The Companion

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An explosion in space sets an engineering officer adrift, until picked up by a plague ship.

Submitted: November 20, 2007

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Submitted: November 20, 2007

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The Companion

by James Gagiikwe © 2007

Report to the Board of Inquiry: On the loss of the Stellar Thule

The element of space has always been more hostile than our technology can ever hope to cope with. And when things go wrong, then they do so with suddenness and finality. My name is Orn Valbring, and I was Engineering Officer aboard the frigate Stellar Thule.

*

We were in transit from Welland Prime to the Cerrex-1 system, to patrol for smugglers. I was alone aft, doing a routine system’s check in the auxiliary M2P2 generator compartment, when the explosion occurred. I didn’t hear the explosion - only felt it. Before I could open the door in the small enclosure the temperature rose sharply, and it felt like the breath was being ripped from my lungs. Then the lights failed.

After a few seconds the breathlessness stopped, the emergency lights came on and I dared open the door. I found the hallway smouldering from various small spot fires. I guessed that a fireball had swept through the area. I ran through the smoke towards my emergency station in the main engineering sector, but a wall of flames met me. I could only retreat before the growing fire. Then I realised that the fire klaxon and fire-suppression system were not operating.

My only option was the No.3 life-pod at the very stern of the ship. With main power out I had to open the airlock manually, a less than difficult task with my surging adrenalin. Hoping some other crewmen would make it I kept the life-pod hatch open until the fire reached the passageway. Then reluctantly I sealed the hatch and ran to the pod’s console to strap myself in. I activated the jettison mechanism and the life-pod was jolted from the frigate. I began to manoeuvre clear only to be thrown into cataleptic gyrations by the force of the frigate’s death throes.

When I regained consciousness the pod was tumbling slowly on its lateral axis. It took some time to obtain stability. Once that was accomplished I turned on the remote sensing array, hoping to locate another life-pod. No beacons came up on the screen, only a debris field expanding outward. Then I noticed that the indicator for my own locator beacon wasn’t operating. I tried the switch several times, without success. I checked the console for signs of damage to the pod, but no emergency lights were showing. A relief.

Undoing my belt I drifted out of the cubicle and surveyed the pod. Dust and some small litter floated around, but nothing was visibly damaged. Not that there is much in a pod to damage to begin with. The decor is a bit austere. This pod was built to carry ten crewmembers. Without Narco-Neuro hibernation the pod held food stocks for 1 season. And I… I was alone.

During the first week I developed routines, for maintenance, for eating, exercising, recreation, diarising, etc. I rationed the recreational and diversion therapy systems. I inventoried everything in the pod. I did checks and double checks, and checked again, on all systems. But I never did find the bug in the beacon. I think it was a dud to begin with.

Thirty-seven days is a long time to be marooned alone in space. If it weren’t for the Narco-Neuro chambers aboard, I would have gone space-happy quickly. As it is, I’m sure I’ve suffered some neurosis or other. So, there I was, with food and water for a lifetime, floating in space in a large no-frills tube, waiting for someone to bump into me.

* * *

Bump, indeed!

Because Narco-Neuro hibernation is not natural, the body can only take a limited amount. So, I was on a cycle, half a week hibernating, half a week on regular sleep. Besides, in weightlessness, it takes half a week just to get back into shape after that long a sleep. Just for a change I rostered myself a different chamber each session - Like I said, I think I became a little neurotic out there.

There is no navigation system in that type of life-pod, and no star charts. Just a short-range communicator, and an omni-directional remote sensing array with a minimal 100-kilometre search range. Not much. The distress beacon is supposed to bring help to you, so why navigate. Besides, there’s no propulsion unit, and the manoeuvring jets only have a limited life. So, how close, or far from our intended course I was after the final explosion, I had no way of telling, at the time. 37 days of drifting, waiting for someone to bump into me.

Something went ‘bump’ on day 38. I’d only been out of narco-induced sleep for a day, and was still a bit wobbly - can you be ‘wobbly’ in weightlessness, or just ‘floppy’? – when the remote sensing array started beeping. A large vessel had come into range, most probably a freighter I thought. I hoped it wasn’t one of the smugglers we had been patrolling for. On it’s recorded course it wouldn’t come within visual range. I tried the communicator on all emergency frequencies, but got no answer. My only hope was the effectiveness of their own proximity locater equipment, and the attitude of the crew.

Eventually, to my relief, the screen showed it altering its aspect as it changed course to intercept my drifting pod. It was a long wait, it seemed, until it hove into view. It was a Hyerdahl Class research ship. That meant a crew of 12 or more, real food instead of MRE’s, a doctor or two, room to swing a cat, and best of all, artificial gravity again.

I used up the rest of the minimal supply of manoeuvring jets to bring the life-pod into alignment with the port docking umbilical. Nudging my pod gently I felt the welcome thud of the docking mechanisms connecting. I waited –

And nothing happened.

I tried the communicator again. Nothing. I looked out the view port – nothing moving. Tiring of the wait I slipped into one of the flimsy e-suits, good for a 3-minute space transfer only. Unclipping my hatch, and then the umbilical’s hatch, I expected to see someone waiting for me.

No one.

As the air in the pod bled into the umbilical I launched myself into the draft. Praying to reach the far hatch before I ran out of air in my e-suit, or the frigidity of space snap-froze me through my unheated suit, I clawed at the corrugations of the fully extended transfer tube, dragging myself forward. My lungs were burning, and the sweat on my face turning cold as I opened the far hatch and pulled myself into the airlock. I swung the hatch closed and punched the airlock mechanism. The hiss of air flooded the closet-sized room, and I was safe. Unzipping my flimsy helmet I sucked in the sweet air, and enjoyed the artificial gravity.

* * *

“Welcome aboard, Engineering Officer Orn Valbring,” said a computer-generated voice. “Once I have completed a diagnostic medi-scan I will release you from the airlock. Thank you for waiting.”

“Waiting is all I’ve done recently,” I muttered back to the machine. “By the way, how do you know who I am?”

“I scanned you ID implants, officer Valbring.”

I had forgotten. Too many days alone, I guess. Dog tags were passé; a nanochip in the skull, with a redundant chip in the pelvis in case of dismemberment, carrying all my vital details.

After what seemed like an eternity the computer announced, “Medi-scan complete. No viruses, no internal injuries. Narco-neural detox will take approximately 4 days. Narcozide tablets are available if you wish. You may exit now. Please turn to your left upon exiting, and proceed to the crew quarters for showering and fresh clothes.”

“Where is everyone?” I enquired anxiously.

No response.

“Computer, where is the crew?” I persisted.

“You may address me as ‘Braith’,” replied the computer.

“And my name, as you know, is Orn. Braith, where will I find the crew?”

No response.

“OK, then…What ship is this?” “The Taath Parhelion, Orn.”

“Thanks, Braith,” I said less than satisfied.

“You are welcome,” came the automated reply.

Exiting the airlock brought me back into familiar territory again. It was a heady experience. I drank in the sights, sounds, smells, and vibrations of a fully operative spaceship. Intuitively, I assessed the mechanical and environmental health of the ship. I gave it a 3 out of 4. I’d have to have a long talk with the engineering officer.

I walked down the corridor, passing doors that read ‘Biometry Lab’, ‘Pathology Lab’, ‘Virology Lab’, and ‘Geology Lab’. I opened each door, but found no crew members inside. Lastly, ‘IT Maintenance’. This door was locked. I knocked. No answer.

Through a portal, and into the next section of the corridor I found the sign that read “Crew Quarters”. ‘Male’ on the right, and ‘Female’ on the left-hand doors. Tempted as I was to enter the left compartment, I figured that the crew would not understand my priorities. So, I knocked on the men’s quarters, and entered. Everything was – spotless. “No, it can’t be a men’s cabin!” I told myself. No clothes draped anywhere. No personal items on display. It hardly looked lived in, except for the bunks and the desks. Each bunk was properly made up, with military corners. Placards at the side of each bunk nominated the occupant. On each desk were network monitors for access to the comp…to Braith. “Braith, I’m in the men’s crew quarters.”

“You will find a standard uniform and undergarments in the third locker, Orn.”

I went to the third bunk and its associated locker. The nameplate said “Holloway”. I opened the locker to find a boiler suit with engineering insignia, and all the accessories, including an electric shaver and toiletries. “You sure its ok with Holloway?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied the computer. “You are authorised to use as much showering time as you need.”

“I suspect I need 37 days worth, Braith!” I answered jovially.

“That would be excessive, and exceed your ration,” was the flat reply. “You will find antibacterial cleansers in the cubicle. Please make liberal use of them. I also suggest that you shave off all your body hair on this one occasion, please.”

Having a computer giving you hygiene and personal grooming instructions was a bit annoying. “You sound like a nagging wife, Braith.”

“I am programmed with a female voice, Orn. Is it not logical that I have other human female characteristics programmed in also?”

Never argue with a voice-programmed computer.

I showered, luxuriously, for 5 minutes. Shaved. And, yes, dutifully gave myself a haircut. Dressed. Everything fit, even the deck shoes.

“Orn, please proceed to the navigation centre on deck three. You will find a ship’s layout coming up on the nearest screen.”

I went to the nearest desk and scrolled through the ship’s plan. Pretty standard configuration. What puzzled me was the lack of compartment labelling in some sections of the ship. “Braith, why are there no descriptors on certain sections of the ship?”

“That information is restricted.”

“Why? I am a senior officer.”

“That information is restricted. Please proceed to navigation.”

* * *

I guess it was because I’d been alone for over a month that it had taken this long to register. I realised suddenly that hadn’t heard any of the usual crew noises or seen any of the routine activity associated with a working ship. That added unease to the confusion I felt at not having spoken to a human being since boarding.

I reached navigation without having encountered anyone. The lighting was subdued, which highlighted the panorama of space through the compartment’s extensive glazing. My cramped existence of the last weeks had restricted my natural love of the expanse of space. The panorama through the view-panels rekindled all that allure, and I marvelled at the wonder of the complexity of creation.

The computer brought me out of my reverie. “Orn, please be seated at the engineer’s console.”

As I sat, it hit me that the compartment was unmanned. “Where is the crew, Braith?”

No response for a moment, then, “They are all dead, Orn.”

That sobered me. My own ship’s demise flashed through my brain unbidden, and mixed with the confusion of the moment. A whispered “How?” was all I could manage.

“I have prepared a brief visual summary, Orn. I thought that a complete visual report might be too gruesome at this time. Please use the monitor to your right.”

For the next 7 minutes I sat transfixed. Engrossed yet repelled, my compassion and angst for the loss of my own crewmates mixing with the emotion of seeing another crew overwhelmed and annihilated; not by fire and explosion, but by a microbe.

The edited clip showed a planet, a shuttlecraft landing, a survey team collecting samples of flora and returning to the ship. Pictures of laboratory work. Then the first symptoms showing up on the landing team. The ghastly sores, and contorting pain didn’t need a soundtrack to communicate. I am no medical person, but the signs of a hemorrhagic fever looked evident enough. Then the spread to the rest of the crew, and the dying began. A medical person working in a lab. More deaths. An outer-space burial.

I sat in stunned silence for quite some time. Well, I don’t know how long.

“When did this happen Braith?”

No response.

“Braith?”

On the monitor came the message – ‘Vocal function has been terminated’ –

“Braith! What do you mean ‘terminated’?

- Upon completion of visual report Voice function is terminated by prior administrative command –

“Can voice function be restored by another administrative command?”

- No. Program deleted –

Between prior trauma, rescue, the visual impact of this crew’s death, and now the loss of audio, I was traumatised all over again. Eventually, I said, “Not your fault, then Braith. Please give me a full report.”

“Please use the key commands on your console to activate report,” came the reply. “The appropriate codeword is ‘synthesis’.

I typed in the codeword and the instructions for a report. I was rewarded with the following.

* * *

- Summary Report on the deaths of the crew of the Taath Parhelion, April 9 to April 16, 2159. As requested by Engineering Officer Orn Valbring, late of the frigate Stellar Thule.

The Survey Team of K. Mears, H. Talbot, F. Desault, and G. Sederov landed on JM6 in the Kendalian system to take botanical, atmospheric and geological samples prior to a more extensive exploration planned for 2161.

Members of the team began experiencing fevers and nausea with 36 hours. They were isolated for barrier care. Clear hemorrhagic symptoms appeared 24 hours later. Doctors Semling and Khee were able to isolate the indigenous hemorrhagic virus, but unable to perfect an effective course of treatment before the remainder of the crew were also infected. It was clear that the virulent virus was an aerosol. Deceased crew were buried in space as quickly as possible.

A disaster signal with medical information was broadcast. Dr. Khee ordered the ship into quarantine, and Engineer Holloway, knowing that all the crew could perish, programmed the ship for deep space. By April 16 the virus had devastated the crew. Viral specimens are stored cryogenically in the Bio-Hazard Lab.

End of report –

I typed ‘archive’, and sat back and tried to clear my mind. 2159. Seven years ago. “Braith,” I said – I preferred to use voice commands, even if the mainframe couldn’t respond – “is the ship still contaminated?”

- It does not appear so. All botanical and atmospheric samples from the survey were incinerated. The entire ship was subjected to aerosol fumigation and surface disinfection. With no indigenous hosts in which to live, it is expected that the virus is dead. However, the ship remains quarantined. -

“So, I’m a guinea pig, to test the efficacy of the disinfection.”

- Logically, yes. –

“Was that the logical intention of rescuing me?”

- No. You were rescued because it was the right thing to do. -

That answer moderated by building anger somewhat. “How did you locate me without a beacon?”

- This ship passed into the debris field of your ship. Logically, any life-pods, broadcasting or not, would be on the periphery of the field. I simply circumnavigated the debris field. Yours was the only pod I located. –

“Seems I am a real Jonah, Braith,” I said in depressive self-pity. “Just make sure you spit me out on dry land, and alive. Please.”

- You are not a Jonah, Orn. You are the victim of multiple traumas, isolation, disappointment, and, I conclude, hunger and fatigue. Please adjourn to the mess deck. Until you have inventoried the larder, I suggest that you eat MRE’s. –

“Some menu,” I griped.

There was a monitor and console in the mess. Except, the mess deck was not a mess. Everything was clean. As I rummaged in a storage bin for an MRE different from my life-pod packs, I mused on the pristine condition of the ship. While my MRE, chicken cacciatore, vegetables, coffee and Holland Rusk, re-hydrated and reheated, I asked Braith a question. “How did the bodies and general chaos get cleaned up?”

- Automatic systems - was the unsatisfactory reply.

“No such systems in my experience”

- Automated cleaning and maintenance systems -

“Speaking of maintenance, I suspect that this ship needs a thorough going over.”

- I conduct periodic diagnostic checks -

“Spaceships still have human engineers for good reasons, Braith. Tomorrow I would like to rerun all those diagnostics.”

As I ate my meal; much better than the emergency MRE’s on the pod; I thought about my health and the new routines I would have to adopt. I also thought about this killer virus that might still be lurking around. When I finished eating I turned to the monitor again. “Braith, where can I get a Narcozide tablet? And, what precautions should I take about this virus?”

- Narcozide is kept in the Medical Services compartment, in the opposite direction of the crew quarters, past the airlock. Look in the cabinet marked Pharmacology. There are no precautions you can take about the virus, except personal hygiene, vitamins, rest and exercise. –

“Thank you, Braith. Where are we on the watch?”

- A research vessel does not keep military watch, Orn. We use civilian time and the dimming of lighting to simulate day/night. And, all crew are required to get ultraviolet exposure on a rotational basis. –

“ Please adjust the system to show the next eight hours as my rostered sleep period.”

- Done –

I adjourned to the crew quarters, undressed, took another shower, and went to bed. I used Holloway’s bunk; but it made me feel badly, at least till I fell into an emotionally exhausted sleep.

* * *

I awoke in a lather to find the lights on. It must be ‘morning’ on my personal schedule. What a nightmare! All the stress of the last weeks, and now the last 24 hours, combined into one episode. That, and the Narcozide cleansing my system. Oh, my head!

I dreamt that I was standing in the entry hatch to the life-pod, watching the fire approach when members of the Taath Parhelion crew staggered out of the flames. Not burned, but disfigured, covered in open sores and purplish bruised skin from the alien virus. Then I dreamt I was thrashing in my bunk on the frigate, and someone was stroking my brow, holding my hand, and speaking soothingly until I slept. I guess then I did sleep, until I started dreaming that I was infected, and running a fever.

I dragged myself out of bed, took a shower, and dressed. Work would be my medicine. I went to the galley, had another MRE, and called up Braith on the monitor. “Braith, I’m going up to the Engineer’s console in Navigation. I want us to start running diagnostics on every system aboard.”

- Understood -

I spent the day running the systems checks and prioritising the work I wanted to do by visual inspection. For an unmanned vessel the list of repairs and adjustments was remarkably short. Braith signalled me for lunch. Another MRE, because I hadn’t gone through the supplies yet to sort out an ongoing menu.

There was a problem though - with me. Several times I must have fogged out, because I’d lose track of what I was doing. Flashes of the fire on the frigate, and time in the life-pod, and the data on the crew deaths here kept jumping unbidden into my mind. Maybe I hadn’t detoxed enough from my time in the pod. Or just maybe being isolated on a plague ship was playing on my subconscious! At any rate, I’d come out of my dream-state with a start. Once I wasn’t even sure where I was.

My next task was to identify, as closely as possible, our location and course. My star navigation skills are almost non-existent, but I figured Braith’s computing power would make up for that.

“Braith,” I enquired, “can you work out our current location, course, and ultimate destination?”

- Working -

Two minutes later the answers came up on the screen.

- We are currently at the outer edge of the Cerrex-1 solar system. Our current course takes us clear of all system bodies. We will exit the system in 73 days. Our trajectory will take us into the Crab Nebula in the year 2234 -

At least our current position was close to the Stellar Thule’s intended patrol zone.

“Braith, I wish to alter our course and destination.”

- Engineering Officer Ord Valbring is reminded that the ship is under quarantine -

“Don’t be formal with me, Braith.” I moved to the Navigator’s console. “Braith, please assist me to lay in new navigational instructions.”

- Proceed -

“Braith, I am officially commandeering this vessel as salvage, under the authority of the Colonial Commerce Security Forces. Please log that. You and I are going to try to do the job my frigate was sent out to do.” I entered the general coordinates for a random patrol of the inner sector of Cerrex-1, lowered our speed, and recalibrated the search array.

- So logged. A commendable sense of duty, Orn, but this is an unarmed research vessel that has no crew. –

“Subterfuge, Braith. Pure bluff. This is a research vessel. We will re-task the remote sensing survey systems to look for suspicious transits between planets. We’ll research smugglers, Braith, and transmit our information until we are relieved. You and I are the crew, old girl.” It sounded good, if a little juvenile and braggadocios. But it might just work.

- I am not an ‘old girl’. I do not age -

“Every woman’s dream, Braith.”

I spent several hours composing a report to the CCSF regarding the loss of the Stellar Thule, the death of the Taath Parhelion’s crew, the virus, and my clandestine patrol of the sector. I requested instructions and relief. I knew the answer would be a long time coming, if ever, but that didn’t mater. I had Braith use a standard CCSF code, all I knew, and send it on three secure channels as a redundancy.

* * *

A chime sounded from the monitor. It got my attention. On the monitor came the advice – Exercise period followed by evening meal. You must keep up your health. The exercise compartment is adjacent to the Medical Services –

“Yes, ‘doctor Braith’,” I chided. Whoever programmed you added too much personality.”

- Thank you, Captain Valbring –

I did an hour’s circuit of the machines, then some time under the sunlamp. It helped burn off stress; and sweated out some remaining toxins. On the way back, on a whim, I tried the door to the women’s quarters. It was unlocked.

I wasn’t being rude, only inquisitive. The men’s quarters gave little clue to the personalities of the tragically dead crew. I wondered if the women’s section would be the same. I flicked on the lights. No real differences here. Clean, neat, certainly lifeless.

No. I am wrong. Something seemed out of place. I walked around the room. I entered the bathing compartment. What is it? I couldn’t discern what was troubling me. I opened lockers. Boilersuits and work gear, as expected, a few digital prints, memories and mementos, sadness and loss. I read the names: Barker, K.T. Dr.; Khee, M. Dr; Sederov, G.; and Galbraith, P.

“Now that’s a puzzle solved,” I said to myself. Galbraith, ‘Braith’ with a female voice. I went across the hall to the men’s quarters, and questioned the monitor there. “Braith, did officer Galbraith program your voice function?”

- Affirmative. Galbraith, Penelope, Computing and Geology Officer. Do you wish her file? –

“No, not at this time.” After my evening ration I asked Braith for a summary of the ship’s research assignment.

- Taath Parhelion: Rand-Kurzon Corporation, Hyerdahl-class interstellar research vessel M51. Mission: Pre-settlement colonial viability analysis in the Kendalian System. Do you wish details of planets analysed? -

“Not at this time, Braith.” I continued reading.

‘Hmm, Rand-Kurzon Corp’, I mused. Aggressive, monopolistic when it could get away with it, and not very responsive to the needs of low-tech indigenes on colonized planets. A typical commercial coloniser. Also. I knew, not averse to clandestinely arming its research vessels. Besides, one needed to be armed against commerce raiders, in any case. Mostly, though they left research vessels alone. Hmmm. I knew a few of the clandestine armaments, just maybe…… “Braith, you said this vessel was unarmed. Does the manifest list any of the following items? Kelsor variable aperture maser? -Affirmative - ‘Medical equipment’ from the Klamath Corporation? - Affirmative – A Bursline Genetic Probe? - Negative –

Well, two out of three wasn’t bad. A laser generator and radiant energy torpedoes. Sufficient for defence at least. “Please identify their location, and add to my maintenance list.”

- Done –

“Please bring up the ship’s engineering schematic.” I spent the next hour on planning where and how to mount the two systems. As the corporation would have, I supposed, I would use existing research modules. Satisfied with that I asked, “Braith, what is the manoeuvrability factor of this ship?”

- On the Brookton Scale, the Taath Parhelion rates in the Blue Zone -

Only standard. “And what can we outrun?”

- With all systems engaged at ‘Highest Emergency Power Rating’ we have 15 minutes duration of flank speed equivalent to your former frigate. Exceed that timeframe and we will ruin the M2P2 drive, or explode, or both. On General Power Rating we can cruise at 3/4ths the cruise speed of a Rand-Kurzon Corporation ‘Clipper’, their fastest commercial vessel -

Faster than any general freighter, slower than any armed vessel, it would have to do. I knew a few engineering tricks, but that would only increase our speed marginally. I was no pilot, and would have to rely on Braith to do the driving. “Braith, tomorrow I would like to go through a set of standard defensive manoeuvres and patrol scenarios with you. That way you can react semi-independently if the case arises.”

- Very Well -

I walked down to the crew-quarters deck, and got ready for bed.

* * *

I had another disturbed night’s sleep. Not the same dream, but flashbacks to some of the ships I’d served in. As an ensign in the Kraken, when we came up against a commerce raider, I had seen my first casualties. Then on board the Archerfish, when we had a fire in the auxiliary engineering compartment, more casualties. In the middle of the night I woke up, in a sweat again.

The lights were out, the monitor I use, off, total darkness. I debated getting up and turning on the lights. But, decided against it; they were set for ‘morning’ awakening anyway, and I didn’t want to disturb my new sleep pattern more than it already was. I rolled over and went back…. to another nightmare. This time the casualties from the Kraken and Archerfish joined with the crew of the Taath Parhelion to emerge gruesomely from the airlock where I had entered the ship just two days before. They walked down the corridor to the crew quarters and entered the various cabins. Again my dream ended with an illusory hand on my forehead and whispered words of comfort and calm.

* * *

I woke up when the lights cam on. I felt crummy. Bad night’s sleep I guessed. I started my daily routines. At breakfast in the galley I couldn’t finish my MRE. I dragged up to navigation and sat in the captain’s console.

- Good morning, Captain Valbring – read the monitor.

“Good morning Braith,” I replied. Please give me a situation report.”

- We are two days away from the patrol zone you stipulated. We are at standard cruise speed for this type of vessel. I have diverted slightly during the night to avoid an asteroid field. There are no vessels visible on our search array. There have been no communication intercepts for the Stellar Thule. The nearest planetfall is 4 days’ travel. It is a Pluto–class body. The items you requested have been located and retrieved by the automated forklifts in hold 3 –

“Lets start our day with them.”

The Taath Parhelion is a big ship for such a small crew. It had to accomplish multiple long-haul roles self sufficiently, as partly interstellar freighter, partly deep space exploration ship, partly extractive mining and assay ship, and partly mobile laboratory. Its crew were multi-skilled to fit its multi-task role. Its commercial pre-colonization mission required sophisticated flexibility, and that required capacity. Capacity, space, the Taath Parhelion had in abundance. I was already getting new muscles after my cramped life-pod days, just from walking around the ship.

Hold 3 was well to the fore of the ship, and was dedicated to equipment stores. I found the crates as Braith had described. I still felt crummy. I was staring to run a fever. I headed back to sick bay. “Braith, do I have the virus?” I asked as I staggered into the medical compartment.

- Please describe your symptoms while I run a medi-scan -

“Headache, nausea, dizzy, fever, cold sweat, aching, cramps in my legs and arm.” I sat at a desk and put my head in my arms.

The monitor read – From the Pharmacy cabinet, take a bottle of Concedriphane and a packet of Benenoxetinforte. Take two tablets of each and lie down in the bunk -

I did as instructed, and the medication soon hit me like a sledgehammer. I was so weak I couldn’t get up. Everything from then on was experienced in a delirium. I must have hallucinated, because I occasionally thought I say someone come in and out in full infection-barrier garb. Eventually I slept, a deep, restful sleep.

When I finally awoke, Braith said I had been out for 4 days. I needed a bath and a change of clothes, badly! I was still weak, but made my way slowly back to my room. A shower, a change, and more sleep.

I awoke really hungry.

“Well, Braith, what happened?”

- Apparently the virus has lain dormant somewhere in the ship. However, over time it has grown much less virulent, and now is no worse than an influenza. It could still kill an immuno-compromised person, but not as an hemorrhagic fever. Your antibodies could make a vaccine -

“Right now, Braith, I want to build my blood back up with some food, not loose some to a test tube.”

I made my way, slowly, up to the galley. I ate three MRE’s. Then I went back to my own cabin, showered and went to bed.

No nightmares.

* * *

When I awoke the lights were on. I asked Braith if I’d slept through day and night.

- Affirmative -

I went to shower, and looked into the mirror. Quite a haggard fellow peered back at me. Mirrors don’t lie. Mirrors…. Mirrors! That’s what was missing! I had not seen any mirrors in the women’s cabin! What woman can survive without a mirror?

I ran across the hallway to verify my guess. No mirrors on the cabin walls. No mirrors in the bath compartment. I opened lockers. No mirrors hanging, no mirrors in suit pockets. No small mirrors face down on shelves! No mirrors anywhere! Why?

A seed of a thought grew in my mind, vague and inarticulate. I held it there.

* * * *

While we pretended to be a research vessel, doing a loop from one outer planet to another, I conducted all the repairs on my list. Mostly preventative maintenance, but a few turned out to be potentially disastrous. O-rings and gaskets needed replacement. A few hoses were cracked and leaking. At some stage I would need to shut down the M2P2 Drive, and do a complete overhaul. It was good to be an engineer again. I thanked my god that all the problems were single person jobs. I would be in a real spot if I needed a second pair of hands. And the automated forklifts and cleaning robots would be no help.

It took three weeks, but the second diagnostic that I had Braith run came up with an overall 97% rating. Good enough to live with for a while.

“Well done Braith.”

- Thank you Captain -

“I wish you wouldn’t call me ‘captain’,” I complained.

- Yes, Orn –

“That’s friendlier.”

- Where are you from, Orn? -

“That’s a strange question for a computer to ask, Braith. Why don’t you read my nanochip?”

- I’m just trying to be friendlier, Orn –

“OK. My parents were from Sweden. We migrated to the Moon when I was 6 years old. I studied engineering at Copernican University and joined the Colonial Commerce Security Forces. I haven’t been back into the Sol System in 14 years.”

- No family? –

“No, Braith.” A thought. “Braith, I’d like to look at Galbraith’s file now, please.

- Yes. – The file came up and I read through it slowly. Standard biog material, as well as technical competencies and professional experience. The digitised photo, now at least seven years old, maybe older, showed a handsome young woman with a bright smile and dark brown eyes.

“Close file, please Braith.” The file closed and the computer asked …

- Orn, what do you plan to do next? - “Mount the weapons, then inventory the galley. After that we need to review the patrol plot, and go over those basic manoeuvrers I talked about before I was sick.”

- A reminder. Please go to Medical Services and draw some blood samples today, Orn. Put them in the cryo-storage unit there for future use as a vaccine -

“Will do, Braith.”

* * * *

I had an automated forklift carry the laser generator to the optical equipment bay. I had guessed that it would modify one of the existing laser systems into weapons grade strength. It didn’t take long to work out that the laser units with the 180o rotation and 90o firing-arc were the adaptable ones. Mounted fore and aft, in pairs, the weaponised lasers had a good defensive field of fire.

Next a pair of forklifts carried all 16 radiant energy torpedoes to the satellite launch bay. It was a no-brainer to work out that the small, but potent short-range torpedoes fitted the launch mechanisms. And, in a pinch I realised, the satellites themselves could have their auto-destruct mechanisms reset to remote detonation, and launched as space-mines.

So I had two active defensive systems, and one passive system. The basic manoeuvrers I was going to program into Braith would allow me to operate the defence systems personally, while the computer handled the more complex tasks of piloting. That, and running away, was all I could hope for.

After mounting the weapons, and before inventorying the galley. I took and stored the needed blood samples. I can’t say my ability at phlebotomy is very high, and it took a few goes to get a cannula started. Then I did the right thing; had a meal and lots of fluids. Being already in the galley achieved half the plan, and it only took me a few hours to find, reorganise, and have Braith log all the menus I would want for the next few months. With the luxury of so much food, I’m afraid I indulged some of my finicky tastes.

- You have not included enough green vegetables and fruit fibre, Orn –

“Yes, doctor. You choose some, and add them to the menu. Except, no prunes and no asparagus!”

- Duly noted - “I’m going up to command. We need to review the patrol plot, and go over those basic manoeuvrers I talked about before I was sick.”

* * * * “How would you plot this solar system if you were doing a regular pre-colonial exploration?”

- This system has already been explored -

“I know that. What standard operating procedures would your crew worked under if this hadn’t been an explored area?”

Braith brought up a manual on the screen that covered a whole range of possible scenarios. I chose the least complicated one that seemed to fit this system. Then I had Braith factor in our real mission. That eliminated almost half of the SOPs. Now we could look like a research ship, without doing any research. And, not look like a policing vessel while doing specific surveillance.

After programming the basic defensive manoeuvrers I had Braith run them all for real. It was a wild ride in such a big ship. I modified a few instructions to adjust for the ship’s characteristics and had Braith run through it all again. Then I had Braith work out how we would coordinate manoeuvres with the weaponry. That satisfied me that we could have the edge of surprise on our side. For the practical fun of it, I launched a satellite and tested the lasers on it.

- Adolescent behaviour - Braith commented dryly when I gave myself a congratulatory whoop for my successful target practice.

“Weren’t you every young, Braith?”

- Computers do not age, Orn -

I thought to myself, ‘not like women do’. I think that’s when the penny dropped.

* * * *

I knew that the ship carried no internal surveillance cameras. If the computer tracked me at all, it was through my nanochips. Removal was too difficult under these conditions. Nanochips, I knew, could be blocked. So blockage would have to do, even if the absence of a signal might trigger a response. I stopped in medical services on my way to my cabin at bedtime. In the x-ray safety equipment box I found the smock and cap I needed and carried them to my room. After a shower, I went to bed, and pretended to sleep. After a couple hours I got up, and put on the protective gear used when dealing with isotopes. Then I left the cabin and walked barefoot to the computer maintenance compartment. I tried the door quietly. It was unlocked. I took off the safety gear, and edged into the room. The only light was from one of several monitors. The room contained an auxiliary crew berth. I walked over to a chair and sat down and started my silent vigil.

* * * *

My patience was rewarded a few hours later. I leaned forward in the chair and whispered “Hello Penny Galbraith,” to the figure that had just rolled over in her sleep. I was rewarded with a single ‘mmmm’ as she rolled back again.

I sat there until the lights came on; an hour earlier than my lights I noticed from the chronometer. By this time I had moved to the far side of the compartment, hopefully to look less threatening. In the light I could see that her face was terribly disfigured, presumably by the virus. As she stretched her arms, and the sleeves of her sleeping suit fell back, I saw that her arms also were pockmarked. No wonder she hadn’t wanted me to know that she lived.

“Good morning Braith,” I said softly.

She looked at the nearest monitor, and then caught sight of me. The blood drained from her face, and then she buried her face in her hands and sobbed. I walked back to the chair, moved it to the bunk and held her gently while she cried seven years of tears. I cried too, for myself as much as for her.

* * * *

It took several awkward days for the story to come out fully. Firstly, because of her natural reluctance to be seen by me. Her disfigurement was hard for both of us at first. Secondly, because of her reticence to relive those horrors and years of loneliness. But we both had traumas, and that gave me a point of empathy. In the end she grew less reticent, and both of us made a little progress towards healing.

Survival had been its own small miracle; as well as a great burden. Disposing of the last crew bodies had been gruesome. The intense cleaning of the ship was her way of expressing her hate and revulsion for the unseen virus that had condemned her to a lifetime of solitary quarantine in space. It also, as I had experienced, lessened the danger to any one who might enter the ‘plague ship’.

Penny Galbraith was a remarkably courageous and resourceful person. I listened in growing respect as she unassumingly told me how she had stayed alive and maintained the ship for seven years. Now, at least, I could understand how the computer ‘Braith’ had so many feminine characteristics, and a sense of honour and ethics. Penny had reprogrammed ‘Braith’ with more than quarantine survival values.

Now I … we … had a small quandary to solve. Or maybe more than one.

* * * *

After all those years alone, Penny was emotionally reluctant to spend too much time with another person. My paltry 38 days alone were nothing in comparison, but at least gave me a small insight into her desire to maintain some distance. We decided on a strategy. We would continue our routines separately, but eat together in the mess at mealtimes. Also, Penny would use the intercom and not the computer, to communicate. Only in an actual emergency would we work in the same physical space. We continued to run a racecourse plot through the outer planets, pretending to be a research vessel. Fortunately, the Taath Parhelion carried a full set of freighter IDs in Braith’s memory banks. We tracked several freighters heading for one of the two colonised planets. Each answered our interrogations with the proper codes. No obvious smugglers yet. However, we reported each contact to CCSS.

After a month of this I decided to relocate in another sector of the system. Because we had to appear to be a research vessel, we actually had to have some of our remote sensing systems undertake planetary research. In our new location this paid off. An infrared anomaly appeared on a planet that was supposed to be un-colonized. Someone had an unlisted base there.

Penny had come out of shell bit by bit. I’m no shrink, by any means. But it was nice to see that she responded to patience and trust. I was hard, she admitted, to appear before another human being with her face so disfigured. Even harder when that person was male, and the only other living being on the ship. The scars obviously weren’t just skin-deep.

They were deeper in another way also. The virus, though not fatal to her, had permanently damaged some internal organs. Her renal function and liver were especially touchy, and she had to watch her fatigue levels and foods. It all must have been very depressing. The medi-scans kept track of the organs’ condition, and Braith could recommend medications from the inventory to boost function. Still, it added to her burden.

I asked her once, why she hadn’t committed suicide, or run the ship into some sun.

“Life is too precious to waste, Orn. My life still has value and meaning, simply because I am alive. That I was maintaining this ship added to that meaning, and gave me additional usefulness. You didn’t really think that Braith was so advanced that she could have cleaned the ship on automatic programs, do you?”

No, I hadn’t really. Some of Braith’s decisions, in hindsight, could only have had direct human input. I was just too slow to see it.

“Even looking like this,” she continued, “I as a person am not diminished. It is embarrassing, annoying, frustrating and sometimes depressing; especially with you here, to be physically disfigured. But I am not defined by my injuries, Orn. I am defined by my personality, my spirit, my values, faith, experience and abilities. As long as I can look back, live now, and plan ahead, I am alive within my self. That gives me hope. Besides, I haven’t been sitting on my duff for the last seven years.”

Nor had she, I found. With the help of new programs for the computer, Penny had conducted remote sensing surveys of 11 planets single-handedly. She had analysed the data and sent it back to Rand-Kurson Corp. They, of course were grateful for the information, but had written her and the ship off as a liability. It was a good-sized depreciation offset on their annual accounts. After the initial acknowledgement of the crew deaths and the quarantine, they made no further effort to support her.

But now we were a clandestine patrol vessel reporting to CCSS. When we discovered the unlisted base I had Penny park us in the background clutter of one of the planet’s moons. Then I launched three survey satellites. That allowed us to indirectly survey the activity there. Eventually, we picked up a ship, freighter size, about half a day out from planetfall. A microburst transmission emanated from the planet.

Moving away from the moon I placed us between the approaching ship and their base. Then I rattled their cage. I broadcast on the CCSS hailing frequency: “This is Captain Valbring of the CCSS Taath Parhelion to unidentified vessel. Identify yourself and state your destination and cargo.” I repeated that message twice before I got a reply.

“CCSS Taath Parhelion, this is the Douglas Franklin bulk transporter, destined for Cerrix-6 with a cargo of prefab modular housing, and assorted mining equipment.”

Penny checked the records, and found that the Douglas Franklin had been sold for scrap a decade before.

“Douglas Franklin, heave to. Prepare your documents for inspection aboard the Taath Parhelion.” No response. “Douglas Franklin, acknowledge. Heave to for inspection of your manifest. That is a CCSS order.”

“Affirmative.”

If they were smuggling, then it would be high value items: weapons, fuel rods, medicines, or environmental systems. Mostly bulky items, some of which would be detectable by our remote sensors; others by their false labelling. I doubted they would heave to. It was time for some caution. I had us hold on station; and wait.

Half an hour later, as the other ship coasted towards us I ordered Braith to target our lasers and torpedoes on her. They could then easily see that we were not a CCSS frigate. A few minutes later our threat array blossomed. “Wait,” I instructed Penny, “we need them closer.” I waited until they were in visual range.

When the Douglas Franklin opened fire I instructed Penny to begin our set manoeuvres, while I focused on operating our defence. Ten minutes of gyrating activity, and the expenditure of all our torpedoes left the Douglas Franklin a lifeless wreck.

But we had sustained irretrievable harm; Penny lay slumped in her chair. She was a white as a sheet. I carried her down to Medical Services and ran a medi-scan. ‘Ruptured spleen, internal haemorrhaging, blood pressure 108/59 and dropping, pulse rate 96. Immediate intervention necessary.’

There would be no intervention. I was no doctor, and couldn’t operate. I held her hand while she lapsed into unconsciousness and died. Part of me died then too. I re-set the course for the Crab Nebula, and then I buried her in space, took this report and entered my life-pod. I no longer wished to stay aboard the plague ship.

End Report

* *

Message to CCSS regional command, Welland Prime: July 24, 2166

Upon encountering a non-transmitting life-pod during our transit of the Cerrix-1 system we stopped to investigate. An EVA team discovered the desiccated remains of one Orn Valbring, Engineering Officer of the Stellar Thule. The team discovered that all environmental systems were operative, but that few food stores had been consumed. A medi-scan revealed death as a result of heart failure due to over ingestion of Narcozide; an apparent suicide. The remains of Engineering Officer Valbring were interred in space. The derelict life-pod was destroyed as a hazard to space navigation.

Additionally, the crew retrieved all computer records from the pod, including the bizarre ‘Report to the Board of Inquiry’, which I have also sent. Our medical officer suspects that Engineer Orn lost his mental health while marooned so long in space. All non-encrypted files have been forwarded to your command by Subchannel 43. Copies have been kept aboard this ship.

Two days later we came across the derelict CSS frigate Stellar Thule. The EVA team discovered that the crew died of explosive decompression. There had been no fire, as recorded in Valbring’s bizarre report. Instead, the airlocks throughout the ship had been destroyed, presumably simultaneously. Additionally, the EVA team discovered both M2P2 generators had been sabotaged.

The remains of the crew were buried in space in the approved manner. We have collected all personal effects, along with the ship’s encrypted files, and will deliver them to the first CCSS outpost or vessel we meet. The derelict ship’s stellar coordinates are attached.

End of transmission: Dr. Penelope Galbraith, Captain, Rand-Kurzon Corporation research vessel Taath Parhelion.

END


© Copyright 2017 James Gagiikwe. All rights reserved.

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