Space is vast, space is dark, and space is empty. But every now and again you can find an oasis in the desert, and the same is true for space. Not every star has a system of planets, but that’s okay. Even without a system of planets there’s still more than a lifetime’s exploration out there.
Space is empty between these oases. It always has been and it always will be, worlds without end, amen.
Or is it? Let’s have a look, shall we?
Somewhere out there, in a far-off corner of the explored galaxy there was a phenomenon. It was unlike anything the Confederate Science Directorate had ever seen before, and their long-range sensor observations were raising more questions than they were providing answers. So the decision was made to send a team to explore the phenomenon, determine what it was and what its effect on the fabric of local space and time would be, and then report back.
But what kind of expedition should be sent? On the one hand the Science Directorate wanted to send a purely scientific expedition, with a cruiser fitted with the most advanced sensor suites that modern technology could produce and hordes of scientists in a dozen specialties to interpret their readings. On the other hand the Armed Forces were concerned about the possibility of this phenomenon being artificially generated, and reasoned that if it was artificially generated then there would be some purpose behind it, and that purpose could well be a threat to the Confederation and its holdings.
In the end those two elements of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council deadlocked each other. One would think that this would enable the decision-making process to go forward, but one would be wrong, for those two elements of the council had been most persuasive in their arguments. Now the Council was almost evenly divided between those who were afraid of the phenomenon and those who were curious about it.
In the end the Chancellor made the only decision he felt was available to him. He sent a single vessel, a scout ship which would be fitted with the very latest sensor suite and which would carry a single scientist to act as an interpreter for the readings. If the phenomenon were truly benign then the scout would come back with a treasure trove of sensor observations and all would be well. If it proved to be a threat, then the scout would be destroyed and all the Confederate would have lost would be a single small ship and a handful of people. Cheap at the price.
The Chancellor felt there was no way that things could possibly go wrong.
* * *
The first problem that had to be dealt with was how to get there. The phenomenon was not located in a charted star system, so making use of the Hyperspace Slipstreams that link some pairs of stars to get there was out of the question. Certainly those slipstreams could be used to get the Hermes to the closest star system, but she would have to make the rest of her journey through normal space.
Accelerating at one gravity the Hermes would arrive at the periphery of the phenomenon after nearly eighteen months of travel. The problem was that the Hermes was a small ship and was only capable of carrying enough supplies for a three-month journey. Her crew would run out of supplies before they were a quarter of the way to their destination. So the decision was made to install stasis pods on the Hermes. With the crew in deep sleep all the way there and all the way back the supply problem would vanish, and the ship’s computer was more than adequate to the task of getting them there and bringing them back.
And so it was that the Hermes was equipped and provisioned at Ell-Four, in Earth orbit. She was then launched to Stationary Station, where she would pick up Doctor Dylan O’Connor, the astrotelemetrist who had been assigned to the mission. With the Doctor safely aboard, Captain Oswald “Ozzie” Sinclair, mission commander of the Hermes, watched as his crew entered Deep Sleep. Once the crew was safely asleep he then put the ship on course for the anomaly. He stayed awake for an additional three days to make sure that the computer could be trusted to handle the ship, and then placed himself in Deep Sleep.
For nine months the Hermes accelerated deeper and deeper into the void, reaching out with her sensors to see what she could see. The sensor readings were stored in a computerized log that was maintained automatically, but the observations recorded therein would be remarkably dull. Then, halfway to her destination, she stopped accelerating and started decelerating, thus beginning the process that would bring her to a full stop some kilometers short of the periphery of the anomaly.
When the Hermes had left Ell-Four her hull had been painted an almost uniform ivory. The only breaks in the color were the logo of the Confederation and her identification and call letters. When she came to a stop her hull was no longer white, no longer pristine, for she had suffered eighteen months of micrometeorite impacts and had traveled through many trillions of kilometers of interstellar dust.
As soon as the instruments on the Hermes registered that the ship had come to a full stop relative to anomaly the ship’s computer sent a command to the control system for the stasis pods. At length the stasis process was reversed and the crew was slowly brought back to life.
Ozzie climbed out of his pod and scratched absently at the bristle on his chin. Time is supposed to have no meaning in stasis, he thought to himself. If that’s true, then why does my beard grow? It was a question for which he had never been able to come up with an answer.
The next one to emerge from her pod was First Lieutenant Nicole “Nikki” Campbell, Ozzie’s copilot and second in command of the Hermes. She stretched her lithe body, tried to work the kinks out of her muscles as her conscious mind struggled to cut through the mental fog that Deep Sleep always seemed to leave behind. She opened her dark eyes and was pleased to discover that her vision was no longer blurred. She looked down at herself and smiled at the sight of the bulky t-shirt and panties she was wearing. Back home she would put them on before climbing into bed with her husband, for the simple reason that he seemed to enjoy taking them off of her. Of course, her husband seemed to enjoy taking anything off of her, but he was many hundreds of light years away. The memory made her smile, though, all the same.
Second Lieutenant Janet Parker, a Signals Specialist, was next to emerge from her pod. She stretched and ran her fingers through her shoulder length blonde hair as she looked around. Her eyes lingered for a moment on Nikki as she worked her way through a stretching routine and wondered in the back of her mind how she would look spread out on her back, wearing nothing but a thin sheen of passionate sweat. For a moment she considered all the ways that she could possibly find out, but then she managed to get control of her thoughts. It was always like this after a Deep Sleep, for she always came out of it in a high state of sexual arousal. She was ready to take on anything she could get her hands on, whether it was male or female or alien. But she also knew that they had been brought out of hibernation for a reason, and soon she would be up to her neck in sensor and signals data. Business before pleasure.
Second Lieutenant Angus MacPherson, Chief Engineer of the Hermes, climbed out of his pod and tried not to scratch himself too obviously. He was a Scot from New Edinburgh, a descendant of one of the original groups of migrants to leave Earth during the Great Exodus. The son of a merchant captain whose wife had died giving birth to his son he had spent most of his youth in space, traveling from one port of call to another. Between tours his father would take them back to New Glasgow, the capital of New Edinburgh, and Angus would have all the freedoms of normal children. He would laugh and play, get in and out of trouble with his friends. And he would always wear the kilt. That was one thing he hated about space travel. It was completely impractical to wear a kilt on a starship, so he would be forced to wear trousers, which he despised. But, such was the nature of service in the Confederate Armed Forces.
Dylan O’Connor was the last to emerge from his pod. He awkwardly pulled himself upright as he stumbled on the unfamiliar deck. He fisted the sleep from his eyes and looked around. He knew why he was here and he also knew that the Confederate leadership considered him eminently expendable. Given what was at stake he understood the logic of this implicitly, but by the same token he had no desire to die. He resolved to do his best to make sure that the Hermes made it back home in one piece. Just as soon as he woke up.
With everyone out of their pods the first order of business was to shower and change. So the crew filed out of the stasis chamber and staggered down the corridor to their individual state rooms. Their uniforms were laid out on their bunks, ready to put on, just the way they had left them before they had gone onto hibernation. Each member of the crew stripped out of their hibernation wear and stepped into the sonic shower, stood silent while the vibrators shook them apart and put them back together again. Sonics were a poor substitute for soap and water, but water is at a premium aboard a ship, especially a smaller ship like the Hermes. Despite that, each member of the crew felt more or less like a new person when they stepped out of the shower and crawled into their uniform jumpsuits. With their suits zipped up and their sidearms strapped to their thighs they filed out of their quarters and made for the galley.
Dylan wasn’t used to wearing a sidearm. As a staff analyst on Earth there was little reason for him to wear one. Indeed, most of his colleagues tended to leave their weapons at home despite the fact that regulations specifically called for them to be worn as part of the uniform at all times. He had known that he wouldn’t be able to get away with that kind of thing on the Hermes and had made certain to bring his pistol with him, lest Ozzie kick him off his ship before the mission even began. He had even made a visit to the firing range and tested the pistol to make sure it still worked. The memory of the loud snap and the flash of light when the weapon had been fired were still fresh in his mind, as was the memory of how angry the Marine in the slot beside him had been when he discovered that the bolt that took out his target had come not from his own weapon, but from Dylan’s. He had barely escaped from that with his life, and had resolved that the next time he went to the range it was going to be when no one else was there.
The galley had been stocked with sufficient provisions for five people for three months, and most of this was freeze dried. Each member of the crew stepped up to a storage locker, selected their meal of choice, and fed the packet into a food processor. A combination was entered into the control panel, and some moments later the packet was removed and the plastic layer covering the top was removed. Meal thus in hand, each member of the crew dropped into a chair at the galley table and proceeded to tuck in.
Conversation was light while they broke fast, for as far as they were concerned mere hours had passed since they had last seen each other. The meal passed largely in silence. Finally, with their bellies full the crew filed off to their duty stations. Angus went aft to the engineering spaces while the rest of the crew made their way forward to the cockpit.
The cockpit was a large flattened spheroid which made up the bow of the Hermes and it had sufficient space for four control stations. The forward most of those were the stations for the pilot and the copilot. These two stations were largely identical and bore a striking resemblance to the pilot’s station in a star fighter. The ship would be controlled through a combination of control stick, which came up out of the deck between the pilots legs, throttle, which was built into a panel to the right of the pilot’s chair and was studded with buttons and switches and warts and protrusions, and rudder pedals, which were built into the deck at the pilot’s feet. The stick was built for the right hand of an average human being. There was a trigger where the first finger would rest, and a series of thumb controls. The stick acted just like the control stick in a fighter. To make the ship dive the pilot would push the stick forward. To pull up the stick would be pulled back. To bank left or right the stick would be pushed left or right. A left or right motion of the stick, in conjunction with a push against a corresponding rudder pedal, would cause the ship to turn to the left or to the right. The throttle served to control the ship’s speed and acceleration.
The controls built into the throttle served to give the pilot instant access to sensor telemetry and communications channels, and also served to engage a holographic heads-up display which would manifest itself in front of the pilot between him and the forward viewport. Directly beneath the heads-up display was the main control console, which housed three main display monitors. The controls arrayed around each monitor would allow the pilot to display whatever piece of information he chose on whichever monitor he chose. He also had the option of sending that information right to the heads up display so that he would never have to look away from the viewport.
The copilot’s station was an almost exact duplicate of the pilot’s station, but with one crucial difference. A number of controls were built into the arms of the copilots chair to give the copilot control override over many of the ship’s core systems. These controls could also be used to allow the copilot to access the ship’s data library.
Ozzie and Nikki took their places as pilot and copilot respectively. They strapped themselves down into their chairs and began running through their status checklists. Though the two officers had memorized the checklists many years before, they still went to the trouble of taking the data pad and stylus which contained the written version of the checklist and studiously marking each item as it was verified. Routines were routine for a reason, they believed, and complacency could make you very dead very fast.
As Ozzie and Nikki were going over their checklists, Janet was strapping herself into the chair at her station right behind Nikki and going over a checklist of her own. Like her comrades she dutifully logged completion of her list before returning her data pad and stylus to the compartment beneath her seat.
The only member of the crew who had no official checklist was Dylan. Like the others he strapped himself down to his chair and then busied himself performing status checks on the sensors and data gathering equipment. He also checked the integrity of the sensor logs by flipping through the last several weeks of entries. He noted that the automatic sensors had gathered a great deal of data on the anomaly as they had drawn closer and closer to it. He kept that information opened on one of his screens as he brought the sensors off of automatic control and assumed direct control over them.
Having completed his checklist Ozzie brought his screens to life. On the left hand screen he called up a repeater of the sensor telemetry. On the right hand screen he called up the navigational sensor readouts, and on the center screen he called up a repeater of the ship’s status. He brought his heads up display to life and settled himself back in his chair, hid left hand gently gripping the throttle and his right hand gently gripping the stick. He turned and looked over at Nikki, who was sitting with her arms resting on the arms of her chair. He nodded at her and she nodded back. All was ready on that end.
“Janet, are you ready?” Ozzie asked.
Janet gave her instruments a last once over before answering, “Ready.”
Ozzie used the controls built into the throttle to open an intercom channel to Engineering. “Angus, are you ready?”
“Aye, I’m ready,” Angus answered from the after end of the ship.
“Good, we’re about to get started.” Then Ozzie turned to face Dylan, who was seated right behind him. “Doctor, are you ready?”
Dylan took a deep breath. “Yes. Yes, I’m ready.”
“All right, then.” Ozzie himself took a deep breath before throwing the final switch that would bring the ship’s systems firmly under manual control. “Here we go. What can you tell me, Doctor?”
Dylan paged through the most recent entries in the sensor logs for a moment before replying. “We’ve been able to map the outer edge of the phenomenon,” he said, “but I can’t tell you what’s happening inside.”
“Why not?” Ozzie wanted to know.
Dylan shook his head. “Our sensor returns are coming back heavily scrambled,” he answered. “I’ve not been able to figure out why yet. Perhaps if we get a little closer I might have a better chance.”
Ozzie shrugged. “It’s your show, Doc,” he commented. He pulled the throttle back and guided the ship closer to the anomaly. Nikki searched the sensor logs for the dimensions of the anomaly’s boundary. When she found that information she sent it to Ozzie’s heads up display. Ozzie smiled his thanks and placed Hermes into orbit around the anomaly, leaving some ten thousand kilometers distance between them.
As the Hermes drew closer and closer to the anomaly Dylan worked frantically to clear up the sensor returns from the center of the anomaly. He treated it as he had numerous intellectual puzzles over the course of his life. He was both curious and determined, and he knew that one way or another he would solve this puzzle. It was a mystery, and Dylan loved mysteries. He entered a final sequence into the control panel, and suddenly the returns cleared before his very eyes. He logged the algorithm he had been using and applied it to the garbled readings from the sensor logs, was unsurprised when they cleared up too. He brought another screen to life and displayed the two sets of readings side by side.
Ozzie waited patiently for a few moments while he and Nikki went through the ritual of confirming their orbit around the anomaly. Once the two of them were satisfied with the results of their efforts Ozzie returned the ship to automatic pilot and turned to Dylan. “Do you have anything new?” he asked.
This time Dylan was able to provide him with an answer of sorts. “The readings have cleared up,” he explained, “and I’ve been able to clear up the readings posted in the sensor logs, but I’m not sure about what I’m seeing.”
“What do you mean?” Ozzie wanted to know.
Dylan shook his head. “These readings aren’t like anything that I’ve ever seen before,” he said. “If I had to guess I would have to say that the anomaly is some kind of portal. I couldn’t say to where, though.”
Ozzie snorted derisively. “I though this ship was supposed to have the most advanced sensor suite in the Confederation mounted on her. All that equipment installed and that’s the best answer you can give me?”
Dylan raised his head from his console. “These are the most advanced sensors in the Confederation,” he defended. “And the computers on this ship have been programmed with the sum total of human scientific knowledge, as well as all the long distance sensor observations from Earth.” He gestured out the forward viewport at the anomaly. “What we have here is something outside our experience, something that’s never been seen before. Personally, I’m amazed that we know as much about it as we do. Perhaps we should be patient.”
Ozzie shook his head in disgust but otherwise let the matter drop. He had been a combat pilot during the Rebellion, and as such he was used to having all the data he needed readily available at the drop of a hat. This scientific scouting, though, this was another thing entirely. It was frustrating for him not to know everything there was to know about the anomaly. They had been within sensor range of it for weeks; surely the sensors and the computer must be able to come up with something in all that time. Perhaps Dylan was right and patience was required.
Ozzie grinned to himself, for patience was never his strong suit. “Janet, are you getting anything on the comm bands?” he asked.
Janet looked up from her console and shook her head. “I’m not picking up anything from the center of the anomaly,” she replied.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J A Tyzuk