‘The Watchers’ is the latest in a line of Shallow Space stories, exploring the worlds and people of this upcoming computer game. For more information on Shallow Space, visit our website.
1: The Find.
In space, no one can hear you scream. But on a spaceship, the sound of coolant backing up travels just fine.
One moment the normal hum of fluid vibration is there, the next it isn’t. Pressure builds up then equalises. Compression and rarefaction, resulting in rattling pipes.
Then the pipe mounts rattle. Then the whole ship, transmitting the vibration as noise all the way up to the cockpit.
Then the hum of the engine changes. Up, one octave. A little less a rumble; a little more a shriek. The metal inside gets hot. It grows. Components that should move, don’t. Or they crash into other components. Parts aligned to the nanometer move by micrometers.
The engine note changes again. That’s strike 2. Last chance saloon. When it hits that second level of shrillness, you have two minutes before you’re adrift and walking home.
And the MFCS Asteria was thirty lightyears from home.
“What’s the hold-up, Bones?” yelled Jeremy Digger through the comm. Strapped into the pilot chair he saw half a dozen gauges – all red – and no sign of them going green.
“I’ve got this,” came Bones’ gravelly voice over the link. “It’s just like last time.”
“You’re taking longer than last time,” Digger replied, trying, and probably failing, to strip the worry from his voice.
The ship shivered, harder than before. The regular sounds were gone now, replaced with harsher, more urgent sounds. Klaxons, grinding steel, his ship ripping itself to bits.
The comm cut off. Digger, swung in his chair, as if looking backward may help him hear Bones down on the Orlop.
Nothing, of course. He couldn’t see the comms board from his chair. He unstrapped and kicked off to Bone’s vacated seat. He reached for the armrest as the ship lurched. The lack of coolant playing havoc with the engines. He grasped empty air as he floated upward, but hooked the chair with his foot and pulled himself down. Straps on, eyes on the board. The comm was running.
There was background noise, but no Bones.
Precious seconds evaporated before Digger’s gaze. The two minutes were almost up. If Bones was injured, knocked over in that last lurch, Digger wouldn’t have time to get down there and help him.
His fingers dug into the armrests, knuckles white, sweat pooling on the bridge of his nose. “Bones!”
A cough, then a groan. “My bad,” Bones normally sounded like he had rocks in his throat, but now he sounded like he’d rubbed his vocal cords raw on them. “I kinda lost consciousness.”
Digger’s eyes widened. Every muscle screamed for him to run for the orlop. “You what?”
“Easy, easy,” Bones said. Digger was about to shout at Bone’s flippancy, but his co-pilot kept whispering it and Digger realised the man was talking to the coolant system rather than him.
A racket of banging and whooshing echoed through the ship and then slowly the ship quietened down. The grinding stopped. The banging and crashing dissipated, replaced by the gentle hush of flowing coolant.
Digger flopped his head back and sighed. Shit, that been close.
If the damn Board’s timetable wasn’t so tight he’d have time to fly to Mayflower for a proper overhaul. But no, money, money, money was the call, and by the way your pay doesn’t cover ship maintenance.
He let out another sigh. Could have been worse. It was the wrong system to end up adrift. Good odds pirates would have found him before the Navy, though these days he wasn’t sure which was worse. One would ransack, pillage then destroy the ship. The other might see value in the scrap metal.
The rear hatch squeaked open and Bones appeared. A blue pressure suit. Thick brown skin draped over a set of bones, topped with a head that Digger had always thought of as Cro-Magnon. Cro-Magnon’s had bigger brains than homo-sapiens but didn’t know how to use them. Just like Bones.
Digger stared at him, eyebrows raised in question. Bones shrugged then bounced over to his co-pilots seat. Digger moved back to his own seat but still stared at him. Bones belted in then said, “What?”
“You ‘lost consciousness’?”
Bones scratched his bald head. “Ah, yeah, well, there was a bit of an explosion down there. Kinda knocked me against a bulkhead.”
Digger sighed. “Do I need to go down there?”
“No, it’s fine, and thanks for your sympathy.”
Digger studied the man, no big gashes, no joints swelling up, a cocky grin on his face. Digger was sure that once Bones reached the orlop, the physical laws of the universe broke and reality and fiction became one. Well, whatever, as long as the ship was working again and wasn’t about to explode.
“We good to go then?” Digger asked, but Bones was leaning forward and squinting at his display. Digger’s pulse quickened. “What?”
“There’s something out there.”
Digger would have asked what it was, but Bone’s tone told him he had no idea either. Instead, Digger looked at his own sensors. They were off course but still in the Messiers system, on their way to Landnamabok to dump ore for Blankicite conversion. They’d been transiting the system toward the Landnamabok Waygate when Bone’s engines gave out and sent them drifting. (Ownership was equal when the engines were working well of course).
They were in a part of the system he’d never been in before. He looked up at the viewport. There was big fat-ass white star to starboard, growing closer. Across the centre of the star were pockmarks of black, some small, some big, but together thick enough to blot out a strip of sunlight. It made the sun look like it was wearing a belt. Then he glanced at Bones, a gunslinger in his youth, and changed his mind. It was more a bandolier, slightly cocked, as if sagging from a star’s shoulder down to its waist.
The blip on the sensor map was coming from the accretion disk. The blip was large and grey, signalling a capital class ship. There weren’t many of those out here.
What was it doing in the accretion disk? Spying?
He inhaled. Spying on them?
No, of course not. They were a simple freighter. Bones had left the war behind a few decades ago. Digger’s troubled adolescence didn’t qualify him for stalking-by-military.
The grey blip was still. It wasn’t keeping pace with the Asteria’s drift. He re-tuned the sensors and the particles of the accretion disk appeared as tiny green specks on the display. The grey blip was nearly lost in them. It seemed to follow them in their lazy orbit around the star, as if it were one of them.
“Let’s go have a look,” Digger blurted. “I sense salvage.”
Bones’ gaze moved around the cockpit, his shoulders hunched up slightly. “We don’t have any space.”
“Not that kind of salvage,” Digger said with a wave. “I’m talking small and valuable. Like the stuff you’d find on a navy bridge.” He realised he was selling the wrong angle. “And their engineering deck.”
Bones’ eyes lit up briefly. “How do you know its salvage?”
“I don’t. Only one way to find out though.”
The closer they got to the object the weirder the whole situation felt to Digger. The viewport still couldn’t discern the ship but the sensors had put together a representation on the display.
Digger and Bones stared at it. It was square and boxy, but long, like a sharp-edged nightstick with the lopsided handle.
“Is that an Armstrong?” Bones asked. His eyes hadn’t left the virtual image.
Digger nodded, his gaze also glued to the image. “A Class A. One of the originals. I didn’t know any of them were still around.”
Bones clicked his fingers. “Didn’t Honnette Outil auction one off last year?”
Digger leaned forward, zooming in to see if the sensors could detect the registration. “You’re right. Was it INC or Pleiades Corp who purchased it?”
The sensors completed a deeper sweep. The registration appeared on the screen. Bones was already digging through old media dumps. They only received MFC filtered news, but Digger remembered the auction so the old article would be there somewhere.
“Got it,” said Bones after a few minutes. He looked back at the sensor image. “It’s the same one. A subsidiary of the Pleiades Corporation purchased it for a pittance. Not my words, the articles, but once they took ownership of it, it was never seen again.”
Digger’s gaze drifted to the viewport. He could see a small twinkle in the distance, larger and shinier than the dust of the accretion disk around them. “Until now.”
“You still want to check it out?” Bones asked.
“Someone would pay good money for the sensor logs alone. And a chance to solve a mystery like this? Hell yes I want to check it out.”
The slither of reflection grew as they crept closer. Absolute velocity was a no-no in an accretion disk. You needed to be slow relative to what was around you so you didn’t slam into it.
Digger flicked off the autopilot once they were close enough to read the registration by eye: TNS Constitution.
“She’s an oldie all right,” Bones said. “Wasn’t that General Blenheim’s ship?”
Digger closed his eyes, trawling through history lessons. General Blenheim had lead the Terran Confederation Navy, such as it was at inception, to the Pleiades system. The infamous battle had gone badly for Blenheim, but he had survived, escaping on the Constitution.
“Geez, that was the flagship,” Digger said. The ship ha been mothballed after that infamous batter. It hadn’t been brought out again until Honnette sold it last year. Digger could still see holes in the armour, black scoring from missile impacts and large gashes down her flank.
He was looking at history.
Time to steal some history.