(This story is based loosely on Stars, a story I wrote last week for Friday Fictioneers)
From the depths of her sleep, Captain Verónica Martinez became aware of the song, and the song permeated everything. It wasn’t played on a known instrument, but sounded like a long forgotten lover whispering sweet nothings in her ear, or a baby crying for help. The song was the sound of the surf on a hot day and the wind in the trees on a cold night. It yelled, “I need attention,” while whispering, “Come to me, my love.” It drew her in and sucked her life after it.
Nothing she had experienced was as compelling. Or as frightening.
Verónica pulled herself awake and heard the sound echoing through the ship. Immediately she jumped onto her council and shut off audio on the ship’s system. It took just a few seconds to pinpoint the source. She had to cut it off.
“Under my command, turn off the microphone from the forward observation deck and three intercoms closest to that point. They can only be turned on via my voiceprint, my verbal command and my password, all three being necessary. Execute command.”
After the command was run, she turned on ship’s audio again. It was quiet.
Where was the background noise? Where were the vents, the engines?
Back at the computer she restarted life support. The spin for the living quarters had been manually turned off, so she started it back up again. She could feel the small motors kick in. The crew quarters hadn’t come to a stop, but a kick was needed to get it back to full spin. One system at a time she brought the ship back to life. As she turned each on, she also locked it so that no one could interfere again.
But these systems were hard locked before. How was it bypassed? How had they been disconnected?
As a precaution, she did a scan of the quadrant.
About three months previous they had passed beyond the last remnants of the Oort Cloud, zipping away from the home star at over three quarters of the speed of light. It would be at least five years before they reached the outer reaches of their destination star system. All of the space between should have been nearly void. Yet there was an Earth sized planet just a little more than fifty million kilometers away. It was strangely warm, warm enough to have liquid water on the surface. They would make their closest approach at just under a million kilometers in about three minutes before racing away again.
She set the engines to fire at full thrust along their course and away from planet beginning two seconds before closest approach and ending ten minutes out. she locked the program.
As a precaution, the windows of the observation deck needed to be shut off with the blast screens before full acceleration, but the computer control for the shields had been disconnected. Someone would have to manually close the shields.
Another quick search found that 18 of the 60 crew members were sleeping, or slowly waking from a sleep state. 34 crew members were at or around the forward observation deck. The remaining were either moving aimlessly around the ship or at their duty stations.
She tried to reach out to Lt. Chen, who was in the forward observation, but found her unresponsive. She tried Ens. Singh, but he also didn’t stir. She tried Galpaski, but he also was unresponsive. The three minutes were counting down.
Almost two thirds of the giant ship, Intrepid, was taken up by the enormous engines. The landing craft and supplies were tucked away in this last section of ship. Then there was some habitual space, mostly put in as a buffer between the engines and the living quarters, which was used as zero g lab space and storage. A small section at the front of the craft was also zero g and contained the bridge, a few offices and the large forward observation deck. She had to get to the observation deck in less than three minutes.
The middle section, over a quarter of the entire length, was the living quarters. It was a spinning drum with three decks around the cylinder. The outer deck had the highest “gravity”, and housed the exercise areas, cafeteria, recreation spots and other living places. The next level in was for the sleeping quarters, shower rooms, and other related spaces. The innermost deck was office and storage space. In the center was a tube that led to the nonrotating sections of the ship.
The sleeping area was quiet as Captain Martinez passed through. There were no people in the halls. She reached the ladder and pulled herself up. Each rung was easier as she approached the center. The business deck, usually a hub of activity, was empty. She reached the tube and waited for the opening to come around again. She flitted in and pushed hard against the far wall, both killing her spin and propelling herself forward.
“Too slow, too slow,” she thought to herself as she passed through the tube. After just a handful of seconds she used her foot against the wall to slow down.
In the forward section of the ship she made her way towards the observation deck. She could hear the music, which was growing louder as she approached. She tried to block it out, but it was overwhelming. Crew members, staring vacantly, blocked her way. She pushed them, sending them on trajectories around the ship.
Once on the observation deck she could see the alien planet glowing blue through the windows, looking like home. The music was pulsing through her, a voice singing, “Stop the engines from firing. Put us into orbit.”
She reached the manual shutter release which would close the blast shields. The music was loud in her head. “Stop the engines, and put us into orbit.” The lever was heavy and she had little leverage in the non-gravity section, but was able to flip it to unlock the mechanism.
“Now! Stop the countdown. Put the ship into orbit. Do it!”
Her hands were shaking as she reached the final controls.
A large hand fell onto hers and pulled. Mike Dickson massed three times more than her. He smiled, but his eyes were vacant.
“I’ll apologize when you come to,” she said as her foot hit his head. He flipped away from her, spinning feet over head over and over. She didn’t watch, she had more important things to do.
She reached out.
The music hit a feverish pitch.
“Stop, stop! You are killing everyone! You are shirking your responsibility! It is your responsibility to keep them safe and YOU – ARE – KILLING – THEM! STOP!!!”
Her hand jerked back impulsively. The music was ripping at her soul. With tears in her eyes she reached out again and tripped the blast shields to close. Her hand was numb and she couldn’t be sure. Did she get them? Through the tears she could see the screens coming from the edges, closing off the sky, blotting out the sight of the planet. The music grew less and less as the glass wall shrank.
With a shudder, the blast shields were closed and the music was mostly shut out. The crew members began to wake from their open-eyed trance. In the distance, she could hear the muted song.
Along with the crew, the mighty engines awoke and everything was pushed to the back. The roar filled the ship, drowning out any other noise.
Captain Verónica Martinez could feel the force of the music ripped away from the hull right when it should have been the strongest. She felt the weight of worlds drop from her as her own weight returned under the acceleration.
They were free.
There would be no returning to the planet that dwindled behind them at over 250,000 km every second.