Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#32



"Solar One, Please Respond"

(Part 2)

By Jeffrey Blair Latta


The cargo is jettisoned, all billion credits worth. You watch it go, along with your career. The transpellor bundle is fired. Eight hours later, the Syngnathus arrives on the other side of the dark matter congregate, arrives hopefully a few minutes ahead of the Solar One.

You can see the dazzling blue sun of Omicron Leo, a welcome break in the dark monotony of your voyage. Dimly, in the back of your mind, it occurs to you that this chase has led you far out onto the Doppler Brink. That was where the Solar One was supposed to be doing her research when you found her so far off course. You wonder what it means.

But then you think about that final message and you know it doesn't matter. You have to be here. Even if it means your career, you have no choice. And suddenly, you wonder if that doesn't explain everything. Had it been anyone else, they would have turned back long ago. You had no choice. You heard the signal. The signal was meant for you...

"Elizabeth?"

"Interference from Omicron Leo is affecting our teletacts, but calculations indicate the Solar One should come out of the congregate in exactly thirty seconds, Robert Toynbee."

"All right, everyone ready. We'll only have one shot at this. I want interdiction fields activated the moment we have visual. First we slow her down, then grapples, got it?"

The countdown begins, the Alpha Ambulate doing the honours. She reaches ten...nine...eight...

You touch the brim of your cap, unconsciously straightening it.

...seven...six...five...

A door opens and Barrister appears in the control gondola, up high on the landing to the lift. His gaze goes to the forward shrouds where the image is displayed of the dark matter congregate partly occluding the bright glare of Omicron Leo.

...four...three...two...

Elizabeth stops. Everyone except the Alpha Ambulate holds their breaths. All eyes stare at the black cloud, waiting, waiting...

The deadline passes and nothing appears. There is no sign of the Solar One. Mystified, you look to Elizabeth for an explanation.

"I am at a loss, Robert Toynbee. Perhaps the Solar One altered course."

Anne suggests, "Maybe they figured out what our plan was. They could have --"

"Skipper!" On the quarterdeck, the range officer looks up. "I've got the Solar One on far marker teletacts."

"Where?"

"Just disappearing behind the limb of the first planet in the Omicron Leo system."

All eyes shift to the bright sun. You frown, baffled, your voice barely audible. "But that's not possible. No ship could move that fast."

For the first time, you feel a strange crawling sense of almost superstitious unease. It's simply not possible.

"Signal was definite, Skipper. It was the Solar One, all right. It's hidden behind the planet now, but I'd swear to it."

"Sailing master, take us into the system."

"Si, Skipper. As you say."

Only a short time later, you find yourself orbiting a blue-white globe, the glare of the sun nearly overpowering the imaging shrouds. Still no sign of the Solar One. Is it hiding from you, using the planet like a child playing hide and seek?

"Skipper, something on the planetary surface."

Surprised, you descend from the poop deck and look over the range officer's shoulder at the screen.

"People," you say, startled and confused at the same time. Then, louder, "There are people down there..."

***
The EVA detail finds them huddled in a cave. There are twenty of them and they are nearly dead from cold and hunger. Another day and it would have been too late.

Only one crewman, it turns out, has Karsilov's Encephalitis, and he has been kept quarantined. He is only in the disease's second stage, and, with the didroxine twelve, will almost certainly recover.

Among the crew, in spite of his condition, you recognize Captain Jessup, commander of the Solar One expedition. From him, you hear the story.

A reactor explosion damaged the transpellors on the Solar One, breaching the hull and forcing a total evacuation to the planet's surface. The food ran out after a month. They had practically given up hope. The automatic beacon was damaged on the Solar One and a volunteer stayed in orbit dressed in an environment suit to key the distress signal by hand. But, of course, no one had expected a rescue. It was a miracle anyone had heard -- way out here on the Brink? -- a bloody miracle.

While waiting for the pinnace to return after ferrying the survivors to the Syngnathus, you stand with Clive in the mouth of the cave. The wind moans eerily, catching at the paper in her hand. She has to hold down her cap with the other hand.

"Robert," she asks, "call me stupid, but, that final message, what did it mean? 'Rob Roy?' What sort of a crazy message is that?"

"It was what my sister used to call me." Your voice is so quiet it barely carries over the wind. You avoid her eyes. "It was her nickname for me."

"Your sister?"

And then you tell Clive what the captain told you.

The Solar One was badly damaged, her transpellors non-functional, her automatic beacon destroyed. One crewman volunteered to stay aboard to key in the distress signal by hand. One crewman. But, without engines, the orbit steadily decayed.

"Another man would have turned back long ago," you tell Clive softly, although you are really speaking to yourself. "She knew that only I would come this far. She knew it had to be me." For a moment, you are silent, then: "Solar One and Ensign Sarah Toynbee burned up in the atmosphere two weeks ago..."

The End.

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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!)