In the Shadow of Dying Stars
Chapter 1: Adrift in the Dark
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. Yet, the mysterious distress signal punched through the endless black of the void like an ion cannon through the hull of a Martian dreadnought, pinging the comms tower of the Rogue Wind as it passed into Jupiter’s shadow on its journey to the edge of the Sol System.
Exhausted from weeks spent on the float with no one but herself to talk to, First Officer Aurora Frost was keeping herself awake by running the Rogue Wind through routine diagnostics and inventory while the rest of the crew rested in cryosleep. Life support, comms, fuel, hydroponics, and food supply and storage were all in the green, just as they’d been two hours ago, but a rough ride through the Asteroid Belt, thanks to an unexpected geomagnetic storm, had left them shorter on close-range missiles and asteroid-busting rounds than she’d like.
Half-dozing in the midst of flagging the issue for her Captain, who would be none-too-pleased to receive the news, she was startled awake by the klaxon call and red warning flash delivered to her command console.
Incoming message, the Rogue Wind’s artificial intelligence cheerfully informed her.
“Jeez, AL. Do you have to jump scare me every damn time?” Aurora asked, her heart still racing.
Strictly speaking, no. But I do enjoy it, the artificial intelligence replied with programmed sarcasm.
Why anyone would program sarcasm into a ship’s artificial intelligence was anyone’s guess. But AL at least kept the long, lonely trips across the system interesting. “Don’t make me put you on timeout again,” Aurora threatened with a smirk.
And give me a break from you? Don’t tease me with empty promises of a good time, AL quipped. Then, after a brief pause, AL asked, Would you like to listen to the incoming message?
The crew had sent messages back to Earth and Mars before the Rogue Wind drifted into the Asteroid Belt (travel through the belt was mostly safe, but there was always a risk to passing through a field of sharp rocks in a glorified tin can in the vastness of the cosmos). With the geomagnetic storm still raging behind them, Aurora hadn’t anticipated any responses coming through for at least another couple of weeks. However, the Rogue Wind’s sensors weren’t picking up any other vessels within transmission range, so a reply from home seemed like the only possibility.
“You know the drill, AL. Tell me about the message first,” Aurora said, suddenly anxious. She hadn’t left Earth on the best of terms with her wife, Calliope, and wasn’t sure what to expect from her response.
Source of origin is undetermined. The code is a little off, but it appears to be a distress signal, AL explained matter-of-factly.
“How’s that possible?” Aurora asked, running a second scan for ships within range and coming up with nothing again. “Can you trace the signal back to its originating point?”
Can I? You insult me, Aurora, the artificial intelligence replied, feigning offence.
“Sorry,” Aurora said without sincerity. “Will you please trace the signal, O’ AL, the great and terrible?”
Normally, AL would need only 30 seconds to crack anything other than the most secure military encryption. When five minutes elapsed without a peep from the artificial intelligence, Aurora began to expect it was messing with her again. Almost on cue, AL nearly frightened her out of her command console with another blaring notification.
Trace successful, AL declared triumphantly. The distress signal is being broadcast by a vessel of Earth origin located somewhere outside the orbit of Titan.
“Titan? What’s it doing there? And why isn’t it showing up on our scanners?” Aurora wondered aloud. As far as she knew, Saturn’s largest moon had been abandoned after it had proven too inhospitable to bleed a profit from.
Did you break them again? AL offered unhelpfully.
“That happened ONE time,” Aurora huffed. “Just play the damn message, you useless string of ones and zeroes.”
The audio message began with crackles, pops and a hiss of static. The barely audible voice of a woman followed moments later, cutting in and out every few seconds. “This is the research vessel Intrepid… all systems red… engines failed… containment broken… please… help.”
“Well, crap. That’s a distress signal if I’ve ever heard one.” Aurora grumbled once the recording had finished playing.
When mankind had first reached out for worlds beyond Earth, space had become the new wild west, a lawless frontier where it was every man for himself. Like every great advancement in human history, ethics, morality, and law and order had only come along gradually afterward. Now, per Galactic United Nations regulations, all ships within range of another vessel broadcasting a distress signal were required to respond with at least an offer of assistance.
“AL, are you sure there aren’t any other ships that are closer?” Aurora asked, hoping the artificial intelligence would identify another blip the Rogue Wind’s scanners had missed and give her a justification to keep the ship on its planned route.
Positive, AL responded immediately.
“The captain’s going to hate being thrown off schedule for this,” Aurora said, charting the new course into her terminal, setting the engine for a hard burn, and strapping herself into her cushioned seat.
Aurora pulled her helmet over her head, snapping the clasps into place to make it air-tight. She sucked in two long, calming breaths. Even after fifteen years, suiting up to travel between ships in the dead of space still made her feel claustrophobic and anxious. She tried to tell herself it was a good thing; it meant she still cared enough to make sure she was doing everything the right way, unlike those reckless space cowboys you always saw on the news feeds (usually alongside the headline “Man killed in tragic space accident”). Calling up her HUD, she ran her suit through all the usual checks — O2 levels all good, no leaks or holes detected, thrusters and mag systems all operational — and breathed a sigh of relief. For once the captain hadn’t cheaped out on a repair she’d requested.
“Hey, AL, are you sure there was no video with the distress signal?” she asked. It was rare, but not unheard of, for the crews of smuggling ships to fake calls and prey upon the kindness of others. Video distress calls had become the norm to alleviate these fears, giving prospective rescuers more information to gauge whether the pleas for help were genuine, but a lack of video didn’t mean this one was a hoax. Still, Aurora couldn’t help being on edge.
No video, I’m afraid, AL answered. The Intrepid’s encryptions are unlike anything I’ve encountered before — even on our military jobs. But my scans tell me the ship is down to its most basic life-sustaining systems. It appears the call is real.
Good news, Aurora supposed, as she pulled up the Rogue Wind’s external video feed to review it one last time. When she’d eased the ship out of its hard burn, it had been less than an hour’s drift away from the Intrepid’s location. Even at such close range, the Rogue Wind’s cameras had struggled to pick it up. The Intrepid was a long, jet-black ovoid, nearly impossible to spot against the backdrop of space, like one of Earth’s stealth reconnaissance ships. Its hull and aft wings were lined will gun and missile ports, giving it an unusually aggressive look for a research vessel, and the large engines jutting out from its rear looked more like something one would find on a star fighter. Most strange of all, though, was the fact that there was nothing to suggest the ship had taken any external damage. Taking it all in again, Aurora felt a lump form in her throat.
“Anything more you can tell me about what I’m walking into, AL?” Aurora asked, swallowing hard and clenching and unclenching her jaw.
I’ve shared what I could access of the Intrepid’s schematics, but I still haven’t been able to match its transit ID to any ship registered in the Sol System, the artificial intelligence replied, sounding annoyed. AL had always hated being unable to solve a puzzle.
“So, odds are it’s some sort of military research vessel,” Aurora said, a lead ball in her stomach joining the lump in her throat. “Okay, AL, let’s just get this over with. Open the air lock, please.”
The air lock doors sprang open with a ping and a hiss, and Aurora stepped inside and waited for them to close again. There was a rumble and another loud hiss as the pressure between the two vessels was equalized, then the outer door jolted open, revealing the darkened air lock of the Intrepid.
“Intrepid, this is First Officer of the Rogue Wind, Aurora Frost, coming aboard in response to your distress signal,” she spoke into her comms, receiving nothing but the crackle of dead air in response. Though the ship’s distress signal had continued to repeat in an endless loop, all her efforts to contact it had gone unanswered — yet another thing weighing on her already anxious mind. “Intrepid, please respond,” she tried again, just as the ship’s outer air lock slammed shut behind her, plunging her into near-total darkness.
“And please don’t vaporize me the second I come through the air lock,” she muttered as an afterthought, suddenly wishing she’d come armed. She flicked on her suit’s exterior lights, searching the interior air lock’s control panel for a manual release and hitting the button.
“AL, can you punch me through the interior air lock door? The power’s totally out here,” she said, hooking her hand terminal into the air lock’s control panel to give AL access to the system.
One knockout punch coming up, AL replied, and the interior doors zipped open instantly. I believe this goes without saying, but don’t get yourself killed and leave the rest of the crew stranded and defenseless.
“I hadn’t planned on it,” Aurora said, stepping into a long, empty corridor.
Almost immediately, she felt herself lift off the floor — like everything else, the Intrepid’s artificial gravity was out. Engaging her suit’s mag systems to stay grounded, she drifted down the dark hallway, searching in every direction for signs of anyone aboard the ship and finding nothing.
“Alright, let’s run a scan for…” she began to say, stopping dead when something darted from left to right ahead of her, appearing only as a shadow in the thin beams of her suit’s lights. “Lifeforms,” she gulped out the rest of her sentence, freezing in place.
She ran the scan anyway, more to reassure herself she wasn’t seeing things than for any other reason, and stared, perplexed, at her HUD as it reported no detectable signatures. Unable to see much of anything in the dark, she switched her HUD to thermal vision, painting the ship around her in cold, monochromatic blue. Inching cautiously forward to the junction where she’d seen the shadow, she held her breath and peeked around the corner to her right. The branching hallway was short, ending in a solid wall and nothing but more blue.
“What the hell?” Aurora said beneath her breath, a chill coursing up her spine.
Writing it off as a trick played by her nerves, she pressed onward to the lift at the end of the corridor and triggered the manual override. The doors slid open, revealing an empty lift. Aurora stepped inside, scanning the layout of the Intrepid on the wall and comparing it with what she had of the Intrepid’s schematics. According to both sources, the next level up was engineering, and life and weapons systems, followed by the crew quarters, recreation facilities, and cargo hold on level three. The wall layout listed R&D on level four, but the schematics on her suit’s HUD were blank, too encrypted for AL to hack. Finally, on level five, was the bridge.
“Alright, AL, starting my level-by-level search of the ship. Let me know if you spot anything out of the ordinary,” she said, plugging her hand terminal into the lift’s computer, engaging the manual override, and tapping the button for level two.
The elevator lifted off with a groan and a violent tremor, coming to a jarring stop only a few seconds later. Aurora braced herself, half-expecting the lift to plummet back to the level below. Once she was reasonably certain it was safe, she forced the lift doors open and stepped out into the engineering room.
The Intrepid’s engineering room was clean in a way no manned ship ever was — no tools left out, no grease stains or pools of oil and coolant on the floor, no filthy rags left bunched up or draped over important (and very expensive) machinery. It was more like a museum exhibit of a ship’s engineering room than a real ship. Taking it all in, Aurora shuddered, her skin crawling.
She tiptoed to the ship’s main computer, afraid to disturb anything, and connected her hand terminal to the control interface. Running a quick diagnostic scan of the ship’s systems, she found nothing to explain why everything was turned off.
“Hey AL, I’m all plugged in to the main servo here. Think you could use what little charm you have to convince it to give the ship some juice?” she asked, her voice dripping with mock-sweetness.
While I resent the suggestion that I am anything less than delightful, I’m happy to oblige for my favorite human, he shot back.
Moments later, Aurora heard the deep hum of the Intrepid’s systems trying to fire back up. The hum built until it was reverberating in her ears, becoming almost deafening. Then, just as quickly, the noise dissipated to silence. For all the sound and fury, only the flashing emergency lights had powered on. All other systems remained dormant.
I hate this ship, AL said, sounding more and more frustrated.
“It’s okay. We’ll just have to make do with whatever this rust bucket is willing to give us,” Aurora replied, unhooking her hand terminal and gliding back to the lift. “Now, let’s find whoever sent out the distress signal and be done with this.”
Please be careful, Aurora, AL cautioned.
She rode the lift up to level three, stepping out into an empty cargo hold. An ordinary ship, even one embarking on a short journey, should have at least some cargo. But nothing about this ship has been ordinary yet, Aurora thought.
Past the cargo hold, she found the crew quarters. There were two dozen rooms flanking the spacious common area, all of them empty save for a perfectly made bed and a small worktable. No possessions. Not so much as a speck of dust on anything. Nothing to suggest the ship had ever been occupied.
“And this ship just keeps getting weirder,” she said, making for the central lift in the living quarters. Right on cue, a loud thump, like something heavy falling to the floor, sounded out from the level above, making her jump and let out an involuntary cry.
“Um, AL? Any way you could tell me what the hell made that noise?” she asked, her voice trailing off to a frightened mouse’s squeak.
No response, only garbled static.
“AL?” she tried again. “If this is a joke, it’s not a funny one.”
More jumbled static. A loud, head-splitting whine like feedback. Then, nothing.
Well crap, I guess I’m on my own, she thought, hitting the button to take the lift up to level four.
The lift responded immediately, hurtling upward and stopping just as suddenly. The doors slid open as the emergency lights cycled off. Taking a tentative step forward with only the grainy thermal overlay of her HUD to guide her, Aurora spied a strange shape floating towards her in the darkness and braced herself to face what the light might show her. The emergency lights cycled back on, revealing the face of a dead man, his mouth agape and contorted, as if he’d died screaming in horror.
“What the hell!?” she shrieked, shrinking back against the closed doors of the lift, her heart pounding against her rib cage.
Allowing herself a moment to regain her composure — this was far from the first floating corpse she’d seen in space — Aurora spotted a blaster holstered at the dead man’s hip. The holster was only half unsnapped. Whoever killed the man, had done so with frightening speed and efficiency.
Easing the blaster out of its holster, Aurora found small comfort in the weight of it in her hand. Her comfort shriveled up immediately as she took in the trio of slash marks stretching from the dead man’s left shoulder to his right hip, and the gaping cavity where his throat should have been.
“Okay. Not a who that killed you, but a what,” Aurora said beneath her breath, checking the blaster’s clip, then chambering a round. “Guess it’s time to find out what you were researching.”
Keeping the blaster leveled, her finger hovering just above the trigger, Aurora tiptoed through the security bulkhead she’d arrived in and passed through what looked to be a small decontamination chamber. The chamber spilled out into a long, narrow corridor, lined on either side by doors. She came upon the infirmary first, finding all the beds empty and made with military precision. The next four rooms were labeled subject testing, and each boasted a bank of computers and was bisected by a wall of three-inch-thick ballistic glass. On the other side of the glass wall in each room was an exam table (complete with heavy, banded restraints), and an array of medical instruments that looked more like torture devices. Inexplicably, the glass in the final testing room had a gaping hole in it, like something had burst through it.
Continuing on to the end of the corridor, Aurora nearly fired off a round when a shape — showing as a massive, orange-red blur on her HUD’s thermal overlay — darted from left to right. Reaching the room, she found a placard reading “Containment” beside the door.
The distress signal said something about containment being broken, Aurora recalled with horror, the realization making the hair on the back of her neck stand on end.
Flattening her back against the wall beside the open door, she switched her HUD over to normal vision, knowing she’d have an easier time hitting her target if she could get it in the lights on her helmet. She inhaled three deep, centering breaths, then whirled into the door frame, blaster raised, finger on the trigger. The room had three large cells, their doors all hanging open. In the perfect silence, she could hear inhuman grunts and crunching sounds coming from the farthest cell. Tensing her all her muscles to keep her aim steady, she crossed the room to the last cell, moving as slowly and quietly as possible.
The lights cycled off and on, affording her a clear view of an animal figure hunched over something.
The lights cycled off and on again, allowing her to discern that the something was a pile of human corpses — the animal’s personal all-you-can eat buffet.
Off. A vicious snarl emanated from the darkness.
On, and the animal had reared up on its hind legs and turned to face her. It stood head and shoulders above her, its taut and powerful muscles clearly visible beneath its healthy coat of short, black fur. Its snout, face, and triangular ears were almost lupine (almost, but not quite). Yet there was something… human… in the way it stood, and the way its arms ended in hands with five fingers — each of them tipped by a razor-sharp, six-inch claw.
Too terrified to give the bizarre creature any thought, Aurora unloaded her clip into it and sprinted off without waiting to survey the damage she’d done. She’d only just reached the decontamination chamber when she heard it let out a deep, bestial roar. Concluding she’d somehow only succeeded in pissing it off, she pushed herself to run faster, the exertion burning her legs and lungs, and crashed against the lift doors. Flailing wildly, she finally hit the button to open the lift and tumbled clumsily inside. In her panic, she didn’t realize she’d pushed the button for level five, instead of level one, until the lift lurched upward, seeming all of a sudden to move at a snail’s pace.
Below her, there was a hellish metallic screech — the sound of the lift doors being pried open, she guessed. A loud thud followed, like something heavy had struck the interior wall of the lift shaft, and the lift swayed precariously. Next, came a thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, as the animal began to climb the lift shaft, its claws sharp enough to punch through the wall.
“Come on, hurry up,” Aurora said, barely able to control her trembling. Mercifully, the lift eased to a stop, the doors opening onto the Intrepid’s bridge.
Aurora rushed forward, certain any danger on the bridge would pale in comparison to what was coming up the lift shaft to kill her. She froze in place when the captain’s chair swiveled around, revealing a woman sitting in it with a portable rail gun cradled on her lap.
“Didn’t you hear the distress call? I warned you not to come,” she said.
Aurora could only gasp in response as the woman came into full view in her helmet lights. From the stray wisps of long, black hair framing her heart-shaped face, to the jade shimmer of her eyes, the woman was almost her mirror image. The only discernable difference was the nasty claw mark running from her left temple down to her jaw. If the woman was shocked to be staring at her doppelganger, she betrayed no signs of it.
“H-how,” Aurora stuttered, jumping at another loud thud from the lift shaft.
“Are you going to just stand there looking dumbfounded, or are you going to get behind me? Whatever you choose, we’re about to have company,” her twin said, rising from the captain’s chair with the rail gun leveled at the lift behind her. Needing no further command, Aurora scurried to her twin, cowering behind the captain’s chair just in time for the lift doors to screech open.
The creature let out a soul-piercing howl from within, its eyes glowing red in the darkness.
Thank you for taking time out of your day to read my entry in the New Worlds Challenge. This was my first attempt at writing sci-fi, so I tried to really lean into the genre. I hope you enjoyed, and will leave a heart and a comment.
If you're interested in reading more, check out my second-place Campfire Ghost Story Challenge, The Curse of the Lovers' Cabin.
About the author
Jordan began writing at an early age and has been creating worlds, characters, and stories ever since, culminating with his debut epic fantasy novel, WHEN THE LAST LIGHT FAILS, and its recently completed sequel, WHEN THE DARKNESS BECKONS.
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