Authors: Aaron Crocco
Ken Mallory was back on the bridge entering small corrections into the autopilot system. Hubard had been right. The Raven would've taken them days off course from reaching Cogan. The Galeen system had few stations to recharge, and had they continued on their current course without updates, power reserves would have fallen close to zero. It took four calculations to complete the course correction, and all the while, Ken cursed Hubbard for skipping the vital maintenance to the ship.
"How could you be so stupid, Hubs," he groaned to the empty bridge.
Aurora class ships needed more care than the larger vessels when it came to the navigation equipment. Without an FTL drive, course issues could be the difference between getting the job completed on time or being lost in deep space for months with no food, power, or air. Ken never knew the extent of the captain's debts, but to skimp on navigation maintenance was a sure sign he was in trouble.
Ken entered the updates into the console, and he could feel the Raven shift in compensation. They'd only lost an hour in the trip, so Cogan was still just 53-days away. The door opened, and Hubbard stepped onto the bridge. Ken knew right away it wasn't good.
"What's happened?" he asked the captain.
Hubbard stood just inside the door not saying a word. The distant hum of the Raven's engines filled the bridge with empty silence. With each pulse of the rhythmic propulsion the worst of Ken's thoughts took shape.
"Oh god," he whispered.
Hubbard deflated. "I'm sorry, Mr. Mallory."
The sorrow multiplied within his chest and a lump grew in Ken's throat. He pulled back the tears starting to well up around his eyes.
"But... But how? She was fine just a few hours ago, Hubs."
"I know. It doesn't make any sense to me either." Hubbard approached and placed a hand on Ken's shoulder.
Flashes of the time Watts had been on the Raven crossed Ken's blurred field of vision. The memories of her coming aboard wide-eyed, the Raven being her first Augusta class ship. Time spent chatting over meals while Hubbard piloted from the bridge felt distant, like days long past. Ken cherished those times, yet found the memories blurred. They were hard to visualize. He sighed knowing Lindsey would never meet her kindred spirit. The gentle squeeze of Hubbard's hand still on his shoulder brought Ken's attention back to the silent bridge.
"You want to do it or should I?" Hubbard asked.
Ken took a breath and felt the lump in his throat was already subsiding. The question was one he hadn't expected. Logging the loss of a crew member always fell to the commanding officer. The captain obviously knew of the bond they'd formed and it was a task rarely offered to others. Ken looked up at Hubbard.
"You should do it. You're the captain. You had the honor of bringing her on board."
"Are you sure, Mr. Mallory? You two were certainly closer than her and I."
Ken nodded. "Yeah. Log it."
Hubbard took a seat and pulled up the Raven's manifest. Ken's eyes floated back out to the endless space on the other side of the glass. Was Watts's soul out there somewhere just floating around the Galeen system for all time? Perhaps she'd be back on Caff in whatever afterlife was the belief on that planet.
"Hmmm," Hubbard let out.
Ken collected his thoughts and returned to the task at hand.
He should watch out of respect for Heidi.
The record update process was normally quick. Select a crew member, update their status, confirm it with the central database, and the record was updated to every ship currently in service. Heidi Watts would be just another name added to the daily log sent to all ships at the 00:00 day change. She would join the other unfortunate people to lose their life that day.
"Well, this isn't right,” the captain said.
"What is it, Hubs?"
"Look at this." He pointed at the screen.
Ken frowned. "Um, I don't see anything wrong here, Captain."
"Look at the record, Ken."
Ken examined the screen, but only saw the same deceased note next to her name. "It looks fine."
"No. It isn't fine." Hubbard almost spit the words. "This is wrong. Very, very wrong."
"You're gonna need to spell this out for me, Hubs," Ken sighed. "She's dead. The record shows she's dead. There isn't much else--"
"I didn't enter the update yet," Hubbard interrupted.
Ken's heart skipped a beat. Thoughts worked to form into words, but nothing made it to his mouth.
Ken pointed at Watt’s information. “Her record. The one that says she’s dead. You didn’t just make that update?"
record. It's already updated. Here's the kicker. Check the date."
Ken focused in on the small line of information on Watts's record. Deceased: June 13, 2399.
Six years ago.
Ken engaged the communications terminal for a second time. His hands shook at a frantic pace.
"Mayday, mayday. This is Ken Mallory aboard the Raven. We have an emergency situation on board. If anyone can hear this, please respond."
The anxiety-ridden words stumbled out of Ken's mouth and he was grateful they formed a coherent sentence. The Raven gave no indication of a response from any ships, not that there were any flying close enough to receive the transmission. Ken slumped in his chair and let out a long sigh. It was no use. Their non-standard flightpath meant they were alone until they got within a few hundred kilometers of Cogan. He glanced at the captain, still unconscious on the deck floor.
He had to keep trying.
"Mayday, mayday. This is Ken Mallory aboard the Raven. We have an emergency situation on board. If anyone can hear this, please respond."
Ken repeated the sequence a forth, fifth, sixth time. The silence was deafening.
"Damnit!" he screamed and punched the console. A clang rang out and echoed down the Raven's main corridor, followed a few seconds later by the low murmurs of Ken Mallory's sobs.
A loud clang startled Bill Hubbard awake and he shot up from the floor. The rush of blood to his head dizzied him, and he placed a hand out to brace against a wall. His balance stabilized and the swimming within his mind subsided after a moment. The normal silence he'd expected to hear from the Raven was drowned by blaring alerts. Hubbard raised his head and focused on his surroundings.
Dim yellow lights colored every inch of the wide hall. A steady stream of uniformed crew jetted past, ignoring the disoriented man. They all ran with a determination he'd seen only a few times before: life-threatening emergencies. Hubbard caught a glimpse of the deep green uniforms with navy sleeves and white belts. He furrowed his brow as three years of memories surfaced at the sight of the outfits.
"I’m on the Oceania," he said automatically.
It made no sense. The Albany class ship had been decommissioned long ago, yet here he stood on the C deck of the first ship he'd served on. He tapped the metal wall plating, even getting close enough to sniff it. Stale. Musty. . It was the Oceania, the only ship he'd known to emit such a nasty smell, but not just on any day. The alerts indicated a fire in the Engineering section of the ship and the running crew had been heading in that direction. Hubbard thought back to that day and knew they'd need all the help possible.
Like visiting a childhood town, Hubbard navigated the Oceania decks with ease. He'd only taken one wrong turn on D deck, hitting a dead end steps away from where he'd made the error. The ship's rectangular layout had always confused rookies as only A and D deck wrapped around the entire ship. The remaining four decks each stopped at various spots along the way, prompting detours and forcing one to double-back.
He heard loud voices shouting and orders being given over the chaotic noise of Engineering. Hubbard stepped through the open door and watched a team work a suppressant hose as six others worked the consoles to shut down each system before the ship sustained more internal damage. The black flexible hoses shot a steady stream of nannites at the flames. Each minuscule robot was designed to engulf the flames in millions of tiny vacuum pockets, suffocating the fire. The technology was safe for humans to breathe, didn't damage any systems that got hit with the stream, and it was a dry solution.
"Team three!" a man shouted into Hubbard's ear.
An unfamiliar commanding officer pointed toward a third hose being set up. Years of instinct kicked in and complied instantly. He took up position in front of the anchor crewman and the hose sprung to life, ferociously bucking under the pressure. Hubbard held tight, then turned back to the other teams on hose detail. It took just one passing glance to spot a young William Hubbard bravely standing at the front of the line. His face was chiseled stone, determined to direct the nannites properly so the flames would go out.
"Team two!" the commanding officer screamed to the other group. "Aim at the base of the flames!"
The team slowly directed the stream lower. Just as the nannites reached the heart of the fire, a console to Hubbard's right exploded. The shock threw him to the ground, ears ringing. He could feel the metal grating on the floor pressing sharply into his forehead. He placed a hand up and his fingers felt warm and tacky.
"Hubs!" he heard over the ringing.
Hubbard opened his eyes and saw Ken standing over him. It was all gone. The hoses, the alarms, even the musty scent all returned back to obscurity. The rhythmic soothing of the Raven's engines brought a swell of relief.
Ken helped Hubbard up and into the same seat he'd been in when he passed out. He'd just finished yet another distress call when the captain sprung to life, like waking from a dream where one was falling.
"Oh, god I thought you were a goner." Ken breathed a sigh of relief.
Hubbard groaned. "You can't get rid of me that easily. How long was I out?"
"Two hours," Ken said.
The captain sighed. "Really? Was only a few minutes over there."
"What do you mean, over there?"
"I... I was on my old ship, the Oceania." Hubbard massaged his forehead. "It was like a lucid dream. So, so real, Mr. Mallory.”
Ken flipped through his mental database of ships. "Wasn't the Oceania taken out of service ten years ago?"
Hubbard nodded. "She took a beating out there after two decades of cargo runs. I was long gone by then, but I was there when a major fire nearly destroyed all of Engineering. It was the first major catastrophe in a string of incidents leading to the eventual decommissioning."
"Whatever knocked you out made that into one hell of a dream."
"Seriously." Hubbard turned toward the bridge's giant viewport. "What's the ship's status?"
"We're still on schedule, Hubs, but we're solo out here. No ships within communication range."
Hubbard sighed and Ken could see him thinking about a plan of action.
"We hold course. There's nothing else to do," the captain said after a pause.
"Agreed. Once we reach Cogan we'll get this whole ship sorted out."
"You know what's strange?" Hubbard said as he tapped the console in front of his seat. "About the dream, I mean. I watched it happen, even seeing myself fighting the flames on one of three teams on hose duty."
Ken raised an eyebrow. "Nothing strange about that, Hubs."
"There wasn't a third team, Mr. Mallory. Not only that, but a commanding officer told me to grab a hose and help out. I don’t recognize who it was. I knew that crew inside and out."
"Well, it makes sense if you're watching things happen. Just your brain's way for it to compensate why you're there."
"You've got a point," Hubbard nodded.
The communication console beeped with an incoming message notification. The pair turned toward each other.
"Thought you said nobody's out here.",” said the captain. He acknowledged the alert and the screen filled with text.
"No audio or visual? That's strange," Ken said.
"What hasn't been strange today?"
Hubbard's face shifted from curiosity to concentration to unease as he scanned the message. The captain said nothing.
"Well?" Ken prodded.
"It's a distress call. The message is heavily corrupted, but I can make out the gist of it. A ship called the Horizon sent it. They encountered the same shaking as the Raven."
"When did they send it?"
"Doesn't say. That part of the message is shot. Their engines were rendered inoperable and they were requesting help with repairs."
"I don't know that ship," Ken said after flipping through his mental ship list.
"Neither do I. It does mean that whatever caused this has struck before." Hubbard gazed at the message again, willing it to reveal more. He tapped the console and turned to Ken. "All right. I need you to pull up everything we've got on ship histories. I want to know everything about this Horizon and its story."
"Understood." Ken initialized the ship's database.
"I'm going to work on salvaging more out of this message. There's gotta be something else here and based on what happened to Watts, our lives may depend on it."
"I think I found something," Ken said after three hours.
Hubbard turned to see the update. Ken Mallory tapped the screen displaying an overview of a small freighter.
"Doesn't seem like much is here." Hubbard frowned.
"This is it, Hubs. The Horizon was a run-of-the-mill ship. Nothing special about her, at least until she disappeared."
Hubbard cocked an eyebrow at him. "Go on," he said after a moment of silence.
"In 2384 she was on a routine cargo run through the Galeen system. It was supposed to be a three week trip to Bridger, but the Horizon never made it. Three months later it dropped out of FTL half a light year from the planet and it took up orbit via autopilot."
"FTL? That can't be right." Hubbard shook his head. "These specs show the ship's a bit smaller than us. No way someone slapped an FTL drive onto it."
"That's where the investigation got... weird," Ken said. A chill ran through him. "There was no FTL drive on the ship. Plus, there's more."