Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. But anyone who's ever said that has never had to listen to the distress call of a doomed starship. To hear the terror of it’s crew as their ship disintegrates around them with nothing they can do to stop it.
The bridge crew of the C.S.V. Wildcat remains silent as the audio-only transmission loops back to the beginning.
<<"This is the colony ship A.C.V. North Star to anyone in range, we were struck by an unknown object during deceleration from FTL and have sustained massive damage! The Captain is dead, life support is failing, and we have many injured or dead – ah!">> The speaker is interrupted by the sound of something exploding. A warning klaxon and the panicked shouts of their fellow crew are audible in the background as they scramble to try and save their ship. <<"If anyone can hear us, we need help! Please!">> Another explosion. <<"Help us!">> There’s screaming. <<"HELP US!!">> The transmission cuts as the screaming continues. When it starts another loop, our Captain turns to look at me, and finally breaks the silence that has fallen over us.
"Sam. Turn it off. We’ve heard enough." The Kersarian keeps her voice level and calm, but I’ve known Captain Kalana Erros long enough to be able to read her pretty well. Her face and voice do a fine job of hiding her emotions, but the softness in her otherwise icy blue eyes and the way her feline ears flatten don’t. I press a button on my console, silencing the distress call before it can torment us further with the pleading of the A.C.V. North Star’s crew. "How long ago was that distress call sent out?" Captain Erros asks me. I look back down at my console and sift through the available data.
"There’s no timestamp attached… but there is spatial positioning data," I answer. "The computer might be able to extrapolate an estimate based on the point of origin and our current position, with the help of our resident genius." I look over my shoulder at the only human member of the Wildcat’s crew aside from myself. Valerie Kabeya: she’s the smartest person I know, and probably ever will know. If she had joined the Independent Systems Pathfinder Corps she would probably be in charge of a deep space research base, or Captain of her own starship by now. Instead she chose to explore the frontier with us; independent contractors. Taking the jobs we can find that’ll keep us in fuel and rations long enough to survive until the next one. From what I know of her she probably thought it would be more challenging, though some of the stories I’ve heard about what Pathfinder Vessels come across out on the frontier don’t exactly sound like cake walks.
"Send the data to my console," Kabeya says as she spins her chair back around to face her terminal. "This should not take me long." I comply with her request with just a few button presses, and the file containing the embedded information in the North Star’s distress signal is copied to Kabeya’s station.
"Send it to Helm while you’re at it, Sam." Captain Erros adds. "Jecko, plot a course as soon as you have the coordinates. Late or not, we’re going to see what we can do for these people."
"Aye, Captain." Our Suskaran helmsman responds, his claw-tipped fingers moving to input the coordinates as the data packet arrives at the helm console.
"Distress signal was sent one hour and fourteen minutes ago, Captain." Kabeya says, and I can almost hear her smirk, another small challenge conquered.
"At max Faster Than Light velocity, we can be there in… one hour. Maybe less if Samuel can coax a little more power to the engines." Our pilot says as he swivels in his chair to face me. I put my hands on either side of the engineering console and stare at its display as I think over the current state of our drive core.
"I could," I look up at the Captain. "But I’d have to make the adjustments directly from Engineering. And I can’t guarantee how long the drive can operate at that level before we’d need to send our own distress call." She barely seems to think about it before responding.
"Do it. The faster we get there the better. And, Sam?"
"Stop by Sickbay on your way down to Engineering and tell Doctor Vah’zal to prep their medical supplies." I give the Captain a nod and turn to leave the bridge. "Oh, and when this is over, maybe you could see about finally getting around to seeing what’s wrong with the internal comms?" she adds, with a hint of playfulness in her voice. I grimace as I come to a halt in the doorway. I had meant to handle that yesterday. But Sev had been… insistent… about an issue with his locomotion servos, and it had taken me most of the day to get it sorted. I’m a Starship Engineer, not a Roboticist.
"I’ll, uh, I’ll see what I can do."
"You're the best, Sam!" Captain Erros calls as the door hisses shut behind me. Not long after there’s a slight lurch as the inertial dampers are briefly overtaxed by the jump to FTL.
Great. Another thing to add to my list. You fix one thing, and three more break.
The Wildcat is a Venture-class Freighter. The Venture-class’s chevron shaped hull contains seven decks and a massive cargo and salvage bay where most starships would normally mount their main engines. The bridge is set at the center of Deck 1. Sickbay, however, is situated on Deck 6.
With time being of the essence, I decide to ignore the spiral stairs in favor of boarding the elevator. It’s a short ride to Deck 6, and as the doors slide open I catch the sound of conversation in alien tongues coming from down the corridor in the direction of Sickbay, but between distance and the bulkheads it’s nothing more than muffled words. When I get closer to Sickbay the words become clear enough for my translator implant to start working, and as the words resolve themselves from alien speech to words in a language I can understand, I recognize the voices as those of Doctor Vah’zal and Tokari, the latter of whom is one of our two security specialists – which is just a nicer way to say 'muscle'.
"If you would hold still, please. I am trying to close your wound, not open it further." Doctor Vah’zal’s voice.
"Then hurry up, I need to get to the armory. Our weapons aren’t going to – ow! Watch it, plant!" Tokari. Vah’zal gives an amused hum. "– calibrate themselves." The Sickbay windows aren’t darkened for privacy, so I can see into it as I approach the entrance. Vah’zal is running a medical device over what looks like a rather nasty gash along one of Tokari’s scale-covered arms, who is currently sitting on one of the examination tables. Tokari is Suskaran, like her clutch sibling who is presently flying the Wildcat. That being said, Tokari and Jecko are only biologically related insofar as they're members of the same species – Suskaran’s typically raise their children communally. While they can and do have biological siblings, this is not so in the case of our pair.
"She cut herself playing with razor blades again, Doc?" I tease as I lean in the doorway. Doctor Vah’zal looks up from their work, and Tokari shoots me a look that could probably burn a hole in the hull. It is quickly replaced by a sly smile.
"Oh Samuel, if only I had five fingers." Tokari jabs back, holding up the hand of her uninjured arm and waggling her four fingers.
"This idiot," Vah’zal says as they resume their work. "Decided it would be wise to use the simulator deck without the safeties enabled."
"Which reminds me," Tokari pipes up. "I’m going to need you to fix my staff. The virtual bad guy that gave me this cut may have broken it."
"Your Bio-Electric staff? Doesn’t anyone on this ship know that just because I'm a starship engineer, that doesn't mean I know how to fix everything?"
"But you can – ow! – you can fix it, right?" Vah’zal and I grumble simultaneously. For different reasons I’m sure, but those reasons originate from the same source.
"I’ll… add it to my list." I reply with thinly veiled exasperation. "But as much as I love talking to you, Tokari, I’m actually here to talk to the Doc." Vah’zal looks up as they shut off the medical device. Tokari’s wound is gone, almost as if she had never received it.
"Me?" I nod.
"We’re responding to a distress call. A colony ship, the A.C.V. North Star. Captain wants you to prep your supplies." I shift my gaze to Tokari as she stands up and starts moving her mended arm around to test Vah’zal’s work. "And you should probably go calibrate those weapons. We don’t know what we’ll be flying into there. The distress call only mentioned that they hit something, not what it was." Tokari nods, the news that we’re responding to a distress signal putting her into serious mode.
"I do not think we have the supplies to help a whole colony ship, Sam." Vah’zal returns the device they used to treat Tokari to its proper place.
"Whether we do or don’t, we’re not gonna just stand by and let those people die. At the least, we can do what we can for them until an Alliance vessel shows up." Vah’zal’s bioluminescence brightens and then fades, the Zusian equivalent of a sigh I’ve come to find.
"I will see what I can put together." Vah’zal says.
"And I guess I should get started on those calibrations." Tokari nods her head in the direction of the armory as she comes to a stop near me. "I could use some help, if you don’t mind?"
"I’d love to," I say as I start backing out of the doorway. "But the Captain wants me to squeeze some more power out of the drive core. Maybe next time." Tokari nods in understanding, but there’s something in her expression I can’t quite place. I’ve always found Suskarans hard to read, probably due to their reptilian features. I give Tokari and Vah’zal a quick goodbye wave, and with Vah’zal informed of the situation I continue on towards engineering.
I don’t have very far to go. Sickbay is placed where it can be quickly reached from engineering, the cargo bay, and the port and starboard airlocks. The design philosophy being that if a crew member suffered an injury in either of the former two areas, or is brought aboard with an injury, they – or the doctor – wouldn’t need to go far for treatment. Venture-class starships as a whole were generally soundly designed, and I had jumped at the opportunity to be able to work on one. But they do have one major flaw, which is, unfortunately, a necessity in order to allow the size and the aft placement of their cargo bay.
The main engines.
Venture-class Freighters have a strip of four secondary engines under the cargo bay, with two more towards the top, one on either side of the bay doors. But the main engines are mounted on struts that extend from the dorsal structure of the ship and sweep aft, almost like a long, bifurcated tail. This design keeps them high and clear of the cargo bay and allows almost completely unobstructed access. But it also makes the main engines vulnerable targets for anyone looking to easily disable a Venture-class. Once the shields go down, there isn’t much hull between them and potential damage.
I step onto Deck 7, and when the doors to Engineering slide open I am greeted with the smell of grease, and the gentle thrum of the Wildcat’s drive core. Despite the circumstances, I feel a sense of relief entering here. Engineering is my realm. My kingdom. It’s here that I do that work that keeps the ship from flying apart. It’s where I’m the most useful to Captain Erros and the crew. And right now, they need me to do what I do best.
I look over the Wildcat’s drive core as I make my way towards the workstation where I keep most of my tools, keeping an eye out for anything that may require my attention before I make any adjustments to the power flow. The core is a large, cylindrical beast that, unlike most drive cores, is aligned parallel to the deck and runs almost the full length of it. Matter/Antimatter fusion has proven to be the most effective when it comes to powering starships for FTL travel, but it can be extremely volatile if handled incorrectly. If a drive core goes critical, the results are always catastrophic. So proper care and maintenance are crucial to a Starship… well, not exploding. So, if I do this wrong, then chances are pretty good that there won’t be enough of us left to respond to the North Star’s distress call. Or send one of our own, for that matter.
I grab my toolbox from my workstation and roll my neck until I hear a soft crack. Time to earn my pay.