My Halloween story- too late. 😞
The Big Empty
Every port worth a damn has a place run by an old sailor where the food is good; the beer is cheap and has ladies of negotiable virtue. At Kingston Station in the Harimon system, that place was run by a salty old codger named Colly who had run the triangle route on the Plymouth Star for forty years until he hung it up, took his pension and opened a place of his own. Old Colly’s was the sort of place where sailors from whatever ships were in system could have a few drinks, eat some really good chow and tell their stories.
There are a lot of stories from the big empty— the space between stars where there’s literally nothing for light years in any direction. I’ve heard more than a few tales that sound like the teller had cracked while passing the cold, dark, empty void of interstellar space. It’s a place so cold, were you to find yourself outside without a suit, no one is really sure which would kill you first: being flash frozen or instant decompression. Either way is a short, very unpleasant trip to the afterlife.
Sailors are a cautious breed by nature. Everything in the void can kill you in many unpleasant and grisly ways. They are very deliberate in their actions and check ever dial, gauge and seal. If you don’t you won’t become an old sailor.
Sailors are just that. The void is just another ocean in the way of commerce— much larger, deadlier and far colder than those of earth but, the job is essentially the same. To say there’s nothing out there is inaccurate. Like any ocean, it has its moods. Sometimes it is sleeping, others it is angry with radiation or storming with highly energized ions that seemingly appear out of nowhere. Sometimes you’ll blunder into a dark nebula and so much ice will form on your hull, your ship looks like it is in a snow globe. You never turn off you collision avoidance systems as orphaned comets and asteroids can appear with no warning at all on their eternal course to nowhere in particular.
It’s the big empty sailors must pass between the warmth of the stars and the worlds around them. It’s the big empty that excites, terrifies and holds secrets older than mankind. No one can pass it without it leaving its mark upon you.
I was Third Officer on the old Atlantic Princess when her number three reactor finally gave up the ghost and was on a three week layover on Kingston Station. As I had officer’s rank and did not wish to prove myself all over again to a new captain, I stayed with the ships company. The Princess was old but Captain Stafford knew his business and wouldn’t tolerate officers or men that did not know theirs. Much to Stafford and the old Princess’s credit, the entire company of twenty-two elected to stay and wait out her repairs and the overhaul of her reactors.
I became a fixture at Old Colly’s during that time and enjoyed the Bouillabaisse, beer and stories. It was well into my stay that Old Colly became familiar enough with me that I was invited to his own table which I saw as a feather in my cap.
One night after closing as we sat and enjoyed the last round, Old Colly, well into his cups, told a story from his time aboard the Plymouth Star under the legendary Captain Yarlburo.
Old Colly said the Plymouth Star was bound for the Leonis sector with a load of terraforming gear and had to cross three hundred light years. The ship and crew were well into the rhythm of jumping twenty light years, taking a fix, calculating the next jump, charging the jump engines and jumping again. In those days a good crew could turn around a jump in a little over three hours.
Operations on a long haul are routine and monotonous. A sailor has to pay attention and do his job because even a small mistake can kill him or severely damage the ship. Any possible help is weeks and many light years away.
Old Colly was working the engineering watch. His Chief was a gifted engineer by the name of Lew Sang that kept the Plymouth Star ship-shape in Bristol fashion. Only the most trusted and skilled sailors make snipes because every jump cycle, the high power systems that charge the jump engines have to be carefully checked. The fusion reactors are quite reliable but the capacitor bank that holds the charge that powers the jump engine start up can go wrong catastrophically at the drop of a hat. That much energy is astonishing and if the capacitor fails, even a fraction of the stored power will vaporize any ship. It is boring, tedious work but is must be done right every single time.
They had just come out of a jump when the Captain called the Chief Engineer and ordered Secure from jump cycle, bring the main engines to full and stand by to maneuver. This was unexpected and had the snipes busy. The jump capacitors had not begun to charge so it gave the men a chance to stand down from the standard cycle but, they also had to bring the standard engines up to full and prepare for maneuvering. This was accomplished in orderly fashion and soon the big ion engines that propelled the ship in normal space were humming.
Colly said they felt the ship heel over hard and a few minutes later the Captain came on the 1MC and announced, “Attention all hands. On our last jump we arrived several hundred kilometers from a large object sizzling along and .1C. Our sensors did not tell us much about it as it is partially covered in ice but it is mostly metallic and very large. It is not of natural origin and Alliance regulations require us to investigate. Given the objects speed it will take us at least three hours to get close enough to get a good look at it. It looks like we might be up for a nice, fat salvage bonus on this crossing.”
The crew was very excited at the opportunity. Salvage shares could add up to a tidy pay day. All hands began preparations to intercept the object. Colly’s duty was to prepare the remote drone used to do repairs outside. It wasn’t designed to be a scientific probe but it would do in a pinch.
The repair drone was a nifty piece of engineering. It was cylindrical shaped and about seven meters long. Powered by a small fission plant, it had an ion drive for maneuvering, a host of remote controlled tools, a flood light, a high resolution video camera and an adjustable laser. Colly was certified on the use and maintenance of the device which had been primarily used for repairing micro-meteorite damage to the hull. Other snipes from his division were tasked with prepping the Plymouth Star’s two shuttles: one a standard multirole shuttle and the other, a cargo lighter.
It was the Chief Engineer Sang that first spotted trouble. As the Plymouth Star closed on the object, he detected a minute drop in power. This caused a minor ruckus in engineering as that power was going somewhere and, Sang was the sort that would never simply shrug and hope for the best.
The snipes began a systematic survey to see if any of the circuits feeding the jump capacitators were correctly open. All of the feeds were closed and those systems were safely in standby mode. Then they began to check other systems.
At this point in his story Old Colly stood and walked to the bar where he poured himself a shot of whiskey. He drank it, poured another and returned. It was obvious the old sailor was rattled and whatever had happened decades ago in the big empty still haunted him. He returned to the table somber and shaken. His hands holding the three fingers of whiskey in the glass trembled. He sat and began telling his tale again.
Colly took a sip of the amber liquid and said it took us longer to catch the object than we first estimated. The Captain had us break for lunch so we would be ready when we did encounter it. The object was bigger than we first thought. Laser range finding just didn’t work as it seem to swallow any beam we tried to bounce off it. It was very dark and tracking it optically was near impossible. We had better luck tracking its infrared signature but that was because it stood out as a black spot against the cosmic background.
The thing was very cold and was mostly covered in an ice sheath. Its color was a dark gray or black with a metallic sheen. It was egg shaped and about thirty kilometers long and seven kilometers wide. There was a strange structure on its very back end that we assumed was some kind of drive. It was mostly smooth except for small clusters of what looked like some sort of equipment kept external to the hull.
None of us could decide what it was. By our standards, if it were a ship, it was enormous. Some argued that it must be some sort of space station. We had no clues and how something that massive could be hurtling through space at just a little short of a tenth the velocity of light.
Hollingsworth, the second officer and astrogator, said that he had run its course and speed backwards and it had had a very close encounter with a black hole two hundred light years previous and a slingshot imparted force may theoretically account for its velocity. Prior to that encounter, it could have come from anywhere. One thing was certain: it was not of human origin and on a course that would take it out of our galaxy in a few thousand years.
It took another two and a half hours for Captain Yarlburo to pull the Plymouth Star even with the object. Approaching from the rear was dangerous as ton of ice would occasionally let go from the object. It was followed by a small constellation of ice chunks as big as a house. Yarlburo steered well clear of its icy tail, matched its speed and was running about ten kilometers parallel to the objects vector.
Old Colly took a sip of the whiskey and continued after a short pause.
We began with the reconfigured repair probe. I went up to the bridge and we set up one of the stations to run the remote. As the ship was pacing the object, it imparted its velocity to our probe so it was a simple matter to fly it over to the object and began mapping its hull.
The floodlights on the probe revealed a mostly icy surface with big patches of bare hull metal. Colly reconfigured the laser to deliver a low powered beam that could produce a spectra to identify the composition of the alien hull. Most of it was dark, flat grayish-blue and turned out to bean alloy that was mostly lead. It was crossed by a latticework of lines of a different alloy that was mostly sliver. No conduits or cables were present on the hull and all machinery appeared to be internal except for a few bulbous spots so encased in ice that it was impossible to get clear images or tell what they were. Colly set the drone on automatic and it orbited the object mapping its outside. It took a good four hours.
Old Colly sipped his whiskey and fidgeted. It was out of character for him but clearly, the memory had him on edge. He said the longer he worked with the drone, the more that thing bothered him. There was something vaguely sinister about it all very dark metal crisscrossed with lines of silver.
When the exterior of the objects hull was mapped, a 3-D image of it was rendered by the ships computer. Colly wasn’t the only one who had misgivings about it. Several members of the crew expressed concerns but, others were emboldened by the promise of a big salvage claim check.
After carefully studying the 3-D image, the Captain picked one of the bulges from the hull and ordered Colly to use the drone’s laser to remove the ice. The laser, usually used for cutting, could easily be reconfigured to a much wider beam and make short work of the ice but it would take some time. He programmed the drone and had someone watch its progress as the crew had supper and got some rack time.
Old Colly’s hand shook as he took another drink. He cleared his throat and continued: No one rested easy that night. I personally had a real great grand-mother of a nightmare. I didn’t remember the specifics of it but, just general impressions of cold, dark things sleeping. Waking up in a cold sweat from that in the wee hours, there was no going back to sleep. I hit the showers and ran into two other crewmen in similar shape. They had awakened with a start covered in sweat and feeling really jumpy. We didn’t compare notes but maybe we should have. Everyone had nightmares that chilled them to the marrow.
By ships morning, the drone had cleared away the ice from the selected area and a large area of the surface surrounding it. Once revealed, the structures looked a lot like a large cargo dock or some approximation of one. The ship’s third officer Garrett Hunt, able spacer Mike Jacobs and a young snipe named Sully were picked to fly over to the object, take samples and leave a beacon.
Colly flew the repair drone over to illuminate on the dock his flood lights. The shuttle made the short flight over to the huge, ominous object under the expert piloting of Garrett Hunt and made a perfect landing in what appeared to be a cargo handling dock. As soon as the shuttles skids touched down things began to happen.
A very bright flashing red light came on in the apparent cargo bay. Hollingsworth and Yarlburo on the bridge began to notice indications of systems aboard the object powering up. A loud, complex wide-band radio beacon signal began pinging from the object. It was so loud that they turned the volume down immediately and began recording.
Things did indeed begin to happen. The objects outer surface began to warm vaporizing the ice that covered so much of it creating a fog of gas as it vaporized. As Colly watched, shapes and patterns began to coalesce on the skin of the ancient derelict. Patterns and shapes that both mesmerized and terrified in equal measures.
The men on the shuttle placed the beacon to mark our salvage claim and Sully took a few quick samples of the hull metal and placed them in sealed containers to prevent any contamination. As things were getting very strange they performed their tasks and departed staying aboard no longer than a few short minutes.
On the way back, Hunt asked, did you hear them?
Jacobs and Sully both answered yes and the further away from them we get, the better!
Then we all heard them— a psychic scream, a chorus of hundreds of voices of malice, hatred and despair. They were awake. They were angry. They knew we were there.
It was not a ship or a station. It was a prison holding things so powerful and malevolent that they had been cast into the void.
Colly grasped the now empty tumbler with white knuckles and a look of remembered horror on his face.
Hunt had the presence of mind to put the shuttles autopilot to return to the ship. As soon as it was aboard, the Captain sheered away from the object and gave the orders to prep for jump.
The crew, badly shaken, complied and three hours later, we jumped away from that hellish thing toward the Leonis colonies.
That wasn’t the end of it. Something was badly wrong with the three men that had landed on the object. They had seen the shapes and symbols with their own eyes and the very memory of it drove them mad.
In the middle of the night, Hunt walked out an airlock without a suit. We sedated Jacobs and Sully until we arrived at Leonis Station three days travel. We took longer jumps than was recommended because we all felt as though we were losing our minds.
The worst of it was the nightmares. We could see those things. We could feel their coldness and malice. We could see what they had done.
They were a plague in their home galaxy destroying worlds, destroying life. Their power grew and grew until they met others that had the strength and will to destroy them, cage them and cast them into the endless void. Their sentence for war crimes was infinite damnation in the infinite void and from the way they touched our minds and what they revealed, I can believe that they deserved it.
When we arrived, they put us in quarantine. They put Sully and Jacobs into stasis to ship them back to more advanced facilities in the core worlds for treatment. The last I heard they were both in an asylum on Scorpius Prime where they were expected to live out the rest of their lives totally barking mad.
Scientists interviewed us and reviewed the samples and video we had returned. All of the video of the shapes and symbols were sealed. They were classified a class one memetic hazard and could only be studied under controlled conditions. One of the bright boys let slip that the sample of the hull metal was quantum dated at three and a three quarters billion years. Whatever those things were, they were apex predators on a galactic scale when our closest relatives were trilobites.
The beacon signal was also a serious memetic hazard. It was analyzed as a warning but it carried information much like the symbols that could burrow into your brain and make Swiss cheese of it.
Finally after a few weeks in quarantine, we were released and strongly encouraged to never reveal anything about that artifact or how to find it. No doubt there would be eager beaver scientists that would love to open that can of worms but God knows what would crawl out of it or, if we could ever put it back in.
We took a load of rare earth ores from the Leonis colonies, packed them away aboard the Plymouth Star and set course back to the coreworlds vowing never to mention the artifact again. The only time I do mention it is with seasoned officers and spacers so that they might know what they could run into out there. A big salvage payday isn’t worth being so touched with insanity that could lead a good man to walk out a lock.
Old Colly finished his story, we all had another round and we went back to our berths. A few days later my ships reactors were four-oh again and we took off on our next route.
I didn’t get back to Kingston Station in the Harimon System for another nine months. Old Colly’s place was open under a new name. It seemed a few months before our return, Old Colly had taken his own walk out a lock.