a a a
"This is fascinating!" the science officer grinned. "It’s a bubble of clear space, blown by the star after it formed in the nebula."
"Blown by the star?" the captain asked.
"The solar wind. When the star condensed and ignited in the middle of this gas cloud, the pressure wave blew the nebula material away, forming a bubble, Now the stellar wind from the star maintains the outward pressure, and you have a slowly expanding bubble of empty space for about a three hundred AU radius around the system."
"Hmm," Dubronin hmed. "Planets within?"
"Yes, but I can’t get clear readings yet. Once we break through the wall of the pressure front , out of the nebula and into the bubble, we should have full sensor capability again."
"All right. Helm? How long to that pressure front?"
"Two hours, Ma’am."
"Fine. Before we cross it, drop out of warp. I want to go through that wall at one half impulse. Comm, is that signal any clearer?"
"Stronger, Ma’am, but no clearer. Still only word fragments. It’s definitely coming from up ahead."
"All right. Steady as she goes."
The princess was tucked in, as it were. Beta shift was just ending; twilight on a starship, and time for bed. The captain had decided to stay on the bridge for a while, along with most of the dayshift bridge crew who were too curious about that old mayday to relinquish their posts to the next shift. McKinney’s normal duties were running a bit behind due to his job of minding the princess and her people, so he was presently making his rounds of the ship’s departments, gathering data for his daily report.
McKinney liked Dr. Van der Roll. The man worried like an old lady over his princess, but he reminded McKinney of an uncle he hadn’t seen in about ten years. Uncle Max had been little Daniel’s main source of fun, taking him to parks and museums, playing games with him, chucking a ball around, during those weeks that McKinney’s father had to spend off Earth. Bryon McKinney, Daniel’s father, had been a crewman on a passenger starliner based at Earth. The old Astral Queen was away on her runs for weeks, sometimes months, and little Daniel had wanted to go along with his father. But he had to stay home with Mom. Uncle Max, Mom’s brother, would take pity on him and keep him from missing his father too much. His father retired from the spaceline just in time for Daniel himself to go off to Starfleet Academy, so now they saw even less of each other. But the elder McKinney was proud and beaming that his son was the first officer of an Excelsior.
The bodyguard, Dockray, made McKinney a little uneasy though. Dockray reminded him of the vice principal at his high school. Always serious, always looking around for trouble. Getting kids nervous enough to look guilty even when they weren’t doing anything. It made it hard for him to talk to Dockray without being nervous himself. He didn’t want to be rude and avoid the man – never be rude to an armed man, his uncle had once told him with a chuckle – but he found it hard to be friendly. Well, he would only have to worry about it for a few more days.
The last stop of the evening was main engineering. The chief engineer, Lt. Commander Tchalabi was sitting in the office adjoining engineering when McKinney arrived.
"Just putting the last touch on my report, Sir." Tchalabi said as McKinney entered.
"How’s it going, Dennis?"
"All’s well, Commander. We had to shut down the bussards this morning, though."
"Anything actually wrong with them, or were the tanks just full?" Running the hydrogen scoops in a dense hydrogen nebula was indeed overkill. McKinney hadn’t thought of that before the engineer mentioned it, but then that’s why the engineer was there.
"Full to busting, Sir. They were about to auto-shutdown in fact; the system closed off the tank feed and was about to kill the collectors when I saved it the trouble."
"Fine." McKinney noted it on his clipboard. The reactor’s matter tanks were usually not a hundred percent full unless the ship had been topped off at a starbase. A few days of normal warp propulsion would reduce them immediately. But the bussards collected enough interstellar hydrogen molecule by molecule to keep them hovering between fifty and seventy-five percent full. This nebula was a little bonus to have them full up. McKinney was suddenly attacked by a yawn so wide it almost cracked his jaw. He covered his mouth with his clipboard.
Tchalabi looked at the chrono on the wall and raised an eyebrow at the commander.
"I know, I know," McKinney said, "I’m going."
He only had to put his daily report together now so it could be in the captain’s terminal first thing in the morning. 2200 hours. He should be in bed by midnight. Not too bad, considering he probably wouldn’t sleep much anyway.
"Warping down, Captain," the helmsman said.
Dubronin assumed her center seat. "Very good, Mister Shankar. One half impulse." The helmsman repeated the order and keyed the speed in. The comm officer boosted the volume of the strange signal so the whole bridge could hear it, jumbled and unintelligible as it was.
Dubronin tapped her own comm pad on the chair arm. "Daniel," she said, "We’re about to pass through the cloud wall into the bubble."
After a pause, his voice sounding very sleepy, McKinney responded, "I’ll monitor from my quarters, if that’s all right, Captain."
She smiled. She hadn’t noticed the time, nearly midnight. "That will be fine," she answered. He’d mentioned that he needed to grab a couple hours of sleep before they reached the signal location.
On the viewscreen the star they were approaching was a blazing, actinic spark burning a pinpoint hole through a vermilion curtain of diffuse hydrogen tendrils, highlighted by auroral glows of hot gas being shoved aside by the ship’s deflector screens. The density of the surrounding gas cloud increased as they approached the wall – matter held in abeyance by the pressure of the star’s light, piling up before dispersing backward into the nebula. The ship had been bucking occasionally as it passed through varying thicknesses of gas and dust all the while they’d been inside the nebula. Now it bucked a little more as the acceleration compensators adjusted to the thicker medium. Starships generally weren’t designed to move through anything at all, but the gas was so thin even here, it posed no danger of damaging the ship.
The helmsman counted off, "three minutes."
"Sensors?" Dubronin asked.
"Not yet," from the science station. "The gas density at the interface is even higher than the rest of the nebula." Dense is a relative term. The gas was thin enough to see through like sheer window curtains, hardly enough to even cause drag on the ship despite the occasional pocket that bumped them gently. Yet from a distance of many light years the nebula had looked like a solid cloud.
"Once we’re through, slow to one quarter," Dubronin ordered.
"One quarter, aye. One minute to breakout."
Bump. They passed through a particularly thick mass of hydrogen compressed by stellar wind, flaring the shields mildly.
And then they were through.
Howling banshees screamed in the air of the bridge. Dubronin clamped her hands over her ears reflexively and Koike yelled in pain and yanked his ear bug out. It fell to the deck and bounced. He groped in panic at his panel. The science station tech tried to stand, but stumbled over his chair and fell, adding to the general confusion and cries of "what the hell?" from the bridge crew. The screaming, Dubronin suddenly realized, was the mysterious signal, now in the clear and unhindered by the nebula’s interference. But the ricocheting effect inside the cloud was amplified a thousandfold here inside the clear bubble with it’s compressed gas walls, and what they were hearing was the mayday signal in its full force, doubled and redoubled upon itself, overlaying itself a thousand times, bouncing around inside an echo chamber for who knows how long. Still unintelligible. And Koike had his gain turned up full trying to hear the original weak signal. In his groping, he managed to crank the volume down to where the sound assumed a moderate buzz.
"Sorry," he smiled wanly.
"I think we’ll survive," Dubronin answered through an annoyed sneer. "Can you read it now?"
"I’ll need to filter the repetition. Just a minute."
Shankar reported, "Sensors show two planets on this side of the star, Ma’am."
A different science station operator had joined them at the shift change, but he’d been briefed on the situation. "Captain, the source is clear now. It’s coming from the innermost planet."
"Well then. Mister Shankar, set course at one half impulse. I think we can take the shields down too, now that we’re out of all that." She waved her and aftward at the nebula. "It may help clear up the sensor picture."
Shankar acknowledged, and aimed the Breitling on a simple elliptical fall toward that planet’s gravity well. The impulse engines accelerated the ship to a quarter of light speed.
Koike turned abruptly to face Dubronin, his face pale. "Captain?"
As she turned, he cranked up his volume again. The message had been sorted, enhanced and clarified. The sound was a little staticky, with some unavoidable flutter. The voice was urgent, afraid:
"Mayday mayday. This is the SS Harrington’s Home. We have been attacked by an unknown alien vessel. Unknown energy weapon. Very powerful.
"Why did they attack us? We came all this way and now this! This isn’t fair! The ship is totaled from one shot. One shot! Half the colonists dead!
"The ship's boats will make it to the planet. We’re going down. Maybe we can. Make it.
"I don’t know if this will even get out of the nebula, but if it does… Send warships, Do NOT come without firepower. This thing is terrible.
"Repeat, this is the SS Harrington’s Home. Mayday, mayday…."
Koike let it play one more time then cut it off. The bridge was silent as a funeral.
McKinney, wearing off-duty casuals, sat in stunned silence at his workstation in his quarters. His desk screen was split between a repeater view of the main viewscreen and the security camera overlooking the whole bridge. He heard himself say "wow." So much for sleeping! The first thing he’d have to do is a library computer search for the ship’s name; it certainly sounded like an Earth vessel. He wondered how long ago…. oh.
"McKinney to bridge, Koike."
"Does the message have a time tag?"
He saw Koike fumble for a moment with his controls. He was clearly shaken. Whatever this was didn’t happen yesterday, but it was still unsettling coming across someone’s epitaph like this. "It’s… Wow, Sir, it’s ... ninety three years old."
McKinney heard the captain say "Oh my," and a number of bridge crew exclaim in surprise.
Shankar’s singsong voice rang out urgently, "Captain -- "
Like they’d hit a wall, the ship lurched downward against its compensator fields so hard that McKinney felt his chair drop from under him and he banged his knees on his desk.
The sound from whatever it was rumbled through the ship’s spaceframe.
The pain from his knees shot through him. At the same instant the lights went out and his flailing for purchase took on a horrible flare of panic as he lost his orientation.
Then the red alert claxon joined the melee of confused sensations, the sound coming simultaneously with his room’s low-level emergency lights.
He found himself on the floor, and picked himself up immediately. His screen was blank. No, not blank, black. Service noise, no signal.
The claxon cut off, not as if turned off, but as if cut off.
"Bridge, what hit us?"
"Bridge, McKinney, what was that?"
"Captain? McKinney to Captain?"
"Crap. McKinney to engineering."
He launched himself toward the doors. They didn’t open and he crashed into them, bruising his shoulder.
Damn. There should be power to the doors, even in a total power out. They still had gravity, but that may just be because it took a long time for the gee generators to spin down. Or their batteries were working. He popped the bypass panel open and cracked the manual latch. He had to work his fingers into the crack between the doors, but they gave easily enough and he yanked them open.
The corridor was lit only by the emergency battery-powered lights every few meters at ankle level. Other crew were spilling out of their quarters asking each other what was going on. There was enough light to see each other. Some sharp souls even had flashlights. He commandeered one of the lights.
"Commander?" someone recognized him. "What the hell, sir?"
"I’m not sure." But there was only one course of action open. "Listen up everybody. Either we collided with something or something fired on us, I don’t see any other explanation right now. Either way, the best thing to do is hit your battle stations. You all heard the red alert, so let’s take it at its word." Some started moving immediately, but some crew still dithered in confusion. "Let’s go people," McKinney said in his command voice, "Battle stations! This is not a drill!" I don’t think so, anyway. "Pass the word as you go."
His first order of business was to get to the bridge. He went to the first turbolift. It didn’t open. Well, if the doors don’t open the lift car sure as hell won’t take him anywhere. He tried two more lifts just to be sure. As people ran by or popped their heads out of their rooms, he ordered them to General Quarters. Somewhere in the back of his conscious mind he realized the sounds, the vibrations, that the ship made every minute, weren't there. He wondered if they were just masked by the general confusion of noises that the crew were making as they ran up and down the corridor – feet swishing on carpet and banging on the decksole, people chattering and asking each other if they knew what had happened. But it was the missing "thrum" you could normally feel through your feet that convinced him. The ship had died around him.
What was a dead starship? The recruiting literature called starships "cities in space." Without power, without a way to recycle air and food, or pump water. The city in space became a mausoleum in space.
When the lights had gone out and the ship lurched, he felt fear, but it was tempered by the expectation that whatever had happened was immediately explainable. He was already beginning to worry that that might not be the case.
A crewwoman jogging past saw him standing forlornly by a closed turbolift door and said "They’re all offline, sir. All over the ship."
"How do you know? Comm’s out. Isn’t it?"
"Yessir it is, but…" she lifted a communicator to show him.
He actually smacked himself in the forehead. The crewwoman’s eyes goggled at seeing her commander do that. He held his hand out for it. "May I?"
She handed it to him, said "Keep it, Sir," and continued running off to her station.
He flipped it open. "McKinney to bridge."
He jogged to the nearest ladderwell, recessed in the wall at the corridor junction. Only five decks up to the bridge. He opened the hatch sealing the deckhead. He climbed.
With the main lights out, the ladderways were lit by a long red trace light running up the wall behind the ladder. It made the rungs easy to see in an emergency, but cast the narrow tubular shaft in a baleful, claustrophobic glow. McKinney hadn’t experienced the tubes in this light. He wasn’t really claustrophobic, but the sense of emergency was ripe in him, and the urgency of not knowing what was happening churned his stomach. He kept his flashlight turned on and climbed with one hand.
At each deck the ladderway shifted its own diameter to one side, then back, to keep anything falling from going down all thirteen decks and killing a bunch of people on the way down. Each level had a hatch to go through for much the same purpose.
Also to prevent decompression between decks. In case the hull was breached.
The hatch to deck two would not open.
Claustrophobic or not, now he was scared. The ladderway tube got smaller, it seemed, around him, and the hatch above felt like the weight of tons of rock was holding it closed. If it was decompressed up there, the reality was the opposite: if he opened it, the pressure in the tube would blow him up, into vacuum. He took his hand away from the latch sharply.
He shined his flashlight on the little readout panel next to the hatch over his head. He saw its battery light was on. No power to it from the ship’s main line, but its standby power source was engaged.
Atmospheric pressure on the other side: zero.
He was still well outboard of the bridge to starboard. Maybe they were holed next to the bridge. He wouldn’t accept that the bridge was gone until he saw it. Maybe they were only holed in the compartment directly above him.
He swapped the flashlight to his off hand, awkwardly leaning against the wall to free his good hand to draw his communicator. Awareness that a fall would only be five or six feet didn’t reassure him. "McKinney to bridge."
His voice rang hollowly in the tiny, dark shaft.
This was awful. This was supposed to have been a milk run. The princess…
Oh crap, the princess! He should check to see if she was all right.
No, first things first. Engineering.
"McKinney to engineering."
Nothing. But the lingering humm of his own voice fading in his ears. "Engineering, Sir, this is Tchalabi." Oh thank God.
"You on a communicator too, Tchalabi?"
"Yes, Sir. Ship’s main power is offline. We’re on it. Everything shut down when the main computer went. We need a half hour to get everything routed to the secondary computer. It’s damaged too, there was an EPS flashback…"
McKinney realized Tchalabi was kind of babbling nervously.
"Dennis, hang on," he said. "The main computer went? How? No wait, never mind. I’m trying to get to the bridge through the ladderways. I show decompression on B deck. Check your deck schematics. How bad is it?"
Tchalabi breathed into his mic for a moment. Then his voice was a lot less in control than even his babbling had been. "Don’t you know sir? The main computer went the same time the bridge went! I’m looking at the deck schematics right now. Sir… Sir, we’ve got decompression through… Sir, something punched a hole straight through the saucer top to bottom!"
"Yessir. The hole’s about… I don’t know, about… ten meters. Like a something punched right through. An asteroid maybe. It looks like it hit the bridge clean, at an angle, then blasted through the main computer core, all the way through the saucer and out the bottom. Everything decompressed from the hole out to whatever airtight doors managed to shut."
"The bridge is…"
"Gone, Sir! It's Gone!"
The bridge was gone.
The captain was dead.
And now everything, everyone, not just the princess –
Was his responsibility.
McKinney suddenly felt as cold as the vacuum beyond the hatch.