The Lost Ship

Posted on a Friday in 2007 at 9:45 am in Science Fiction.

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I will not die…I will not die…I WILL NOT DIE..! The words, which would have been screamed if he had the air or the time, echoed in his head as the plasma burst surged through the ship’s bridge — an instant, blinding, killing flare that left utter darkness in its blazing wake.

It was up from this darkness he swam some unknown time later, eyes miraculously opening, body aching with a thousand agonies, but moving, not seared to atomic dust as he should have been had the plasma struck.

His fingers scrabbled among the ruin and rubble around him. His cry to the universe, that he would not die, and the brilliant light of the enemy’s ruinous strike burned with a clarity in his skull like the light of the sun itself.

He seemed to know generalities, but no certainties, and amid his blazing final memory, everything else was a graying mist trailing into darkness. He knew they had been attacked, though he could not even recall why or by who or even when.

There was light, though barely enough to see by, dim and dying. Perhaps the emergency system lights. He rose slowly, weakly from the shattered floor of the ship’s dark bridge, stumbling past fallen support beams and tangles of broken wiring hanging down.

How long had he been unconscious?

Half-aware, he made his way to a black console still intact amid the wreckage strewn about what had been the ship’s bridge. He pressed his fingers on the black control panels, trying to bring up sensor readings, check the system’s status, locate the enemy…

But the panel did not even flicker, as dead as…in the darkness he spotted the legs of a fellow officer buried beneath a metallic chunk of the ceiling. He glanced around him, seeing other bodies lying prone, or still sitting at their posts, unmoving and sightless…as dead as the corpses around him.

The bridge was a ruin of death and destruction and it was a wonder he had survived. But as he took it all in, he realized something…he did not…know…did not remember who he was. The question of a name swam in and out of focus in his head as his mind clutched desperately to identify itself, to find any name.

He found his life was a dim memory almost forgotten on the periphery of his consciousness, and only the last few vicious seconds of it were recalled with any clarity, or with any facts attached at all.

He ached to orient himself, but his head felt leaden, split by a pounding red, agonizing chasm he could only imagine as his neurons bathing in fire. He gripped pounding skull between two hands which seemed more like large, clumsy bricks than flesh and agile digits.

Amid this, his name came back in pieces, but little more did, and he wondered at the amnesia. He had survived the attack, he was alive, his will had been enough after all.

The pounding eventually slowed, his name almost faded, but he hung on to it. As he swam back up to full consciousness again, he realized what he had believed was one continuous moment from his initial awakening and stumbling over to the console had consisted of numerous periods of clarity interspersed with sudden blackouts. The knowledge was disconcerting.

How long had he been unconscious? Was the battle over? Was the ship adrift?

Head still cradled in one hand, he looked up from where he had slumped down near the dead console, and stared aimlessly into the dim light. The crew on the bridge was all dead. Names came back to him, most of the time.

Finally, he rose and shuffled through the rubble, checking pulses for those bodies he could find, though he knew for certain when he felt their cold flesh. He shuddered a bit at being surrounded by still, silent corpses.

He called out, his voice cracking. No answer.

One of the stations near the last body he approached flickered, barely, as he brushed it. He swooped upon it, his touch bringing life, and managed to enter commands and view the readouts between the unsteady flickering, though it was more darkness than light. He drew back. The spastically active panel showed life-support was off: no atmosphere, no heat, no gravity.

Around him the bridge flashed, becoming a hellish scene of tangled, floating wreckage and vacuum-ravaged bodies. A broken, bloody face hung before him, ruined and cracked by the frozen dark of empty space. He gasped, stumbled and blinked, breath coming heavily, head throbbing.

The vision had been intensely real. Horrifying. He swore he could almost not feel the air for a moment — just the cold, sucking vacuum of nothing that lurked hungry between the stars.

Those readings were wrong: that he could breathe and was not desperately sucking at emptiness proved that. Artificial gravity was still on, since he was walking, not floating.

The circuits between here and the main computer banks must be damaged, or the main computer itself, he couldn’t be sure which from here. But with the panel flickering, at least he knew there was still power in the ship.

He stumbled away, thinking, trying to find other survivors.

The amnesia, the drifting in and out of consciousness, the terrifying hallucination…it had to be a…a…concussion. Something like that. He was lucky to be alive…who else was alive? Was anyone else still alive? Could he reach the med bay? Were the doctors still alive? Thoughts rushed madly around his aching skull.

Someone else had to be alive. The probabilities…

At the very least he could search.

“Captain, I’m picking up something on long-range…it’s…a ship, sir.”

“A ship? What sort of ship?” The captain’s grip tightened unconsciously on the rails of his central command chair.

“I can’t tell yet, sir,” the ensign was nervous, whether from sighting the ship or speaking to the captain, or both, “Wait, receiving a Colonial Republic ID signal, sir. It’s…it’s one of ours?”

“One of ours?” the captain drew back in surprise. After a moment of consideration, he stood and walked over to scan the ensign’s console readout himself, “Way out here?”

“I…I don’t know, sir. Tactical says nothing is registered as being out this way.”

The tactical officer nodded confirmation to the captain as he himself double-checked the reads on his own console.

The voice of the Comm spoke up from somewhere behind, “Shall I attempt to hail them, captain?” Even after all these years, having the artificial intelligence’s voice in his ear still felt like having a ghost standing behind you. No matter where he positioned himself on the bridge, the Comm’s voice was always behind him.

He signaled for the Comm to continue, pondering the ensign’s readouts. The ghost voice said, “Nothing, sir. The signal is being received but…it looks like. Sir, I think their Comm is damaged.”

“Is that speculation, Comm?” the captain growled, feeling increasingly frustrated.

“No, sir. I’m receiving feedback, but it is weak, and garbled. Just the random signals you would expect to hear from a ship. I do not believe they can even hear us until we move closer.”

The captain returned to his chair, thinking, “Alright. How long until we can establish a visual?”

“I can have us there in under an hour, captain,” his helmsman replied, and programmed in the coordinates after he was given the go-ahead.

In under an hour, static crackled on the viewscreen and a voice spoke out of the darkness, “…mitting…atta…unknow…body…p…engines…”

“Clean that signal up! Can you get me a visual yet?”

“Momentarily, captain,” the distracting voice answered from somewhere behind him.

The audio signal cleared up, and was piped to the bridge officers, “…Automated distress signal transmitting. CRS Fionn. Ship damaged by attacker unknown. Lieutenant Sorovi. Clearance ID encoded. Anybody, please respond. Please help. Ship is drifting. Engines irreparably damaged…”

“It repeats, sir,” the Comm informed, “And I have a visual. These are transmission signals intercepted from one of the ship’s satellites.”

The viewscreen static cleared, revealing the pitted, gray hulk of an old Republic ship drifting through the blackness of space, surrounded by a silver shroud of debris.

“That’s the source of the distress message?”

“Maybe its a leftover from the war?” his helmsman offered.

“Still sending out an ID signal?” The captain shook his head in disbelief, “Scan for lifesigns.”

There was a pause as the ensign worked with the ship’s sensor equipment, tuning it and focusing it, “Nothing, sir.”

“I can’t believe this ship has been drifting since the war, transmitting a distress signal,” he shook his head again and considered momentarily, “Catalogue it and send a report back to Halycon base as a possible future salvage op. Comm, can you kill its distress transmission?”

“Captain…” the Comm warned as the viewscreen crackled, and a ragged face appeared in a dark and broken room of metal and flickering dots of colored light. The man was hollow-eyed and dirty, half-starved and ghostly.

“Oh my gods,” the man whispered, nearly sobbing, “I thought I’d never see another living soul again…” His voice was near hysteria.

“Calm down, soldier, you’ll be alright. Name and rank?” the captain rattled off.

The survivor snapped to attention, “Lieutenant Sorovi, sir. Weapons officer for the CRS Fionn. Bridge staff. I…I think.”

“You think?” the captain raised an eyebrow.

“I…I hit my head during the battle, sir. I’ve got…amnesia. I can’t remember much of anything except a few names and a couple events just prior to…blacking out.”

The captain could feel his hands tightening around the rails of his command chair again, “The battle, with who?”

“I don’t know, sir. My memory is pretty bad, sir, I’m lucky I remember my name. I still have a splitting headache that comes and goes, and the food isn’t helping matters. Nothing but field rations for weeks.”

There was an appreciative chuckle across the bridge, even the captain cracked a small smile.

“Are you the same Lieutenant Sorovi who sent the distress signal we picked up?”

“Yessir. I fixed the ID signal, too. It was damaged in the battle. I’m just glad you picked it up and not…well, someone else.”

He signaled the Comm to cut the connection momentarily, then barked orders at his science officer, “Start long-range intensive scanning, now. Weapons, be ready to fire at anything that moves out there.”

“The Vora, sir?” his helmsman questioned nervously, trying to hide it by focusing on his console as he asked.

“I don’t know, but I want to be ready. If they’re crawling out of the woodwork again we can’t afford to take chances.”

The Comm whispered in his ear and he had to keep himself from turning to try and find the ghost of a man he would never see, “Captain, I have checked ship registries. The Fionn, Calieach class, commissioned in 2239, built in the Centauri Planetary shipyards, Captain John Stacks, was reported lost during battle with the Vora twelve years ago along with all 232 men aboard.”

“A bit of subterfuge on the part of Command?” the captain asked himself, “Still, a secret twelve-year mission out here in the wilds?”

He imagined the Comm shaking his head, if he had one, “Unknown, captain. Insufficient information is available. It seems unlikely, though.”

The captain grunted his assent, then motioned for the Comm to reinstate the signal, “How long have you been out here, Lieutenant?”

Ship’s sensors shrilled in the gloom, jerking him out of a terrifying dream where he drifted helplessly through an empty void, screaming soundlessly for help no one could hear, his lungs straining to make a noise against the crushing silence of the dark vaccum.

A few instinctive, stumbling steps through the half-light in engineering brought him to the control panel he had managed to resurrect and rewire, his brain still trying to catch up with his body.

He did not know how he had done it, but he had managed to find his way to engineering through a twisting and roundabout course. He exalted in the discovery at first, only to find the compartment as empty and dead and as full of corpses as the bridge. The dried blood of the dead was splashed in dark streaks everywhere, but the ship’s engines still hummed occasionally, providing whatever power remained to the drifting hulk.

He had realized slowly, though he couldn’t truly accept it for he feared going mad in contemplating it, he was the only living being on the whole of this broken wreck drifting pointlessly through the emptiness of space, without even the Comm for company.

A lone voice in a vast wilderness without even God for company.

Rather than risk his sanity, he had focused on what he saw: the damage here was not as severe as on the bridge. If he could remember his engineering courses, he could rewire the system, run enough of the ship from the engine room to save himself.

Hours and hours of work and testing later, he lay his scrounged tools down, wiped the soot and grease from his hands and sat down upon the floor to sink into a darkness so deep even dreams and the creaking and groaning of the broken hull did not disturb him.

Despite the effort, he had not been able to repair the engines. There was simply too much damage. Too many circuits and power cables were damaged, burned out, severed or simply didn’t exist any longer because that part of the ship no longer existed. But the singularity that powered the ship’s extra-dimensional drives glowed eerily, mockingly in its semi-transparent, slightly out-of-phase trilathite casing.

A week of hard work crawling through spaces blacker than pitch, working in cramped tunnels he could only lie down in, patching and rerouting cables, swapping circuits and consulting technical diagrams he barely understood, rewarded him with restored control of the ship’s communications array. It was badly damaged, but functional.

He had reset the ship’s ID transmission and recorded a general purpose distress beacon. Another few days were spent putting the few surviving sensors back on-line, routing them to his jury-rigged command console, and setting up alarms to warn him of approaching ships. He even managed an uplink to two of the ship’s surviving satellites to boost the range.

But nothing had set them off in a week. He floated in his dark prison deep in space, accompanied by a backdrop of stars and glowing nebula.

He had made other minor repairs, trying to get as many ship’s functions back on-line as possible. Some proved beyond his skills, or beyond repair, but he had done well. He fancied that if he had engines, he might even have been able to set the ship on a course towards…

…he couldn’t remember.

Which was fine. Ship’s navigation was one of the systems that had proved irreparable, and he was not trained in piloting a starship blind. He wasn’t even sure it could be done.

What? Point at the nearest star and start the engines? He had chuckled and stopped himself when he realized how desperate it sounded echoing through the empty spaces and corridors of the ship. The laughter of mad ghosts.

He stood before the panel that handled ship’s functions normally routed to the bridge — those still on-line, at least. Like communications. The reality of the moment struck him as the sensor-warning shrilled again.

He tried to shake off the last confusion of dreams and focus on what the readouts were telling him. A response to his automated distress message?

He punched a few commands into the flickering console, read the limited information available to him, and watched as a holo-video flickered to life in the air before him and contact was established with the other ship’s Comm.

Another ship’s bridge floated in vivid color in the air before him, a clean, ordered world of light and color amid the shadowy chaos of his own ship’s main engineering compartment. A world populated by living men, and then the view adjusted itself to center the other ship’s captain.

“Oh my gods,” he whispered and nearly broke down into sobs as he realized he was about to be rescued from the half-life he had been living since awakening on the bridge what seemed ages ago, “I thought I’d never see another living soul again…”

Yet for a brief moment amid his joy, he wondered if he had not gone mad and was only talking to ghosts in his head.

Ensign Valla had been given the duty of talking to the survivor, keeping him company while the older officers made ready to send a rescue team in for him.

The captain called out preparatory orders, through the message-relay attached to her ear she could faintly hear the whispery voice of the Comm issuing those directives to various quarters elsewhere on the ship.

Weapon systems ready. Shield generators prepared. Tactical Maneuvering Engines on-line. Defense crews standing by. Decks five and seven life support systems redirected to minimal. Power redirect to sensors…

And on.

The captain was preparing for an ambush. He wasn’t going to be caught unawares out here in the void wilderness by some elaborate Vora trap.

“You’re alone? No one else made it?” was the first thing she asked Lieutenant Sorovi, knowing she sounded incredulous.

“Yes. You can’t imagine how good it is to see more than the ghosts walking around this ship,” he laughed, his pale face gleaming too-white in the flatpanel display on her console.

The main holographic projectors were busy displaying the wrecked hulk and surrounding nebular space in fully rotating 3-D for the captain and bridge crew behind her.

Across the bridge, the science officer addressed the captain, “I still don’t understand why we aren’t picking up his life-signs. And the computers report no atmosphere, either. I’ve run the complete scan three times.”

“Comm reports no known sensor malfunctions or local events that would cause misreadings,” someone else added.

Lieutenant Sorovi couldn’t hear the bridge chatter, though the captain had asked him about the odd readings a few minutes ago. He had responded, “With all due respect, sir, I’m obviously alive and breathing.”

“How long have you been over there, did you say?” she asked him, her job to keep him talking and comfortable…and to search for any signs of duplicity, any hints this was an elaborate ploy to get them to drop their defenses.

“A couple weeks, I think. It’s hard to keep track of time. Most ship’s functions are down, and the chronometer wasn’t a priority,” he shrugged, the flatpanel’s visual output blurring slightly in response, “I’m counting sleep cycles.”

She smiled, “I understand.”

“I’m looking forward to a hot bath and real food.”

She laughed, “I’ll bet. You look pretty rough from here, sir.”

She checked one of the displays to her side, “The retrieval ship has just launched, sir. You said you’re in…”

“Main engineering. I would meet them at an airlock, but,” he shrugged again, apologetically, “They’ve got a survival suit for me?”

She nodded, then added vocal confirmation for completeness, “Yes.”

The scan had revealed none of the airlocks were in shape to allow docking, those that still remained, at least. The marines were going to EVA and force an exposed hatch, then seal it to create a “dirty dock”.

She listened to Search & Rescue’s progress and continued to chat with Sorovi. Little meaningless details, what he had done for the weeks he had been on the ship, if he recalled anything from before the battle, how the rescue effort was progressing.

As the rescue shuttle parsed the void between the vessels, the tension on the bridge behind her was palpable. The captain kept double-checking the tactical scans, and the officer he kept taking the job from didn’t seem to mind. Still no atmosphere readings, still no life signs on the scan.

She found she liked Lieutenant Sorovi, he was personable and friendly, and she did not feel he was misleading them. So she tried to keep his mind off the dangers involved in survivor retrieval missions. She chatted with him about her mother for a few moments, but of course he couldn’t recall his.

“…Ok, sir, they’re docking. They should be there in a few moments,” she smiled, the console fuzzed up a bit, some sort of background interference, and she lost whatever it was he had said.

“Sorry, could you repeat that?”

“I said not to worry, I’m not going anywhere,” Sorovi laughed, a bit tensely but she could understand that. “Still receiving those strange sensor readings?”

She nodded, the marine chatter filtering through the message relay. She turned it up a bit.

“…No atmo at all…Damn, look at this place!..What the fuck hit this ship?..Ugh, corpses. Floaters…This one’s cooked good. Bee-Bee-Que!…Keep it professional, soldier!……Ok, we’re safely past the first bulkhead. Still no atmo……What a mess……Approaching engineering. What you got, Sanch?…Still no life readings, sir. What the hell?……Get that door open…Sir, that’s main engineering, we’ll blow any atmo into space if we do that…”

She could hear them getting edgy, stress creeping into their voices as they made the long trek into the broken bowels of the ship.

“Can’t wait…get…here,” Sorovi’s voice crackled to her across growing static. She frowned and adjusted the feeds to compensate, the flatpanel cleared back up, “What’s taking them so long?”

“They’ve encountered a problem,” she considered if she should tell him, “There’s no atmosphere in the corridor. If they open the door, engineering will decompress.”

“And me along with it,” he swore; the first time she had heard him do so. “How’d that happen? They should have had atmosphere all the way here. Did they screw up one of the seals at dock?”

Evidently the captain had the same thought, and she heard the marine commander answer, “…No, captain, there was no decom when we cam through. Nothing but space the whole way. And there’s no way we could have lost that much atmo with some kind of leak, not this quick. Right, Sanch? Sill no grav, either. Yeah. I don’t know, captain…”

More static. She reported it this time, “Captain, I’m getting a lot of intermittent static here.”

Sorovi talked to her, or maybe the captain, she was half-listening, “I’m going to tie myself down. If they just crack the door enough to shove the…most…th…atmo…sho……I’ll suit…Unh, ensign? Valla?”

“Sorry, lots of static, here,” she said and tried to smile at his blurred features on the flatpanel.

The science officer read his instruments and assuaged the unspoken fears, “It’s nothing unusual, sir. A combination of natural disturbances from the nebula out there and the damage to Fionn’s systems.”

The captain was talking to the marines, “Did you catch all that? Yes, Lieutenant Sorovi’s right, do that.”

A pause.

“…Package is ready. Cracking the door now, captain…”

Ensign Valla’s screen washed white in static, and whatever Lieutenant Sorovi said was lost in the jumble. She couldn’t bring it back.

Through the message relay on S&R’s channels, you could hear a slight hiss of atmosphere escaping, some forgotten dredge of life sealed up inside the chamber’s bulk finally freed into the void of interstellar space, but nowhere near the storm of escaping pressure that should have occurred if the whole chamber had been filled.

A tense moment passed as static raged on the main feed, and without being ordered, Ensign Valla switched her visuals to the camera feed from the S&R marines. The starkly white face of Lieutenant Sorovi resolved itself, floating, twisted up amid a loose bundle of cable and other detritus…vacuum-wracked and long dead.

On the bridge, Valla cried out in horror. No one reprimanded her.

The S&R marines, safe from the void in their vacuum-sealed armor brought weapons to bear and got the hell out of there the minute it was obvious there were no survivors, hut-huting and checking sixes and twelves all the way back to the rescue shuttle.

Meanwhile, the whole bridge went on red alert and defense crews were scrambled to man battle stations. Active scanners started pinging the surrounding void like crazy, feeding empty information back to sweating crewmen. On the Fionn, the shuttle broke docking seal and burned its thrusters all the way back home.

But nothing happened. No ships with odd alien-lines struck out from the black void, no ambush occurred, no non-human presence was discovered in the vicinity.

The whole mission was reviewed, carefully and painstakingly, while the ship stayed on amber alert, unflinchingly wide-eyed towards every corner of the space around them. Defense crews rotated through exhausting shifts. Scouts and strikers were sent out on nervous recon.

The Comm pulled records from the Colonial database and matched the lieutenant to the Fionn; he was a real officer aboard that lost ship, the weapons officer for the bridge crew, exactly as he had said. But all the verification, and the accompanying data, only added to the questions.

“All I can tell you, captain, is that we didn’t kill him. There was no decompression when we cracked that door open,” the marine commander ran a hand over the top of his shaved head, staring at the flickering 3-D vid footage replaying across the briefing table, “And look at him. He’s been dead…well, I don’t rightly know. But he’s been vac’d for a long time. So…a lot longer than the minutes we’re talking about if we had cracked a seal.”

The Comm itself suggested, “A damaged Comm taking on the personality of one of the crew members? Comms can do strange things when they’re badly damaged enough. Shall I bring up the data on the Nosferatsu and Rotschrek incidents in Vega?”

A complete sweep of the Fionn’s working computer systems and the various satellites by nervous, heavily armed Data Retrieval Units awash in thoughts of Vora traps and the Rotschrek massacre revealed no program or system complex enough to have perpetuated such a hoax, no alien code or technology, among other disturbing details.

Theories were advanced, but nothing stuck. Each was an attempt to wrap scientific logic around the impossible events, each became more wild than the last to make up for the holes in the previous as new data was added to the situation.

“Sir, the Comm over there is down and completely non-functional. Retrieval also reports heavy damage to numerous other systems: there’s no heat, no gravity, no life support functionality at all. It all went down in the attack and stayed down.”

“Medical says our floater was killed by a plasma burst during the attack — Vora tech signature — and data retrieval confirms the lieutenant was on the bridge when it went up…unh, so how’d his body get to engineering? Floated? Through sealed bulkheads?”

They had tried to contact “Lieutenant Sorovi” again, without success. The other ship was deathly silent. The sensors still reported no atmosphere, no life signs.

“Listen, I don’t know how to say this, but the communications over there are out…they’re gone. You’d have to run wire for weeks to get them back up. Unh, what I’m saying is that there is no way we should have been able to talk to Sorovi, or whatever that was. So where the hell did that signal come from?”

Logs of sensor data were processed and reprocessed by eyes both human and electronic. No scan picked up the presence of anomalies that might have accounted for…whatever it had been. There was simply no easy explanation for what had happened, nothing everyone would accept. Nothing rational, nothing explainable.

“A ghost? Are you telling me we were talking to a fucking ghost who died in some battle with the Vora twelve years ago? I won’t accept that.”

There was a lot of talk, a lot of anger, but no answers. The official report stated the message was an abandoned trap left over from the war’s end, when the Vora had inexplicably vanished. It had been produced and sent by “unknown methods.” There was no real data to support that conclusion.

Ensign Valla’s personal log recorded, “I can not believe he wasn’t real…he was vibrant, alive! He talked about his mother! He was scared and hungry and he was on that ship. I could have reached through that screen and touched him…I can’t help wondering if he’s still out there, waiting for us to rescue him…”

Ten weeks after the derelict was left behind, its position reported through sub-neutrino channels to Colonial Republic Command, the hulk was burned out of the sky by a wreck-ship that decided (unofficially) it was “too damn creepy to salvage”, its atoms sent to rejoin the cosmic dust floating on winds of light and gravity.

Copyright (c)2006-2007 Raven Daegmorgan
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