|"||don't believe in Destiny,
Or the Guiding hand of fate.
I don't believe in Forever,
Or love as a mystical state.
I don't believe in the Stars or the Planets,
Or Angels watching from above.
But I believe there's a Ghost of a Chance,
We can find someone to love.
And make it last."
If ever there was a comfort to Gerrard on long space trips, it
was Rush. The assistant engineer made it a point to save each
album until such a time when he was due for a vacation. Then,
with microROM in headphones, he would blast off to somewhere nice
and peaceful. All the time listening to the rhythm, the lyrics,
and the meaning behind it all. By the time he came back from these
sabbaticals he had every pleasant memory locked away inside those
songs. Just play them and he would be there again. Memories were
associative, his psych teacher taught him, and he had learned
how to make the best use of that.
The calendar on the cabin wall was black with hash marks. Gerrard checked off every day of this mission (except, of course, for the 20 years spent in hibernation), because there's nothing more satisfying to a human than a progress indicator. All you have to do is look at it and you know instantly how far you've come, and how far you must go. Gerrard had 37 more years left to serve on the exploration vessel Anak Krakatau. Fortunately, most of that would be in hibernation again. For the rest though, there was Rush.
What day is it now? Oh yes, August 3, my mother's birthday. Well here's to you mom, happy birthday.
"Gerrard" a voice called from outside his cabin.
"Yes?" Gerrard replied.
"Come and look at this, it's something new in the telescopes."
"That's good," Gerrard said, heaving himself out of bed and clicking off the headphones, "another rock?"
"Oh no, no not this time," Gerrard had opened the door to find that the voice belonged to his crewmate Velden -- the ship's doctor, "it's an artifact."
"You don't say?" Gerrard slipped passed the medic and proceeded ahead of him down the narrow ship corridor.
The observatory was a small bubble on the top of the giant sausage-shaped ship. It housed powerful telescopes though, and more than enough star-maps than would be needed on a mission such as this. Upon arriving, Gerrard found it crammed full with almost every crew member on board. Nobody noticed his arrival as they were too busy looking at the projection panel set against the wall on the starboard side.
"Doesn't look like much" Gerrard remarked to Velden in a whisper after making a cursory examination of the image, "what are we supposed to see?" Velden, however, didn't hear him, or at least he did a good job of ignoring him. Instead he gazed at the screen as silently as the rest. The ship's astronomer had found a platform of sorts, and was now pointing at things with his presentation stick.
"It doesn't look like much at this magnification," the
astronomer spoke, and Gerrard chuckled at this confirmation, "here
you can see a planet much the same size as Earth but....you can
just about make out that there's a thin ring that circles the
planet." The astronomer fiddled with a control device and
the view on the screen rushed forward as the magnification filter
clicked in place. The astronomer continued again, "This picture
was taken at oh-four-hundred hours this morning. We thought that
the planet's ring was natural, like Saturn's, but it's not."
The picture expanded again, and this time everyone gasped, including
On the screen was a dull green planet filling up the background, and floating aimlessly in the foreground were the spaceships. Hundreds of them. Dark, drifting, dead. They were 'T' shaped, with a spoon-shaped fore-section, and wings that split into rings halfway -- like eyes in a needle but closer to the middle and much larger in relation. Each ship pointed in its own random direction. No pattern to the scattering, it looked as if they'd been there for centuries, drifting and spinning slowly and peacefully. A whole Armada, abandoned.
A stronger voice spoke this time, from somewhere at the front of the crowd. It was the captain. "We change course to intercept this phenomena at oh-eight-hundred hours this evening. Crew dismissed."
Twenty-seven days later the crew was abuzz with anticipation.
The ship had pulled up alongside one of the alien vessels and
a boarding party was being arranged. The dead craft was massive
in comparison to the human boat. In fact several crewmembers had
remarked that it would be more than possible to pilot the ship
-through- one of the wing rings. At closer detail one could also
see the scars of time. Meteors had left pock-marks, but on other
ships there were gigantic gouges, and one even had its left wing
ripped right off. The one selected, however, seemed relatively
Glancing out of his cabin window, Gerrard could see the strange alien lettering on the side of the hull. Each letter was big and black, curved elegantly but not ornately. There were no sharp edges like those you find in our alphabet with 'Z's and 'M's and 'K's etc. The alien letters made you think of the word "flow."
Gerrard didn't try to guess at the ship's name - he didn't want to. To him it was "The Ship." And tomorrow morning, he'd be exploring "The Ship." For Gerrard was the 8th man listed on the boarding party.
Oh-seven-hundred hours AM (ship's time). Captain Leonardo Pinelli stood at the front of the line, decked out in full environment suit. Behind him 9 more men from the crew of 35 stood waiting, similarly attired. With unspoken announcement he opened the inner door to the airlock and stepped inside. Nine men followed him. With the inner door closed and sealed shut the pumps began work, and after 16 minutes the environment suits were all that stood between the 10 men and a near perfect vacuum. The outer door swung open. A gray and black wall waited outside. One man held up a pistol and fired it. A magnet attached to a thin but strong metal cord whisped through the gap and struck the alien hull. Gerrard expected a clang but heard none. The only sound was a faint hiss from the life support system and his breath whistling through the metal gauze and filters. With the cord secure, the captain was the first to clip his hook onto the line, and the first to lunge out into the blank gap between the two ships. Crazy as it seemed, Captain Pinelli fell headfirst into the gray wall with one long and controlled leap. One by one the remaining nine men did the same. Gerrard's mind played a game with him, guessing which way was up and which way was down.
They stood clamped to the side of the hull, sticking out like
matchsticks glued to a tin can, surrounding the airlock they had
located and clomping around with their magnetic boots. One of
them was already at work with a wrench, twisting the handle assumed
to open the door.
"I think it's going to work," the crewman said over the radio between haggard breaths, "I half expected it to be seized up and immovable but y'know I think it's going to work." Nine men watched him toil away until finally the door started to crack open and they all clomped back a few steps to let it finish its swing. Inside they saw another airlock, similar in design and size to their ship's own.
Everyone was puffing and wheezing after making it through the
airlock. Much to their surprise the ship had artificial gravity,
and the airlock was equipped with a device that somehow could
'switch off' that gravity temporarily while you moved in and out
of space. Experimental electric gravity polarizers were available
on Earth, but these aliens must have permanent gravity polarizers
for them to work on a ship with no power, like permanent magnets
except for gravity instead. By closing the outer door a polarizer
must swing into an alignment that compliments the ship's gravity,
and when open it must swing the other way to negate it. All mechanical.
No electricity required.
This chief engineer's explanation did little to console those with bruises suffered from the sudden change though, and for a moment we waited while everyone had the chance to check over his or her life support systems to make sure nothing was damaged. Frederick Selborne's was, heating fluid dribbled from a split in the feed hose. The lieutenant had to return to the ship, along with a petty officer for safety.
The remaining 8 men gazed out into the black and musky interior of the ship. Flashlights shed no visible beams so we first assumed there was a complete vacuum throughout the ship. No so, the silence of millenia had let the dust settle so completely that the air was clean - allowing the light to peirce uninterrupted by floating matter. "Keep your helmets on," Pinelli ordered through the intercom radio, "there could be any kind of virus or toxin present that our instruments can't detect"
Bodies were found everywhere. They lay sprawled in hallways and
sat in chairs and slumped across desks. Everywhere the exploration
team looked they found aliens. It looked as if everything were
going normal when suddenly - snap - everyone on board suddenly
dropped dead for no apparent reason. Some had been carrying things
when they dropped and we'd find one fallen over still clutching
a piece of equipment or stack of clothes. Plus you'd expect decay,
but there was none except for the drying out of carcasses and
the shifting caused by occasional vibration over thousands of
years. The clothes too were in remarkably good shape, made from
a material more durable than our textiles. Whatever had killed
the aliens had killed all the bacteria and parasites and other
agents of decay as well.
We made careful examination of our deceased hosts. They were humaniform. They stood upright and were as tall and sometimes taller than an average human. But they had distinctly canine skulls, tails, teeth and lush red and white canine fur. This was the most puzzling factor of all. The stark resemblance to one of Earth's own creatures.
"My god!" Velden remarked, studying the corpses, "They're -foxes- for crying out loud! They stand like humans, they must have walked like humans, they probably even talked like humans, but they are foxes!"
They must have lived much like humans too. There was a galley, a recreation room, even a swimming pool (long dried out). The size was staggering also. A conference hall was found, big enough to hold 2,000 men. This boat was HUGE!
The immensity of the artifact made it arduous for everyone to remain in a group all the time. So with much reluctance Captain Pinelli agreed to deviate from safety regulations and allowed everyone to split up and explore on their own. Gerrard headed towards what he figured most likely to be the crew quarters. As assistant engineer he should really have been seeking the engine room, but that's what the Chief Engineer was up to anyway, and these were extraordinary circumstances. Gerrard was more interested to find out how these vulpines lived.
Most of the ship was built openly. That is - there were hardly
any doors except for storage rooms or sensitive areas. But here
in the crew quarters every cabin was locked tight. These were
powered doors also. There were no handles to grip, nowhere to
gain purchase. Gerrard didn't have a cutting torch so all he could
do was wander down the long hallways watching door after door
after door pass by.
Fifty minutes of wandering later and he was thoroughly lost.
"Help! Ahm lawst!" he laughed. No-one could hear him since he had his radio set to 'monitor' only. Gerrard wasn't overly concerned -- the boarding party was scheduled to spend the whole day exploring, he'd find his way back somehow even if he had to use the old fashioned trick of following the right-hand wall continuously until you arrived at the exit of the maze. Well, why not? Gerrard reached out and touched the wall, then proceeded to walk steadily down the hallway.
He grew familiar to the feel of the doorframes sliding past his gloved hand. Thhhhhhhhump, Thhhhhhhhhump, Thhhhhhhhhhump. He felt a bit like a schoolboy dragging a stick across a wire fence to make the clatter-clatter-clatter noise. Thhhhhhhhhump, Thhhhhhhhump, Thhhhh.... Gerrard jerked back as his hand caught hold of something. One of the cabin doors was slightly ajar! To Gerrard this was a bit like finding Davy Jones' locker with the lid half-prized open. Putting his flashlight down so it illuminated the door, he gripped the edge with both hands and tugged. It wouldn't budge. Dammit, thousands of years these behemoths had been drifting, thousands of years worth of occasional meteor impacts to jolt one stupid door open, and thousands of years to silt up the works so it would be stuck solid when Assistant Ship's Engineer Peter Gerrard finally came to try and open it.
He unhooked a light crowbar from his utility belt, wedged it into the crack, and pushed. The door squeaked open another inch. Gerrard gripped it with his hands again and tugged, putting his whole weight into it. Tug! Tug! Tug! Each yank of the door made it slide open a little bit more each time. He paused to catch his breath and inspect his work. Picking up the flashlight again he shone it through the gap and tried to see what was inside the dark cabin. He could make out a table.... a chair... and on the table there was a viewscreen. That was all he could see. Getting back to work Gerrard tugged at the door some more, until finally it slid back into its recess with a grainy scraping noise. At last, Gerrard stepped through the doorway and into the cabin.
Shining the flashlight on the viewscreen on the table, Gerrard
could make out a series of controls, covered with a thick layer
of dust. He wiped the dust away and examined the controls. They
used symbols similar to the lettering on the side of the hull,
and some vaguely resembled VCR controls. Gerrard pushed at them.
Nothing happened. He pushed harder and the viewscreen slid across
the table away from his push. Gerrard picked it up to discover
it was a free-standing model. No wires connected it with anything
-- it must be battery operated. Maybe he could get it working
Making a slow sweep of the cabin, Gerrard could see it was relatively spacious, much larger than his cabin back on board the Anak Krakatau. There was a double bed, a large tub that could have been a flowerpot, and a sofa with.... Two aliens sat in the sofa. In the narrow beam of the flashlight he could see that they both held each other tightly in their arms, with their heads resting on the other's shoulder. They sat in a lovers' embrace.
Gerrard examined the two dead aliens closely. One was a male, and the other a female judging from the uniforms. 'She' wore a skirt, had traces of long hair, and on the left side of her uniform jacket was a metal pin, shaped in the 'T' fashion of the ship. 'He' wore pants and a similar pin, except hers was gold with 2 bars underneath, and his was silver with only one bar. Gerrard thought this to be a mark of rank. By the looks of things, 'she' outranked 'him'.
Their eyesockets were empty. Fur dried and lifeless. Cheek bones peeked through the dull red hair and their ears were shriveled and twisted inward. Tails curled into each other's lap but the fur had fallen off and all that remained were the bony links. Gerrard could only feel sad for them. Their faces were so sad. Their embrace so affecting, a last hug before whatever it was wiped their souls away. They clung to each other but they couldn't cling to life.
Gerrard scanned the rest of the cabin. On one wall was a set of shelves, and on the shelves were various decorations. A statuette of one of the vulpine aliens held what looked like a sword up to the sky in a victory stance. Another sat upon a miniature park bench with his arms draped over the back and gazed out over the room. Gerrard's eye caught a picture frame with a photograph in it. Wiping away the dust he looked at it closely. It was a female vulpine alien. She had long red hair that ran down to her shoulders; bright, moist eyes that stared keenly at you; a cheery smile that showed a little of her sharp white teeth; and thick, red, vibrant fur. Her ears poked through the red mass of hair, not shriveled but pointed, alive, and alert. She was -alive- in the picture. Gerrard guessed this was the female sitting on the sofa in the cabin. He looked back at the embracing pair and they were still as dead as ever. He felt a twinge in his gut, an empathic reaction to their loss.
Returning to the viewscreen Gerrard this time searched for a power
switch. It's possible that there could still be current in the
batteries and he could make it work here. If not he'd take it
back to the Anak Krakatau and try to fix it there. Now there must
be something, a switch or a contact or something...ah! A diffused
white light emanated from the screen -- it was working.
The screen remained blank for some time until Gerrard found a slot, which he guessed must be were a ROM cartridge of sorts was inserted. He searched the desk and found nothing. Shining the flashlight on the floor, however, he found something small, flat, and rectangular. Ah-ha, this must be it. Gerrard picked up the object, dusted it off, and inserted it into the slot. He almost dropped the viewscreen as a bright and clear picture replaced the diffused white almost instantly.
The screen showed a party of sorts that looked to be in one of the recreation rooms on the ship. Dozens of vulpine aliens were there, laughing and talking and drinking. Gerrard couldn't hear any sound, the speaker must be broken, damn. But he could see them, moving around, chatting with one another. They were there. They were -alive-. Gerrard put the viewscreen back down on the desk and slid the mask on the flashlight into its base so the bulb shone out in all directions, dimly illuminating the whole cabin. He found a chair and sat down in it, watching intently the actions of the party on the viewscreen.
The cameraman must have been a friend of the two lovers. He singled
them out from the group, watching them electronically as they
laughed and kissed and enjoyed themselves. They came to life on
the screen, they -felt- alive on the screen. The male would stare
her in the eyes for ages and then reach over and kiss her. They
would also talk with the other aliens but never between themselves,
yet they still knew when the other wanted attention or what they
wanted to eat or drink. There was something psionic about their
devotion to each other. Minutes ticked by and Gerrard became -part-
of the social event, watching them alive, as they were thousands
of years ago. Alive! Gerrard felt like he -was- the cameraman,
right there with them. Now the scene had changed and they were
in the galley eating. The female noticed the cameraman approaching
the table and threatened to flick a spoonful of food at him, grinning
devilishly as the watcher ducked behind the male's chair for protection.
The scenes continued to change. It was an electronic diary the
pair kept with the aid of a friend. All over the ship they went.
Gerrard recognized the swimming pool, the conference hall, and
the engine room! Where is it? Once they passed a window and the
cameraman panned out to look at the view of space. One other ship
could be seen, but none of the thousands that orbited the planet
There was a movement outside the viewscreen's display somehow, a reflection off the plastic console. Gerrard focused on the dusty surface of the viewer and saw his reflection staring back, illuminated by the lamp/flashlight on the table. On either side of him there were two other faces watching the silent story unfold on the veiwscreen too. Their big moist eyes taking in the diary's pictures, their bright red fur, sharp pointed ears. One of them blinked. They were sitting on either side of him!
Gerrard whirled around in shock and horror, and saw two corpses seated beside him. Their fur was still faded and dull, their ears still shriveled, and their empty eye sockets stared blankly. Gerrard was in a panic and he breathed rapidly. He got out of the chair and edged his way past the two alien bodies -- sucking in his chest least they touch him. He stumbled out into the hallway and turned around expecting them to follow. They didn't. The dead aliens were still sitting in their chairs, watching the flickering scenes on the viewscreen. Gerrard blinked. Now they were facing him. Dead, perfectly still, their empty sockets bore right through his skull and into his brain. Those hollow sockets interrogated him. Why are you leaving? Gerrard whimpered, backing into the wall. The walls of the ship closed in on him, confounding him. Turning in a random direction he ran down the endless hallways of the dead, alien ship.
A suited figure sprinted through a mile of black tunnels and halls and coridoors. A fine plume of dust marked his trail, logging every twist and dodge and parry through the interconnecting passageways. The sprinter stopped, grasped at the latches of his helmet trying in vain to prize it off, then collapsed.
He woke to screaming in his ear -- it was coming from the radio.
"Get OUT! Get OUT! Everyone get off the goddam ship!"
it was the captain barking orders - intermingled were the voices
of the other 6 plus communication coming in from the Anak Krakatau.
Gerrard opened his eyes and saw the gray carpeting of the alien
ship's hallways. Picking himself up he looked about, and in a
rising panic he realized he still didn't know where the hell he
Voices were shouting loudly over the radio. The captain was yelling, Velden was yelling, someone was screaming in horrid pain. Gerrard could pick out very little and it took him several minutes to put together enough sound bites to figure out what was going on.
Colin Westhaven, the Chief Engineer, had found the engine room. He'd done something to the controls and set off an explosion. Now the fire was propagating rapidly, new explosions were racking the ship, the whole thing was falling apart at an increasing rate.
Gerrard started down the hall one way, stopped, and turned around. He didn't know where to run. He had panicked and fled, probably becoming more frightened the more he got lost. The life support system couldn't keep up with his oxygen demand and collapsed unconscious. Now here he was, just as lost and as frightened as before. The ship buckled under him and he fell to the floor as another explosion rippled through. A deafening roar thundered through the alien ship.
Gerrard got up again, beads of sweat ran down his cheek and down his chin, he stumbled down the hall being tossed from side to side as the ship heaved and lurched. He came to an intersection, up one way was more endless halls and up the other was the same thing. Gerrard babbled incoherently and started to cry. Tears mixed with the sweat. A salty fluid seeped into his mouth and stung his tongue.
"GET OFF THE GODDAM SHIP, IT'S GOING TO BLOW! GET OFF! GET OFF!"
"He can't enter the airlock, his suit is punctured!"
"No! It won't! The door won't move!"
"GET OFF! GET OFF!"
"His leg is broken, I need some help!"
Gerrard's mind swam. He staggered back against a wall and slumped down, shaking his head in confusion and dispair. "I'm lost. I'm lost. I'm going to die," he thought, "I'm really going to die."
The noise continued, the explosions continued, bits of metal and plastic were shaken from the ceiling and the halls started to litter with fragments. Gerrard simply shook and cried. The ship shook with him. A heavy thud reverberated through his chest as a door 20 yards from him was pounded into the other wall by a fist of red and yellow. He tried to get up, but his feet kept slipping uselessly. The new sound of the low oxygen alarm drove a cold needle into his eardrum, causing him to wince and hold his hand up to the side of his helmet. Another explosion flattened him down onto the carpet. His hand throbbed and when he looked at it he saw that it was immersed in fire. There was fire all around him now. The interior of his suit was hot and painful to touch.
Looking up he saw her standing there in front of him. Her uniform neat, pressed and clean. Her badge shining in the light from the raging fire that was consuming the ship around them. Her fur bright red and lush, eyes moist and alive, and ears pointed and alert. Her long bushy tail flicked back and forth. Gerrard stared in fear and wonder. Slowly and gently she held out her hand to him.
She knew the ship intimately, leading him through the halls and
connections and intersections with ease. Gerrard had a hard time
keeping up, but she gripped his hand tightly and wouldn't let
him slow down. They passed great storage holds, incredible machinery,
and windows that looked out onto the great green planet below
and the silent ships that watched them flee. Fire seemed to follow
after them, jump in front of them, and play tricks with them.
But every time she'd change direction and out-fox the playful
death. In his delusion, Gerrard wanted to stop and watch the fire
and the collapsing beams and the awesome destruction all around
him. She wouldn't stop though. They kept going. A poor lost human
and his strange and beautiful alien guide. Gerrard didn't notice
the excruciating pain of hot suit against flesh any more. He felt
like a spectator in the most dazzling show of his life.
They broke clear and up ahead Gerrard saw the captain and the others. Pinelli was helping crewmen through the airlock and Velden was carrying a limp man in his arms. Now Gerrard was running on his own.
Gravity lost its grip and Gerrard pushed open the outer airlock door and waved his arm around trying to find the guide wire. The back of his hand brushed it. He made another grab and then pulled himself out of the airlock and into the 50 yard gap between the alien ship and the Anak Krakatau. Painfully slowly he pulled his home ship toward him, until finally he scrambled into his familiar airlock.
"We have to move out of the area now, one of the explosions
was strong enough to send the ship careening in the direction
of it's neighbor. It's probably going to set off a chain reaction."
Gerrard ripped off his helmet and without the time to properly get out of his environment suit he made his way down to engineering. Westhaven was seriously injured and might even die. Gerrard was the next highest in rank. He was acting Chief Engineer now. He made it to the engine room and immediately checked on the impulse thrusters. Everything clear. Next the fuel. Enough. Now for the ignition systems.
An intercom call from the bridge echoed down. "We need to be moving -now- Gerrard or we won't be far enough away when the shockwave reaches us." Gerrard scanned through the checklists as quickly as he could, skipping some even. He signaled back.
"We're go! We're go!"
Gerrard barely had time to strap down when the engines kicked
in and 400,000 pounds of thrust squeezed the blood out of him.
The Confederated Planetary Union Friendship Exploration Vessel
Anak Krakatau lived up to its namesake by spewing a volcano of
fire and fumes into space, propelling the now 34 man crew into
oblivion. Behind it a chain reaction was forming. Ship collided
with ship. Power plants split and lost themselves in blinding
anger. A ring of fire spread around the dead planet, and from
the Anak Krakatau it looked like a god was drawing a line through
the center of the heavenly sphere with his finger.
With a final smack of disgust, the shockwave ploughed into the human ship and tossed everyone around inside like biscuits in a tin.
And then... it was over.
While changing out of his environment suit, Gerrard felt something
hard and flat in one of his specimen pockets. He took it out.
It was a small rectangular object that had fine metal contacts
on the end and smooth flowing alien lettering written on the side.
It was the ROMcard from the viewscreen, the diary.
Gerrard had become part of their family for those few hours aboard the alien ship. And now it was as if he'd lost his family too. Clutching the card he wept.
"But I believe there's a Ghost of a Chance,
We can find someone to love.
And make it last."
Copyright 1995 - Chris Wenham.