Well, I managed to get it all done and follow the proper prompt this time (provided by both Patti and Patti's sister). I guess it kind of classifies as space opera? It's certainly not about technology.
It was fun to work on, and both reminded me of my personal difficulties in writing science fiction and somehow made a lot of them less scary than I had remembered them being. Is there more to this world? Maybe. I imagine if there is, it is not nearly so alphabetized.
About 0330 Earth Standard Time, Commander Karn awoke to a distress signal being broadcast over the comm system. He rubbed his face and groaned. He knew part of his job was to always be prepared, but some small part of his mind couldn’t let go of the idea that it was too early in the morning for trouble, even as another part reminded him that morning was a relative term when one was in space. He punched a button on the comm console.
“Be right there,” he said.
“Come quickly, Commander,” a female voice responded. “You’re going to want to see this.”
“Damn,” muttered Karn. Xardi, the night commander, rarely called him up for anything when she had control of the ship. On the one hand, he worried that she would eventually try to usurp him. On the other hand, she allowed him to get far more sleep than previous subordinate officers had allowed him.
Except for tonight, of course.
Five minutes later, he stumbled onto the bridge, rubbing his face with one hand, a mug of coffee in the other. The three members of the night crew gave him a quick salute as he entered before turning back to their posts. Xardi was going over some images at the commander’s console. She stepped aside as he approached.
“Good timing, commander,” she said. “We just received technical reports on the source of the signal.”
He decided he was too groggy to reprimand her for her less-than-orthodox wake-up call. She would just state that it was the most efficient way to brief him on the situation, and he couldn’t really argue with that. He bent over the console and looked at the screen. The source ship was a small human freighter. Several small holes dotted the ship’s plating, and damage was reported to all major systems. In a smaller window on the screen, a worried woman in an environmental suit spoke soundlessly to a camera. Karn switched the sound on.
“…is even coming from. We’re a freighter. We’re not equipped for this. Please, if you’re reading this and can help in any way….”
Jamming static cut through the audio and fuzzed the visual. “...around again! God, what do they want? Please he....”
Karn switched the sound off. He had already heard this message several times as he had gotten dressed.
“Let’s have a closer look. Do we have the coordinates?”
“Mapped and ready, commander,” said Xardi. “Just waiting for your go-ahead.”
“Note that my go-ahead has been given,” said Karn. “Maybe we can still show up in enough time to do some good.”
“On our way, commander,” Josan piped from the helm. Karn noted he had rearranged the monitor screens again. Josan and Eirinn, the day helmsman, had a long-standing personal war over the most efficient setup of the thrust controllers. It had escalated to the point that it had come before both himself and Xardi a few times before he had told them that if they didn’t work it out, they would both be stripped of their rank and tossed in the bridge. They were still constantly rearranging things, but neither he nor Xardi heard about it anymore.
“Prepare weapons, and wake up Ves and Hanna,” said Karn. “We need to be ready for anything. Oh, and follow regulations on the wake-up call this time, Xardi.”
“Quiet and non-informative.” Xardi frowned. “As you command.”
She hit a few buttons and paged Vas and Hanna. Karn stifled a yawn and began to go over Xardi's fragmented report of the last few several hours.
Twenty minutes later, the ship lurched out of hyperspace. Before them, the freighter drifted gently through the void, a smattering of small debris surrounding it. Karn flipped through the information coming in from the sensor feeds.
“Until now, I was hoping this was some sort of hoax,” muttered Josan.
Ves, who had arrived on the bridge minutes earlier with Hanna, coughed. “This is what we do, Josan,” he said. “Patrol the system, find trouble, put an end to it.”
“Whatever, Ves.” Josan waived a hand dismissively. “Mostly we just putz about and try not not to get hit by asteroids.”
Xardi gave Josan a hard look. “Shut it, you two,” she said. “We have work to do.” She turned back to Karn. “Waiting for your order, commander.”
“You have the deck, Xardi,” said Karn. “I'll take the team and look over the ship, see if we can't find any survivors.”
“Zero-G gets you out there every time, doesn't it, commander?” Xardi smirked.
“Always,” said Karn. He returned her smirk, and then his face went stern. “Better let us back when we're done with reconnaissance, night commander.”
“Better hurry back,” said Xardi. She gave him a firm salute. “Aye, aye, sir. Keep us informed, and we'll be waiting.”
“Come on,” said Karn, nodding toward Ves and Hanna, and the three of them headed to the boarding airlock.
Dark. Dark and cold and deadly quiet. That was what it was like on a ship with no power. Like a bad dream you couldn't quite wake up from, one where you knew you were dreaming, could feel the bed beneath you, but just couldn't get to it, couldn't scream, couldn't move. Well, except you could move in the ship. The team had brought flashlights, too, but Karn floated there for a moment just inside the derelict ship's airlock and let the feel of the place settle around him first. It was good to be reminded of the danger always just outside his ship's walls.
Eventually he flipped his light on and signaled for the rest of the team to do the same.
“Fire your weapons only if necessary,” he said. It was an unnecessary command. The ship was a wreck and both Ves and Hanna knew how to handle themselves, but it upset at least part of the stillness.
Getting through the inner doors took a bit more work than getting through the outer ones. Like most space ships, the freighter was fitted with a series of secondary airlock doors in case of punctures to the outside hull. A close-up inspection had shown the entire outside of the ship looked more like Swiss cheese than plate metal, which meant they were in for a lot of prying and a handful of small explosives if they wanted to check everything out. Luckily, they only needed a room with an intact data access terminal to get started, and there was one of those just beyond the main airlock.
Hanna set about restoring power to one of the ship's closed network terminals, and soon enough it blinked to life.
“I've got it up, commander,” she said. “You want me to try and pull crew files or ship files first?”
“Just keep to procedure, Hanna,” said Karn. “Check for anomalies. See if you can't find out what hit them.”
Karn looked over the outermost wall and poked his finger into one of the holes. It almost looked like the ship had been hit with a machine gun. Or several machine guns. Machine guns capable of piercing three inches of carbotanium and bypassing inertial dampeners. And not leaving behind any bullets.
“Look at this, commander,” called Hanna. Her voice had an odd strain to it. “They managed to get some interesting data on their attackers before everything went offline, but I've never seen anything like this before.”
“My God above,” said Ves. He had abandoned his examination of the inner walls and was looking over Hanna's shoulder. Karn pushed off the Swiss cheese wall to join them.
Not a lot surprised Karn these days. After one spends some time traveling in space and meeting alien races, one kind of moves past culture shock and into a state of easy acceptance of all kinds of weird shit. But even so, he felt a chill run down his spine and the breath catch in his throat at the image on the terminal.
Overall, it looked like some sort of sea creature. It wasn't quite the squid-like form of old tales of space monsters, but it did have something that strongly resembled barbed tentacles. They were arranged around a circular, beaked orifice on an elongated body with a metallic sheen.
“Possibility of it being a ship?” he asked.
“Question's a good one, but I don't have an answer for it, commander,” said Hanna. “According to their data, these things give off signatures like a ship, but move like... well, like something else. I've never seen propulsion systems and movement this, and I used to obsess over alien ships as a girl.”
“Rather like you do now, I'd say,” said Vas.
“Shut up, Vas,” said Hanna.
“Tone it down, both of you,” said Karn. “Hanna, stream the info back to the ship. All of it. If those things come back, we need to get out of here Vas, help me get that door open. We still need to check for survivors.”
“Understood,” said Hanna.
Vas gave him a quick nod and pushed off toward the door. Karn pushed off after him and together they set to work on the secondary airlock door.. If anyone was still alive in the ship, they'd be beyond there.
“We've got the data, commander” came Xardi's voice over the comm channel. “We'll keep an eye out for any of these... whatever they are. We'll see if we can't figure out where any surviving crew might be hiding, too.”
“Xardi, if you so much as think one of those things is heading our way, I want to know about it immediately,” said Karn. “I saw some of the footage on their movement. I want us to be gone before they know we're here.”
“Yes, commander,” said Xardi. “We'll give you as much head's up as we can.”
“Zone's open, commander,” said Vas. “You ready?”
“All set,” said Karn. “Hanna, let's move.”
Beyond the doors the darkness loomed even heavier. No fragments of light from the hull breeches made it this far. No panels blinked. They moved silently through darkness, making their way slowly toward the bridge. If the woman who sent the message was still alive, hopefully she would still be there. If not, maybe Hanna could get the internal scanners up.
“Commander, if this is built like a standard freight, the bridge should be past this door,” said Hanna. She tapped the secondary airlock door lightly with her knuckles, then pointed to the indicator light above it. “Looks like the room's still pressurized. Or, at least enough to keep the sensors thinking it is.”
“Don't open it yet,” said Karn. “I don't want anything and anyone not nailed down to come flying out at us. Can you get the security viewer up and open communications to the room?”
“Even a novice tech could do that, commander,” smirked Hanna. “Unless this ship has some serious security measures, in which case we'll want to ask equally serious questions about their cargo.”
Fingers and hands moving deftly, Hanna had the panel up in seconds. She punched the button for entry request and waited. For a moment, there was nothing. Then a familiar image appeared on the screen. It was the woman from the distress signal.
“Go for it, commander,” said Hanna, pushing away from the panel to make room for Karn.
He slid in front and plugged an audio wire from his suit into the terminal. “This is Day Commander Arterius Karn of the HA military patrol ship Zealand. We picked up your distress signal and are here to help. To whom am I speaking?”
“I'm Cara Neless, captain of the HA frigate ship Meerkat,” said the woman in the image. “It's good to see you, Commander Karn.”
“Just let us know when you're ready and we'll open the doors and get you out of there,” said Karn.
“Keep the doors shut for now, Commander Karn,” said Cara Neless. “I'd rather you get my cargo out first, if any of it is still intact.”
“Lives are more important than possessions, Miss Neless,” said Karn. “We've already accessed your databases and saw what attacked you. We're not keen on staying around until it comes back.”
“Many more lives will be benefited by our cargo, Commander Karn,” said Cara Neless. “We were heading to the medical center on Io with a shipment of supplies. It's imperative that it gets there.”
Now that changed things. If someone was attacking a medical supply ship, it could easily be seen as an act of terrorism... or worse. Karn needed to get the full story.
“Open the seals on the other doors, if you still have power on them, and we'll get your cargo and any remaining crew out,” he said.
“Please hurry, commander,” said Cara Neless. “I'm sure I don't have to tell you that this shipment is time-sensitive.”
“Quick, get moving,” Karn signaled to the others. “Report this to Xardi and let's see what we can salvage. Miss Neless, I need you to come with us. I need to know what happened here and where we might find the rest of your crew.”
“Ren and Ansom should still be in the hold,” said Cara Neless. Her expression looked worried behind her helmet. “They were going to try and move the shipment closer to the center of the ship, away from the... the attack, I guess. I haven't been able to get them on the comm since power went down. We didn't have time to synch up our suits. I don't know if they're hurt or....”
She trailed off and raised a hand to her face in a worried gesture, only to find it stopped by the helmet of her environmental suit. “I'm sorry, commander,” she said softly. “I've been trying not to think about it. Please, if you can, find them.”
“That's our job, Miss Neless,” said Karn. “Now, are you coming or are we going to have to drag you out?”
Until she brought up the crew, Cara Neless had appeared fine. Now it looked like she was seconds from a mental breakdown. They had to get her back on board the Zealand before then. Distressed people were easier to deal with once they were somewhere they perceived as safe.
Very slowly, Cara Neless buckled and tightened the straps on her seat. “Get back from the door, commander,” she said. “Depressurizing in five, four, three...”
Work on retrieving the supplies from the cargo hold went quickly. Most of them seemed to be intact. Sadly, the same could not be said for the rest of Cara Neless's crew. She had not taken the news well.
Xardi had overseen most of it and gotten them out of there, plotting a course for Io. Karn had found that the few hours of sleep he had gotten had not quite been enough, and as usual, Xardi was more than willing to take the ship over from him for a while. He supposed he'd just have to allow it this time. A lack of sleep does strange things to a man's head.
“You'll thank me later,” she had said. “When we get to Io, you'll get to spin the tale of your noble rescue of a woman and her medical supplies. You'll be a hero, commander.”
“Zip it, Xardi,” he had replied. “I'm going to see if I can't get some shut-eye before I even make it to my quarters.”
“As you wish, commander,” she had said.
Before long, they had reached the station on Io, and sure enough, Karn was more than glad to be well-rested, though not so much for tale-spinning as for all the political bullshit he had to wade through to deliver the supplies and process reports. If only being commander was all noble glory and no paperwork.