Original fiction: Echoes

by Louis Calvert

Original fiction: Echoes
April 23, 2020 Louis Calvert

A tale told (under protest) by Bard Hiro J Kilorno of Travis Waypost (approximately three weeks from the borders of the Commonwealth).

 

I love telling tales. Tall ones, usually. Some though you just don’t tell, right? Public safety is something of a joke these days, but sometimes you gotta pass on the warnings.

This one came to me in the strangest of ways. Two weeks before my last ship out as crew of the Lio-Chan Yu, a passenger ship chartered to pick up a group way out in the Deepblack. I was getting some last carousing in. The bar was not unlike this one, though maybe the drinks were a little less watered down. I had a sweetheart who lived a couple of levels up. I was out for a stiffener and I got to chatting with a grizzled-looking trader just back from what smelled like a few years on a long haul. Her name was Saji, and she told me she’d just done a Jovian run! I couldn’t let that one pass. Back then I wasn’t yet a bard, but I still loved to hear tales told and living history passed on.

Saji told me, at length, how they’d been hired by some consortium of resource traders to shuttle out a flat-pack station to Jupiter. Then fill up with all the resources they could hold and come on back. Obviously, that’s a really strange request. Why pay a human crew for the years-long voyage when you can just send a drone hauler out there, or pay the Xillix to do it for you? After all, they don’t really care where they’re going or how long it takes. 

Anyway, whatever the reason, the consortium paid a time-delay secure deposit in advance. So, it’s strange already, right? The crew didn’t know or care, really, what was going on — a job’s a job, the Veni balance loaded into their accounts meant that when they got back they’d all be able to take a few years off and live the good life. Hell, pay someone to have a good time for them if that’s what they wanted. 

The tales she told of what the crew got up to on the trip out there would make your hair straighten. They had a small colony cluster of Xillix on the roster so really the rest of the crew didn’t even have to worry about maintenance or repairs on the less-accessible parts. Genevieve, the bulk-hauler’s name, was one of the old K-types with the twin hab toroids around the hauling core, so the crew had plenty of space. More of a mobile hab rather than a hauler, a nice comfy assignment. Apparently everyone took on secondary jobs to keep themselves busy; my new friend told me she’d been working on her doctorate for pretty much the whole trip out.

They arrived at Jupiter, met up with the transfer crew (all Xillix of course), and did the cargo transfer. She showed me the vid and photos she’d taken out there. I know there are plenty of people out that far, but actually meeting someone in the flesh that’s been out there and stood in the shadow of that immense planet is really something else. But it’s when she got to the part about the return trip things took an even more interesting turn. I’ll relate this as best I can now, since I can see that light in your eye, and my glass is still full.

The Genevieve was about a year into the return trip, loaded to the deck plates with rare materials mined from the Jovian province, plus local items of exotic heritage the crew had bartered and traded for. Saji told me in detail about the beautiful fabrics she’d bought and her plans to have a whole wardrobe made from them when she finally got back to the Commonwealth, and what she called “real tailors”. So things were good, the crew was well settled in, and things were going as smoothly as you’d expect for two hundred-plus people trapped in a spinning metal tube for a few years.

Then they picked up a beacon from something they weren’t expecting to be there. Saji wasn’t on the command staff, so she missed the first part — her story picked up when the tannoy chimed with an update for the whole crew. The command staff had decided to launch a series of probes to investigate a derelict, not too far off their current path. Saji was one of the waldo operators so she was deeply involved from this point forward. I didn’t detect any deception in her story, and if anything she seemed reluctant to share the full details with me. It took quite a bit of persuading — and by that I mean running up my tab at the bar something fierce.

They dropped a few drones on fast burn and took a couple of weeks to match vectors with the derelict, but obviously they got plenty of images feeding into the control centre during the decel burn.

The derelict — that they came to know as the Kiraman Katibin — was one of the many colony transports that set out for the Oort cloud, generations ago. Most people don’t realise how many colony ships have headed out into the deep edges of the system over the last couple of thousand years. I’m not sure there’s actually a full list anywhere. Most people know the big names, of course — the ones that found something amazing, or were lost spectacularly. But the majority either quietly went dark or arrived wherever they were going and just got on with the business of living.

Kiraman Katibin was one of those ships — the ones that went dark, that is. As the probes dropped in towards the dark hulk all they knew was it was massive. A stubby drum amidships was the living space; best guess from Lidar returns was a crew and passenger complement of maybe fifty thousand. The drive section was on the end of a two kilometer-long spine made of cargo containers, tanks, and storage bays. Up front was the big mushroom umbrella shield you only ever see on those long-haul ships. The Genevieve herself sported one. Saji went into detail about that — I’ll spare you the infodump on particle density and micrometeor impacts. To people who’ve only ever seen local ships in the Commonwealth these monsters are really something else. Big enough to be counted as a station in their own right, with everything you could need for decades without resupplying. If you went light on crew you could load up on even more supplies and support systems and go fully self-sufficient. It’s this type of engineering that got humans to other stars. I don’t want to open that can of worms, mind — I know the stories. I hear people saying the colonies are all a big hoax, probably better than you, but that’s for another time. 

So the probes dropped in and finally Saji and her team took over and manually plotted separate intercept and data-gathering missions. They had a good few months before the Genevieve passed the point where the light-delay would make the data return bandwidth too thin, so they settled in for a nice cautious exploration. They had nine probes working on it, so pretty hefty investment there.

Saji described the feeling of plugging into the sensory feed from the probe and getting the full virtual display. They were geared for a decent input and the computer interpolation of the environment was good enough so once the probes had done a few weeks of scanning the exterior they could go in and examine details in full virtual. She described how seeing the welds on the hull plating gave her a chill, thinking that whoever laid that bead must have been dead for a few hundred years, at least. 

The team worked over the hull carefully but nothing major showed up — no blown-out sections or floating corpses like you get in those drama shows. No alien pods clinging to the hull menacingly. It looked like you could slide on into the control station and fire up the reactors and sail off into the deep to finish the mission. She said it was like the ship was just… waiting.

Another week went by and they finally ran out of things to look for. The drive cones were intact, no external damage — it was just dead and cold like someone turned everything off. The only strange thing that they just couldn’t get past was the course it was on. The ship was pretty much at a dead stop. It was impossible to plot the vector back or forward to see where it was trying to reach, and — as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you — stopping a ship that big is not something you do unless you really, really mean it. There was quite a lot of debate amongst the crew whether the ship actually would have had enough reaction mass on board to come to a relative stop like that without using a gravity assist manoeuvre. Apparently the navigation team did some rough plots and came up with some pretty wild ideas about how you’d do it, if you really wanted to. Saji was clear though — no-one would have done it accidentally, or without a very good reason.

They finally popped the hatch and took the probes inside. To add to the pile of mysteries the cylinder wasn’t spinning, of course, but most had assumed it had slowed and stopped via friction or maybe vacuum welding of the bearing with no crew to maintain it. That wasn’t the case: when they got some local power fed back into the control systems, the readouts they were able to spool back to the Genevieve showed the hab cylinder was deliberately stopped. Again, extremely odd; that’s not something you’d want to do except in extreme emergencies, and the more they looked, the fewer emergencies they found.

So the probes went deeper, and the team walked through the halls and public spaces and what used to be gardens and living quarters of the crew in virtual. They found vacuum frozen food in many places, like some of the crew were sitting down to eat when whatever it was happened. They found all the detritus of lives being lived, just as though the people on that ship had literally vanished mid-whatever it was they were doing. Saji’s team reactivated the reactors — which were in good condition, just turned off — and were finally able to access the main computer systems. They downloaded as much as they could and the whole crew of the Genevieve spent weeks pouring over every scrap of data. The puzzle had consumed them all by this point; it was all anyone talked about.

The biggest mystery they found is that all the records, the logs, the data were all just stopped at around the same time across the whole ship. They found letters half written, diary entries partially completed; they even found video logs and voice recordings that stopped abruptly. The conclusion was a total computer system failure, because it was the only thing that made sense so far. But that didn’t answer everything. 

The probes kept going through the ship. Remember, this thing was massive — but the manifest claimed thirty-five thousand people on board at the time of the… incident, whatever that was. The manifest also listed at least ten-thousand other sentients, mostly simian and cephalopod forms, though the Kiraman Katibin was from the Empire originally so none of these were listed as crew. It took another two weeks to find them, or at least some of them.

Saji didn’t go into much detail, and I got the feeling she left out a lot more than she included. She told me how they were all in one of the large warehouse holds that served as an export junction from the storage pods along the spine into the hab cylinder. The warehouse had been emptied and the doors welded shut from the inside. There were around nine-hundred crew in there, all vacuum frozen and, according to Saji, the limited analysis the probes could perform showed they’d all died of suffocation. 

There was no sign of struggle or any particular conflict — the bodies seemed to have died sleeping. Some were still clutching books or slates or soft toys. Nothing the Genevieve crew found in there suggested what might have happened to the rest of the crew, or to any of the service sentients, of which no sign was found.

The probes kept going, increasingly relying on the AI to guide them through the ship room by room, as the Genevieve got further and further away. Finally the crew set the probes to come back — a chase that would take many months — but they left a derelict ship transponder, so at least it was less of a navigation hazard to whoever passed nearby in future.

It’s still out there. The Kiraman Katibin and those frozen bodies are still there, clustered in the warehouse, sleeping forever. The crew of the Genevieve went over every bit of data pulled from the ship over the subsequent few months, and many of them spent longer and longer sessions immersed in the simulations of the derelict composited by the probes, walking through the cold hallways and dead spaces. Finally the command staff restricted access to the files. Efficiency was plummeting, and the ship’s doctor was reporting a huge increase in incidents of depression, paranoia, and anxiety. The amount of sleeping agents she was prescribing was threatening to wipe out the entire ship’s supply before they got halfway home.

That didn’t help. The crew continued to spiral into a dangerous level of collective depression. The command staff, no doubt equally affected by this mysterious malediction, responded slowly to the crisis; and Saji told me of the many things that should have been picked up as warning signs.

Then the first person died. One of the crew deliberately closed the airlock and vented his long-time friend and colleague into space, apparently for no real reason. He then tried to get into the airlock once it was finished cycling and do the same to himself. The security team had managed to shake themselves out of their torpor and arrived in time to stop him. The cameras caught everything, of course.

It sent a wave of shock over the whole crew and morale plummeted even further. By the time the third person committed suicide, Saji said she herself was questioning everything. 

We didn’t talk too much about what it was like, but she described how even the ship itself — her home for several years — seemed darker and colder. She told me that the Genevieve started looking shabby. The crew always kept the old ship running beautifully, the hallways maintained, and everything squared away. Saji said it was a lovely place to live; the ’B’ toroid was largely given over the green spaces, not only growing crops, but also small parks and cozy little sheltered orchards that made it feel like you were in a much larger space. Those plants, tended for what must have been a hundred years or more, started to die. Eventually the stink of rotting vegetation was being circulated through the whole ship and added to the awful last few months. Saji told me that if the voyage had lasted much longer she thought most of the crew would have followed their three companions to an early cremation. 

The final death was a systems tech called Keith Yauali. Saji didn’t really know the man properly, but on a crew that small, everyone knows everyone to some degree. She recounted his discovery in a trance-like monologue, devoid of emotion — like she was giving a report. 

Yauali had been isolating himself a lot — like most of the crew — and by the time anyone found him it was far too late. He’d apparently hacked the surgical suite to literally dismantle him bit by bit. Saji said the doctor’s report claimed Keith had worked the programming to keep him alive during a large portion of the… ‘surgery’, mixing a cocktail of chemicals into the procedure seemingly designed to keep him conscious. The command staff immediately locked it down, hoping to keep the full details from the rest of the crew — especially any images of the ‘sculpture’ that Keith had made out of himself.

The final stage of the journey passed in a kind of reverie of dread. They held themselves together with the thought that they’d only be on the ship just another year and a bit, then a few months, then weeks, then finally a few days. Only when they were so close to Commonwealth space they were almost able to see the cluster of habitats in the telescopes did Saji let herself begin thinking of her life beyond that ship. 

Saji said they’d been back in port only about a week or so, and she’d spent most of that time in guest quarters. She said right from the very first morning she woke up on the station she already felt better. Medical staff had no explanation for what happened; apparently everyone was perfectly normal, no drugs present in their systems other than the ones prescribed by the ship’s doctor. Certainly the Saji I met that night seemed fine. Maybe a little haggard, and maybe there were bags under her eyes and a bit of a haunted look to her, but that’s as far as any signs of mental instability went.

I didn’t really try to look into it at the time. After Saji finished her story, we all sat in silence for a while. She’d gathered a small group through the evening and I’m fairly sure hadn’t paid for a drink since she started talking. Then someone cheered and clapped her on the back, complimenting her on a well-told tale. That broke the silence, and the next patron started telling a story about the T3 cluster being haunted by ships from some long-forgotten war (this is long before the Xillix took over, you understand) and the rest of that evening was lost in a haze of alcohol. 

Maybe Saji and the Kiraman Katibin is why I went on to become a bard, travelling taverns, collecting stories, and passing them on. Maybe the fate of the Ghost Ship is really another story — after all, as far as anyone knows it’s still out there, waiting. I often wonder how many other ships investigated the Kiraman Katibin and didn’t make it back home. Maybe there are ‘child’ ghost ships out there, all with their own haunted tales of a strange malaise sweeping the crew. Maybe it was the Genevieve’s intellectual and dedicated crew that saved them — or maybe that made it worse, and most crews wouldn’t investigate as thoroughly. 

All I know is that this tale isn’t finished.

 

Transcribed from archival records by Joanne K. Trimbul, Historian, June 30th 6595