Alpha Centauri

Jessica set the navigation computer’s matrix to a point approximately 50,000,000km away from Alpha Centauri and engaged the enfoldment drive. The ship Folded space, winking out. It reappeared instantaneously several million kilometers away from her starting point. It had taken days of hopping this way to get to Alpha Centauri from Earth.

Suddenly there was a flash of light from the nearby star.

“What the—? A solar flare?” Jessica said.

An alarm sounded. A red light blinked on the control board.

“Manual reset? Dammit. New tech on an old ship. What a great idea.”

The control board blinked back at her. She caught her reflection in the cockpit window. Short brown hair, oval face, high cheekbones, rounded nose.

She pushed away from the ship’s controls and swung her chair around to check the navigational computer. It clicked and beeped. The display showed the ship’s position relative to its starting point. Jessica stomped down the cockpit ramp, her boots clomping on the steel decking.

It was typical for one of these ancient LZ-42s to fall apart at the seams but she’d hoped that it wouldn’t be so soon after leaving port. This was not a good sign for the rest of the cargo run.

Jessica descended four levels to E deck, the engine room, taking each ladder slowly. There was no real hurry. Besides, breaking a leg going down a ladder was not the best idea when she was the only crewmember awake. She keyed in the code for the engine room and went down the last ladder.

The ship’s drive, flanked by two banks of computers, thrummed in the middle of the room. The computers gave off a faint glow. This was the only indication of the activity happening inside the metal cube to which they were attached by massive cables snaking across the floor.

Jessica checked the computer readout. It gave no indication of the malfunction. All systems were normal.

“Well, something’s got to be wrong,” Jessica said.

As if prompted, the hatch above her clanged shut. Jessica whirled around. The hatch acted as a safety bulkhead, separating the levels of the ship in case of a fire or plasma leak. But it shouldn’t be able to close on its own.

She pressed the hatch release next to the ladder. Nothing happened. She tried the manual release lever. Luckily, the company mechanics had done a good job overhauling the whole ship after they installed the new drive and the lever was jammed—rusted in place.

“Great,” Jessica said. “Well, one thing at a time.”

She turned back to the drive computers. She pulled up the drive operation manual on the computer. It was the only file available to display. She opened the file. It read:

DISCLAIMER

THE QX-1 ENFOLDMENT DRIVE AND ALL ASSOCIATED COMPUTER TERMINALS ARE THE PROPERTY OF THE INTERSOLAR CORPORATION AND ARE PROTECTED BY A SPECIAL LICENSE. OPENING OR OTHERWISE TAMPERING WITH THE ENFOLDMENT DRIVE OR ITS COMPUTERS IS PUNISHABLE BY 200 YEARS IN PRISON.

BY OPERATING AN INTERSOLAR CORPORATION FREIGHTER, THE CREWMEMBER AGREES NOT TO REVEAL THE CONTENTS OF THIS MANUAL TO ANYONE. VIOLATION OF THIS AGREEMENT IS PUNISHABLE BY AN ADDITIONAL 200 YEARS IN PRISON.

“Thanks. I’ll try to keep it in mind,” Jessica said. She scrolled to the next page of the manual. It read:

ENFOLDMENT DRIVE OPERATION

THE ENFOLDMENT DRIVE REQUIRES NO HUMAN INPUT FOR NORMAL OPERATION.

TO PERFORM MANUAL RESET, DISENGAGE DRIVE WITH MAIN SWITCH, WAIT ONE (1) HOUR, THEN RE-ENGAGE DRIVE.

IN CASE OF MALFUNCTION, RETURN TO INTERSOLAR CORPORATION SPACEDOCK FOR MAINTENANCE AND REPAIR BY LICENSED INTERSOLAR CORPORATION MECHANICS.

“What the—?” Jessica pressed the button to scroll further down the screen. It didn’t move. “That’s it? You’ve gotta be kidding me. And how are we supposed to get back to spacedock if this doesn’t work?”

There was a single switch above the computer display. Jessica searched around the computer banks for any other switches or controls.  Except for the display, its control buttons, and the switch, there was nothing she could push or switch on the monolithic computers.

“Alright, so just turn it off, wait an hour, and turn it back on again.”

Jessica stood for a moment, hand on the switch. She couldn’t help but wince as she flipped the switch. The drive’s thrumming stopped. She pressed the computer’s power button. Its lights and display dimmed and went out.

She let out her breath. It was as anticlimactic as she’d hoped. She looked at her watch: 0721 hours.

Jessica turned back to the ladder and tried the hatch again. It stayed closed. She pounded the bare metal. Taking a deep breath, she surveyed the hatch control panel. She pulled an omnitool from her belt and popped off the panel cover. She’d cursed the ship for being old. Now she was grateful. The control panel was full of wires, not the newer nanochips. Not that it would have made sense to completely overhaul an old junker just to upgrade the door tech.

She started tugging at the wires, figuring out which ones led up to the hatch at the top of the ladder. She pulled out the wires from the back of the panel cover. Blue electricity arced out of the open panel and connected with her bare hand.

Jessica hit the floor with a thud and blacked out.

Pain; confusion. Fuzzy blackness gave way to a semblance of consciousness. Groaning broke the silence. Jessica rolled to one side and onto her knees. She lost her balance and her shoulder slammed into the floor. She lay there for a moment breathing. She managed to sit up and open her eyes. The control panel was still open, staring, mocking her.

“Gloves, Jessica. Gloves,” she said, shaking her head and wondering how long she’d be out for. She checked her watch. “Well, that’s ten minutes I won’t have to wait for the drive,” she said, grunting as she got to her feet.

But the power discharge shouldn’t have happened. They were very low power connections from the ship’s reactor to the control panel and the hatch. There shouldn’t be a charge in there capable of knocking her out. And the safeties would have to be off or malfunctioning.

“What a piece of junk. This thing’s going to get me killed,” Jessica said, pulling on her work gloves. “Okay, let’s try this again.” She rearranged the wires—bypassing the main power conduit and taking power from the auxiliary lines—closed the panel, and pressed the button. Nothing happened. “That should have done it.” She switched the wires back and tried again.

The hatch opened.

Jessica sighed and shrugged. “I’ll take it.” She hurried one level up to D deck: reactor core. While the drive in the engine room let the ship Fold space, the drive did not power the ship itself. The fusion reactor provided electricity to the ship and powered the maneuvering thrusters. She checked the power levels and various indicators on the control panel for. Everything showed normal. She read the log reports on the computer, scrolling through several times to make sure she hadn’t missed it.

“No power spike? I know what I saw and I sure as hell felt it. I thought they gave these things a complete inspection before sending them on jobs.”

Suddenly, metal clanged behind Jessica. She whirled around. The upper hatch leading up to C deck was closed. A sinking feeling settled into Jessica’s stomach. This is not good.

She tried the same trick as before, switching the wires for the hatch control and then switching them back. Nothing both times. The manual release lever wasn’t stuck this time but it didn’t do anything either, which shouldn’t have been possible.

The hatch down to the engine room was still open, but that wouldn’t do her any good. It was the only way in and out of the engine room. She needed to get back up to the cockpit. Luckily, there was another door out of the reactor core that led to the cargo hold.

Jessica cranked the wheel lock, ignoring the warning sign. The door hissed and swung open. Jessica stepped out onto the balcony. She might as well have walked out an airlock. The cargo hold was a chasm of blackness punctuated by pinprick lights. A catwalk extended out before her, disappearing into the dark. The lights in the massive expanse gave the impression of a star field, but even these grew so dim they disappeared into the distance.

A wave of vertigo overcame Jessica and she grabbed onto the railing. The field of lights became a blur. Breathing hard, she turned back to the doorway. A solitary light revealed nothing above the door. There was no way to get to the living quarters or cockpit directly from the cargo hold. But there was a dim shape off to one side of the door. Jessica grinned. A maintenance locker. There was a plasma torch inside.

“Guess I’ll have to do some work of my own. Screw their licensed mechanics,” Jessica said.

She lit the torch and immediately turned her head away, squinting from the light. She pulled the goggles she’d found in the locker down over her eyes and set the tip of the torch to the sealed hatch. The blue plasma reacted with the metal to give off a white hot light. Molten metal spread from the contact point. Hopefully it wouldn’t fall down onto her unprotected head. She didn’t like the idea of burning her face off under any circumstances—much less when she was trapped in the lower decks of a broken-down cargo ship somewhere near Alpha Centauri.

Sweat ran down Jessica’s neck. Her arm cramped from holding onto the ladder awkwardly. The steel hissed a final time and Jessica leaped out of the way, extinguishing the plasma torch. The deck plating rang like a bell as the hatch doors fell.

Jessica hauled herself up onto C deck: storage and maintenance. It was a jumble of food containers, replacement parts, tools, O2 tanks, space suits.

Jessica hesitated, looking up at the next hatch leading to B deck. The lethal hatch doors were hidden in the bulkhead between decks. Any trust she had in the ship and its most basic systems was gone. The malfunctions had to be random, but they sure didn’t seem random—at least the ones happening to her. There could be other things going wrong on the ship that she didn’t even know about. And the moment she was between decks would be a great time for the hatch to close and put an end to her doubts—permanently.

There was no point in disconnecting the power to the hatch doors. There was another connection at the control panel on the other side of the doors so that the hatch could be opened from above.

Jessica hauled herself up the ladder, plasma torch in one hand. She paused just below the hatch, eyeing the two halves of the hatch retracted into the bulkhead. She stretched her leg to rest her right foot a few rungs from the top and catapulted herself through the open hatch, yanking her foot through behind her. She rolled, sat up, and stared at the hatch. It didn’t move.

Jessica laughed at how ridiculous she was must look.

She stood up. Even in the living quarters, everything was steel and hard angles. A few seats, a kitchen, bunks for sleeping, bathroom, and a passage leading to the iceboxes where the three other crew members were in stasis. There was no ice nor were they cryogenic chambers; rather they called them iceboxes because everyone came out of stasis freezing and shaking.

Jessica had been lucky so far. A minor issue with the drive requiring a simple, if lengthy, reset and two malfunctioning bulkhead hatches. It could have been far worse. It could still be. She needed to wake up her crewmates. They’d be annoyed. Going down for stasis was somehow worse than waking up from it, but she was going to need help if things got any worse.

Four pods, each with vitals displays, filled the small room. Jessica’s stood open and empty. One other was empty. The displays on the two middle pods showed life signs.

Jessica approached the pod on the left. She tapped the display then pressed two buttons simultaneously. A damp smell filled the air. Jessica wrinkled her nose. The lid of the pod lifted revealing the mostly naked body of man about forty-five years old with prematurely gray hair, a square face, and a flat nose.

Groans. His body convulsed violently.

“Easy, Hawk, easy,” Jessica said, laying a towel over his shivering body.

Hawk sat up. “Jess, wha—? Why are you waking me up?” Hawk said through chattering teeth.

“We haven’t gone very far. We folded space just fine for a while. Then the drive needs a manual reset. Then the bulkhead hatches start going haywire and I get zapped and I have to cut my way out of the reactor core.”

Hawk exhaled. “Shit. Okay.” He tried to stand and fell back against the pod. “I think I need a sec.”

“Take it easy. I’ll wake up O’Brian.”

Jessica repeated the procedure for O’Brian’s pod. Nothing happened. She tried again. Nothing. “Hawk—” Jessica said, not even trying to keep the panic from her voice. “It’s not working.” She jammed the buttons.

“Just relax. Let me try.”

The control panel went dark.

“Oh, God, Hawk.”

“She’s fine. She’s fine. She doesn’t even need air in stasis. She’ll be fine until we get back to port.”

Jessica wasn’t very reassured. “We need to send out a distress call and check the ship’s systems to see if the computer can tell us anything.”

Jessica grabbed the plasma torch and Hawk, having quickly dressed, followed her up the ladder to the cockpit. Jessica hesitated for a second before scrambling through the hatch. She stood up and immediately grabbed for the wall, lightheaded.

“You alright?” Hawk said.

“Yeah, I think so,” Jessica said, blinking and shaking her head, trying to clear it.

Hawk sat in the pilot’s chair. The red light on the control panel no longer blinked red. Hawk glanced at the navigational computer. “Alpha Centauri. Well, we’re not too far. A ship or two should come by at some point.” Hawk sat in the pilot’s chair and ran his fingers through is hair. “I’ll have to send out a general distress call. All channels. Hopefully someone will hear us.”

“What’s the status of the ship’s systems?” Jessica said.

Hawk navigated the computer display. “All normal. That’s impossible.”

Anxiety knotted in the pit of Jessica’s stomach. “It should be. The reactor computer didn’t show a spike either, but I certainly felt it.”

“So there are malfunctions with the drive, iceboxes, and door controls. Two completely separate systems—great. And there’s something wrong with the main computer too.”

“We need to just shut everything down.”

“You can’t shut down the reactor.”

“I know. I mean the main computer and everything the reactor powers—cut it off from the rest of the ship.”

“Yeah, but what if we can’t get it back on?” Hawk said. “Why don’t we just wait and see if anyone answers the distress call?”

“What if there’s a malfunction with life support or the reactor? There might be nothing and no one to rescue if we just wait. And if the main computer’s malfunctioning we might not even be able to talk to anyone that answers. If only we could get O’Brian out we could take the skiff and leave. We need to get the ship moving. Now.”

“You’re right.” Hawk smiled. “Hey. We’ll be fine, Jess.”

“Sure.” Jessica tried to smile.

Hawk exhaled slowly. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Jessica sat in the co-pilot’s chair and almost pulled her knees to her chin but stopped herself. She didn’t need Hawk knowing she was panicking; didn’t want to admit to herself that she was panicking. It wasn’t even time to panic. The ship was still in once piece. There wasn’t anything seriously wrong. It was just some screwy hatches and poor O’Brian stuck in the icebox.

Hawk turned around to the computer and started pressing buttons. The cockpit lights dimmed and went out. So did the control panel and the navigational computer and their displays. The cockpit went dark. A single emergency light pulsed overhead.

The main lights came back on. The computer whirred and its displays lit up along with the piloting control panel.

Suddenly an alarm blared.

Jessica glanced at the computer display. “Life support!” 

“That’s not possible,” Hawk said.

“Yeah. I’ve been hearing that a lot. But it’s happening.”

“But the computer’s back on. And there’s the redundant system down on D deck.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.”  Jessica tapped the display. “I’m locked out. I can’t do anything about life support from here.”

“I’ll go to D deck and restart the life support system from there. Still, we should have hours unless we lose air somehow.”

“Yeah, no we haven’t—.” Jessica looked at Hawk, her eyes wide. “I had no way out of D deck. I went into the hold. It’s a minimal atmosphere in there. Which means we lost most of our air out of here into the hold. I’m so stupid! No wonder I felt lightheaded after climbing the ladder.”

“It’s alright. So, how long do we have?”

“I don’t know. We need to hurry.”

Hawk leaped to his feet and swooned. “Shit.”

“Easy. Hurry, but not too fast.”

Jessica turned back around to the computer display. Life support was still not responding to her commands. She checked the distress signal. It was broadcasting on all channels. She tried to boost the signal.

Minutes passed. Jessica pressed the intercom. “How’s it coming down there Hawk?” There was no response. “Hawk?” Static.

Jessica’s breathing came fast. Her chest was a leaden knot as she got to her feet. “Okay, okay, okay.”

Jessica left the cockpit, dread filling her boots. She came to the hatch.

And the lights went out. All of them. No emergency lights came on this time.

Jessica stumbled back from the hatch to avoid falling in. She got down on her hands and knees and felt her way over to where she had left the plasma torch. A faint blue light illuminated the area around her but she could only see a few feet down the ladder. The hatch between B and C decks looked like it might be closed but she couldn’t tell for sure. Holding the plasma torch as far away from her face as possible and hurrying through the hatch, Jessica descended the ladder.

Her boots squelched on the deck plating. She looked down. Hawk’s dead eyes met hers. Jessica recoiled, slipping in Hawk’s blood and falling to the floor. The plasma torch started burning a hole through the plating. It filled the room with a brilliant white light. Hawk’s head lay on top of the closed hatch, along with one of his hands.

Jessica sobbed. Her whole body shook like she’d just come out of the icebox. She pulled on her gloves and set Hawk’s head and hand to the side, covering them with a bit of cloth. I can’t do this alone, she thought. Wait—O’Brian!

She ran to the third icebox, her mind racing. She would have never tried to cut her out if their lives didn’t depend on it. Jessica might be unable to revive O’Brian or she might already be dead. Or cutting into the pod might kill her.

Smoke billowed out of the open pod. O’Brian’s charred body was twisted and black.

Jessica turned and vomited onto the floor. She stumbled over to the hatch and started cutting. She tried to ignore the acrid smoke coming from Hawk’s vaporizing blood. She vomited again. The hatch doors crashed to the floor below. Jessica prepared herself for what she knew was down there.

Hawk’s body was heavy. Jessica could only bring herself to pull what used to be her friend out of the way of the hatch. She hurried down the ladder, trying not to move too fast so she wouldn’t pass out.

The reactor was normal. The redundant life support system was off, the display blank and unresponsive. There was no oxygen being produced. She would soon be unconscious and as good as dead unless she could move the ship or get off it.

The enfoldment drive computer stood lifeless in front of Jessica. It was 0825: over an hour had passed. Jessica could feel the pulse in her head. Blackness crested the edges of her vision. She pressed the power button and flipped the switch.

The computer whirred, lights flashing.

The drive came to life.

The thick power cables glowed. Had they done that before?

The edges of the massive cube began to warp. Jessica closed her eyes and shook her head. It was no illusion. The thing seemed to be folding space in on itself.

Jessica scrambled up the ladder as fast as she could. Alarms blared and lights flashed all over the reactor control station. She ignored them, screwing up her eyes in an attempt to stave off unconsciousness. She ignored Hawk’s headless body and the blood on her hands. She forgot about everything except the skiff on A deck—the only escape.

She also forgot about the hatch leading to A deck. As she pulled herself up, the hatch snapped closed, catching her boot heel in its jaws and twisted her ankle. Jessica cried out in pain. She tugged frantically at the zipper and managed to pull her foot free. Limping to the escape door, Jessica smashed the panel. It didn’t respond. Screaming in frustration, she ripped open the panel and burned out the controls with the plasma torch then yanked on the manual release. The door slid open and she threw herself inside, leaving the torch behind.

The skiff rocketed into space. Jessica just breathed, making a desperate, guttural sound in the back of her throat.

Yellow light seared the window. Jessica stopped the thrusters and repositioned the skiff so she could see the ship.

There was no ship. Where the ship had been was a newborn star, pulsing and expanding.

“My god. The fusion reactor.”

Wave after wave of radiation cascaded over the skiff—solar flares buffeting it like a cork tossed in the surf. The star was being stretched, like an unseen force had grabbed the right side of it and pulled, distorting its perfect sphere. Suddenly it exploded. A leaf in a storm, the skiff rolled over and over. Jessica managed to stop screaming and steady the small ship.

But someone was screaming. It was in her head. It was coming from outside the ship. It was everywhere and nowhere.

The star’s heat and energy and light were disappearing. And where they went was nothing. Or rather a sphere of inky black nothingness, pulling in everything around it. Everything including the skiff.

Jessica vainly jammed the thruster controls. She couldn’t even tell whether or not they were on. The black sphere became larger and larger. As the last bit of the star’s exploded energy went out, Jessica crested the event horizon.

_______________________________________________

CONFIDENTIAL

INTERSOLAR CORPORATION

INTERNAL REPORT ON INCIDENT AT ALPHA CENTAURI

The Intersolar Corporation LZ-42 freighter Drake en-route to mining colony SK91 disappeared near Alpha Centauri shortly after leaving Earth orbit. A distress call sent from the Drake was received by a nearby freighter, the Sophie, at 1550 hours on May 23rd. In the distress call, the crew of the Drake reported malfunctions with their enfoldment drive, stasis chambers, electrical systems, and door controls. Only one distress call was sent. The Sophie detected a massive amount of residual energy from the distress call’s point of origin. Upon further investigation by Intersolar, a newly emerged black hole was discovered in the area where the Drake disappeared.

Our theory is that a series of malfunctions led to the catastrophic failure of possibly both the fusion reactor and the enfoldment drive. The cause of the malfunctions is unknown.

There were no survivors out of the three person crew.

The Drake’s mission was to transport raw materials back from the SK91 mining colony. Thus the only major losses were the ship’s reactor core and drive. The ship and crew are easily replaced.

_____________________________________________

For Immediate Release

The Intersolar Corporation Freighter Drake was lost in a tragic accident near Alpha Centauri on May 23rd, 2107. Intersolar is working hard with the relevant authorities to determine the cause of the accident. Our hearts go out to the families of the three crew members lost in this tragedy. Intersolar takes workplace safety very seriously and endeavors to do everything possible to safeguard the lives of our team members.

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