The Sinking Ship, The Grand Applause
Posted on July 26th, 2021 by D'bryn Zoë
Zeb Loren Spaceport (SP-27-AL)
June 28, 2400
The proximity alarm bee-bee-beeped Eivind Bakke out of a fitful noc shift half-sleep. His head jerked up.
A black shape waddled through the fresh snowfall on the path to the parking lot. Vess Risson; Eivind would recognize that bright green ushanka anywhere. It was beyond Eivind why the chief constable was coming out to this dreary colony’s least-busy spaceport at 0200 hours in the blizzard of the decade, but he welcomed the company. He watched Vess trudge to the main entrance on the south side of the tower to begin her long climb upward.
Damnable noc shift. Honeymoon month was long past. His body had at last remembered that it was diurnal and was prepared to fight his brain tooth-and-nail in this dispute. This night had designs on him. Winter was at its peak, which, at this latitude, provided a total of four hours of gloomy amber sunlight that was gone before he woke up. The blizzard was on its third night, wrapping Alira’s Landing in endless near-sideways swirls of heavy flakes. Towering drifts lined the roadways between the town and the spaceport, such that rickety terraforming carriers had to be hastily retrofitted to haul excess snow away to nearby fields.
Damnable border colonies. Whole roads paved without snowmelt technology, few airworthy personnel shuttles, five replicators within Alira’s Landing city limits—all so the supply ships from Fezikha IV could drop supplies in Metriaga spaceports for other ships to come pick up and take somewhere else.
Oh, and not enough medical-grade stimulants to assist noc shifters through their paramount duties of minding such spaceports. At least Eivind had second-degree access to one of those five replicators, and enough rations to get a weekly bag of decent coffee.
The lift door shunked open. Vess emerged, her coat unclasped, her scarf unspooled. ‘Eivind, hey,’ she said.
‘Hey Vess. What’s got you out here so late?’
‘You didn’t get the alert about the Honah Lee, I take it?’ She pulled off her green ushanka, shook out her hair.
Eivind’s gut jumped. Shit, did I miss it? ‘No,’ he said, spinning to his terminal and double-checking. ‘Yeah, no, nothing came here. Why’d it go to you and not here?’
‘Same reason I dragged my ass out here through a blizzard instead of raising you on the comm.’ By which she meant, Because this whole planet is a neglected shit-heap and our computer systems are buggier than a septic swamp on a summer day. ‘Put out a long-range scan, would you?’
‘Everything else quiet?’
‘Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?’
‘Just a feeling. If it was any other ship than the Honah Lee…’
‘Why? What happened with the Honah Lee?’
‘That was the ship that logged an unscheduled course-diversion for a distress call on its way here.’
‘And now that the Honah Lee’s this late with zero communication, I’m nervous.’
Eivind checked the long-range scans. ‘Usual traffic, nothing out of the ordinary. I don’t see the Honah Lee.’
‘As of…’—Vess checked the time on a nearby console—‘eighteen minutes ago, they’re twenty hours late.’
‘That’s not out-of-the-ordinary enough to start sending out a search party, is it?’
‘Not officially. But, again, this is the Honah Lee. Captain Geilar always sends word when he’s running even three hours late.’
Eivind stood up, pointed at Vess. ‘Coffee?’
‘Only if there’s creamer.’
Eivind shook his head.
‘Shit.’ She sighed. ‘Ah, gimme some anyway.’
He grabbed two paper cups from the tube, quick-heated two cups’ worth of Elegant Dawn light roast. Two packs of sugar for himself. ‘We haven’t had much trouble out this far, not since the Dominion War. What do you think could’ve held up the Honah Lee?’
Vess yanked off her gloves, let the coffee cup warm her hands. ‘It’s long-range space travel, Eivind. What can’t go wrong out there? Singularities, pirates, incorporeal super-organisms, nebulae that make people act drunk…’
‘What? Is that a real thing?’
‘Or, and more importantly—jokes aside—something that could spread to this colony, if it finds a way off the ship and onto land.’
Eivind burned his tongue on a hasty sip of light roast. There were horror tales as old as time about organisms that found their way to human colonies and overran them, and he had no desire to be a part of such tales. ‘Or, maybe, Vess, the distress call could have been genuine and they’re helping people. We don’t know, and we won’t know until they get here.’
‘Nothing on long-range yet?’
He checked. ‘Nope.’
‘Sensors are calibrated, right?’
‘Massmann oversaw routine calibration yesterday during day shift, and last night Ted and I did the double-check. They’re all green.’
Vess sighed, took her inaugural sip of coffee. ‘Oh shit, Eivind, I didn’t mean to take up some of your replicator rations. I thought you just had the standard mud up here.’
‘No, that’s my Elegant Dawn. And don’t worry, I always rep enough that I can share.’
They sat and sipped in silence for awhile, both watching for sign of the Honah Lee.
At last Vess said, ‘Hey, what ever happened with Alycia Malcolm?’
‘Oh. She healed up.’
‘That’s good. All the way?’
‘Yeah. Last I saw, she’s up and about, walking like nothing ever happened.’
Eivind phewed. ‘You’re telling me. Never saw anything move so fast. Not up here, anyway.’
‘Did they kill it?’
‘No, Clarendon’s got a line to a biologist down in Ballad who was studying wildlife up here. They stunned it, shipped it down to them.’
‘What did her dad say?’
‘Alycia’s dad? Nothing.’
‘Not that I heard.’
‘Halta Malcolm said nothing about it?’
‘People can change, I guess,’ Vess said with a shrug.
‘Hey, what’s that?’
Eivind spun in his chair, saw a new reading on the long-range scanner. He selected it and brought up its information: ‘Oh shit, there she is! The Honah Lee!’
Vess launched from her chair and hovered behind Eivind. ‘What’s their inbound telemetry? Anything unusual?’
‘No. Coming in at warp four, signals reading optimal.’
Eivind checked his readings, checked them again, ran them through the diagnostic algorithm for a triple-check.
‘What?’ Vess said again.
‘Eivind, what are you looking at?’
‘System picked up a minor radiation leak all across her propulsion systems so it fed me life signs, and…there aren’t any.’
Vess took the second station, spilling a splash of coffee on it. She opened a channel. ‘Spaceport Two Seven Alfa Lima to all orbital watch-stations, this is Chief Constable Vess Risson, please respond.’
Two Seven Alfa Lima, this is Watch Station One Five. What’s the problem, Constable?
‘We have an incoming ghost ship, coming in at warp four. Sending data.’
Two Seven Alfa Lima, thank you, we see it. Deploying interceptors, alerting all patrols.
Eivind confirmed the Honah Lee’s bearing. ‘Jesus, it’s headed right for A.L. It’ll stop, right? The automated proximity detector will power down the warp core, right?’
‘If it’s functioning,’ Vess said.
‘Why wouldn’t it be functioning?’
‘Because maybe someone turned the Honah Lee into a missile.’
‘Watch those interceptors.’
With only the scanners to tell them the story, Eivind and Vess watched as the interceptors swirled around the Honah Lee, doing Whomever-knows-what to slow it down—to no avail. All orbital patrols joined the interceptors in the task, but none of their methods could slow or divert the cargo liner. Eivind knew the answer to the question, What if they can’t slow her down?, but had to choke back the compulsive need to fill the air with the words. His breath came short, shallow. The signals on the display cut angrily across each other. The weight of death permeated the air in the spaceport tower, and he and Vess stood in deafening silence.
Then, seconds before the interceptors would have decided to open fire, the Honah Lee dropped out of warp and came to full stop.
Eivind loosed a nervous laugh. ‘Oh my god, Vess.’ He blew a hot breath from puffed cheeks. ‘Jesus H., that scared the shit out of me.’
Vess only stared at the screen. ‘I’m not sure the scaring’s done, Eivind.’
She tapped her sternum. ‘Feeling.’
July 6, 2400
Eivind often frittered his off-nights on entertainment distractions—caffeinating, pushing himself through the night all for the sake of staying fresh for his job. Fresh as can be, at least.
This evening he was out of films, serials, games, books, and other stimulations, and it was far too cold for a walk. So he paced through his apartment, adorned only by his robe, and ran through his side of imaginary conversations. At 0100 hours he put this practice to good use, and opened up a personal log.
‘I had a dream the other night, Maxine,’ he said. ‘There was a group of men out in a field. Wasn’t around Alira’s Landing. Chilly, dewy, but full of plantlife and trees. These men, they were all standing around something, not talking, not really moving other than shifting, scratching their face, sniffing. I approached, I asked them what they found, and they just kept looking at the ground. I tried looking, but all I saw was…it wasn’t even a hole. More like a divot, where the long grass had been cleared and the soil upset. I dunno, maybe six inches deep, foot-and-a-half across.
‘The men, they weren’t ignoring me, and I think they knew I was there, but… Well, it was kinda two things. One: they were transfixed and confused by the divot. And two: they were… God, I… The only thing I can describe it as is…hopeless. You know? Like this divot was the worst thing that could happen.
‘Eventually I walked off toward a structure. Looked old. Kinda like a barn, but something more. I got the sense it was used for something holy. I saw Gunnar there. He was talking about wine. He looked hopeless too, but like he was fighting it. And he started talking about you. I don’t know why. Maybe he missed you.
‘Then some bad things happened. I don’t want to get into it too much, but there were—’
Eivind’s door chime bee-bee-beeped at him.
He got up, tightened his robe, and opened up.
‘Vess? What are you doing here?’
‘Can’t sleep. Can I come in?’
‘Uh, sure. What’s going on?’
Vess pulled off her green ushanka, pulled her scarf off her nose. ‘Oh, noth…no, not nothing. Look, I was sworn to confidentiality by some pretty top-brass people, but I need to tell this to somebody, and you were there that night, so it’s gonna be you.’
‘There what night? What, is this about the Honah Lee?’
‘Did they ever find the crew?’
‘Eivind, can I trust you not to tell anybody?’
‘Who would I tell?’
Vess sighed, pulled a flask from her bottle, popped the lid, held it out to Eivind. ‘Whiskey,’ she said. He swigged some, handed it back. Vess took her own, much longer pull, then began:
‘There was never a question of where the crew was. They were all there.’
‘Oh. Oh Jesus.’
‘Yeah. All of them accounted for.’ Another pull. ‘Sixty-five crew. All of em, just…’
‘What was it? A virus? Space anomaly? What?’
Vess, after her third swig, gave Eivind a long look, full of hesitation, fear, dread. ‘They were murdered.’
‘Murdered? By who? Pirates?’
‘That was my first thought too. But there was no sign of a battle. The crew never fired a phaser. All internal sensors and surveillance were wiped, so they don’t know for sure, but forensic investigators are certain it was the work of less than five people—’
‘…but there’s evidence to suggest it was just one.’
‘One person? One person takes out that many people and just takes over a ship? How?’
Another swig of whiskey, then Vess handed it back over to a much more eager Eivind. ‘I dunno,’ she said. ‘But they found an escape pod missing, launched right after arriving here.’
‘So whoever did this could be…’
‘Has anything happened anywhere else on Metriaga?’
‘No.’ Vess helped herself to a seat on Eivind’s couch. She slouched, rubbed her temple, killed however much more whiskey was in the flask. ‘I don’t know what to think. Part of me thinks there’s a mass-murderer hiding somewhere on Metriaga—possibly Alira’s Landing, if the ship was headed to this spaceport. But part of me thinks not even a psycho would want to come to Metriaga, and that they moved onto something more significant.’
‘Yeah, I dunno either.’
‘Doesn’t help to speculate unless there’s something to actually investigate, which there isn’t. Whoever this was covered their tracks. No read on where the escape pod even went, nothing.’ She sighed. ‘I just wanted to air my fears. I appreciate you listening.’
Morning came dark upon Alira’s Landing. Somewhere in the northeast corner of town, Chief Constable Vess Risson said goodnight to her friend Eivind Bakke and made her slow tracks home. Neither of them slept well the fortnight following, citing fitful dreams and racing minds and a shapeless restiveness like cobwebs across their skin.
Their friends, coworkers, and neighbors also sagged and yawned for those fifteen days, suckling at coffees and energy drinks all through their waking hours. Eivind would hear his downstairs neighbor start from sleep several times a night with croaking night-terror gasps. Vess’s boyfriend, for the first time in their relationship, told her he was afraid of something.
‘My dreams,’ he’d said. He wouldn’t say anything more.
And the dreams traveled south. The farmlands outside of Orenda at the end of the fjords, the lumber town of Three Peaks at the mouth of the river, and, at last, the greasy commerce center of Ballad all suffered a wave of nightmares for several days.
And within the sleepless, troubled minds there came a violence. Desire bulged for the self and shriveled for the neighbor. Tempers were left desiccated and twisted like an old desert root.
And along that path went Sarreon, the grinning man.
And he had the fury of his own momentum.