Ships to new lands

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


 

It was towards the end of the 3rd shift of that sol when a warning went off on Navigation Officer, Julie Wu’s terminal. An error had appeared in an old patch in the navigation system that had been updated only a couple of decades ago. As it had been nearly sixty years since they’d left what could be called the Solar System, and a full decade since they’d had any communication from Earth, they’d had to patch most of the software themselves. After Julie had sifted through the reams of code, tracking down the error, she’d discovered that one of the stars the system used for position fixing had disappeared.

She ran and re-ran the code several times before giving up. There was no way a star could just disappear like that. She wrote a note for Mohammad to run a full check on the sensors in his next shift, and maybe reboot the system. It wasn’t a major issue because the system used as many as 100 stars for its navigation but it was still frustrating. By the time Julie's next shift had come round, the problem still hadn’t gone away, and Siddharth had caught her in the cramped, angular gangway.

“Mo, told me about your missing star off the stern. I couldn’t find it either but you should just move the coordinates,” he shrugged, the movement of his shoulders barely visible in his bulky pressure suit. “Problem solved.”

Julie sat down at her terminal and punched in some coordinates that one of the astronomers had sent her for a back-up. She shifted uncomfortably for forty-five minutes, fiddling with some trajectories before getting frustrated enough to scratch her itch.

“Screw it,” she said, her voice loud in the quiet room. She could never just leave stuff unfinished.

She tapped on the keyboard and found the coordinates for the missing star and copied them in, allowing the macro lens to slew towards the point. Maybe the astronomers had missed a supernova and forgot to mention it to her. They would’ve been too focused on Proxima Centauri, despite the Generation Ship still having two hundred years plus before it was anywhere near landfall.

And there it was. A gap. A hole where there should’ve been a star. She clicked, taking a few images, and sent them through the internal system to the Astro-guys, tagging it as urgent, but she didn’t expect them to respond on her shift. She made sure that the Chief knew about it and maybe they’d work it out.

-

A few sols later, she heard a tap on the hatch and the Chief stooped and stepped through the hole. The Chief was a thin ageing man, one of the first generation born on-board the ship.

“Your missing star,” he began, voice papery thin, “we think we know what’s happened to it.”

“It’s not mine but continue,” Julie replied.

“We had the Astro-guys keep an eye on it, they were surprised that they’d missed a supernova so spent some time looking for some of the records.” Julie had noticed that the Chief hadn’t taken the empty chair and was fidgeting with a zip on his pressure suit. “This is strictly ‘need to know’, we do not want this finding its way into the rest of the ship but we think there might be something between us and the star.”

“Something blocking the star? What, like an asteroid on a similar path to us? Or a Dyson ring or something?” Julie was confused, none of that made any sense.

“I’m not at liberty to say right now, Wu. The Astro guys have been running through ideas for the last few hours and I’ve just received a command to come to the Bridge.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Well, you found it, so the Captain wants to see you too.”

--

It took the routine twenty minutes to work their way through the ship’s transit tubes, making their way to the Bridge. They had just managed to avoid the shift change so most of the corridors were relatively empty of people. As they disembarked the Drum and were hit by the usual disorientation as they left standard g, they hurried through the ship, free-falling through the hard, gun-metal gangways, propelling themselves as fast as they could go.

There was a press of floating bodies just outside the Bridge as some sort of general assembly had been called by the great and the good of the ship. Julie recognised several of the officers hovering around the entrance, having done basic with them several years before. She nodded to them and was about to spark up conversation when the Chief dragged her past, making the group split in two. They glided past and into the Bridge.

“... several times but there has been no response,” said Captain Nyugen to someone in a shirt and tie, hovering close by, hair splayed out around their head in civilian fashion. “We believe that the unknown ship will take almost a day to reach us but this is based on some very shaky assumptions so estimates vary greatly,” the Captain finished, her greying hair pulled back tightly into a bun.

“Ok, so we don’t know what it is, who’s inside or what its intentions are. What do we know?” The Councillor smoothed down his tie against his chest, trying to keep the illusion of professionalism in zero g.

“Precious little, Councillor Brooks. We’ve tried to hail the ship but there’s been no response. It’s like a black hole. It doesn’t appear on thermal scans, which is beyond any technology we’ve ever seen,” she gestured towards the screen showing a starry sky with a very small black gap in the middle. “We can get a rough estimate of its size and speed, judging by the delta of how many stars it’s obscured and in what time. Other than that, we’re in the dark.”

“Ok, assuming it's a friendly ship, what do we do?”

“We continue to hail, transmitting in as many languages as we have on-board and possibly some binary code, to see if it’s something more extra...ordinary than we initially thought.”

Julie looked around at the other faces around her, half a smile on her face, trying to work out if that was a joke but everyone around her was looking at the Captain, stony faced.

“Is that a joke Captain?” The councillor said, eyes wide. Clearly someone was on Julie's wavelength.

The Captain slowly shook her head, eyes never leaving the Councillors.

“It’s highly unlikely but we’re very much in uncharted territory here, both literally and metaphorically. It’s been well over a decade since we’ve heard anything from the Solar System and this thing is unlike anything that we ever saw back there.

“And if it’s not friendly? What then?”

“Well, from the possible trajectories that we’ve plotted for the ship, most of them bring it within 10km of us. And as I said earlier, that should be within the next 24 hours.”

“What about if we change course?”

“Negative. I don’t have the authority to do that, I was elected to the Captaincy and we’d need to go through the Council first, it would take too long. But that doesn’t matter. Whatever that is, it’s clearly faster than us, and changing course would only delay the inevitable by a few hours.”

“So, what do we do?” The Councillor looked around from the Captain to First Mate and down the few ranks floating closer by. There were blank looks on their faces and they looked from one to another.

“At the end of the day,” the First Mate pushed gently forward off a console close by, “this ship is not designed for any form of warfare. We were designed to move a bunch of people over a vast distance over many, many, years.”

“So we’re defenceless?” the Councillor asked. Not a single person in the room moved, all ears straining to hear the response.

“Yes Sir, I’m afraid we are,” the First Mate looked down at his feet. An odd gesture given they were floating a foot off the floor of the Bridge. “We will prepare the maintenance crew to firefight any of the areas that get hit by anything. With the Council's say-so, we will evacuate that side of the ship and shut down as much life support as we need. Finally, we can keep trying to contact them, maybe their communications array has broken. We could try some more ancient techniques, lights and such. Maybe that will stimulate them.”

“Maybe we get out some flags…” someone called from the back. A chuckle rippled through the room. Julie sighed and could feel some of the tension lifting.

After that, some orders were given and most of the crew stuffed into the space dispersed, gliding away serenely through the passageways, chattering quietly to one another, all nervous at what was to come. They were all given express orders not to disperse this information to anyone that didn’t need to know until the Council released a statement ship-wide.

“Officer Wu. Here, please.”

Julie pushed off the wall towards the Captain and dragged her foot on the floor to bring herself to a stop. She looked up at the Captain and waited.

“Wu, I wanted to thank you for your persistence in this missing star matter. If it wasn’t for your tenacity, this thing wouldn’t have been spotted until it had taken up much more of the sky. You have given us much needed thinking time.” She looked down at Wu, a grim smile on her face. 

“Thank you Sir,”

“As a reward, I want you to work with the astronomers in the Science Department to see what else we can find out about this ship, they will need all the help they can get. Work out when the star went missing from your navigational software and try to understand where this ship came from.”

“Yes Sir,” Julie stood to attention in the only way zero g would allow and pointed herself towards the exit.

---

For Julie, the next few nervous hours were spent working on the Drum that made up the majority of the Generation Ship. The astronomers preferred to work in standard g, seemingly because they didn’t enjoy drinking hot drinks from pouches. Julie watched as the small group of physicists worked quickly in their cramped pre-fab office, located towards the bow of the Drum, sliding from one terminal to the next anxiously discussing various parameters that she was only dimly aware of. They had moaned about being woken up during their sleeping shift and had bloodshot eyes as they stared, bleary-eyed at their screens. 

“These guys are lucky,” Julie thought as she rubbed her temples, “some of us have been up for three shifts already,”

A graph of 20 possible trajectories had been plotted on the large screen at one end of the room and with each passing hour, lines had been removed until one remained.

“Do we have an agreement that they’re coming broadside to the port side of the ship?” Petr asked again, trying to cut over the competing voices in the room. It had become stuffy and the smell of stale sweat had mixed in with the smell of burnt dark coffee.

“Yes, but we need to confirm that it’s slowing down to match our speed,” a woman Julie didn’t know the name of was sipping something from a steaming mug, hair worked loose from her ponytail.

There was a loud bong by the screen and an image of a downward crescent over a trapezoid appeared on screen, signalling that the Bridge wanted a status report.

“Fuck,” someone muttered under their breath. “We don’t have anywhere near as much confidence as we’d like in these numbers. This is too early.”

Julie leant forward, her finger hovering over the green “accept” symbol on the intercom.

“Like it or not, you’re not going to get the confidence you want until that thing is alongside the ship. By then, it’s too late.” She then pressed down.

The large image of the First Mate appeared on screen, glasses pushed further up his nose than usual and much closer to the camera than he needed to be. There was a look of frenzied activity in the Bridge behind him and crew members flew past behind him at sporadic intervals. 

“The Captain wants a status report, what do you have for us?”

The astronomers looked at each other, avoiding the eyes of the First Mate. Julie cleared her throat and leant forward, realising why she’d really been sent here.

“Sir, we have identified that the ship will come broadside to our port and has already begun slowing down to match our speed. We can give you a projected path however these guys want me to let you know that they won’t be 100% accurate.” 

“Good work Wu. How long do we have?”

Julie looked expectantly at Petr, knowing it'd been him who had come up with an estimate. There was nowhere for him to hide and so he reluctantly shuffled forward.

“We estimate around 12 hours until it has matched our speed and is alongside,” he said nervously. He hadn’t seemed to have much experience in dealing with the ship’s crew.

“12 hours, ok.” The First Mate sighed heavily. “That gives us a lot of time to prepare for who knows what. Does it look like it's going to attack?”

Another astronomer stepped forward. Slowly, they were getting the hang of it.

“Well, at first we couldn’t make out a shape of the ship as it seems to absorb all IR energy, matching the surrounding environment but M. Garcia had the idea of shifting to the UV spectrum, which this...thing is definitely emitting in. We can guess from the signature that it’s roughly 5 km long and only 1 km wide, shaped like a cylinder. We’ve not been able to understand much of its structure but we can send you the images and maybe you can tell us?”

“I’m not sure but I believe we will have to evacuate the portside of the ship and prepare our maintenance crews.” The First Mate looked behind him and nodded to someone off-screen. “Thank you for your hard work, we will be in contact in another two hours to ask for any updates. Wu, please finish up your work and return to the Bridge.”

Julie gave a small wave to the astronomers and left the office without another word. As she left the room and breathed in the relatively fresh air, she heard the crackle of the seldom used ship-wide communication system. The last time there’d been something like this was when a rumour had spread through the ship that an asteroid was going to hit, when in reality, it barely came within an AU of it. The Ship Security had been in full force that night to stop any potential riots.

“This is your Captain speaking,” started the solemn voice of Nyugen. There was a pause and everyone around Julie stopped to look towards the nearest speaker, anticipation building. “Please could all passengers and non-emergency crew make their way to the Buckles in the central compartment of the Drum as quickly as possible. There will be a temporary shutdown of the Drum whilst power is diverted to other systems. Thank you for your cooperation.”

The chaos that ensued was bordering on embarrassing. Passengers were running around, grabbing their belongings as they made paths towards the central section of the Drum. Julie managed to work her way out of the crowd and before long had made her way to the transit tubes. 

----

Back at the Bridge, things were less chaotic but just as tense as she’d left it. The last ten or so hours of preparation had not done the crew any favours, with large sweat patches under arms and the air filters struggling to keep up with the smell. Several of the crew had begun to rely on the stims left over from the First Push, several decades out of date but apparently still working fine. 

“Ah, Wu,” the Captain had noticed Julie gliding through the hatch. “Thank you for keeping an eye on those guys, we knew they’d not give us an answer without caveats unless someone was there to steer them.”

Behind the Captain, Julie could see screens with sites for possible areas hit by projectiles and lists of damage they could cause. She noticed Julie’s gaze and nodded grimly.

“Yes, we’ve been running simulations of possible areas of attack and how we can try and avoid the most damage. Most of the port side was quietly evacuated before the announcement and the life-support systems have been turned down to the lowest power setting.

The feed from an optical imager showed the black cylinder, getting closer but not visibly so. Time inched by, scratching away one fraction of the lead they had with each second. The crew watched with undivided attention as the Cylinder moved, each star disappearing behind it signalling a slight movement. 

“It looks like they’ll match our speed at 1 km distance from the hull. If I wasn’t so scared, I’d be impressed with their driving,” the helmsman grunted, a snort of laughter.

Another hour passed and the Cylinder was now parallel with them and it sat silently, menacingly coiled. It still hadn’t responded to any of the messages sent by the Comms Officer and the Captain was asking for almost continuous status updates.

“Sir, we have several Repair teams set up along the port side in pressure suits, ready to deal with any damage. Additionally, the Ship Security have several teams ready around the external maintenance hatches in case anything...else happens. They’re not trained for a situation like this but we have little choice.”

Julie raised a puzzled eyebrow towards the Captain and was ignored. Her hands ached as she realised they’d been clenched since she’d entered the Bridge. She unfurled her fists and allowed the blood to return to her tingling fingertips. 

“Excellent. Put their visuals on screens 3 and 4. I want an open communication with them at all times.”

The order was swiftly obeyed and it was the last thing to happen for roughly half an hour. They watched the video feed sway as the Repair teams got into position. The Captain nodded as she was informed that all non-essential crew were strapped up in the Drum and it had been powered down. 

“And now, we wait,” Julie thought to herself.

-----

Several things happened at once. The lights in the corridors where the Repair and Ship Security teams were placed, flickered and went out. The visuals from their video feed could still be seen, dark shapes moving about in the red emergency lighting. Panic spread through the Bridge and the Captain called for a report from the crews.

“Sir, I can’t get through. I think our comms are down,” came a terrified shout from the right-hand side of the Bridge.

“Quickly, reboot them. We’ve got to know what’s happening down there.” There was a slight fraying to the Captain's voice.

Julie watched everyone around her glide from console to console, pressing buttons and tapping through commands, trying to make sense of what was happening.

“Why were there still lights on the Bridge and not the service corridors?” Julie wondered.

“Captain, something’s happening on the Cylinder…”

All thoughts of the crew left in darkness in the bowels of the ship were forgotten and everyone's eyes turned towards the screen showing the Cylinder. Julie watched, almost pleased that it was finally doing something, a release of tension before the storm.

Two lights on the side of the Cylinder had ignited and focused towards a central point on the hull of this ship, out of view. Between the bright spots, a small strut had protruded and had accelerated towards the focal point of the lights, closing the kilometer distance with worrying speed. It disappeared from the view of the screen and the Captain spun round in the air.

“Find out where that is going and tell the Ship Security teams to head there now!” she shouted, her voice more shrill than Julie had ever heard it.

“Sir, we still have no form of comms.”

“Then send a fucking runner, that’s how they did it back when the Earth had seas!” the Captain shouted again, voice more under control this time. Julie watched as a Junior Officer sped out of the room at a dangerous speed.

“Sir, I think they’ve hacked our communications, we can’t even seem to contact the room next door,” came a shout from the left side of the Bridge this time.

“That’s probably what happened to the lights…” Julie said more to herself than anyone around her. “They wanted us to see it…”

It was the Captain's turn to give her a puzzled look and opened her mouth to say something.

Before she said a word, a loud crackle came from the ship-wide intercom and the crew instinctively paused their task to look up. There was silence for several seconds and a heavy guitar riff started playing loudly, followed by a war-like scream. The crew looked at each other in confusion. A high-pitched voice began to sing and the first words Julie could really make out were “hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands…”

“Will someone turn that off!” yelled the First Mate, trying to regain some level of professionalism on the Bridge.

Julie turned to see the entire crew, fast at work at their terminals, shouting to be heard over the music echoing through the ship. Her eyes snagged on the screen displaying the Repair team’s video feed. The red lighting was still there but the crew member must’ve stopped moving as the screen resolutely showed one of the external maintenance hatches.

“Where’s that hatch?” she asked but no one heard as the high-pitched voice screamed again. 

The hatch burst open, bright white light spilling around a figure dressed entirely in a black pressure suit with a black helmet. They took a lurching step forward and through the Repair crew camera, Julie could see what was in the figure's outstretched hands. Two things that she hadn’t seen since she was a child watching the 2D motion pictures from Earth, a chemical firearm and a broad sharp cutlass. The crew on the Bridge quietened to stare at the figure on the screen, the lyrics "We are your overlords," hung darkly in the air.

 


Submitted: May 14, 2021

© Copyright 2021 a j harrison. All rights reserved.

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