Authors: Aaron Crocco
"Let me guess," Hubbard interrupted and held out a hand indicating Ken shouldn’t reveal the news. "Ghost ship."
Ken smirked at the quick connection the captain had made. "Yup. All hands dead. All crew records had already been updated, just like with Watts."
"What did the investigation turn up?"
"The record ends there. I checked the crew, but the deaths all took place long before the Horizon disappeared."
Hubbard eyes widened. "Like the Oceania. Oh my god, Ken that's it. That has to be it."
Ken raised his eyebrows. "Care to elaborate?"
"I don't think I was dreaming that I was on the Oceania, Ken. It was real. Too real. What if I really was there?"
"Don’t you think that’s a bit of a stretch?"
"Think about it. Watts's record shows she died long ago. Same thing with the Horizon crew. Look, their ship reported violent shaking in the log."
"Just like the Raven," Ken said through the discovery. "Any reports of a purple haze?"
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Back in the cargo bay I saw this purple cloud shoot away the second I turned around. It didn’t do anything to me, but I’ve never seen anything like it. I also saw it disappearing away from you just after you passed out. Given what happened on the Horizon...”
Hubbard rubbed his chin. “Interesting. You swept the ship for contaminants before we left?”
Ken groaned. “C’mon, Hubs. You know I did. Standard undocking procedure was completed, in full, after the Raven was buttoned up.”
Hubbard put his hands up as if to say he was innocent. “Hey, no need to get defensive. I’m just making sure.”
“Yeah, I know. Eliminate the obvious and all that.”
“Exactly,” Hubbard said. “So with that out of the way, I agree there may be a connection with this cloud, the Horizon and us.”
“The question, more importantly: what is it?”
"No, I’m more interested in knowing how it got aboard. If it’s airborne, the whole life support system's contaminated. It must have gotten in through one of the exhaust vents. Whatever it is, this thing is changing our past, literally. It's almost like it's retroactively killing people."
"I've never heard of such a thing, Hubs."
"If you have a better idea, I'm all ears."
Ken went to answer, then froze. A thin cloud of purple seeped onto the bridge through the open door. In seconds the floating hue had formed and hung next to Hubbard's right shoulder.
"Don't move," Ken said as calm as he could.
Hubbard gritted his teeth. "What are you going to do? We don't know how to fight this thing."
"We'll vent the bridge."
"You're crazy. We'll die with no air."
"We can hold our breaths. It'll only be for a minute to suck that thing out," Ken remained perfectly still except for the hand sliding slowly to the command console. "We vent, it gets sucked out, we fill the bridge back up with air on the ship."
Hubbard closed his eyes tight and let out a long exhale. It was a crazy idea, but it was all they had. "I guess this is better than my plan, which I don't have. Do it."
Ken nodded. He slid his hand forward and entered the desired venting sequence. The system was ready seconds later and they both took a long series of breaths before holding the final one. Ken's lungs burned from expansion. His finger moved to the confirmation button, but it went limp along with the rest of his body.
Neither had seen the haze shift forward, engulfing them both.
Captain Hubbard and Ken Mallory passed out instantly.
Blaring alarms pierced Hubbard's ears and the sound shocked his body back into the reality that was the blazing fire aboard the Oceania. A wave of heat blew over his face causing his eyes to instantly tear up. The unfamiliar commanding officer still directed the orderly chaos. Shouts rang along Engineering as the orders were relayed over the noise.
"Damnit!" Hubbard yelled.
The haze had been seconds from being vented into deep space, yet it had snapped him back here at the last possible moment. His hands felt heavy, weighted down by the filled hose in his hands, bucking as nannites flew out of the end. Hubbard gripped the hose tight and took a visual inventory of the section. He recognized Jenkins and Whol working the hose on the second team. His counterpart eagerly continued his duty on team one. Hubbard couldn't help from staring for a moment at the younger face, untouched by the rigors of space travel and financial burden. There was a determination still in his eyes, a yearning to make his own way through the universe and become someone who mattered. The young Hubbard turned toward the captain. He averted his eyes back toward the fire, his smile snapped away.
Would seeing his future self change history?
The consequences of a possible paradox were shattered as a panel on the wall sparked out. A shower of white cinders spewed out and fell gracefully to the floor. The distinct sound triggered Hubbard's memory of the fire, and he remembered exactly what would happen next. They'd learn in a moment that the hose team two held was only running at half-output and that was why they weren't getting the fire under control. A change in controls would remedy that and the crew would be back to normal duty in a half-hour.
Hubbard held the hose steady waiting for the revelation. Through the screams of coordinating the nannite spray, he worked to filter out the noise to something usable. Two minutes passed and nothing changed. Three minutes and the flames raged on. Another minute and an alert sounded that the engine containment field would soon be decimated, putting the ship's entire propulsion system at risk. Hubbard remembered hearing the alert only once before during his training to qualify for a post on the Oceania.
"That alert never went off," Hubbard said.
"What?" the person in front of him asked.
Hubbard glanced over to the confused young man holding the same hose as he did. "Nothing!" he shouted over the noise.
This wasn’t right.
The commanding officer approached the first team and took control of the front position. He maneuvered the hose toward the flames, bringing the entire team closer. Each step sent a shot of dread through Hubbard. He wanted to shout for them to stop. He wanted to scream that the hoses weren't operating properly, but he couldn't. Each second that his mind worked to overcome the paralyzing fear, he felt an overwhelming force freeze his attempts. Closer and closer they drew to the flames, the commanding officer forging ahead.
Hubbard remembered to exhale as the group paused and aimed their hose at the base of the fire. The nannites shot out at a full flow, piercing the air like an army of tiny arrows. The flames retreated. The smooth sweeping action of the hose pushed the flames further away and the blaze began shrinking. Combined with the second and third team's hoses, the crew began to gain control. All three hoses continued their sweeps. For a moment Hubbard could have sworn he felt a hint of cooler air brush his sweat-covered cheeks. Some air must have swept in as the flames died down. Hubbard gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on the hose, pushing himself to get as much control over his section of hose as possible. They needed to get this fire out before the damages in Enginneering left the Oceania stuck in deep space for months waiting for help to arrive.
Without warning, a bulkhead above team one exploded. Scraps of metal shot out like the shrapnel of a bomb, and Hubbard's entire team ducked. Nannites rained down in all directions, and the fire roared back with a vengeance. Crouching, Hubbard saw the hose dance on its own from the pressure. Nobody was holding it any more. All of the first team lay on the ground motionless, everybody’s skin badly burned with huge gashes from the explosion.
Searing heat rose through Hubbard's torso. It shot up from his stomach, burning every fiber of his intestines as it reached up into his chest. He coughed smoke and could practically feel ashes regurgitating up from his throat. Through eyes blurred with tears, he looked down to see his body tearing apart through horrific gashes on his skin. The wounds appeared from nowhere, but he felt them instantly. Hubbard let out a painful scream. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. His life went on past the Oceania. The Raven still awaited him.
Thoughts of his ship filled Hubbard's mind as he fell to the deck curled into a fetal position. The internal burning locked up all his muscles. Incapable of speaking, all Hubbard could do was think of an apology to Watts and Mallory for what took place on the Raven. A lone tear escaped him seconds before the pain shot into his head sending the world to black.
The captain's body was still warm. Ken knew Hubbard couldn't have been dead for long as he heaved the body onto the second examination table a few feet from Watts’s covered body. The silent medical station now served as a morgue for the Raven, holding two-thirds of its crew. Ken stared at the captain's relaxed face and frowned.
"I'm sorry I don't know what religion you subscribed to, Hubs," he spoke softly. "I... I guess I'll go with the old standby."
Ken spread his feet shoulder-length apart, placed his right hand over his heart, and bowed his head. He began reciting the ship's prayer.
"Higher One, take this soul and watch over him. Take Bill Hubbard into your care. Comfort him in this time of confusion. Guide him in this time of disorientation. Bless him with eternal life amongst the stars. For he shall live forever in the ever-expanding universe. It has been said, it has been done."
He let out a deep breath and blinked away the beginning of some tears that hadn't finished forming. He'd known those words for years yet never needed to recite them. Now the two people he needed the most had left him to say them alone. Ken pulled a sheet out from the storage bin and draped it over Hubbard. He turned to leave but stopped and placed a hand on the captain's chest.
"Thank you, Hubs. It was a great ride."
Ken gave two gentle pats and exited the medical station.
Back on the bridge Ken stood at the edge of the deck watching the stars fly by. If he stood close enough to the armored glass it felt like he was floating through space and wasn't on a ship at all. It was a fun trick, but it was also relaxing watching the serene landscape of stars. He tried to shake the image of Hubbard lying motionless on the deck . The permanent look of fear on the captain's face was one he'd never get out of his mind. Ken inhaled a long breath and moved to the captain’s seat on the bridge. Pulling up the Raven’s manifest, he couldn't say he was surprised to see the record of Bill Hubbard already marked as deceased from a fire on the Oceania years ago.
"God, Hubs. I hope it was quick and you didn't feel anything," Ken pinched his brow.
What was he going to do?
The haze had taken them out with ease, and Ken knew it was only a matter of time before he was sent back to his own hell. It was one in which he'd likely not return a second time. He couldn't let the Raven infect another ship coming to help, not that any were even close enough to assist. Ken paused, looked around the well-traveled bridge of the Raven, and clicked on the automated distress signal.
"To whoever gets this signal, this is Ken Mallory on board the Raven. This ship has been infected by a deadly virus that has temporal capabilities. It was picked up within the Galeen system and there should be no attempts to cross this area without all vents placed in the closed positions. I've set this message to relay throughout the system as I have abandoned ship. This message will likely reach you first, before the distress signal of my escape pod. Please know I am waiting to be picked up and require assistance. This message will repeat."
Ken released the switch and the recording stopped. A small green light shined indicating the ship was ready for distress mode. He keyed in his authorization code and the signal began transmitting on all frequencies. Ken calculated the relay buoys would pick it up in three days and relay it on a repeating basis for a couple of weeks. While the Raven was a good ship, he couldn't let it infect another ship. The escape pod was his only choice to ensure a quarantine from the haze. It was also necessary to survive once the self-destruct sequence he was about to initiate completed.
The instant Ken confirmed the Raven’s self destruct, the entire feel of the ship changed. A piercing announcement rang throughout the Raven, alerting that the self destruct had been activated. All overhead lights dimmed as red flood lights came on. The entire ship was thrown into a shadowy darkness covered by the red hue. The automated message finished, the final word echoing down the corridors into infinity.
Ken nodded with satisfaction. "Well that's done. No going back now."
He checked the beacon.His message was already on its third transmission loop. It would keep going until the ship was gone. Ken stood and picked up a small pouch holding his personal data cartridges. They were the only personal items he had aside from the clothes he could easily replace on any planet. Heading down the main corridor, Ken stopped at the Medical Station entrance. He looked at his shipmates and bowed his head before continuing to the escape pods. Another alert rang out reminding everyone on board that the ship was to explode in just a few minutes. Ken knew he was near the pods, but the alert caused him to pick up the pace toward the rear of the ship.
Ken was halfway to the pods when he heard a buzzing from behind. His jog slowed and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. The sound vibrated around his ears and sent a shiver down his spine. If he didn't know any better, he'd swear a person was standing directly behind him, a pressure from behind, some sort of presence.
Ken spun around to see a thick cloud of purple inches from his nose. He hadn't noticed it before, but being so close, Ken could make out thousands of tiny purple specs specks shooting all around the cloud like a pinball machine.
The haze shot forward, engulfing his entire head. The specks bounced off his skull at the same time, giving off a vibrating sensation. Seconds later his head was numb, and his mind swam from the pressure.