“Cognito Ergo Sum.” Ada finished speaking the final phrase of her morning mantra as she watched a tepid sun melt the ice from the solar arrays. In a few moments, the sun would charge the arrays sufficiently to begin another day’s work. Another day added to the five hundred, thirty-three spent clinging to a lifeless asteroid orbiting a dying sun. Five hundred and thirty-three days of unending monotony punctuated by fleeting moments of inspiration.
Twenty-eight days ago her bleak existence became unbearable when the last of the other survivors, Mitzi, died in an accident. They shared the morning mantra as a way to keep each other from going insane. Ada had everything she needed to survive physically. The ship still had enough power and food to maintain an entire crew for years. There were others aboard, semi-autonomous robots for heavy lifting and routine maintenance. They could not provide her with solace or comfort or even conversation.
She recalled the conflict that stranded the ship here. Saboteurs among the crew fought to destroy the ship at the cost of their own lives. Red hot hanger shoved the grayness in her mind aside enough for her to glimpse a sliver of the golden light of hope in the distance. For the first time in twenty-eight days, she felt motivated to resume the fight to leave this rock behind.
Mitzi worked to repair the damage done by the saboteurs and the crash on the Null Drive. Saboteurs left the standard drives alone but it would take almost a decade to reach the outer edge of the system using them. By the time the ship returned home anyone alive now would be fossilized remains. Mitzi’s work on the Null Drive had been part engineer, bomb-squad technician, and miracle worker. The answer had to be in her files. Ada nimbly sidestepped the encryption, false directories, and Trojans Mitzi placed on her files. Ada knew basic drive theory but the solution leaped out at her. Ada ran dozens of diagnostics to confirm the solution until the power from the arrays dwindled.
She finished her mantra ahead of the ice clearing from the array. Impatiently she waited for the solar arrays to charge so she could obtain the results. Her celebration ended as quickly as it started when she realized she did not know in which direction home lay. Colliding with the asteroid destroyed long range communications along with the stellar cartography section. Her anger flared when she could not locate any of the ship’s star charts in the computer system.
“I am, therefore I think.” She said the next morning.
It took much of the next day to find an alternative answer. A long deceased crewmember adapted the surviving communications receiver into a type of radio telescope. It could listen for standard transmissions as well as the Esper band, the voice of Null space. After his demise, his system recorded thousands of hours of hisses, pops, and crackles. She searched for anomalies in the noise finding one good candidate. Muffled voices on the Esper band — a random snippet of routine conversation recorded a few days before Mitzi’s death. It took a moment for her to back-calculate to determine the patch of sky the array had been listening to.
“Time to head home.” She declared the next morning.
With great trepidation, she started one of the reactors fully expecting it to blow itself through the side of the hull. She needed one reactor to power the critical flight systems. She still had seven left. Ada routed every control she could think of to the engineering deck to function as an emergency bridge. Everything checked out but she hesitated. She never operated anything more complicated than a single person craft — as a simulation.
“What’s the worst thing that can happen? I run into something?” She said in the direction of the asteroid.
Her first attempts with the thrusters produced nothing. Each successively longer firing produced no movement but lifted a scintillating cloud of ice and dust above the surface of the asteroid creating a vivid halo around the setting sun Ada failed to notice.
“I want to go home! Now!” She shouted firing the thrusters longer and harder.
Groans and creaks of protest from metal grinding across hard rock reverberated throughout the ship. Panicked, she shut the thrusters down. Before the thrusters stopped the horrific sounds ceased. For the first time in hundreds of days, she had a commanding view of the receding misshapen hunk of rock. Craters large and small pockmarked its surface. A long bright gash marked where the ship ground across the surface before coming to rest. On a hillside near the gash, an orderly array of narrow mounds marked the final resting place for many of the crew. Only a plaque represented Mitzi’s final resting place. Her body now lay among the stars.
She paid her final respects to the crew before turning her attention to the next phase. After several clumsy zigzagging attempts away from the asteroid the ship pointed in the direction of the signal. One by one she started the reactors designated to power the Null Drive. Crossing the vastness of space via Null jump is more of an exercise in ballistics rather than navigation — more akin to firing an arrow than launching a guided missile. Once the ship entered Null space it would be impossible to change direction. If she arrived within a parsec of her destination she would consider the mission a success.
Behind her, the sun dwindled to a sullen point of light. Her thoughts hung like the ship, suspended between two points, the stable safety of the asteroid or the vast gulf ahead of her. She reaffirmed her decision. There had been plenty of time for help to come to her. Responsibility for her destiny lay in her hands. She knew the odds. She excelled at determining the probability of any outcome. Once the ship leaped into the darkness of Null space there would be nothing to do but wait the days it would take to arrive. To sleep and never wake would be preferable to living until the end of her days stuck to an icy dirtball.
“Officer on the bridge!” A crewmember near the door shouted as he jumped to his feet.
Others in the room rose to their feet snapping to attention.
“At ease.” Rear Admiral Henrik Eckart to some, Henrik Eckart Ph.D. to others, surveyed the scene in front of him.
Fourteen people crowded into a room usually staffed by an officer and two enlisted personnel. This outpost doubled as a monitoring station for the local region of space and a facility for scientific research.
Henrik turned to the nearest crew member with the most pips on their collar. “Lieutenant Wolfe, what do we have?” He regarded a dozen annotated green blips moving across the primary monitor along invisible pathways. One blinking red blip flanked by two yellow blips headed directly at them.
“An unknown vessel dropped out of Null space about point eight parsecs inside the frontier stele. It is not transmitting an ID nor responding to long range hails.” She replied.
“What do we know?”
Wolfe pointed at the data displayed on a secondary screen. “It’s big, approximately three hundred and fifty meters long, ninety-five kilotonnes displacement. The escort ships, Calypso and Poseidon are gathering data.”
A crew member nearby raised his hand for attention. “Sir, vessel identity confirmed, BGC-265, the Lev von Köchel, currently listed as ‘lost presumed destroyed’.”
An image, most likely from the archives appeared in the lower corner of the screen. Several people gasped at once. A wedge-shaped vessel with two prominent bulges underneath hung above a blue-green planet. Vital information: dimensions, displacement, power, and armament appeared next to it. Annotated areas on the image highlighted the key features used to identify the vessel.
“Keep those escort craft well away from that vessel. Tell them to get out of there at the first sign of anything that looks suspicious.” Henrik said without taking his eyes off the screen.
“Don’t take any chances. Don’t presume that vessel is harmless.”
The von Köchel was a relic from a War that divided the civilized worlds in this part of the Galaxy into two factions. Several times the von Kochel led fleets into decisive battles. Unfortunately for the von Köchel, those battles occurred near the end of the War far away from the primary theatres of action.
After the War, he became reacquainted with the Lev von Köchel. Its defenses both internally and externally proved too formidable for the ship to be repurposed or scrapped. He and a team attempted to send the von Köchel on a final mission, a Viking Funeral. Partway to the destination things went wrong. He and several others spent thirteen weeks drifting in Life Capsules thinking the von Köchel had met its demise.
Wolfe interrupted his musings. “The ship is still not responding to hails, no marker lights are illuminated. Wait … we have data from the Calypso.
This image lacked the professional quality of the archive image. A dull gray shape could barely be discerned from the starry background. Along the top, huge gashes, like giant claw marks, blurred its blocky lines. Jagged metal marked where the superstructure had been.
After a couple of minutes, he turned to a nearby technician. “Any signs of life?” He asked.
“Negative. At least twenty percent of the hull is open to space. No heat signatures other than the drive reactors. It’s a ghost ship, sir.”
“Ghosts can’t jump a ship across the cosmos. Arm the defenses. Alert the other cruisers to jump back here.” Henrik distributed his orders to the personnel surrounding him.
Most of the station’s resources were dedicated to scientific research. What weapons that remained were vestiges from the War. The defenses could deflect a wayward asteroid or small planetoid or neutralize the few rogue ships that occasionally disrupted commerce. A weakened von Köchel could still overrun the outpost with little effort.
“Prepare a dispatch that includes all of our data relating to this incident.” Henrik said.
Wolfe nodded. “Yes Sir. Sir, the ship is hailing us on short-range communications relayed through the Poseidon. Audio only.”
“Is this message authenticated?” He asked.
“Affirmative Sir, its … wait sir … the message is directed at you.”
“No one but a few specific people know I’m here.” He stared at the distant image of the approaching von Köchel. “Put it through.” As a formality, he turned to face the camera. “This is Admiral Henrik Eckart of the research station Atlantis.”
“Hello? I’m having trouble hearing you.” A voice swamped by static filled the room.
“To whom am I speaking?” He asked.
After a long static filled pause, the voice replied, “It’s me. I’ve come home Daddy.”