Ozzie watched his heads up display as the Hermes completed her first orbit around the anomaly. Then he got an idea. “Nikki, didn’t the Science Command give us a pair of sensor probes?” he asked.
Nikki turned to him and nodded. “Yes, they did,” she answered. “They were loaded into the center torpedo tubes on the starboard and port sides.”
Ozzie nodded judiciously at that. The center tubes on the starboard and port sides could be configured to fire forward or aft. “Dylan, correct me if I’m wrong but a sensor probe fired into the center of the anomaly would give you valuable insight into what’s happening inside the boundary, would it not?”
Dylan frowned in thought for a long moment, and then nodded vigorously. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it would.”
Ozzie nodded. “Then that’s what we’ll do. Nikki, I want you to ready the starboard center tube to fire forward.”
“Roger that,” Nikki answered and set to work.
“Janet,” Ozzie continued, “I want you to make certain that the probe telemetry is being recorded in at least three different places in the main computer. I want you and Dylan both watching up until the moment the probe goes through the rift, and even afterwards.”
Janet nodded. “Understood.”
“Ready,” Dylan confirmed.
Ozzie turned to face Nikki, got a nod in return. He turned back to his controls and disengaged the autopilot. He used the rudder pedals to bring the Hermes around to face the anomaly. The fingers of his left hand flicked switches on the throttle until the weapons select switch on the stick lit up. He flipped the selector to torpedo and settled his finger against the trigger. He took a deep breath. “Fire in the hole,” he said and pressed the trigger.
The probe lanced out away from the Hermes, riding a tail of fire. Moments later it disappeared through the rift in a flash of light.
Ozzie turned his head. “What’s wrong?”
“The probe transmitted its telemetry just fine,” Dylan answered, “right up until the moment it passed through the rift. Then the signal just terminated.”
“Janet?” Ozzie said.
“He’s right, sir,” Janet answered. “The signal just cut off.”
“Was the probe destroyed?” Ozzie asked.
Dylan shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. The telemetry doesn’t read that way.”
“He’s right, boss,” Janet confirmed. “These probes transmit environmental and status data along with the sensor telemetry. If the probe was in any kind of jeopardy we would have been able to see it and we didn’t.”
“Very well,” Ozzie answered. “Send the recall command.”
Janet keyed a command into her board and watched her monitor for a moment. “No response.”
“Scuttle the probe.”
Janet keyed the self destruct command into her board and watched her monitor, looked up at Ozzie. “No response.”
Ozzie shook his head disgustedly. “Janet, I want you and Angus to go over the signals gear with a fine-tooth comb, fond out if there’s anything on our end that’s keeping the signal from getting through.”
“Dylan, what can you tell me now?” Ozzie demanded.
Dylan gestured at his screens. “My original analysis seems to be holding up,” he answered. “It’s definitely a portal or a rift of some kind. However, it only seems to allow the passage of physical objects. It doesn’t seem to allow the passage of directed radiation such as our radio signals.”
“So you’re saying that our control transmissions are being stopped at the door,” Ozzie summarized.
“That’s right,” Dylan agreed. “It’s the same with the telemetry from the probe. I’ll bet you even money the probe is still transmitting but the rift isn’t letting the signal through.”
Ozzie leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment. Dylan’s theory would certainly explain why they weren’t getting a signal from the probe anymore and why they couldn’t control the probe. It would also explain why they hadn’t yet been able to get a clear reading of what’s on the other side of the rift. Having a theory was all well and good, but the Science Command was going to want proof, and it was up to Ozzie to provide that proof.
Ozzie could only think of one way to do that.
“Janet, what’s the status of our communications gear?” Ozzie asked.
Janet looked up from her board. “Green lights all across the board,” she reported.
“Good,” Ozzie said. “Record a burst message for the Confederation. Include our observations to date and inform then that we are going through the rift.”
Nikki turned to face Ozzie. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” she wondered.
Ozzie shrugged. “Damned if I know,” he answered. “I just want my sensor probe back.”
“Message away,” Janet reported.
“Right, then,” Ozzie said. “Here we go.”
The Hermes surged forward and went through the rift.
And that’s when all hell broke loose.
The Hermes bucked and rocked as she went through, and nothing that Ozzie could do would help him regain control of her. Nikki jabbed at her controls as she tried to bypass the main computer and give Ozzie a truly manual helm to work with. Janet ripped the headphones from her head and clutched at her ears as she was overloaded by a cacophony of white noise. Angus was screaming over the intercom about power fluctuations and spikes in the main reactor.
Nikki cursed and reached down under her control console. She tore a cover from an access panel and reached inside, tore a handful of wires from their connection leads. Half of the controls on Nikki’s and Ozzie’s panels went dark, but all of a sudden the ship wasn’t fighting him anymore. Ozzie pushed the throttle forward and used the stick and rudder pedals to stop the ship’s tumbling.
Ozzie breathed a sigh of relief when he steadied the ship, but he didn’t take his hands off the controls. Nikki unstrapped her restraints and dropped to her side on the deck, started the process of reconnecting the wires she had disconnected. Janet dialed down the volume for her signals board and put the headset back on, started cycling her way through the channels.
Nikki slid the last connector into place and the control boards came back to life. She climbed back into her chair and ran the computer through a test sequence. It passed with flying colors and she nodded to Ozzie as she strapped herself back down. Ozzie switched over to autopilot and wiped the sweat from his eyes. “God help me, I don’t ever want to have to do that again,” he breathed.
“Great God Almighty!” Dylan said.
“What have you got?” Ozzie demanded tiredly.
“I’ve got the telemetry signal from our probe,” Dylan reported. “It’s coming through loud and clear.”
“Download the telemetry log,” Nikki ordered. “Analyze the logs for the exact moment that it went through the rift.”
“Roger that,” Dylan answered and set to work.
Ozzie dropped his hand back to his throttle and keyed his intercom. “How are we holding up, Angus?” he asked.
Angus was sounding a little stressed. “Well, I’ve got the reactor systems settled down, but I’ll be thanking you not to do something like that again.”
“No promises,” Ozzie answered.
Dylan had pulled up the probe telemetry log and was going over the data. “I’ve got something here,” he said.
“Tell me,” Ozzie commanded.
“I’ve had a look at the telemetry,” Dylan said. “The logs for the time frame thirty seconds before and after penetration of the rift have all been wiped clean.”
“How is that possible?” Ozzie demanded.
“If I’m reading this right it looks like the probe encountered an electromagnetic pulse when it passed through the rift. That would be what wiped the logs.”
“Ah, hell,” Ozzie cursed. “Check our own logs.”
“One step ahead of you,” Dylan said as he called up their own logs. It didn’t take him long to go through them. “You were right. Our logs were wiped the same way.”
“Of course,” Ozzie said. “They would be, wouldn’t they? Janet, send the recall signal to the probe, bring it close aboard.”
What Ozzie wanted more than anything else just then was to go back through the rift and head for home, but he had questions that needed some answers first. And the most important one was, “Dylan, is this a two way phenomenon?”
Dylan frowned at the question. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, we were able to come through it one way,” Ozzie explained. “Will the phenomenon allow us to go back the way we came?”
Dylan thought about that for a moment. “Well, now, that’s a very good question, isn’t it?”
“I thought so,” Ozzie commented. “How about finding me an answer to that one, all right?”
“Yeah,” Dylan answered as he set to work. A few minutes later he looked back up from his monitors. “Well, the readings on this side of the rift are identical to the readings on the other side of the rift, so theoretically we should be able to go back through the way we came.”
Ozzie shook his head. “Theoretically isn’t good enough,” he said. “Command the probe to go back through the rift. Keep an eye on the telemetry and tell me if it behaves the same way as it did before. “
“Right.” Dylan programmed the probe and sent it on its way. The probe’s engines fired and it arced toward the rift, but this time instead of disappearing through the rift the probe exploded as it hit the outer edge of the rift. Dylan cursed to himself. “Probe telemetry indicates total destruct,” he reported.
“Janet?” Ozzie asked.
Janet consulted her monitors. “Telemetry analysis confirmed,” she said. “The probe was destroyed trying to go back through the barrier.”
“Well, isn’t that just lovely,” Ozzie commented.
Dylan started as his console beeped for attention. He answered the alarm and peered into one of his screens. “Multiple new sensor contacts on approach vector,” he reported.
Ozzie cursed. “What kind of contacts?” he demanded.
Dylan shook his head. “The computer doesn’t recognize the designs,” he said. “Mass readings show them to be starship displacement. It looks like a carrier group and some star fighters.”
“How fast are they coming in?” Ozzie asked.
“Contacts approaching at one-half the speed of light,” Dylan reported.
Nikki felt her eyes go wide and turned to face Ozzie. “There’s nothing in the Confederate inventory that’ll go that fast,” she said.
“No, there isn’t,” Ozzie agreed. “Have they detected us yet?”
Dylan consulted his monitors. “Yes. There’s a group of fighters on an intercept course, looks like a flight of four.”
Janet’s board beeped for attention, causing her to look to her monitors. “They’re signaling us,” she reported.
Dylan frowned. “Can you make out what they’re saying?”
Janet shook her head. “The language isn’t like anything I’ve ever heard before,” she reported. “Some of it sounds like Tranite Yar mixed with bits and pieces of at least sixteen other languages. Plus there are some bits that I don’t recognize. If I had to guess they’re challenging us to identify ourselves.”
Ozzie stared into the sensor repeater that was showing on his heads up display, frowned at the four blips representing the approaching fighters. “They’re probably ordering us to heave to, surrender our vessel, and prepare to be boarded,” he mused.
“That sounds about right,” Nikki agreed. “What do our orders say about possible first contact?”
Ozzie continued to stare at the sensor repeater. “Our orders read to avoid first contact unless absolutely necessary.”
Nikki frowned. “The probe exploded when we sent it back through,” she said. “The same thing could easily happen to us if we go back through. Those people could know a safer way to get back to our own territory.”
Ozzie seemed to think about that for a long moment, until the sensor imagery on his heads up display changed. “Oh, hell!” he cursed. “Incoming fire!”
“Incoming fire confirmed,” Dylan reported.
Ozzie hauled back on the throttle, bringing the Hermes engines back to life. He rolled the ship over onto her side and turned back toward the rift. When he completed his turn he tapped two switches on the throttle, ejecting a variety of flares and decoys from launchers built into her hull.
As the Hermes drew closer and closer to the rift the torpedoes passed through the cloud created by the flares and decoys, which had no effect on the torpedoes’ course. Ozzie cursed and willed his little ship to go faster as he watched the torpedoes gain on them. His eyes flicked over to the column of numbers which showed the ETA of the torpedoes and their time to intercept the rift. It was going to be close.
The closer they got to the rift, though, the more Ozzie had to fight the controls. It was almost as if the ship just didn’t want to go through, and the closer they got the harder the ship bucked and rocked.
Ozzie had no control of the ship when she went through the rift, which was probably just as well, for he never did find out what happened when they went back through. One moment he was trying to regain control of the Hermes, and the next moment his world was a steady, silent, unified black.
* * *
The lead scientist cursed as he watched the life sign indicators of his five latest test subjects plummet to absolute zero. The brain wave and heartbeat indicators all flatlined at the same time. Of course the medics who had been assigned to the project did everything they could to revive the subjects, but it didn’t do any good. They were quite dead.
The lead scientist turned to his assistant. “This can’t go on,” he said. “This is the fifth group to die during the simulation.”
The assistant shrugged. “That’ll happen on a project like this,” he said. “I mean, think about it. You’re taking the logs of a ship that was found derelict at the edge of explored space, a ship that was logged as having been sent out on a survey mission some two hundred years ago, and you’re piping that information directly into a person’s brain. This has the effect of making them think that they’re going through everything the original crew went through when they came back through some phenomenon that they were supposed to be investigating. Now I know that we intend to make the whole thing seem like a dream, but what if that’s not what we’re getting? Maybe the simulation is just a little too real for them.”
“What do you mean?” the lead scientist demanded.
The assistant leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Well, it seems to me that given the situation aboard the Hermes when she went back through the rift, the way Ozzie had so much trouble keeping her under control, the crew would logically expect that they wouldn’t survive the transition from one universe to another. Maybe the very thought that death is imminent is what’s killing them.”
The lead scientist shook his head. “You think that they’re willing themselves to die? That’s preposterous,” he protested. “Besides which there is absolutely no proof that the phenomenon the Hermes was to investigate is actually a gateway between universes.”
“There’s no proof that it isn’t either,” the assistant returned. “But then the only proof we have that the anomaly ever existed at all is in the sensor logs of the Hermes. The long range observation logs at the Science Command never mention anything like what she was investigating.”
The lead scientist drove his fist into the table in frustration. “That’s the trouble with this whole damn project,” he complained. “We’re supposed to be looking for answers and all we find is more questions.”
The assistant looked out into the operating theatre, where the medics had disconnected the latest round of corpses from the life monitors and were in the process of covering their heads with white sheets. “Well, on the bright side at least we won’t run out of test cases.”
The lead scientist had to admit that was certainly true. There were plenty of inmates in the Confederate Corrections System who were facing death penalties. Finding another five volunteers would certainly pose no problem.
The lead scientist shrugged. “Well, nothing for it, I suppose. Get the chamber ready for the next subjects.”
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J A Tyzuk