Entry date: November 21, 2299. Manual entry.
I have run into a small problem. My fuel reserves are lower than I thought, as I have identified and repaired a small leak in one of the fuel intake valves. This has left me stranded in this local group of stars until I can scrounge up enough hydrogen to afford a jump back to a system with civilization. Luckily, hydrogen should be easy to synthesize from materials I must collect from a nearby asteroid field. I have started scanning for suitable candidates for core mining, and have identified several which show promise. One in particular shows trace signals of various valuable minerals and elements, bearing 200 mark 20 from the main stellar body. I have 87 food packs and 305 water packs remaining in storage, enough for a few months with careful rationing. No other notable occurrences or phenomena to report.
Entry date: December 13, 2299. Audio transcribed.
“Captain’s log, time 2350. ETA to target asteroid, roughly 55 minutes. Drives continue to sound shaky, note to investigate at later time. All other ship systems nominal. Note presence of previously uncharted asteroid of no notable metal content or special properties, 400 meter radius, bearing 103 mark 25 from main stellar body. 85 food packs, 301 water packs remain. End log.”
Entry date: December 14, 2299. Audio transcribed.
[The sound of a chair squeaking, and the repeated clicking of a pen.]
“Captain’s log, time 0146. Target asteroid reached. Drives are performing suboptimally, 1.8% decrease in output. Note for diagnosis and repair when convenient. Continuing with mining expedition, starting detailed scan now. End log.”
The jury-rigged timed explosive launcher slowly deployed from its mechanical slot in the ship’s hull, and with every passing second, Robin hoped it wouldn’t blow up in her face.
Her plan seemed simple at first, refine an asteroid for enough dirty hydrogen to struggle her way to another system and hope she picks up signals from a starport, or at least another ship. Then, it’d just be a matter of buying enough fuel and supplies to last her another few months out in the black.
Problems arose when she thought about what would happen if the plan failed. She was far enough away from the frontier of human colonization that every system in her log was a new discovery under her name, which comes with the downside that in the event of an emergency, no one would find her for a long time.
Swiveling her chair to face the large canopy and control panel, taking the manual controls in her hands in natural, practiced movements, Robin’s small exploration ship fired reverse thrusters until it came to a gentle stop a few hundred meters from the asteroid's dusty surface. A light, accented voice chimed through the cockpit speakers.
“Surface scan complete. Medium silicate content, high precious metal reserves, 6% ice by mass. Insufficient material for hyperspace jump.”
“Don’t tell me the bad news, computer. I already know it,” Robin muttered. “Just means that we’ll have to find a few more after this. No biggie, plus I can fill up on tradables for starport.”
She wasn’t sure who she was trying to convince. The computer would agree to any plan she made. Taking careful aim, Robin started setting the mining charges. By some cosmic stroke of luck, the shoddily constructed timed munitions weren’t destroyed on impact, stayed in place, and seemed to all be waiting for the detonation command.
Pushing the throttle to maximum reverse, Robin cleared the blast zone and powered her ship’s modified shields with the pull of a hastily welded lever.
“Computer, shuffle ‘Classics folder 1’ at 80% volume.”
“Please,” Robin quickly added, twisting the detonator cap.
A series of muffled thuds reverberated through the cockpit as the charges detonated, and as a quick dusty guitar riff flooded through the ship’s comms, Robin leaned back in the pilot seat with a grin. “Lower the cargo net, please.”
She both felt and heard the loud clunk as the metal net unfolded, and the ship replied helpfully, “Certainly, Captain.”
Entry date: December 13, 2299. Audio transcribed.
[The Rolling Stones- Paint It, Black (1966) plays.]
“Captain’s log, time is… 0212. Computer, stop that noise for a second.”
“Thank you. There’s good news, bad news, and weird news. The good news is that there’s more precious metals and minerals here than previous scans indicated. The bad news is that there’s also less water ice, meaning I’ll need to harvest at least 4 more asteroids to synthesize enough fuel. The weird news…”
[Short pause. Chair creaks.]
“There’s either something wrong with my sensors, or there are elements in the debris with unknown properties. I could put my name on the periodic table. Note for further investigation. I’m beginning scooping runs now.”
[A button is pressed. Steppenwolf- Magic Carpet Ride (1970) plays.]
After 3 scoop runs, the drives began to shake again. On the 6th run, they rattled hard enough to threaten to shear off the ship. Robin closed the cargo hatch, shut down the thrusters, silenced the alarm, and started a ship-wide diagnostic, before unbuckling herself from her harness and moving from her chair to the ladder to the lower decks.
Robin knew all about the dangers of simple but deadly asteroid-borne viruses. Small, nearly undetectable clusters of phages, the alpha predators of microbiomes in tiny pressurized rock fissures and ice pockets. Passing silently through the wide habitation area, Robin used the kitchen counter and dining room table to propel herself towards the cargo bay airlock, sailing silently and effortlessly through the air, coming to a graceful stop by catching the arm of her mounted EVA suit.
Carefully inspecting the sleek white suit, armor plating dotted with nerdy stickers, orange visor slightly scratched in places, but still solid. Shield generator, intact and functioning. Good enough.
Concluding the abbreviated pre-EVA checks, Robin stepped into the legs of the suit, pulled the torso over her head and secured it in place, and fastened her helmet, waiting for and hearing the affirmative “hiss” of pressurization. She pushed off from the suit’s empty mount, floated to the airlock door, and pressed her visor to the small, thick rectangular window in the hatch. Clouds of fine, light gray powder pervaded the cargo bay, interspaced by what looked very similar to gravel and larger chunks of icy rocks.
“Wonderful,” Robin muttered sarcastically to herself. “Forgot to close the net before I pulled it in.” She sealed the door to the hab and cracked open the large airlock door before her. To her delight, the fine particulates didn’t immediately rush in, blown away by the positive pressure of the airlock, giving her enough time to slip into the cargo bay and close the door behind her without contaminating the foyer.
Activating the electromagnets in her soles with the switch in her bulky glove, Robin pointed her boots to the deck, and…. nothing. Huffing with frustration and kicking one boot with the other, the magnets turned on, and she drifted towards the floor before sticking fast to it. Plodding awkwardly across the deck to a large, rectangular case and unfastening the straps holding it in place, Robin lifted off the lid and reached in, removing a set of sample containers and an analysis satchel. She scooped the fine, hazy dust in the air into a small vial and connected it to the port in the clunky metal satchel, and a blinking blue light signified a good connection. She watched as the small, dim analysis progress bar crawled forward, fell back, jumped forward near the end, and then reset to the beginning again.
It’s thinking about it, Robin thought, setting the machine and sample cups back in their container for the moment. She glanced around the cargo bay, finding that she could barely see twenty feet through the hazy gray clouds of fine dust. “Computer, turn on the shop vac please, and start refining the ore,” she ordered, and a moment later, the clouds began to dissipate, the larger chunks of rock, ice and metal lazily tumbling towards the vacuums before disappearing into the refinery. Something caught Robin’s eye, a glittering shard of metal passed across her view and she grabbed it, turning over in her hands. It looked almost artificial, she thought, noting the nearly perfect rectangular shape and glossy, unmarred surface of the black chunk of metal. Keeping it in her hand, she returned to the analysis tool case, removing the lid to check its progress. The sample in the small glass ampule was almost completely gone, reduced to a pea-size clump of compressed dust. Robin scanned her eyes over the readout.
5.36% Water ice.
38.4% Silicate rock.
48.01% Unknown element.
No hazardous contaminants or pathogens detected.
Robin took a larger vial and fit the metal shard into it, discarding the old sample from the port and replacing it with the new one. The progress bar began its slow march forward, retreating every few seconds, before settling on an extremely slow but noticeable crawl.
Entry date: December 13, 2299. Audio transcribed.
“Captain’s log, time 0244. Asteroid contents refinery and detailed analysis are underway, though there were a couple hiccups. Primary issue now is the drives. They’re shaking violently, and a complete ship diagnostic didn’t reveal the problem. I believe the fault is in the inertial dampers, which I previously modified to act as stabilizers for the drives. I need to perform an EVA to diagnose and correct the issue, high priority. “
[A sharp, frustrated sigh.]
“Also, the cargo net didn’t properly seal around the rubble during retraction, so the entire bay was contaminated. Note to decontaminate the bay, all cargo, and EVA suit. Medium priority.”
[A short pause.]
“And figure out why the net malfunctioned. Low priority. End log.”
Talax didn’t like thieves.
Her culture had moved beyond the need for arbitrary collection of physical objects, but Talax had always been different from the rest of her culture anyway.
So when an automated message from one of her many hidden stashes appeared on her holographic display, a cold shiver ran down her body. It was a proximity alarm, followed by multiple impact reports, and then radio silence.
Talax started up her slipspace drive, input the coordinates of her well hidden but vulnerable loot, and as space neatly folded around her vessel to slingshot her directly to her destination, she activated the newly installed, experimental cloak. However prepared she believed she was to face the potential state of her hard-earned possessions, she was wrong.
The folded pocket of spacetime silently dropped her massive but invisible vessel into reality a few kilometers from a large cloud of debris, which she could only identify as her former stash by the chemical signature of the blackened rubble. Her eyes twitched slightly, and she scanned the remains of the pulverized asteroid, revealing the unmistakable signature of a tiny ship parked amid the destruction, with its hold and hull coated in her priceless artificial bio-resin.
Talax didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but she believed she had found her culprit.
Entry date: December 13, 2299. Video and audio transcribed.
[Captain Gillian stands before the camera in her EVA suit, which is smudged all over with a black, tarry substance. She struggles to un-stick her glove from the ‘record’ button.]
“Captain’s log, time… uh… I don’t have the time right now. Note for entry at a later time. It appears that an… unclassified material collected from the asteroid has begun to react with the surfaces of… just about everything that was exposed to it. Uh…”
[She steps back into full view of the camera, motioning her hands to her suit, which bubbles and pops with black ichor wherever the gray dust had settled]
“That includes me. If the reaction continues at its current rate, I estimate ten or fifteen minutes before it eats through my suit, and about an hour and a half before the hull ruptures. This is, clearly, not an option. I will decontaminate what I can with the time I have left in an attempt to slow the reaction, but if it continues, I will have no choice but to abandon ship.”
[A short pause. The Captain wipes at her suit, and some of the black substance flakes off.]
“It appears to be a surface reaction, so I’m going to try to blow the contaminant out of the cargo bay via… rapid decompression.”
[A light chime, then the Computer speaks through the comms.]
“Warning, critical systems malfunction. Drives inoperable. Weapons failing. Sensors inoperable. Corrosive damage detected.”
[Captain Gillian shrugs slightly and reaches for the camera.]
“One thing at a time, computer. End log.”
Robin’s hands began to shake inside her gloves, causing them to tremble over the controls as she prepared to open the external doors and vent a quarter of her air supply directly into space. She made sure her mag-boots were at the highest possible setting, and locked an arm around a sturdy handrail nearby just to be certain.
Slapping the control panel, Robin felt a furious jolt as roughly a ton of displaced air tried to jettison her out into space, and to her relief, the sticky, black residue quickly converted back to a fine powder on contact with the vacuum, wicked easily from every surface. She turned her head to watch the thick, corrosive clouds billowing from the cargo bay, blanketing the stars beyond in a mute gray-white. As the last of the dust cleared the external doors Robin hit the controls again, and they began to slide closed.
She entered the airlock, sealed the doors and repressurized the small room, quickly setting to removing her nearly ruined suit. Some of the connections were fused, but it was nothing a little brute force couldn’t handle.
Robin returned the disassembled, slightly dissolved sections of her suit to the slots in their case before closing it, opening the door to the habitation section. As she floated through the threshold, she heard the faint but unmistakable sound of “A Horse with No Name”, one of her favorite classical songs, echoing around the hab from the cabin. Something rustled to her left.
For a split second, a large, hulking figure registered in the corner of her eye, but when she yelped and focused on the spot, there was nothing there.
Robin floated by and stared at the empty space in the hab for a moment, unsure what she had just seen, or if she had seen anything at all.
Luckily for Talax, the small creature was too preoccupied with its cargo to notice her transport aboard its ship. It seemed almost deceptively easy to infiltrate its vessel’s simple energy deflection shields, and once she materialized inside the cramped control center, Talax understood why.
The creature’s systems were undeniably primitive. It took her only a moment of randomly fiddling with the various tiny consoles to disable the ship’s power generator, shields, laughably underpowered weapons, and propulsion.
Feeling the reverberations of the creature’s clamping footsteps nearby, Talax went transparent, her skin actively mimicking the environment behind her on its surface. The door opened, and the roughly 1.8 meter tall alien floated into the room. It was small, its skin appearing soft and squishy under thin layers of cloth. Not at all what she was expecting to have raided her stash, she thought.
As it passed her, Talax tried to stay as still as she could manage, but it took a particularly long glance at her exact position before looking away as it floated to the control panel. Thankfully, it either didn’t notice her, or didn’t care, as it focused on clacking a small panel of buttons with its hands. Talax took this opportunity to inch closer to examine the curious bipedal being further, as well as to observe its ship’s data.
“Computer, pause music, and start recording a new entry.”
Robin peered around the dimly lit room before turning back to the microphone, peering out the canopy as she spoke.
“Captain’s personal log, the time is oh three thirteen. It appears that despite numerous setbacks, my plan worked. Decompression effectively neutralized the reaction between the newly discovered element and… everything in the cargo bay,” she added with a hint of regret.
“To my good fortune, when the ship's atmosphere catalyzed the reaction between the hull and the substance, hydrogen gas was produced, which was filtered through the life support system to the fuel tanks. In theory, I should be home free, as soon as I repair the engines. No other critical systems seem disabled or damaged.”
She thought for a moment, holding herself to the seat and kicking off the sturdy console to swivel around in her chair.
“One thing still disturbs me. Around the same time the reaction started, the computer log shows manual systems overrides to weapons, shields and power, but now they all check out as fine. No offense to my computer, but I'd like a second opinion.”
Facing the empty hab behind the cockpit, watching for the movement that never came, she continued.
“Regardless, the systems weren't damaged, just temporarily disabled. By what, I don’t know. I am forgoing repair efforts at this time to attempt to jump to a colonized system for aid. End log.”
The microphone clicked off, and Robin stood, looking over the ship’s systems. Nothing appeared to be critically damaged, at least not beyond what she was capable of repairing in a day or so. She lightly tested the thrusters, carefully maneuvering her ship clear of the dust cloud. The shaking was minimal at first, but multiplied with every second that the engines burned. She pushed the throttle a notch further before the drives violently kicked out of service, but at least the navigational display showed that she was on a course away from the asteroid belt.
“If you emptied all the drinking water canisters onboard and converted it to hydrogen fuel, how much jump distance would that buy you?”
“Thirty seven light years.”
Doing some quick mental math, Robin grinned, pushing off from her chair to drift down into the kitchen. She effortlessly removed the large, plastic bin of water pouches from its storage under the counter, hauling it over her shoulder to the restroom. “That, plus what the asteroid gave us, should be more than enough. Would it be possible…” she smiled again, already knowing the answer. “To use it for a shower first? You can filter out the cleaning products, right?”
Confident now that the alien was completely unaware of her presence and unable to defend itself, Talax slipped a small metallic chip over an exposed port in the central control console, into which the data slip promptly melted, integrating with and hijacking the ship’s systems as it permeated deeper into them. Turning her head to check on her prey, she found the small creature speaking in its pleasant but unknown tongue to a robotic voice in the cockpit, likely a shipboard AI.
A moment later, she had her answer. The information from the data jack flitted across her vision, all information on the human language and her adorably simple little ship’s systems instantly and seamlessly entered her knowledge base. Her heart broke for this lonely, listless creature, her entire life experience dutifully recorded in logs for years. Detailing her search for other life, and meaning in her own.
Forgetting her attempt of retribution, Talax resolved to keep her safe.
The human woman, one ‘Captain Robin A. Gillian’, raised her voice from the other room, causing Talax to move to investigate.
“What do you mean, ‘Procedure inadvisable’? Will there be enough fuel or not?”
The ship AI replied from the central computer. “Hydrogen reserves are at sufficient levels. Additional supplementation from drinking water reserves is an unnecessary risk.”
“I’m touched that you’re concerned for me, but if I dump these into the water reclamation system and you convert that into fuel once I’m out of the shower, then there’s no conceivable way we could land in a system without civilization. I know you’ve already plotted the course, and you know that I’ll get those drive repairs done… later. Once I get refreshed. I’m deadbeat, computer.”
Talax watched the human uncork two small pouches of water at once, squeezing the contents of pouch after pouch into a small port on the floor of a cramped rectangular glass booth.
After a pause, her answer came. “Procedure suggestion: maintain emergency drinking reserves.”
“I’ll leave a couple, and you can just reclaim what isn’t burned in the jump. It’ll be fine!”
This seemed to satisfy the somewhat protective AI, who relented. "Telemetry substantiated. Procedure approved."
"I'm glad you agree."
As it… as she spoke softly to her digital companion, she began shedding her artificial cloth outer-layers, carelessly letting them tumble half-crumpled through the air. It was no wonder the creature needed a spacesuit, Talax thought to herself as she examined the curious little alien before her go about its business. It was so… vulnerable. Tiny, with no protective hide, no natural defenses like fangs or claws. Unless it could spit venom or secrete poison, Talax was sure that she easily outclassed this small alien.
The AI, however, was proving to be a more difficult task.
Robin was starting to get a little frustrated with the computer. It never usually second-guessed her this much.
“Since when do you not do what I tell you? Look, I’m in the shower. Can’t this wait? I don’t have the mental capacity to argue right now,” she shouted back to the digitized voice from the cockpit, which fell silent for a moment.
“Decontamination marked as low priority. Extensive systems repair required.”
Robin turned up the pressure in the shower, the hiss of the jets growing louder. “Can’t hear you over the shower, sorry.”
The reply came quickly this time, much louder. “Procedure suggestion: Please immediately repair systems. Ship and captain in dan-” The mechanical voice abruptly fizzled out, leaving Robin puzzled.
“Please? Who taught you that?” she questioned, but there came no reply. A slight chill ran down her spine, and she wiped a porthole into the foggy, steamed-up glass. She could see nothing out of the ordinary from the restroom, but a muted mechanical clicking emanated from the cockpit, one she barely recognized as the sound of her keyboard.
“Computer?” she called out.
She was answered by a long, unnerving silence. Anxious thoughts bubbled up, she had never heard the computer talk like that before. It was clearly trying to warn her about something important when it got interrupted.
She turned off the water and hit the conveniently labeled ‘dry’ switch, a loud whirr filling her ears as every droplet was wicked away and collected by powerful fans and suction. Once completely dry, Robin opened the shower door, silently moving through the cold, dry air to peek around the corner into the cockpit. For a split second, her subconscious registered a large, black mass crouched in the cockpit, a shimmering silhouette against the backdrop of the control panel and the starry expanse beyond, then it was gone.
So many thoughts came to her so fast, she couldn’t pick one to follow to completion. Was she starting to go crazy out here, starting to see things? What happened to the AI? Maybe the ship was more damaged than the computer had indicated, maybe the computer was seriously malfunctioning.
She stopped her momentum through the frigid air by catching either lip of the sliding restroom door, her torso poking halfway into the main cabin, peeking down the hub to the cockpit.
Despite the illogic of it, Robin couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched. She realized with a creeping dread that the sound of the keyboard stopped the moment she turned the corner, and it was now eerily silent in the cabin. She couldn’t hear the familiar, comforting sounds of the power plant humming, the air systems blowing, or the light, steady whirring
of the computer.
She also realized that she was still naked.
Retreating into the bathroom and closing the door behind her, Robin collected a clean one piece jumpsuit and quickly shimmied it up her legs, struggling to dress quickly in zero gravity.
The moment of distraction allowed her mind to settle somewhat, enough for her to consider the possibilities without panicking. The unknown element could have spread into the ship’s systems from the cargo bay, and could possibly still be reacting.
Her mind conjured dozens of equally probable reasons for ship-wide malfunction, each scenario involving days of labor repairing the ship by hand, and some involving the functional EVA suit she no longer owned. She had just about managed to preclude the possibility of a poltergeist from her mind when she heard her keyboard return to rapidly clacking, on its own, in the other room.
Robin didn’t truly believe that someone could be on her ship with her, but couldn’t rule out a stowaway, or a pirate. She held her finger against a panel under the sink which clicked open after a moment, raising a plasma pistol into her waiting palm. She tucked it deep into her right pocket where she could easily get at it and opened the doors, cautiously glancing around the hab, down the hallway to the cargo bay, and up into the cockpit.
Everything seemed normal, but she remained on edge, kicking off from the wall a bit harder than she meant to, flailing slightly as she crossed the hab and just barely caught herself on the captain’s chair. A small section of the systems panel lit up and flashed, as if reacting to her presence. On it, a small red light which she had never seen lit before blinked insistently, the small, worn label under it reading “Intruder”.
She could only hope that that was a part of the computer malfunction, and her fears were both eased and worsened when the entire panel lit up, each light flickering rapidly.
She produced a multitool from a deep, buttoned pocket in her jumpsuit and pried up the cover to expose the console's electronics, setting to work on diagnosing the problem.
Talax had to swiftly duck her head to avoid the kicking, flailing human launching itself ungracefully to its chair at the front of its small ship, pressing herself as far into the wall as she could as it passed. It was clearly not designed for low gravity, and she remarked silently at its awkwardness, which contrasted drastically with its apparent technical aptitude as it began trying to fix its ship.
It somehow managed to quickly restore its ship AI, to Talax's astonishment. Her eyes twitched slightly in frustration, growing tired of this game.
She knew where the human's power source was located in the ship, and how she could manually disable it. That would silence the computer's struggles for good.
She started effortlessly down the tight, round corridor, and almost made it to the power core before one of her handholds snapped loose under her weight, sending a loud twisting crunch down the cabin.
Talax winced, turning back to peer at her prey, hoping her cover was intact. The small alien was looking straight back at her, down the sights of an intimidating-looking little energy weapon, and quickly approaching.
“I know you’re in here, so just come out nice and slow and I won’t shoot, which in my opinion is a much friendlier option than the alternative, which involves you spaced for illegally boarding this vessel,” Robin bluffed.
“ If you can hear me, you have ten seconds to show yourself before you get blown out the airlock. Nine. Eight,” she continued slowly, feigning confidence as she moved from the cockpit to the airlock door on the other end of the hub and tried desperately to seal them, but the controls wouldn’t respond.
“Five, four, three, two…” Darkness filled the craft, every light in the cabin flickering out simultaneously. Her eyes struggled to adjust and she spun around, illuminating small patches of the hub with the soft blue-white glow of the plasma charged in the tip of her weapon.
From somewhere deep within her vessel, there came the response that Robin dearly hoped wouldn’t come. It sounded strange; slightly feminine but scratchy; powerful, as if it were three voices speaking in harmony.
“I submit to your superior control, human,” it said, the source shifting quickly until it was coming from behind her, in the cockpit. Robin screamed, twisting around in the air, trying to find her target in the pitch black.