Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#32



"Solar One, Please Respond"

By Jeffrey Blair Latta

In deep space, the Wingboat Syngnathus answers a call for help...but do the victims want to be saved?


It begins with a cry for help.

From out of the whispering depths of space it comes, an SOS, the simplest code devised by the Deep Sky alliance. Close cousin to the older Morse code, it comprises mere dots and dashes barely hinting at a greater drama behind. But you don't need to know more. That it is a call for assistance is enough.

As skipper and master of the Deep Sky Wingboat Syngnathus you receive the news with the sternly cloaking reserve which has always been your hallmark. You listen impassively as the signals officer explains. The signal was weak, he tells you, barely detectable even at maximum gain. There was no ID attached, so no way to determine the source. It could be anything, or anyone.

You listen, and while you listen you think about the cargo you are carrying: a billion credits worth of mining equipment enroute for the digs of Alpha Capricorn seven. Expensive equipment, yes, but, worse, there is a time factor involved. Already you are a day behind schedule. The stock market never sleeps. Further delay could cost the mining consortium trillions more. That, in turn, will hurt you. In the long run, it could hurt you badly.

Just the same, you listen without saying a word, hearing the signals officer out. Then, when he is done, you are silent a moment, pensively weighing your options, even as you know there are no options. Not for you.

"Skipper?" The bo'sun, Anne Clive, is waiting for your response. A look of concern furrows her aging brow. Abruptly, you turn and adjust your peaked cap, smartly.

"Sailing master, alter course. We'll check it out."

Clive exhales in relief, the ghost of a smile touching her thin lips. Garcia, the sailing master, nods sharply, himself evidently relieved. "Si, Skipper. As you say." He scrambles down the companionway to the quarterdeck where the main control crew works busily, arrayed at their computer stations along both sides of the deck. You are left alone up here on the poop deck with Anne.

For a moment, you lift your eyes and look up. Overhead, the vaulted ceiling of the long cavernous control gondola seems open to the cold vacuum of space. It is an illusion, of course, mere images displayed on the shrouds. Just the same, the effect is breathtaking. You can see the stars up there, hard and bright like shards of glass.

You can see the vast boomerang shape of the Starwing looming against those stars, and, when you look to either side, you can see the port and starboard personnel gondolas, each strung from the Starwing in a cat's cradle of struts and girders, the whole beaded with lights like sparkling morning dew on a spiderweb.

Beautiful.

"For a moment there, I thought..."

"I know what you thought, Anne. But our orders are clear enough. We have to answer any and all distress signals. No exceptions."

"Oh, I know that, and you know that," Clive comments bitterly, "but does he know that?"

"He isn't master of this Wingboat."

Clive says nothing -- which says it all.

***
Seven hours later, a contact is detected.

"What have you got?" You are in your great cabin, seated behind your desk. The voice of your Alpha Ambulate, Elizabeth, comes through the speaking tube, calm and measured, as perfect as science can make her.

"We're not sure yet, Robert Toynbee. From the profile, it would appear to be some sort of research vessel -- perhaps, Pericles Class. We should know more in a few seconds." There is a pause, then: "Affirmative, definitely Pericles Class. We are receiving a response from her Identisponder now. She codes as..." Another pause. You find yourself holding your breath. "She is the Solar One."

"Solar One?" The surprise in your voice must be evident even through the tube.

"You are familiar with her?"

You start to respond, then catch yourself. Some instinct tells you you shouldn't say too much. "She's suppose to be on a research mission out on the Doppler Brink. What's she doing way out here?"

"Unknown, but she is definitely the source of the distress signal."

"Is she still transmitting?"

"Yes."

"All right." You switch the tube to the poop deck. Midori, the quartermaster, answers. "Quartermaster, hail the ship."

"I've already tried, Skipper. They aren't responding."

You frown, chewing thoughtfully at your lip. "Are we close enough to scan them?"

"Not yet."

"Is the signal an automatic beacon? Maybe they're injured and can't respond."

"No, sir. I already thought of that. The signal exhibits random temporal anomalies. It's being keyed by hand."

Stranger and stranger. "All right. Instruct Garcia to take us in and inform me when we're alongside. Prepare an EVA detail and prep a surgical ambulate --"

"Skipper!" The shock in Midori's voice makes you jump.

"Quartermaster?"

"The ship has just fired its transpellor bundle. They're accelerate to cruising speed."

For a moment, you don't know what to say. You are caught off guard. "Accelerating? To what heading?"

"Away from us, Skipper. The ship is running away."

***
"And just what in hell do you think you're doing, Captain Toynbee?" The man's name is Roger Barrister. He is aboard to represent the interests of the consortium. He is doing a fine job.

Tightly you reply, "We are doing precisely what we are supposed to do, Mr. Barrister. We are investigating a distress signal."

He gestures suddenly, one hand leaping almost spastically. "Like hell! If that ship needs help why is it running away, tell me that? We've been following that damn thing for two days and we're still no closer than we were at the start. Investigating a distress call doesn't include chasing the distressed ship halfway across the galaxy!"

"As master of the Syngnathus, it is my responsibility and --"

"Need I remind you that you are temporarily placed under the control of the consortium? Your orders are to deliver your cargo to Alpha Capricorn seven, full stop. Now, I don't know what sort of game these people are playing at, but I do know that you are already behind schedule and this wild goose chase is merely causing further delay. I am ordering you to break off this ridiculous chase and return to your original course -- as quickly as possible."

Besides yourself and Mr. Barrister, Anne and Elizabeth are also with you in the great cabin. Elizabeth, of course, observes the heated exchange impassively; Anne is less contained. You can hear her teeth grinding.

Before you can respond, the tube beeps. "Midori?"

"Yes, Skipper. Thought you should be informed. We just received a coded message interjected into the SOS."

"A message?"

"One word. 'Prepare.' That's all, Skipper."

"It didn't repeat?"

"No, sir. Just the one word and just the once. 'Prepare'."

"All right." You fix on Barrister, your eyes narrow. He seems to flinch just a little under that gaze. It gives you some small satisfaction. "Mr. Barrister, I am well aware that we are behind schedule, but I also know that there may be injured people aboard that ship. I don't know why they are running away, but I intend to catch them and find out. And while you may represent the consortium, you do not have the power to override my commands. For the record, I will make note of your objections. You may go now."

For a moment, Barrister seems about to explode, but then, with a furious snarl, he wheels and storms out. There is a brief pause, then Elizabeth speaks, guardedly: "Robert Toynbee, I could not help but take notice. The crew roster for the Solar One includes an Ensign Sarah Toynbee."

Her eyes are a startling emerald, the only clue that she is not a living creature. You find yourself avoiding those eyes, dropping your own, then turning away to stare at the starchart on the wall. "That's right, Elizabeth. My sister is serving on the Solar One. She's twelve years younger than me."

That last part is a pointless addition, but you felt you had to say something else. Anything else. Anne inhales sharply.

"Wonderful. If Barrister finds out, you know what he'll think."

"Frankly, bo'sun, I don't care what Mr. Barrister thinks." Her eyes widen in surprise, startled by your sharp tone. You control yourself quickly, but it makes little difference. The damage is done. "Whether my sister is aboard that craft or not, it makes no difference. They're still sending a distress signal. We'll follow them and catch them, understood?"

Anne barely nods. Her eyes are studying you, and you pretend not to notice. To Elizabeth you say, "What about that message. Any ideas?"

"Prepare." The Alpha Ambulate considers the word a moment, then shrugs. "I suppose the question we should be asking ourselves is -- prepare for what?"

***
The chase goes on for three more days. Barrister is right on one point: you aren't any closer than you were at the start. The Solar One is too damn fast. Even a top-rated vessel like the Syngnathus can barely keep pace. You haven't a hope in hell of catching her, not until her pile decays -- and that won't happen for another thirty thousand years.

Again and again, you fling your plea out into the void. "Solar One, please respond. Solar One, please respond." It does no good. The chase drags on and on. The silence is eerie. Nerves begin to fray. There must be a way to catch up, you' re sure of it. But how? How?

And then comes the second message -- or rather the completion to the first.

"Prepare didroxine twelve." The way Elizabeth says it, it could mean anything. But that's as much an illusion as she is. You both know what it does mean, and you aren't surprised when, moments later, Barrister bursts into the great cabin, his features positively blazing with vindication. "I just heard about the second message, Captain! You know what this means."

"I know what it might mean."

"Oh, come on! Didroxine twelve is used for only one thing, to treat Karsilov's Encephalitis. That ship's a plague ship and you know it!"

"Mr. Barrister --"

"Now, look here, Captain. We all know that the end stage of Karsilov's Encephalitis includes insanity. Further, we know that, once that stage has been reached, it is already too late. I can't think of a better indication of insanity that a ship that calls for help and runs away when help arrives, can you?"

"And what do you want me to do? Abandon them? Maybe you're right, maybe it is already too late. But we still have to try."

"Someone has to try, Captain -- someone qualified to deal with this sort of thing. You have your mission. Send for help, and let someone else deal with this."

He is breathing fast when he stops, like a long distance runner. There is such certainty in his eyes. For a moment, you are no longer sure. What should you do? He's right, you know that he is. Everything about this suggests the crew of the Solar One has gone insane. If so, it must already be too late to save them.

But then you think of Sarah. You know you lied before. It does make a difference, knowing she's aboard. It makes all the difference in the world.

"I have already made my position clear, Mr. Barrister. We shall continue as we are."

You see the sudden change in his expression, the squinting of the eyes. It doesn't bode well. He has something up his sleeve. But, again, without a word, he turns and storms out.

Anne waits until the door closes before she speaks. "Do you think that's it?" she asks quietly. "Do you think that's why they're running away? Because they've all gone insane?"

You take off your cap and toss it on the desk, angrily. "I don't know, Anne. I really don't know what to think."

After a moment, the bo'sun adds: "And what about Sarah?"

It doesn't warrant a response.

***
Not surprisingly, it is Elizabeth who comes up with a solution. Of course, unwittingly, the Alpha Ambulate thereby puts your career on the line.

Another two days have passed, and still you are no closer to catching the Solar One. There has still been no response to your hail, merely that unending SOS, a signal incessantly keyed by human hand, according to Midori. All this time, tapping that message again and again -- why don't they answer?

And why are they running away?

"Explain it to me again, Elizabeth." Once more, you have gathered in the great cabin, Elizabeth, Garcia, Clive and yourself. The four of you are arrayed around the chart table, the low-lighting casting weird shadows on your faces.

Elizabeth gestures to the chart on the wall. "So far, the Solar One has not altered her course. If she continues on this heading, she will pass just outside the Omicron Leo system. Now, as you can see on the chart, she will also have to pass directly through this dark matter congregate, a diffuse dark matter nebula orbiting Omicron Leo. The matter found in the congregate is very diffuse, a better vacuum than we could achieve on earth. But density is velocity-relative. At space cruising speed, even such a low density produces an appreciable drag on a spacecraft. My suggestion, then, is this. If we alter course within the next half hour, we can curve around the congregate and meet the Solar One coming out the other side. Our path will be longer, but, because the Solar One will lose speed in the congregate, the effect will be to allow us to catch up." She pauses, then drops the bomb. "There is just one problem with my solution."

"Problem?"

"We will be following a curved trajectory, and so firing our transpellors the whole way. We do not have the fuel to complete the manoeuvre at our present mass. It will therefore be necessary to jettison our cargo."

A voice interrupts, like a gunshot out of a dark night.

"You will do no such thing."

It is Mr. Barrister. You did not even hear him enter, but he has obviously been listening the whole time. Something in his expression, a new air of confidence, fills you with sick foreboding. He strides forward and flings out a hand almost in your face. In the hand is a sheet of paper. You take it and read. After a moment, you pass it to Clive, your features grave.

"That's right, Captain. I sent a priority message to the Deep Sky Flotilla, relayed through the Deep Net. That order comes from the Captain-General himself. You are instructed to break off pursuit of the Solar One and continue on your original mission -- no alternatives. There is nothing more anyone can do for them."

For a moment, you don't trust yourself to speak. Then, quietly: "What if there are some who aren't sick?"

"Captain," his tone is suddenly conciliatory -- a note which serves only to make your skin crawl, "did you think I wouldn't notice? I saw the personnel roster. I know your sister is aboard the Solar One. I told the Captain-General as much. That's precisely why you are not the man to be making this decision. You are too close to the thing. You can't be expected to think rationally. As you can see, the Captain-General concurs." Then, in a loathsomely consoling voice: "Captain, the fact that they're running away shows that it is already too late. They have gone mad. There's nothing anyone can do for them...or her."

Again, the silence stretches interminably. Gently, Anne sets the paper on the table. You look at it as if hoping it will go away, but it doesn't. You can't desert Sarah. You just can't.

"Elizabeth."

"Yes, Robert Toynbee?"

"There is no way to carry out this manoeuvre without jettisoning the cargo?"

"None. And it must be done within the next twenty five minutes or it will be too late."

Barrister's eyes flare in disbelief. "I don't believe this! Are you mad? That order is from the Captain-General. You disobey it and it will mean your career, do you understand that? You'll never master another ship as long as you live."

"Robert..." Anne starts to speak, and, by her tone, you know what she is about to say. But, just then, your steward enters. He doesn't seem to notice the tension in the air, passing blithely though it like a ship cutting a fog. Smartly he hands you a sheet of paper.

"Another message from the Solar One, Skipper. Just came through."

Turning on his heels, he exits, while you unfold the paper and read.

You exhale, your decision suddenly made.

"Bo'sun, jettison the cargo. Garcia, prepare to implement Elizabeth's plan."

"Captain!"

"Mr. Barrister." Your voice is flint. "I am still master of the Syngnathus and I expect you to remember that. If you cannot, the sergeant-at-arms will explain it to you -- am I understood?"

Barrister sputters, his face red, but he doesn't say anything -- which is an improvement of sorts. After a moment, he leaves and Anne takes the paper from your hand. She reads it, then looks at you mystified. You don't bother to explain.

Not yet...

Part 2: Conclusion








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"Solar One, Please Respond" is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)