Four: The Void
When I got out of the Merchant Marine, a friend of mine and I decided to take the overland route from Novaroma to Brunswick. We’d both spent a fair amount of time traveling among the worlds of the League, but had not really seen that much of New Sydney itself.
We rented a ground car and set out on the one highway that headed east from Novaroma. Having grown up on the other side of the planet, I had never seen such expanses of desert. My friend had grown up on Pherat where there’s a fair amount of desert, but the scale of the western hemisphere desert on New Sydney is still somewhat staggering.
There were times on that drive that we’d be a hundred klicks away from the nearest town. A hundred klicks from the nearest hydrogen station—when we’d be the only vehicle we could see on what appeared to be an endless stretch of highway going off into the distance. In fact, the only evidence of human civilization was the road we were driving on.
That’s how it felt to be jumping out here in space. Within the boundaries of the League, as soon as you downjumped and the downjump interference abated you began to get telemetry from beacons in the outlying reaches of the system. There were radio signals that came in, often just stray ones from the planets further in-system, but there were immediate and comforting signs of human life.
But here, we’d downjump and there would be nothing. No waiting beacon to align our ship’s chronometers. No background radio chatter. No ships waiting to jump out. Nothing. Just the void.
Because we were trying to get to Commonwealth space as quickly as possible, we were jumping along a straight line. That is, we weren’t aiming at the next star system—there was no point: it’s not like there was anyone there to visit on the way. Unlike the Pioneers who’d headed out our way, we weren’t interested in finding a place to live along the way. We needed to get to the endpoint as quickly as we could.
And so we’d pop into the middle of deep space, light-years away from a star system. Two ships just hanging in the darkness. It was unnerving.
Captain Kavanagh wasn’t about to cut any corners: she made sure that we went through the whole series of inspections after a hyperspace jump. And of course, there was the refueling that needed to be done from the storage canisters. It meant basically half a day before we could jump out again. I never thought I’d feel this way, but somehow the weirdness of hyperspace was comforting in comparison to the emptiness of deep space. It was just that unbelievable emptiness all around you, and the knowledge that there wasn’t a port within 100 klicks. Not within 100 light years. We were in the middle of nowhere.
Reports were coming in from various corners of the crew being on edge as a result. That wasn’t just a medical or psychiatric concern. It was a security concern. When people were more on edge, they tended to get in more trouble. There had been a few fights in the galley, and a lot more drinking going on off-duty. The security officers under my command were keeping busy. Well, relatively busy. There were still huge gaps of time when nothing was happening.
It’s often been said that that was the way of things in wartime—hours of tedium punctuated by moments of terror. And while we weren’t in combat—we were still on a wartime mission. This meant that our mission seemed to flow along the same contours—there would be hours of dull, tedious routine—vitally important, but still tedious—followed by the sudden crisis of a fight or public drunkenness. Given that, learning how to stay vigilant in the midst of the tedium was a vital skill.
A few weeks into the Expedition, I was at my bridge post, conducting my security “rounds.” That is, I was tapping into my security officers’ displays and monitoring the same screens they were watching. Everything was routine. Painfully routine. I watched a while before I could feel my eyes start to glaze over. I had been on duty for six hours already; around that time, when your focus started to wane, and the displays in front of you became abstract works of art.
I decided to stand up to get some blood circulating again, and as I did, something caught my eye.
“What the hell?” I muttered to myself as I sat back down. One of the shuttles that carried antimatter pods from the Deliverance to the Brunswick had departed… well… wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it. But it didn’t look right.
“What is it, Killian?” asked Delacruz, walking over to my station.
“There’s something not right about that shuttle,” I said, running a bunch of scans to back up my impression. “I can’t put my finger on it. It’s…” Suddenly it occurred to me. The delivery of antimatter from one vessel to another was not normally done between starships. In fact, it was usually done by refueling tankers that never left orbit. In an emergency, supply vessels could transport small quantities to a vessel that had been stranded between systems. But normally, starship cargo shuttles were not designed for this task. In order to make the Deliverance’s shuttles function like fuel transport shuttles, they were fitted with a special ring that counteracted the gravitic plating of the shuttle and the docking ship. It created a small null-g area between the two docked vessels, allowing for the safe transfer of volatile cargo between them. The docking ring adaptor helped to ensure a smooth and easy transit in the handoff from one vessel to the other.
This shuttle would need to travel with an adaptor ring in order to deliver its shipment of antimatter safely to the Brunswick. But it wasn’t carrying the ring. Given the payload aboard, that shuttle should not dock with any docking port on the Brunswick.
“It’s not carrying a docking-ring adaptor, Commander,” I said.
Delacruz spun. “Flores, hail that shuttle.”
“Aye.” Then: “Shuttle Bravo, this is Deliverance, respond. Shuttle Bravo, this is Deliverance, respond. Over.”
“Commander,” I said. “There’s something going on. Either that shuttle left without a docking ring and is having radio problems, or that’s a pilot with a shuttle full of antimatter who has no intention of off-loading that cargo.”
“I think you may be right, Lieutenant,” Delacruz said. “We need to secure that shuttle. Flores, find out who’s supposed to be on that shuttle. Filipov-Ibañez, suggestions?”
“We could blow it out of the sky, Commander, but we’d be down a shuttle and would likely set a whole shipment of anti-matter loose in space that would be hard to corral.”
“Agreed,” said Delacruz.
“Let me go over to the shuttle,” I said.
“What do you mean, Killian?” Delacruz asked. “Take another shuttle with some Marines?”
“No, sir. If the pilot sees me coming in another shuttle, that could spook him. I’m thinking of going EVA.”
Delacruz looked at me. He’d never shown me any disrespect and had always worked well with me. But it was almost as if he now looked at me as an honest-to-God fleet man. “Flores,” he said, keeping his eyes on me, “get the captain down here.”
A few minutes later, the captain walked onto the bridge. Delacruz filled her in on the situation and my proposal.
“What do you plan on doing once you get over there, Mr. Killian?” she asked.
“Well, that will depend, captain,” I responded. It was suddenly dawning on me what I was volunteering to do. Extravehicular activity is always dicey, and there’s something about being in the void with nothing around you but a pressure suit to make you start to lose it. “My plan will be to get onto the shuttle without being noticed. Once I’m inside, I’ll assess the situation and go from there.”
The captain looked at me. There’s a fine line between improvising and pulling a plan out of your arse, and she seemed to know that I was walking that line.
She simply nodded and said, “Get to it, mister.”
“Aye, captain.” I headed off the bridge and made my way down to the starboard docking bays. I suited up in a Mark IX EVA suit, not the heaviest duty or the most protection, but would allow me the most freedom of movement once I got on board the shuttle. The advantage of the Mark IX was that it was somewhat stealthy—a deep gray instead of the usual bright white and a helmet that had a wide field of vision. It was intended for boarding parties, but needless to say, probably not for this exact use. I checked out a sidearm and secured it to my EVA suit, setting it for the non-lethal setting. I could change that quickly enough if there were a need.
I put my com in my ear and activated the circuit. As soon as I did, I heard Flores’ voice: “Lieutenant, the shuttle has stopped midway between us and the Brunswick and seems to be holding station. The pilot is a Petty Officer Rishard Trayner. No prior disciplinary problems in his file. Was a civilian volunteer from Fairhaven with experience in atmospheric flights primarily.”
“Copy that,” I responded. “Can you tell me from his personnel file how many hours he had logged in micro-gravity?”
“Before this expedition, he had 30 hours logged. Most of his work was in-atmospheric refueling for aircraft.”
“Thank you, lieutenant,” I said. The Expedition had taken a lot of civilians on the voyage. We were already taking a fair amount of military talent in the likes of Captains Kavanagh and Brevi and their officer corps, and so many of the remaining positions were filled by qualified civilians and reservists. Trayner must have been one of those; a man skilled in refueling and docking but not necessarily a space veteran. I could use that.
The docking bays were designed for small personnel shuttles. There were four bays in a row that all emerged into the common area we now stood in. I turned to the technician who stood at the main control console.
“Chief Ahmadi,” I said. “Is there any way to cut all the lights in here? I don’t want a bright light to shine right as we’re opening the docking port.”
“Yes, lieutenant. I can take care of that,” he replied. He pressed a few buttons and all the lights but those on his console and various wall panels went off.
“Thank you, chief.” I put my helmet on, stepped up to one of the docking ports, and gripped the handle beside the hatch.
“Ready whenever you are, lieutenant,” Ahmadi said.
“Open the hatch, chief.” The interior hatch on the port rotated away, exposing the interior of the airlock. This was nothing new, of course; people did this all the time. But usually, when the exterior door opened, there would be a ship waiting. Not this time. I stepped into the airlock and attached my tether to one of the grips inside. I spoke through the comlink: “I’m tethered, chief. Go ahead and finish the cycle. The interior hatch closed behind me with a thunk that communicated an airtight seal. There was a hissing sound as the air was removed from the lock. Eventually, the hiss faded into silence, and there I stood, in vacuum. The far hatch cycled open, revealing a field of stars and one object in the distance: the shuttle. The tether cable I had was a two-kilometer long microfilament, very thin but extremely strong. It had better be. If I couldn’t get into that shuttle, it was the only thing keeping me from drifting into deep space. I walked to the edge of the airlock and jumped.
The jump was enough to carry me sufficiently far from the ship’s hull before I began firing my handheld thrusters. Slowly I closed the gap between the Deliverance and the shuttle. The Deliverance and the Brunswick generally position themselves about two kilometers away from each other when they do an anti-matter transfer. The shuttle had stopped almost exactly halfway.
I began firing the handheld thrusters to brake my flight and managed to execute it just so that I came to a full relative stop just near the rear cargo hatch. I took another tether cord and secured myself to the grips on the shuttle. In my ear over the inter-vessel comm channel, I could hear Flores repeating the hail to Shuttle Bravo without success. Whatever this Trayner was up to, it wasn’t good.
I pressed the private comlink button on my suit. “Killian to Deliverance. I’m about to go in.”
“Copy,” said Flores.
Alongside almost any docking port or hatch is usually what appears to be a generic data port. Most people think nothing of it since most people aren’t in a position to see it. But these data ports exist for exactly the reason I was about to use this one. Ever since computers went wireless about 1,500 years ago, the security of networks has always been a problem. The idea that someone could just fly by your vessel and hijack the computer core was a staple of starship security paranoia. And so, for really sensitive access, you had to physically be present. All hatch controls were in a closed system. The system that Chief Ahmadi had used to cycle open the hatches on the Deliverance was connected to nothing else aboard the ship. It could not be accessed by any wireless system. So, the prospect that someone could fly alongside, beam a code, and start boarding your ship was practically impossible. The port I was about to access was the only external way to access the hatch control system of the shuttle. The advantage here was that very few people outside of the command structure even knew that such a thing existed. Fortunately, the chief security officer is one of those people.
I extended a data cable out of a pocket on my sleeve and fit it into the data port. On my heads-up display in my helmet appeared a command interface for access. The eye-tracking software of the helmet recorded my direction and blinking as I scanned the interface and entered the code for access. This was a tricky thing—shuttle hatches weren’t meant to open in vacuum on their own. They were expected to be fitted to an airlock. There is a small antechamber that can serve as an impromptu airlock in an emergency, but generally, these had not been set up to do so in the ordinary course of shuttling cargo back and forth between the Deliverance and the Brunswick. I had to be careful; if I opened up the hatch without taking some kind of precaution, not only was it possible that the contents of the shuttle—including the pilot and the antimatter cargo—would be vented along with the atmosphere into space, but the explosive decompression of the atmosphere would propel the shuttle forward and away from me. Once I was in the hatch control system, I looked to see if the antechamber had been sealed. It hadn’t, but fortunately, that could be done remotely. I had the antechamber sealed and cycled the air out of the chamber before opening the outer hatch. I made sure the lights of the antechamber would not come on when I stepped through.
I, of course, heard nothing and worried about how loud the mechanism of the opening hatch would sound on the inside. If the ambient noise of the shuttle were loud enough, it was possible Trayner might not even hear the hatch open. I had already made sure that my security override prevented any of the command systems from showing that the hatch had been opened. (There’s a reason they don’t tell a lot of people about these override data ports.)
I was about to disconnect from the port when I realized I needed to do one more thing. I accessed the environmental control systems and placed a couple of custom commands into the system geared for voice recognition. You never know. I uncoupled the data interface and replaced the panel.
I detached myself from the Deliverance’s tether and stepped inside the lock, and the hatch door cycled closed behind me. In the darkness, I moved up to the small window that looked into the rest of the shuttle. In front of me was the storage compartment with the two tanks of antideuterium that were to be transferred to the Brunswick. There didn’t appear to be anything unusual about the cargo or the cargo room. I stepped through the antechamber door into the cargo section. I made my way through the cargo section as stealthily as I could in an EVA suit. I was grateful for the Mark IX; it really did have the best freedom of movement. I unholstered my sidearm, double-checked the non-lethal setting, and approached the dangling plastic curtain that separated the cargo hold from the flight deck.
Trayner was standing at the fore of the shuttle control deck. At first, he appeared to be staring at the displays, but it became clear that he was simply standing. Nearly catatonic. He’d snapped. It sometimes happened, but usually among those who worked in the outer reaches of a solar system. It’s called the Lightyear Stare, a condition whereby those who have been in deep space for too long stare off into space and become lost to the outside world. Most asteroid miners and others who work in such professions have alarms that go off at random intervals to jar them out of any such daze. If not interrupted in time, a pilot can just shut down altogether.
It wasn’t common in the kind of work that Trayner was doing, but neither was the work that he was being asked to do. After all, he was a flatlander who’d spent more consecutive days in hyperspace and deep space than most experienced ISG personnel; it could happen. The Void was getting to a lot of folks.
I brushed the folds of the curtain aside and stepped through, sidearm raised.
“Rishard,” I said firmly—my voice being broadcast by the suit mics, “put your hands up and stand away from the control panel.”
At first, nothing. Lightyear Stare, indeed. And then suddenly, Trayner whirled to face me. I was about to fire when I saw that he was holding a device in his hand. It was a remote designed to shut down the magnetic containment systems of the cargo pods. That remote should only have been available to the maintenance crews who filled those pods. There would be plenty of investigating after this was over. For now, it meant that this situation was already in backup plan territory. With a quick eye-blink command, I activated the magnetic boot grips on my suit.
“Rishard,” I said again, firmly but with as calm a tone as I could muster, given the fact that I was standing in front of two potential antimatter bombs. “Don’t do anything rash. Just put the remote down and come with me.”
“What’s the point?” he asked, surprisingly engaged given that I’d thought he’d gone over into catatonia. “We’re out here in the middle of nowhere. Headed nowhere. There’s nothing to find. No one out here. We’ll travel all those light-years and find nothing but a dead empire with no one to help. And then we’ll slink back home to worlds we cannot defend and cannot save. We’re a people under a death sentence. I’m just doing the humane thing; I’m giving us a mercy killing.”
As I said, the Void could get to you. And this was the way it had gotten to Rishard Trayner.
“Rishard, I know it seems hopeless. But we still have a ways to go. Who knows what we’ll find? We could get there and find a Commonwealth teeming with life, ready to help us.”
“Then why haven’t they come before? Why did they abandon us?” That’s a hard question for any of us. It’s the chip all Leaguers carry on our shoulders. Abandoned by the mother who gave us birth. Left to our own devices far away from home. I had to overcome my own bitterness to be able to respond.
“We’ll find out, won’t we, Rishard? I’m sure it’ll be a simple explanation. But I’m sure they’re there. We’ll find them, and they’ll help us save our worlds. We’ll save Fairhaven, I promise.”
When he heard the name of his home world, he looked up, but I could see that the despair had taken him, perhaps even more than the Void had. He no longer believed that he could save Fairhaven. He looked down at the hand that held the remote and—
“Bounce! Bounce! Bounce!” I shouted, using one of the custom commands I’d uploaded into the shuttle’s computer. The cabin gravity switched off immediately. Newcomers to space flight always have the same reaction; they look immediately for something to hang on to. It doesn’t matter that the basic laws of inertia dictate that if they remain motionless, they’ll stay right where they are. The inner ear suddenly tells them they’re falling, and so they lunge out to break their fall. And in so doing, Trayner dropped the remote and lunged for the overhead handholds. Before he could grab onto them, I fired my sidearm; a beanbag projectile launched across the cabin and thudded into Trayner, knocking him into the bulkhead. I was glad I had activated the magnetic grips on my EVA suit’s boots, or I’d have flown in the opposite direction into the cargo hold.
Trayner hit the bulkhead, and it knocked the breath out of him. I crossed quickly and grabbed the remote, tumbling in free fall. Once I had it secured, I shouted again, “Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” and the gravity came back on… at three gees. Trayner slumped to the ground. Immobilized. I turned off the mag grips and made my way over—with difficulty, but I’d trained in high-gravity environments—and injected him with a sedative. Once he was out, I reset the gravity to standard, picked him up, and secured him to a berth in the cargo hold. He’d be out for a while, but I made sure the restraints were secure nonetheless.
“Deliverance,” I radioed. “Trayner is in custody; I have control of the shuttle. I will proceed to Brunswick and offload the cargo before returning to Deliverance. Please detach the tether on your end.”
“Copy that, Lieutenant. The captain conveys her thanks.”
I took my position in the pilot’s chair and engaged the thrusters, moving the shuttle in the direction of the Brunswick. They’d be glad to get their fuel so that we could get out of this emptiness and get back to the more comfortable emptiness of hyperspace.
Back aboard the Deliverance, I was called into the captain’s office. Commander Delacruz was there, and for some reason, the ship’s surgeon and Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Lissa Kwok-Tranh.
“Have a seat, Mr. Killian,” the captain said as I entered.
“Thank you, captain. I forwarded my written report to you earlier,” I replied.
“Yes, I saw that. Thank you,” the captain continued. “I want to say right off the bat that I think your conduct aboard the shuttle in securing it without any loss of life or harm to the shuttle was commendable.”
“Thank you, captain,” I replied, taking a seat in the chair opposite.
“Mr. Killian,” Delacruz began. “This incident has raised a number of questions that we’d like your input on as chief of security.”
“Of course, commander.”
“In your report, you noted that you thought at first that Trayner was evidencing ‘Lightyear Stare.’”
“Yes, sir. I realize upon reflection that that cannot have been the case since he had already piloted the shuttle and would not have had enough time to have lapsed into it.”
“Nevertheless,” added Dr. Kwok-Tranh, “we think you may be on to something. As I am sure you’ve noticed in your observations that the crews are very tense. My staff and I suspect that there is a syndrome developing. It’s probably a combination of factors, including the trauma we’re all still experiencing concerning the devastation of Farmark.”
I thought immediately of Chollie in that Novaroma bar and knew that even though I had tried to speak encouragingly to him, somewhere deep down was the feeling that I would someday know that same dread, or that my loved ones would when I had died in the last lines of defense of our systems.
“There is also the factor to consider that it has been four centuries since anyone spent this many hours in hyperspace and deep space,” Kwok-Tranh continued. “The best way I can think to describe it is a low-level but persistent anxiety. What are your thoughts?”
“I’d have to agree, doctor,” I replied. “The Pioneers made this trip but we also know that they spent time orbiting worlds in various systems, scouting them for habitable planets. Even given their limited provisions and fuel, their pace was not as relentless. I’ve reviewed the logs from those journeys and don’t recall reading about anything like this. There were all the usual problems, but even after seven hundred light-years, they seemed to have remained relatively optimistic and were not despairing when they arrived in the Sharon system.”
“There may be a reason those ships didn’t experience the same stresses,” Kwok-Tranh said, glancing at the captain and first officer. Had they already discussed this? Probably. I was being brought in for some other purpose. She continued.
“We believe that the major difference was that those vessels were civilian vessels. While a number of the commanding officers were former Navy or Marine officers, the vessels themselves were organized following civilian codes of conduct rather than military.”
She stopped there and paused, waiting for me to catch up. It took me a couple of seconds but then: “Ah, fraternization.”
“Do you really think that sex kept them from going stir crazy?”
“It’s possible. Many of those who traveled were already in family unit relationships. We know that there were a number of in-voyage marriages and even pregnancies. It may be that the more lax interpersonal rules kept them from experiencing the brunt of the psychological stresses associated with the long voyage.”
I looked from the captain to the exec to Dr. Kwok-Tranh. I wasn’t sure what they were asking of me when suddenly I realized: “You’re thinking of doing that aboard the Deliverance and the Brunswick.”
“That’s correct,” Captain Kavanagh responded. We need your assessment as to the security risks.”
“Well… it is an extraordinary circumstance. Generally, I wouldn’t argue for decreasing discipline. Might I suggest that if you do this, that you ensure that no relations are permitted between officers and enlisted or perhaps even among people of differing ranks?”
Delacruz leaned forward. “What is the purpose of that?”
“To create a new rule that replaces the relaxed old rule. Whatever else, the discipline of a ship is the most important antidote to security trouble. I understand the very real psychological need that may be arising among the crew from this journey, but I think it should be addressed within the context of more rules not fewer.”
That got a surprised reaction from the captain. “Mr. Killian, every day you sound more and more like a career navy man.” She seemed pleased, even though my proposal had effectively limited her to Captain Brevi on the Brunswick. But something told me that the captain was not affected by whatever was going on throughout the fleet. No, she was too driven to let a little thing like the abyss of deep space derail her. For that matter, I noted that I had not been feeling the same anxiety. I suppose that’s because, for the first time in a long time, I felt a real purpose in what I was doing. I was the security chief of a starship of the League on one of the most important missions in our history. The Void couldn’t hold a candle to that.
“Well, thank you, captain,” I said. Then: “There are other things we might do for morale, too.”
“Such as?” asked Dr. Kwok-Tranh.
“It occurred to me that another thing that the Pioneers had that we don’t was a clear sense of purpose.”
The captain and the exec looked dubious. “Our purpose is pretty clear, mister,” said Delacruz.
“With respect, commander, our mission is clear. Our purpose isn’t.” The captain had her eyes fixed on me. She nodded, and I continued.
“The Pioneers had a mission, but they also had a purpose: to expand the boundaries of human civilization, to carry the human race into the unknown. They were part of something bigger. We have a mission: to contact the Commonwealth and enlist its aid. But what I think is affecting people is that the mission might fail. And the Void doesn’t help keep your mood up when you’re trying to stay focused. We need to remember that we have a purpose as well as a mission. Captain, you clearly have one; that’s why you’re not as affected as many of the crew. I’m not saying we shouldn’t alter the fraternization rules and add the other rules in; I’m saying we need to think about ways to give the crews a sense of purpose, too.”
The three of them sat there and looked at me. I thought for a long minute that I was in some kind of trouble.
“Mr. Killian,” the captain said at last. “You did not list ‘philosopher’ on your application with the Fleet.”
“No, ma’am, I did not.”
“Mr. Delacruz, Dr. Kwok-Tranh, what do you think of the lieutenant’s observations?”
Delacruz answered first. “Captain, there’s something to that. We’re career, and for us, purpose and mission are often intertwined. But a lot of the people we have on board our ships are reservists or civilian volunteers. You and I have had our purpose since we entered the Academy, if not before: protect the worlds of the League, whatever it takes. But most of these folks signed on for the mission.”
Kwok-Tranh spoke up next: “The lieutenant raises an interesting point, psychologically. Mission goes to task, but purpose goes to the heart of meaning. And out here in the expanse, it can all feel very meaningless, especially if the odds of our mission’s success seem slim.”
The captain considered this. She leaned over and pressed a button on her in-desk display.
“Lieutenant Flores,” she said. “Please inform the crew of both vessels that I will be giving a mission update address at 0900 hours tomorrow morning. We’re not going to jump once refueling is complete. Until further notice, the fleet is at Condition Four.”
“Aye, captain,” came Flores’ response. There was surprise in her voice. There was surprise in the expressions of everyone in the captain’s office. We hadn’t been at anything lower than Condition Two readiness the entire voyage. People might relax on their own when off-duty, but given how much work running a starship on this kind of voyage took, there wasn’t anything remotely like “downtime” for the crew as a whole. It was 1530 hours now—the captain had just given the fleet the night off. More or less. There were still duty shifts, but the atmosphere would be a lot more at ease than had been the case for most of the journey.
No one said a thing, but we all exchanged glances of mutual understanding. This was a good idea. We’d all get a break, even if a small one. And when it was over, the captain would remind us all why we were out here.