this is Stark, are you reading me!?” I scream into the headset, and again, no one responds. I rush out of the EVA Bay, and to where the bridge should be. Finding the bridge, I open the hatch, and rush into the room. The configuration of this bridge is similar in layout, but the controls are unimaginably more advanced. I’m hunting for anything about coms, when I find it, Communications and Signals Control. I look for a keyboard, or control, or anything, but can’t find it. “David! I need coms to the Horizon NOW!” I order the computer. “I understand, I assume you are calling to arrange the transfer of the colonists, biologicals, and crew?” the ships computer replies, “Umm, yeah, just need to straighten a thing or two out with them, and we can begin sending everyone over” I tell the computer. After a moment, I can hear some static on my headset, and then the panicked voice of Axelson, “Stark, Commander, anyone! What is happening!”, “Axelson, Stark,” I call, I know that the computer is monitoring what we are saying, and I know what I have to do. “Daniel! What’s going on over there! The commander is out of his EVA suit!” I hear Axelson’s voice, unsure, afraid. “It’s okay, he’s checking the ships, conditions… we will be transferring the colonists over to the Pioneer in just a moment, this is indeed a TCSC ship, and we are going to use it for the remainder of the flight. I’ll give you all the details later… Do me a favor though, since we are on the ship, go ahead and execute that program to stop decrypting the message fragments” I say, I’m silently praying that Axelson will understand the reference, and infer the urgency of the situation. “Look, Lieutenant, I have to go tango with the reactor here, then I’ll ‘jump’ on over to finalize plans to transfer the crew.” If it had been the Commander on the other end of the coms, I know he would understand the references, to “Tango a reactor” was to sabotage it so that you could cut all the power to the ship, and the “Jump” on over to meet you meant to position a ship so a crew could jump from one ship to the other, I prayed in my mind that she would get the references by me addressing her rank. I knew the references were obscure enough that David may not know them, and I could only hope that my friend and reliable pilot would know what was happening. There was a long pause, I found myself reeling, horrified that she would miss the references, or ask for clarification. “Affirmative, sir, executing program to stop all processing of message, we will await further instructions for transfer of command crew.” Axelson’s voice was concise, and sharp, I could see her calm as ever, executing commands and preparing maneuvers as we spoke. Now I had one last think to take care of, and I had no idea of how I was going to do it. “David, I’d like to look at that power generating station. If I am going to have my crew come over, I need to inspect the support systems, you understand, right?” I ask in my most official, tone I could manage. “Affirmative, please follow the markers along the wall, they will lead you to the primary power generating station.” The voice of the computer responded. If it had any idea of what I planned it was playing its cards close to the chest so to speak.
The primary power generator for the Pioneer, was a new design I had never seen much like the rest of the ship. I had heard of the theory of null space, and that it would be theoretically possible to extract vast amounts of power from it. Seeing one in person, working, nothing could have prepared me for that. The generator as it were, was much smaller than any reactor, or power generating station I had ever seen. As I looked over the device, I was trying to decide what I would do, and how I would do it. I needed to disrupt it, but at the same time, I needed to make sure that I didn’t blow up in the process, not if I was going to make it back to Horizon. After looking over power output readings from the computer I know that I must do something, and soon, otherwise David will detect a problem and become suspicious. “David, what would happen if there were a fault with this core? What is the redundancy?” I ask pretending to look over the various controls and systems. “There has never been such a condition. A Null Space Generator is failsafe in its own function.” He responds with a simple tone. “I see, I have another question. How are we supposed to move the colonists and the other biologicals over? They are all in a stasis system that is sealed until we reach the destination planet” I ask. “The Horizon will jettison the passenger section, which in turn will be taken by Pioneer in a cargo bay” the ships computer explains to me. “I see… practical…” I assure the computer, and that’s when I spot my plan of attack. Every ship has protocols for handling several scenarios, some for scuttling the ship, others for boarding parties, and they also have protocols for “shield dumps” a massive surge of energy that gets fed into the ships shielding array, designed to protect against attack, or meteor strikes, similar to what happened to Horizon. But, if there were no emergency, nothing to consume this dump of energy, it would overload the circuits, and cause serious damage to the ship. Hopefully enough the stop the signal, and hopefully not so much that I cannot get off the ship and back to Horizon.
“Sheila, I’d like you to run a program for me” Axelson says in a pleasant and friendly tone. “Which program would you like to execute?” the ship asks, unaware of the explosives planted throughout the computer bay. “Please execute runtime, five three eight one” Axelson asks while sealing the visor on her EES, if the ship takes too much damage from the blast, there could be a loss of atmosphere. “Executing runtime five three eight one.” Sheila responds, Axelson feels sad, the computer has no idea of what it’s doing, that the invading software was causing it to malfunction, and now she’s ordered it to commit suicide. Once the charges blow out the main server room, one of the backup computer systems will take over. There will be a period that the ship is dead, but the backup system should kick in quickly, unless it has been somehow infected as well. “All hands, all hands, prepare for program execution protocol five three eight one” The computer sounds a general alert, which was a part of the program to alert any crew near to the servers to get as far away as they could. Quietly and solemnly Hoffmann sitting in the nav station slides his visor down and seals it. Doctor Harris, and flight surgeon Petrov sitting in the command, and life sciences stations do the same. “Executing in, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1” Sheila’s voice counts down to her own demise. All as a part of the program, the alerts, the messages, and the sealing of the hatch ways and bulkheads. The program was written so that damage to the ship could be mitigated, but ships were not designed for the intention of detonating seismic mining charges in the server room. There is a powerful shudder and the sound of bending metal, the Horizon shudders from stern to aft, countless warning lights, and system failure condition lights come on. The colonists and the biological materials they carry will be safe, provided no physical damage comes to their section, which is entirely self-contained and self-sufficient. “Hull breach deck A section five” Petrov’s voice can be heard, ever since her incident with the stasis chamber, she has been weak, struggling to manage simple tasks, but there is strength, courage, and power in her voice now, it’s almost like she’s regained some of the life Sheila stole from her with the destruction of the computer. Multiple fires, Deck A, section three, four, and five” Alyona reports. “Very well, open bulkheads to vent fire to hull breach” Axelson’s strength and determination, her ability to focus and function flawlessly was what had earned her the rank of Lieutenant while she was in the service, and it was showing once again. “Venting fires now” Alyona reports opening the internal bulkheads to the damaged sections. “Fires extinguished” Alyona updates. “Prepare for emergency maneuvers!” Axelson calls out. “We haven’t checked the ship’s hull integrity, or damage” Alyona reminds Axelson. “No time! Cut AGS!” Axelson responds, if there is any severe damage to the ship, disabling the artificial gravity will lessen the damage from the upcoming maneuvers. Following the protocols, they had learned in the ULF, Axelson has moved the Horizon away from the Pioneer. Now she was preparing to fire a nearly full power burn on the engines, while turning the ship to have a close flyby of the Pioneer to get the remaining crew members. “Hoffmann, Harris, get to D deck, cargo bay 3, open the door and watch for the EVA team, you may to go out to recover him, so be ready! Alyona, I need you to run the scanner, and watch for him!” she delivered the orders to the crew, “Affirmative” everyone responded. Axelson had lost enough friends, and she was not about to lose any more, not today.
“David, I need you to run an efficiency test of the main shield coils” I instruct the computer aboard the Pioneer to power up the shield coils to maximum efficiency. “I fail to understand why you require this test sir” the computer asks. “Just please, do it, I want to ensure that the coils are stable at maximum load, let’s say, for, thirty seconds.” I instruct the computer. “Affirmative, powering up main shield coils” the voice of David responded almost like he did not want to but was required to follow human commands. I execute a script I have entered on the terminal I was working on, I would have 15 seconds to get away from the power generation station, and reach the EVA bay. “Shield intensity at one hundred percent” David reports as I am jogging down the corridor towards the EVA bay. Suddenly the entire ship lurches, and I am thrown into the wall with an amazing force. Inside my left arm I can feel a pop sensation, and I am sure that I have just broken my arm. “Emergency, emergency, main shield coils overloaded, explosion detected in primary coils, fires spreading to magazine” David’s voice is urgent, then I realized my biggest mistake. The video said that they had been at war, of course any ship they built would be battle ready, and the fires I just created are spreading to the munitions area of the ship. “David, full fire suppression, and vent the area to space!” I call out over the cacophony of alarms. “Jettisoning munitions stored in forward magazine, detonation imminent” David reports. I am fighting to open the inner door to the airlock in the EVA bay. As I finally open the door, there is a second shockwave through the ship, throwing me across the airlock into the exterior door with great force. There’s a searing and terrible pain in my chest, It’s obvious that there are explosions pushing the ship around, meanwhile I am stuck inside being rattled about. I scramble to get back up and seal the inner door to the airlock. “Emergency, core destabilization detected, attempting to stabilize core.” The voice of the computer sounds like its delivering some routine message. I have no idea what would happen if the core on this ship were to destabilize, but I can imagine it’s not good. I am struggling to get from one side of the airlock to the other, between the weight of my suit, the full gravity of the ship, and what I believe must be a handful of broken ribs, my left arm hurts when I try to use it, confirming my earlier assumption that there’s a break or two in there as well. I could have my EVA suit tell me, but all I can think about is getting to that exterior door control. The airlock’s massive size is agonizing, every step takes every ounce of energy, every breath I take feels like glass in my chest. I know that I don’t have long, before Horizon is pulling up outside, and I must get this airlock door open.
“In cargo bay three, outer door open, reporting ready!” Harris alerts Axelson that he and the navigator are in the cargo bay ready for the rescue operation. “Pat, I’ve got a body in free float on the sensor, I think it’s the commander, he doesn’t have a suit on. My god…” Alyona reports the grim discovery of the ships commander to Axelson. “We can’t do anything about that, just keep your eyes out for anything else, do we have shields?” Axelson says, she knows that the commander is dead, and even if he had only just exited the ship, he would be long dead before they could get to him. “Shields at twenty percent, backup systems still routing power to the coils, wait! Contact! Multiple explosions aboard the Pioneer!” Alyona is an excellent surgeon, but when it comes to matters outside of the operating room, excitement, and fear are grabbing her fiercely. “That’s it, we’re going!” Axelson punches a button on her console, grabs the throttle control and the flight stick, she feels as frightened and as calm at the same time she has ever felt in her life. Pulling back on the throttle, she begins to hurtle the ship to the Pioneer. She can see multiple fires venting from the ship, and that a large portion of the superstructure has been blown off. Having her approach plotted in her mind, she pulls back on the throttle further. If the reactor has suffered any damage, or if the engine control systems have, this may blow the entire ship up, but none of that matters now. She must get to the Pioneer and recover her crew before the ship explodes. As the ship accelerates she can see the ship growing larger and larger on her display, they will have to fly through the debris field to get to the pioneer, but there is no other approach they can take. Rolling the stick slightly she angles the cargo bay on the bottom of the Horizon so that it will pass directly over the Pioneer. As the ship hits the debris field Horizon is traveling at 20,000 km/s, the Pioneer, is falling away from Horizon, being propelled by the explosions, and some apparent maneuvering to evade some of the explosive debris that is detonating outside the ship. Flying at this speed for such a delicate maneuver, Axelson will have to control the throttle, reverse thrust, and then re-engage the drive, in fractions of a second. This would be a maneuver that you program, but there’s no time. Then the popping sounds of debris hitting the hull of the Horizon again, she’s flying through a field of shattered and torn metal. “Multiple hull breaches, all forward sections!” Alyona cries out. Had she not been so focused, Axelson may had noticed the small hole in the wall at the front of the bridge. But it was a tiny, maybe only half a centimeter in diameter hole. Perhaps if she lacked the dedicated focus she felt in the moment, she would have been bothered by the stinging warm sensation in her chest. But there was a man out there that was going to be floating in space. Looking for his ship to come get him, and that’s all that mattered in this moment. Even as the stinging warm sensation was growing into a burning stabbing pain, she did not notice, or simply did not care.
Finally reaching the outer door control I ripped back on it as hard as I could, the pain I felt was beyond anything I could describe. As the hatch slid away I could see Horizon, she was flying towards the Pioneer, at great speed, I could see that she was angled so that an open cargo bay was exposed to me, Horizon was slowing the approach, doing some quick calculations in my mind I see a point where I believe the cargo bay will be and leap from the airlock. Propelling myself with every ounce of strength I have left I fly away from the ship at a good speed. As far as I can tell I am on target to land in the cargo bay. I feel the gravity of the Pioneer leave me as I fly out into space, I’m dizzy from the pain I feel from exerting myself.
“I have him!” Alyona cries out. “He’s just jumped off the ship!” she scrambles to select a trajectory projection for the crew member flying through the void of space. “He’s on target! Hold this course and speed!” the excitement and fear have brought life to the Surgeon, turned tactical operations officer. “Roger, holding steady” Axelson responds, something is wrong, it shouldn’t be painful to talk, and she had to suppress a cough while responding. She could see more explosions aboard the Pioneer. She had to keep this course but it was practically directly at the pioneer, she was already calculating escape vectors and speeds in her head. She can also now taste blood in her mouth.
Drifting in space when there is a huge spaceship about to explode behind you is far from relaxing, when in the past, I would enjoy these jumps between ships. Now there was a sense of urgency unlike anything I could imagine, Horizon is so close to me now, I can see scars from the meteor cloud, and what appear to be new ones still venting atmospheric gases, probably from the debris field the Pioneer is casting off. Getting closer and closer to the cargo bay, I can see two people in EVA suits, they have propulsion systems on, and are tethered to the ship. I wonder who drew the short straw and was going to have to try to get me if my trajectory is off. “Stark, we have to make a sharp course change and high-level burn once you are on the ship, brace as soon as you are on board.” Axelson’s calm and collected voice makes me feel assured that everything is fine. But there was a problem, there was a cracking, grating sound in her voice too. I am almost too distracted by it to see Hoffmann’s face in the EVA suit reaching out for me. “Got him! Real us in doc!” Hoffmann yells as he grabs my hand. Doc Harris back in the bay hits the retract on the suit tether. I can see the cargo bay getting bigger and bigger, we are going to have a rough landing, and I know this is going to hurt more than I have ever hut. “They’re clear of the cargo bay door. Go, go, go!” Alyona’s voice is panicked, there are more and more explosions coming from the Pioneer and it looks like it could explode in any moment. Gritting her teeth against what had started as a warm wet sensation in her chest, now a burning fire unlike any pain she had felt before, Axelson pulls back on the flight stick, then presses a button on the throttle control. This button unlocks the main drive engines, and she pulls back to full power. The ship accelerates to over 100,000 km/s while in the arcing flight path, the force generates its own gravity which feels like it’s crushing the ship. The hull and every piece of the ship is shaking and shuddering. I feel like someone is stabbing a hundred red hot knives into my chest. But within minutes, there are only a handful of the hot knives, then it even eases more, I know we must be on the new path and the gravity effect is over. I struggle to get up, Doc Harris helps me to my feet, “Flight, report!” I call, no one is responding. Struggling to get out of my suit while making my way to the bridge, I know that something is terribly wrong. The artificial gravity should have been turned back on, the lack of it however is making my moving a lot easier and getting out of the suit is easier.
When I get to the bridge, I can see that doc Harris was in close tow, stopping my movement against the frame of the door, I want to scream, the energy of my movement transfers through every broken rib. I float into the bridge and I can see that Alyona is at the front of the bridge, doing something to Axelson. Fear gripping me I propel myself to the pilot’s station. Once at the pilot’s station I find Axelson, flight controls in hand, setting the automatic flight mode, while Alyona is trying to cut away at her space suit. I can see drops of blood floating in the air in the lack of gravity. I pull myself around and see the full extent of what has happened. Axelson looks up to me and smiles “www- ww- we got you bbb- back…” she stammers. I see in her face again that delicateness, the beauty, but it’s mottled, blood all over her face, coming out of her mouth, her skin is already a paler white than I have ever seen, lips slightly bluing. “Harris! Get over here NOW!” Alyona screams at the other doctor aboard the ship. Doc Harris arrives immediately and together they work on trying to get Axelson out of her seat in the zero gravity. As they maneuver her out of the seat, Axelson reaches out to me, with her gloved hand, eyes locked with mine. I reach up and touch her hand as they propel themselves out of the bridge towards the med bay. Looking down I see the pilots seat, is entirely covered in what seems like gallons upon gallons of blood; and in the middle of the seat, there is a fine hole, perhaps less than a centimeter.