The little girl watched the stars drift past the frozen glass as the escape pod listed gracefully through the nothingness. White wisps of cold breath escaped her mouth as she wrapped a blanket tighter around herself. She took a small bite of the last ration pack, making sure to leave enough for the evening meal, probably her last, before turning to the communications panel. She blew the tips of her fingers and stretched them out, hoping to circulate her cold blood so she could press the buttons.
‘Hello? Is anyone there?’ she said, teeth chattering, ‘My name is Tamara, and I’m nine years old. I’m all alone out here and I need someone to help me. The food machine thing isn’t working anymore, and the lights keep going on and off. The computer is telling me that the life support is low, and I don’t know how to fix it. My mom is the one who always fixes things and I don’t know what to do. I don’t see any planets out there still. Can anyone hear me?’
She paused and looked out at the stars, her last shreds of hope leaving her now weakened muscles.
She looked slowly down towards the screen.
‘Hello?' she said softly, ‘The red light is flashing, and it says it’s working OK. I’ve been transmitting all the time–every day for weeks. Why won’t anyone talk to me? Is it because this is all my fault? I didn’t mean to push the button. I really didn’t.
It was an accident, I promise. I just want to go home. I just want to see my mommy and daddy. I won’t do it again. I promise.’ She peered into the darkness. ‘The stars haven’t changed. I don’t know where the Arcturus is. Did they really leave me behind? Something happened on the ship. It started shaking really bad. Mom told me I would be safe. That something bad was happening and to wait. It had something to do with the black ship. I saw it when I left the Arcturus. It was huge. I’ve never seen a ship that big–not even the LAL ships.’
She looked at the blinking light on the transmitter, as a tear ran down her cheek.
‘I miss my mom and dad. If anyone can hear this, can you please tell them I’m sorry? This is all my fault. This pod is too small. My chest feels weird. I can’t breathe properly and… I’m so . . . cold.’
She released the button, closed her eyes, and wept.
22 Years Later
Captain Tamara Cartwright wiped the sweat from her face and pushed her hand through her now-soaking brown hair as she wrestled with the flight controls of her ship, The Massey Shaw. The comm system crackled to life as an angry male voice pierced through the flight deck.
‘Disengage, Massey Shaw–that’s an order!’
The heat in the cockpit was ferocious and the two-handled flight control stick was red hot. The metallic ARION device attached to her ear was starting to burn, but she couldn’t remove it yet. It was projecting a heads-up display in her field of vision, giving her precise flight data from The Clorinda, the distressed freighter, which had taken a hit from a solar eruption, knocking out its engines and main deflector arrays.
‘Get that asshole off my comms!’ shouted Tam, as she tried to see through the blinding light of the red dwarf star they were now hurtling towards.
‘Got it,’ said Chuck.
Chuck Redmond, muscular and steely eyed, was her second-in-command. He tapped his code into the computer, isolating their frequency, blocking the incoming transmission from the ESDA cruiser, The Lassen, which was twenty minutes out––too far away to do anything about stopping the Clorinda from tumbling into the corona of the star. Another transmission crackled into the cockpit.
‘Massey Shaw, this is the Clorinda’ came the female voice. ‘Hull temperature now red-lining. Engines are non-responsive. I don’t think we’re gonna—'
‘Hold on, Clorinda,’ said Tam. ‘We’re coming.’
She activated the comms system and connected to the engine room.
‘Jacob–I need that extra ten percent, now!’
‘Captain, you’ve already got it,’ he replied.
Tam clenched her teeth as the flight controls began to shake.
‘Then, get me another ten.’
‘The only way to do that Captain—’
‘Is shut down life support–I know!’
The logical side of her, the rational, clear-thinking side that effortlessly assessed the variables of every mission, was telling her this wasn’t going to go her way. The distress call had come too late. They were too far out. The Clorinda would be the first ship she would lose on her watch. She’d lost people before but never an entire crew. A rage began brewing in her stomach. It wasn’t good enough.
The other side of her saw something beyond the numbers. There were families on board that ship. The lights on the flight deck dimmed as life support powered down. She sensed Urhan’s presence behind her, about to tell her what she already knew.
‘Tamara,’ he said, ‘the risk to this vessel now outweighs the possibility of our reaching the Clorinda.’
His voice, deep and powerful, cut through the chaos with ease. Standing at two meters, he was an imposing figure, but to Tam, his real strength was in the gentle, meditative nature that reined in her reckless side.
‘I’m a little busy right now Urhan,’ she snapped.
Urhan was a member of the Lal–the first alien race that humans had ever encountered, the race that had saved them from the great plague two hundred years ago. His slender grey body shimmered in the lights of the flight deck. His skin, almost a translucent grey, looked like it belonged to some sort of deep-sea fish rather than a humanoid. The thin robes he wore around his slender frame draped all the way down to his ankles.
The Lal had gifted humanity with the STC molecule–a synthetic compound, which allowed for the space-time compression effect to finally open the door to the stars. She felt her palms start to burn as her options ran out.
‘Captain,’ said Chuck.
Tam didn’t respond. Something absurd had popped into her mind; it was probably suicide. She turned to Urhan. He stared at her with his wide, glowing green eyes and blinked twice. Tam looked back at her console.
‘Arion–please calculate the exact distance between this ship and the dorsal hull of the Clorinda. Calculate an STC jump allowing for the increase in mass of both ships’
‘What?’ Chuck asked.
Tam raised her right index finger, silencing him.
‘An STC jump that close to the corona of a star could cause a disruption in the star’s gravity well and create a singularity,’ Chuck continued.
‘Tam, I do not advise…’ said Arion with his low gravelly voice. Tam imagined Arion sounding like her grandfather. He was a kind man with a soft but commanding tone, a byproduct of a lifetime in the military.
‘Do it,’ said Tam.
‘You serious, Cap?’ said Chuck.
Tam tapped her comm system.
‘Jacob, get ready for an STC jump. This one’s gonna be tricky. Extend the ventral docking clamps. We’re gonna jump right onto the bottom of the Clorinda’s hull, clamp on and STC out,' Tam said.
‘You’re gonna do what?’ said Jacob.
Tam suddenly felt a hand on her shoulder.
‘Tamara,’ said Urhan, ‘any use of the STC molecule that causes galactic damage or destruction is strictly prohibited. You know this. My oath, as guardian of the molecule, will not allow it.’
Tam gritted her teeth and whipped her head around to face him.
‘They’re going to die, Urhan. Your people can do what they like with me when this is over, but you either help me now or get the hell off my flight deck.’
‘You require my access to activate the molecule,’ said Urhan. ‘And removing me from the flight deck won’t do you any favours.’
She looked at Chuck.
He smiled at her.
‘Where you go, I go,’ he said. He turned to Urhan. ‘Give her the code, you big Oak tree,’ said Chuck.
Tam turned to look at Urhan. ‘Please Urhan, I can save them.’
Urhan paused, his pale grey skin shimmering in the light.
Tam touched a hand to his arm, ’Let me save them.’
‘Very well,’ said Urhan, reaching down to where the STC cylinder was secured between the two flight chairs. He pressed his long fingers against the panel. It beeped and displayed several characters in the LAL language. Inside the clear polymer tube, a bright blue crystalline pinpoint of light waited, suspended in midair. Tam smiled at him.
‘Arion,’ said Tam, ‘have you got those calculations locked in?'
‘Yes, Tam,’ replied Arion, ‘you have 13.24 seconds to lock onto the Clorinda and activate the second STC jump, that includes the six-seconds it takes to activate the molecule. The Clorinda’s hull is beginning to buckle.’
Tam felt her chest tighten. ‘Got it.’
‘Arion giving you bad news?’ Chuck asked.
Tam ignored him.
‘On my mark, Chuck, you’ll have less than five-seconds to grab them.’ She turned to him. ‘Do a good job.’
Chuck placed his hand on the cylinder and nodded. Tam took a quick breath.
‘Do it,’ She said.
Chuck pressed down hard, sliding the cylinder all the way into the main STC drive conduit. The ship shuddered as the molecule released its energy. A-high-pitched sound reverberated through the hull as the space around the ship effectively ceased to exist, separating it, for the briefest of moments, from the universal laws of physics. The burning light from the star blinked into darkness. A millisecond later, a blinding light flooded the flight deck.
The long cylindrical hull of The Clorinda was now directly beneath the ship. Tam’s grip slid, momentarily, from the flight controls. Arion’s voice sounded in her ear.
From the corner of her eye, Tam saw Urhan open the STC cylinder and reload it with another molecule.
The Clorinda was twelve meters away.
Red warning lights fired in sequence across the console.
‘We’ve got a breach!’ Chuck shouted, over the noise of the alarms.
The flight controls vibrated in Tam’s clenched grip, the impact powering through her entire body. The ship struck The Clorinda with great force and was shunted forward against the console. She screamed as her right wrist cracked, then gasped for air as her harness cut into her shoulders before slamming her back hard against the seat.
Chuck gripped the grappler controls hard, never taking his eyes off the target.
Tam heard a crunching sound.
‘Got them!’ shouted Chuck.
The temperature gauge read 72 degrees.
Ignoring the pain shooting up her arm, Tam reached over to the STC cylinder and tried to insert it. It wouldn’t move.
‘Urhan–the code!’ she shouted.
He was slumped on the deck beside her, Urhan raised his arm pressed his hand down on the control panel. It flashed, then slid open. Tam heard something erupt from deep within the bowels of the ship and wondered if the engine core had just given out on them. The blinding light from the star blipped out of existence and the ship was plunged into darkness.
Tam’s eyes began to readjust to the endless star field of the galactic core. Chuck’s gaze was fixed on the instrumentation panel. His body slumped, he turned to her. They stared at each other, red-faced, drenched in sweat, heaving for breath.
‘We got her,’ said Chuck. ‘I’ve got faint life signs.’
Tam closed her eyes. She felt a line of sweat run down the side of her face.
‘Well, that was crazy,’ Chuck grinned.
He pointed to the atmospheric readouts of the flight deck.
Tam nodded and clicked her inter ship comm system again.
‘Jacob, get life support back up.’
‘On it,’ said Jacob.
A few seconds passed as the lights in the cockpit flickered on, and the air began to circulate again.
Tam turned to Urhan. ‘You all right?’
He gave her one of his cold looks before gently nodding.
She started to rise from her flight seat when a blast of white light filled the front windows.
‘Oh, shit,’ said Chuck, looking at the console.
Tam already knew what had happened.
‘The star’s collapsing,’ said Urhan, his tone flat.
Tam looked back at Chuck.
‘We’re far enough away for now,’ said Chuck, ‘but we need to get out of here in the next . . .’ He looked at his readings, ‘Seventeen minutes.’
Tam felt a knot form in her stomach.
‘We need to get those people off the Clorinda,' she said.
Chuck glanced down at Tam’s wrist, the flesh tight and swollen, her hand the same. ‘You’re in no position to go anywhere, Captain,’ he said turning to Urhan, ‘Advise med-bay that the Captain is en-route.’
Tam knew he was right–an injured rescue party would only delay them.
Chuck turned to her. ‘I’ll suit up.’
She nodded. With her left hand, she began extending the umbilicus towards the Clorinda’s airlock. She looked out at the forward windows. The stars’ exploding energy streamed out in a chaotic but almost beautiful plume of unimaginable energy.
While there were no planets in the habitable zone surrounding the collapsing stellar material, four worlds had orbited it, and she couldn’t help but wonder what a few billion years could have yielded, what future life she had just rendered an impossibility.
The computer console began to chirp.
‘We’ve got company,’ Chuck said.
Tam leaned over to see the signal data. It was the Lassen, coming in hard and fast on their port bow.
‘Shit,’ said Tam.
If it had been any other ship in the fleet but the Lassen, she wouldn’t have given a damn. But it was Oscar’s ship and there would be hell to pay.
She could see the Admiral’s face now, looking down at her with his disappointed eyes. Another dressing down, another reprimand, another court martial and maybe now a death sentence.
She wondered if she would ever Captain another ship again.