The ship had not been detected in any long-range scans. Impossibly, it had been noticed only when Admiral Traephaena’s dreadnought, the ‘Song of Sunsets’, had come within visible range.
Osa was the newest member of the bridge crew of the Song of Sunsets. It was only his first week and his desire to make a good impression on the older, more experienced personnel around him was very strong. Despite all that, he couldn’t stop himself from gaping stupidly at the footage coming through the video feeds, his fingertips hovering uncertainly over his work console.
The alien ship was somewhat spherical in shape and cocooned in a complex array of interlocking rings. The ship was not even half the size of the Song of Sunsets, but for the obvious complexities of its design seemed much more impressive. Its ablative plating was a matte white so pure it seemed to shimmer amidst the endless dark of the Abyssal.
“That doesn’t look like one of ours,” One of the other officers muttered from somewhere behind Osa.
“It could be a Zurxok ship,” Someone else suggested.
“They don’t come out here,” Neris said gruffly from her seat at the console beside Osa. Neris was a hard-faced female almost three time’s Osa’s age, with a rugged scar across one cheek and a cold blue stare that could make anyone nervous. Since she was his direct supervisor, Osa was on the receiving end of her prickly disposition more than most.
He was grateful that for the moment she, like everyone else in the room, was preoccupied with the footage. It made a nice reprieve from the past week where Osa had felt under the microscope of her critical gaze.
“That’s not entirely correct,” Admiral Traephaena said. “I’ve seen Zurxok in the abyssal before. Watching us watching them.” The Admiral was standing in the middle of the command center, on top of a raised, circular dais. She pointed down at the five officers who were manning the communications consoles. “See if you can hail any other ships nearby, including non-Wasean ones. Perhaps they know something we don’t. Are there are signs of life onboard?”
“None, Admiral,” Osa piped up, turning his attention back to his computer monitor. “It’s not responding to any of our hails, either.”
“What about defence systems?” Traephaena queried. “I don’t want to try for a salvage operation and meet a nasty surprise.”
“The ship is completely dead,” Tadjet confirmed from his position at the tactical consoles.
“Wait,” Neris said, agile fingertips dancing over her workstation. “I have something. A signal coming from the ship.”
“A distress beacon?” Traephaena asked, leaning slightly over the dais.
Neris tilted her head slightly, the stern planes of her face made harsher by the glowing light of her monitor. Her fingertips worked quickly over the console keypad, scrolling through an interface of received data until she isolated the signal in question and played it back for the rest of the room.
Usually the command center was always a hubbub of activity, the murmurs of the crew at work overlaying the muted hum of the ship’s engines. As soon as Neris played the signal coming from the ship, the sound drowned out the comforting white noise of the great machine surrounding them.
It didn’t sound like any sort of signal or distress call. It was more like a strange sort of music or song, the bell-like notes rising and falling in a pattern Osa could not decipher. The song was unnaturally mellifluous, wholly unpleasant.
“That doesn’t sound like any distress signal I have heard,” Another officer called Mathius croaked, moving his hands to cover the sensitive ear canals on his head. Osa had never properly spoken to Mathius but could well sympathise with the fellow’s obvious discomfort; he, too, was compelled to cover his ears against the sweet buzzing noise.
It was a sound akin to having the softest crushed velvet wrapped tightly around your head until you feared your very skull would be crushed. Elsewhere in the room, a few others had slumped over in their seats. A few others had actually crumpled to the ground. Osa wanted to scream, or vomit, or both.
“It sounds like…Like singing,” Admiral Traephaena said, leaning heavily on the balustrade surrounding her raised platform. She wasn’t covering her ears, obviously trying to understand what she was hearing, but Osa could see that her normally composed features were slack with the effort to remain standing.
“I don’t think it’s singing, Admiral,” Neris panted, head lolling back. Osa pressed his hands even harder over his ears, squeezing his eyes shut. The song reached for him in the dark, and he curled in on himself as though to ward off the spectre of noise. Distantly he could hear Neris still talking to Admiral Traephaena.
“It…It’s just one or two words, repeating over and over. A beacon,” Neris was saying.
“Just one or two? That’s one hell of a long word, then,” Traephaena replied distantly.
“Yes, it seems to me a…polysynthetic…language…” Neris drifted off.
“Turn it off, Neris,” Traephaena barked. “Neris!”
Osa opened his eyes to see that Neris had passed out in her seat, precariously drooping to one side. With one hand, he reached out to grab her shoulder and catch her before she keeled over onto the floor. With the other, he scrolled to the open signal on the computer interface and shut it down, cutting the sound off instantly.
There was a sigh of relief in the room as the familiar muffled roar of the ship returned, and with it, the sense of being affixed in the natural order of things. Some of the officers began to gingerly pick themselves up off of the floor. Others simply peered out at their colleagues blearily, mopping the sweat from their foreheads with the backs of their hands. Osa could see at least five, including Neris, who were still unconscious.
“Medical, send personnel here immediately,” Traephaena said rather shakily into her comms device. “We have five unconscious here.”
“That ship is fitted with sonic weapons,” Tadjet slurred from where he was leaning against the far wall. “We should destroy it now, and be done with it.”
“It wasn’t a sonic attack, we would know about it if it was,” Traephaena countered, rubbing her nasal ridge as if warding off a migraine. “This ship may have been built by a species we have never seen before. If so, this means that this discovery is very important. I can’t explain why this signal affected us like that, but we have an obligation to properly investigate the situation before we go and do something rash.”
Osa’s grip on Neris’ shoulder was beginning to weaken, so he took her gently by the arm and lowered her limp form down to the floor, tucking her legs under the desk. When Traephaena approached, prompting Osa to move back, Neris stirred.
“Are you alright?” Traephaena asked.
Neris muttered something unintelligible, managing to sit up with the support of Osa and Traephaena. Osa fanned Neris’ sweating face ineffectually with his hands, as ship’s chief medical officer, a taciturn male in a distinctive green and white uniform, entered the bridge flanked by three assistant doctors.
“Check him first,” Traephaena barked, pointing at a navigation specialist whom was trembling as if from the cold. Osa could see that the poor specialist had vomited in the confusion, and was now moaning pitifully on the floor. The CMO hurried dutifully towards him whilst the other medical officers started to triage the others in the room.
“I want everyone here examined,” Traephaena announced loudly, getting back to her feet. “Those senior officers who are in any shape to do so: I want you in the ready room in the next few hours to discuss what should be done next. In the meantime, Commander Tadjet -” At that, Tadjet straightened up and readied himself by his console, “Have some of our reconnaissance drones launched. I want them to perform a preliminary sweep of the ship.”
The Song of Sunsets had a ready room which could accommodate ten people around its rectangular table; at present, only five seats were occupied. On one side sat Commander Tadjet, flanked by the ship’s chief engineer Semiram on his left and Osa on his right. Admiral Traephaena had taken command of the seat at the head of the table, as was her due. Directly opposite her sat High Priest Praetagal, which, to Osa, struck him as rather sinister.
All the Waseans took the name of one of the fifty gods and goddesses upon reaching the age of majority. According to legend, Traephaena was the goddess of sunset and sunrise (making the Admiral’s command of the Song of Sunsets all too appropriate). On the other hand, Praetagal was the god of night, and had a contentious relationship with his goddess-sister for the fickle affections of their primordial mother, Callismene. Osa supposed that it was rather fitting – the Admiral and the Priest were polar opposites, with their only commonality being their loyalty to the Empire itself.
“We must insist that a boarding party be launched so that the value of this derelict can be properly ascertained,” High Priest Praetagal was saying, his fingertips lightly toying with the bejewelled collar which draped across his pectoral.
“That would be most unwise, Excellency,” Commander Tadjet replied. “We don’t know anything about this ship, or who built it. It’s better to rely on the drones for our scouting.”
“Your drones have only just now cut through the hull,” Praetagal pointed out dismissively. “And even at their close distance to the ship, they’ve yet to provide any useful information.”
He was right. On the screens which were built into the table were the scrolling, hastily-made reports of the latest drone scans. The techs weren’t sure whether the lack of biological activity detected onboard was truly because the ship’s occupants were long dead or gone, or whether materials and technology on the ship itself interfered with the scans.
Either way, the information the drones had been able to glean was very limited. All they could really tell was that the ship was probably built out of a synthetic alloy the likes of which the Waseans had never seen before.
“As you say, they’ve only just now cut through,” Semiram said a little defensively. As Chief Engineer, it was her responsibility to oversee the maintenance and creation of the useful little machines. “You can’t expect them to provide detailed scans this early in the game.”
“And yet, it’s quite unusual for there to be no data in the scans at all,” Praetagal shot back. “We believe that something on the ship must be interfering with your drones.”
“All the more reason to wait and be patient until more concrete conclusions can be drawn,” Admiral Traephaena spoke up, folding her hands atop the glossy surface of the table.
“We don’t agree,” Praetagal said in a sugary tone. “This ship obviously has a great deal of value; it’s clearly not from any species we have yet seen. Any technologies or cultural artifacts aboard need to be claimed by the Empire immediately. We would find it most unacceptable if this first contact were interupted by the Artisans…the Rej-Jir…or any other species who patrols this part of the Abyssal.”
Osa wondered if Praetagal’s use of the royal ‘we’ grated on Traephaena’s nerves as much as it grated on his. Her expression was mild and her purple eyes betrayed no hint of annoyance.
“I’d think coming across anybody else with an interest in the ship quite unlikely at this point,” Traephaena said.
“And yet you sent out a hail to passing ships once this wreck was discovered,” Praetagal said. His tone was polite but his grey eyes were cold.
“That’s standard procedure,” Traephaena replied evenly.
“We would not have advised that,” Praetagal said sweetly.
“You’re entitled to your opinions, but you’re not a member of my bridge crew,” Traephaena said, holding up a hand to cut off Praetagal’s next retort. “I’m not going to send my people over to a derelict when there are this many unknowns. Who built this ship? And where might they be? All I have are assumptions, and those can be dangerous.”
“And what of you, then,” Praetagal demanded, turning his attention to Osa. “You are the xeno-linguist on board?”
“I’m here on behalf of Officer Neris, Excellency” Osa replied quickly. “She’s -”
“Yes, yes, I know, she’s quite done for,” Praetagal said dismissively, and Tadjet shifted in his seat beside Osa. “What about that signal? Surely there was some message you can extract from that?”
“Officer Neris had the idea that what we heard was an alien language. It isn’t speech as you or I would understand it. I’ve created a spectrogram of the call and it doesn’t have any markers which would match any of the known sapient species,” Osa said, tapping at the screen before him and navigating through the interface and into his spectrogram. “If you look at these striations, you can see some slight deviations in pitch. The shape of the sounds are somewhat similar to the cry of an infant, and specifically, a hyperphonated cry. Usually, these are the cries which are more…”
“More likely to get an adult’s attention,” Semiram finished.
“Exactly so,” Osa said.
“Which would explain why we all found the signal so upsetting,” Admiral Traephaena guessed.
“That’s our theory,” Osa confirmed.
Traephaena hummed thoughtfully to herself. “And you don’t believe that these sounds were generated by a machine, or an instrument?”
Osa considered it. “It’s possible. But with a synthetic signal, you’d expect that the sounds would be sequential. But looking at the analysis, what is shown here is that there are what appear to be exhales and inhales. That means singing, or talking, or something analogous to the two.”
“You have your proof that there are people, of a sort, on that ship,” Praetagal concluded, rounding on Admiral Traephaena. “Will you go to their aid?”
“When I’m satisfied that it’s safe, of course,” Traephaena replied.
Praetagal glared at her. “We would prefer not to wait -”
“Unfortunately,” Traephaena said, cutting him off. “It appears like we’ll all have to do just that.”
Osa’s quarters were located in the bowels of the ship, just above the large rooms allocated to the crew sleeping pods. His recent promotion had afforded him his own room. It was hardly much bigger than the pod had been, but even the drab beige walls and plain furniture was an improvement over the pods.
He stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind him, kicking off of his boots and shimmying out of his casuals. He had come straight from the sonic showers, and his skin still felt tingly and weird, like hundreds of insect legs were crawling over him. The events of the last shift had tired him out, or maybe it was just that the song was still ringing in his head. The eerie, almost mournful cries, drained him to nothing, and Osa wanted nothing more than to crawl onto his thin bed and sleep.
Neris, still shaking and shivering when he’d seen her last in the medical bay, had mustered enough gusto to sternly instruct him to write up a report on their spectrographic analysis. His personal workstation, screen turned off, beckoned him on the other side of the room. Osa knew that he had a job to do, but the urge to lay down his burdens was strong. Before he knew it, he had dimmed the lights and crawled, limbs heavy with fatigue, onto his thin bed. He fell asleep in an instant.
Now usually, Osa’s dreams of the abstract, sometimes frightening, variety. This dream was different.
He was standing on the vast, grassy fields that surrounded the town Osa had grown up in. It was a coastal town, and the lush plateau stretched out until it was abruptly cut short by a strip of beach. Osa wasn’t alone in the field; a familiar figure was there with him. It was Osa’s brother, a lean slip of a fellow with the same winsome features and pale eyes they had inherited from their parents.
“Vastis?” Osa asked.
“I’m here, brother,” Vastis replied coming closer to clasp Osa’s arms affectionately, in the manner of their youth. “I’m very happy to see you again.”
“Wait a moment,” Osa said skeptically, scrutinising his brother’s guileless expression. “Just like that? All is forgiven? Because I seem to recall you being pretty angry with me the last time we spoke.”
“That was five years ago,” Vastis replied with a little shake of his head. “It’s in the past.”
“Not for me it’s not,” Osa replied, trying half-heartedly to remove himself from his older brother’s grip. “And not for you, either, Vastis. You’re just like Mother: always inclined to bear a grudge.”
Vastis’ expression became a little sad. Overhead, the endless cerulean sky was turning the blades of grass golden in the sunlight. “What about you, little brother? Are you, too, still holding a grudge?”
Osa’s brow furrowed in familiar irritation but then smoothed out; he sighed, heavily. “No, brother, I’m not. I forgave you a long time ago. To tell you the truth, Vastis, I think perhaps I was more at fault than I wanted to believe.”
Vastis let go of Osa’s arms only for a moment, so that he could spread his arms wide and gather his younger sibling in a fierce embrace.
“I’ve missed you, brother,” Vastis murmured. “I can’t even remember, really, what we were fighting about. Isn’t that stupid? All this time wasted.”
“At least there’s still time,” Osa muttered, and Vastis drew back, clapping Osa on the arm. He stepped backwards, turning his head so he could cast his gaze out over the field, to the wide expanse of ocean beyond the field.
“Yes, there’s still time. You should come home, brother,” Vastis remarked, still looking out towards the sea. The sunlight seemed very bright all of a sudden, and hot upon Osa’s shoulders, his back.
“I can’t come home,” Osa laughed. “I’m forever and a day away. I can’t just pack up and go.”
Vastis chuckled quietly to himself, and glanced over at Osa, briefly, and then turned his attention back to the surf.
“Come home, brother,” Vastis said again, and then made off towards the beach, striding away from Osa with purposeful steps.
Osa stared after him for a few moments and then gathered himself. “Vastis – brother – wait. Come back.”
But Vastis didn’t slow or even turn his head. He continued walking away as Osa hurried after him. No matter how quickly Osa ran, Vastis was always several steps ahead.
“Please, wait,” Osa called out, quickening his pace. Vastis was close enough for Osa to reach out and grab, and as Osa tried to do exactly that he woke up with a gasp in his cold, empty room.
Osa stared up at the ceiling for long minutes, a roil of anxiety coiling in his gut. He had tried his best not to think about Vastis and the fractious connection they shared, in the years since the tensions had boiled over. Some measure of sibling rivalry was inevitable, maybe even useful, but what once had been a healthy brotherly bond had soured considerably in the last decade. There wasn’t a single catalyst for the change, only a sad collection of old hurts.
He sat up, swinging his legs off of the bed, feet resting on the cool metal plating on the floor.
Osa rarely remembered his dreams for long after waking up, the details running through and out of his memory like water slipping out of a cupped hand. This time it was different. The striking images were as vivid as any waking memory, and stuck with him as he stepped out of bed and rushed to put his uniform back on. He wasn’t sure why he was leaving his room; he simply had the notion that he couldn’t stand to be in his room anymore and would prefer being somewhere else, doing anything else.
To his surprise, the in the brightly-lit hallway, were several others who were coming out of their rooms. They looked as similarly dazed and dishevelled as Osa suspected he was.
“Are you alright?” Osa asked a female officer, whose name Osa could not recall. She looked a little older than him, and presently her almond-shaped green eyes were wide in amazement as she leaned heavily against the wall.
“I – I need to go home,” The officer said to him, her voice rough from sleep. She looked at him, but obviously didn’t see him. Her attentions were clearly still with whatever it was she had dreamed about.
“Yes, I have to go home, too…” Another officer echoed from close by.
“Hang on – did you all dream something similar?” Someone else asked as they emerged, dumbstruck, from their cabin.
“What does it mean?” Osa muttered to himself, as the officers all agitatedly spoke to themselves and each other. The same phrase was being uttered by people over and over again:
Home. I need to go home.
Osa barely had enough time to clean himself up before he was curtly summoned back up to the ready room by one of the senior bridge officers. By the time he arrived, the meeting was well under way. It seemed that on this occasion, Admiral Traephaena was not the favoured party in the debate.
“…There can be no denying this. This is a sign from the Gods Themselves,” High Priest Praetagal was saying. He was in even more fanciful robes than usual, grey and orange, and, bizarrely, was clutching close to him an unlit censure of the sort Osa only ever saw used for temple rituals. He could not fathom what the priest expected to accomplish by holding it, and yet the priest was practically whiteknuckling the long bronzed chain connecting to the lantern.
“Calling this an act of divine intervention is going a bit far, don’t you think?” Admiral Traephaena remarked, clearly unconvinced.
“It is not for you to determine what is, and what is not, divine!” The High Priest hissed, standing up from his chair. He needn’t have bothered; he was of average height and nowhere near as athletic in proportion as the Admiral. She easily towered over him.
Commander Tadjet gave a quick nod of acknowledgement to Osa, as the younger officer hurried to take a seat beside the tired-looking Semiram and another senior officer with a wan, pale face.
“Could it be some sort of mass hysteria?” Tadjet mused aloud, steepling his hands beneath his jaw.
“It. Is. Not. Hysteria,” Praetagal insisted angrily, rounding on Tadjet.
“It’s possible that the ship is emitting a frequency which is affecting our brains,” Semiram replied to Tadjet, rubbing a face over her hand wearily. “But that’s something we ought to ask one of the doctors.”
“We are the High Priest upon this ship,” Praetagal sniffed indignantly, turning back to a rather bewildered-looking Traephaena. “And we find it evident that Lord Sarpech Himself, glory to His name, is responsible for the visions we all have seen. It is clear that He has plans for us.”
Traephaena began to laugh and then, catching Praetagal’s darkening look, turned it into a hasty cough. “Look, Your Excellency, I understand that these dreams people have had are quite, uh, compelling, but I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to conclude that one of the Gods is trying to communicate with us. I completely understand if you’re a bit shaken up by what you saw in your own dream, but that’s all rather subjective, isn’t it?”
Praetagal stared up at her balefully. “Our interpretations of the faith are quite clear, Admiral.”
Admiral Traephaena glanced over at the others, including Osa, for some support, but she found none. Tadjet and Semiram both looked nonplussed and Osa didn’t feel at all like it was his place to speak for or against either party. Admiral Traephaena was a well-respected leader, but on the other hand, High Priest Praetagal was a, well, a High Priest and you definitely didn’t want to cross them if you didn’t have to. Even Admiral Traephaena, for all her rank, could not go against him if he pushed the issue.
“I’m not doubting your devotion, High Priest,” Traephaena began, voice placating and tight. “I simply mean to say that perhaps these dreams are not a spiritual matter at all. This could be, as Officer Semiram suggested, something that is caused by – well. Caused by something rationally-explained.”
“I’m not surprised that you would be so dismissive of these events, Admiral Traephaena,” Praetagal said darkly, looking up at her with great disdain. “You did not receive a vision like the rest of us. Obviously, you are not worthy to hear the messages of the Gods, and with good reason, I suspect. I’ve been watching you, Admiral, and your faith in our Gods falters.”
Admiral Traephaena took a deep breath. “High Priest, I will leave theology to the theologians, I simply mean to say that -”
“Your behaviour, Admiral, is almost blasphemous,” Praetagal concluded with relish, his baleful expression deepening. Those words sucked the air out of the room, and Osa and the others stared between Traephaena and Praetagal with bated breath.
To be declared a heretic or blasphemer by a High Priest or Priestess themselves was a serious matter, and for the first time, Traephaena’s expression registered more than just annoyance. There was anger there, but also, mostly, fear. It looked somewhat as though she would have liked to strike Praetagal – an unthinkable act against one of the religious elite.
A few tense moments passed, and then her shoulders sagged in defeat, and she sighed heavily.
“All right, Priest. It shall be as you command: I will lead a party into the ship. But I have to tell you, Praetagal, that you are forcing all of us to walk a very fine line.”
Osa had not had much experience wearing combat hardsuits, especially the bulky varieties which were used on tactical missions. They provided protection in the form of layered synthetic ceramic plates which covered parts of the body not requiring much movement. Underneath the armor was the carbon-fibre mesh suit which, although strong enough to prevent ruptures from most ballistics, was still light enough that the wearer could move around with some agility.
Osa’s last time wearing a hardsuit was back at bootcamp. He’d figured a career in linguistics would have curtailed any circumstances which would have required him to actually step into a suit of armor. It seemed surreal that now he should be sitting on a cramped shuttle, on the way to an alien vessel, flanked on all sides by other armored warriors.
Each one of them was older and more experienced than Osa, except for the co-pilot. Osa did not remember her name, only that she had trained in the same camp as he, and had struck him as bookish and rather aloof. True to that impression, she hadn’t looked at Osa or the others once the entire trip to the alien vessel, and was far more preoccupied checking and rechecking the shuttle AI’s flight plan.
“What makes you think that this isn’t just some Nemesis trick?” One of the armored soldiers, Captain Kasander, was saying to Traephaena, his broad face flecked with amber markings. He, like the two other soldiers sitting either side of him, wore red armor indicative of their lofty position within special tactics. It appeared that he and his group were on very familiar terms with Traephaena, for Osa could imagine ever speaking to a superior officer as casually as Kasander had done almost the entire ride.
“The Nemesis do not play tricks, Windy,” Traephaena responded evenly, herself clad in the violet armor reserved for officials of her rank. “What would be the point of it? I’ve never known them to do anything but hit-and-run attacks, like the cowards they are. They certainly don’t broadcast distress messages.”
“I had one of the dreams, you know,” This was from the soldier on Kasander’s left, a female called Minmah who was already wearing her helmet. Osa could discern nothing of her features in consequence, for it was completely obscured. “If that was a Nemesis trick, they’re getting more creative than ever.”
The Nemesis were long-time enemies of the Waseans, terrible and unknowable all at the same time. Osa had never engaged with one and he hoped he never had to. The possibility that the signal had derived from them had not occurred to Osa, and now that it had, it made him feel more nervous than ever.
Kasander peered over at Osa curiously. “The signal we heard was very unpleasant. What if their whole language is like that? I don’t see how it’s possible to communicate with a species whose very voices cause us to either pass out or throw up all over ourselves.”
Osa inhaled. “My suggestion is to use sign language or symbols, Captain. For example, we know that the Rit-Phyr don’t produce sounds from their mouths like we do, but they managed to establish early communications with other races just by using picture cards. We can try a similar thing now. This device I have,” He patted the discreet black box resting on his lap, “Is used to help translate my speech into simple animations and pictures. It works in reverse as well, translating sequential symbols into Wasean speech.”
Traephaena crossed her arms, nodding in satisfaction. “See? No problem, Windy.”
Kasander, or ‘Windy’ as Traephaena called him, harrumphed skeptically but otherwise said nothing.
“What do you suppose happened to these beings, then, Admiral?” Minmah pressed Traephaena. “If its truly an alien vessel then there is no telling where it has come from and why it’s just floating here lifeless. For all you know, there could be some sort of disease on board.”
“Starships are usually sterile due to air purification and recycling systems, Minah,” The third soldier finally spoke up, a dark-faced male with a syrupy accent. “And as far as exo-zoonotic viruses are concerned, what do you think your helmet is for?”
“Okay, okay, I can see the voices of reason are again being overruled here,” Commander Minah muttered, shifting back in her seat. “But when something bad happens, I reserve the right to say, ‘I told you so’.”
“What exactly is your concern, Commander?” Osa asked Minmah curiously.
“It’s not exactly concern, Osa,” Minmah replied evenly, dark eyes alighting on him. “Experience has taught me to be cautious.”
“I’m very cautious, I think,” Traephaena said mildly.
“Not enough for Minmah,” Kasander chuckled.
“If it’s a Nemesis ship, I don’t want anything to do with it,” Minmah insisted.
“And if it’s not?” Traephaena asked.
“Then it’s probably an Artisan vessel and I don’t want anything to do with them, either.”
“Why not?” Osa asked, genuinely curious.
“Have you ever met one before?” Minmah asked him.
“No,” Osa admitted. “But I’ve heard conflicting reports.”
“Trust me, you don’t want to meet them,” Minmah asserted. “For starters, they like to lie, and lie often. And on top of that, their society is so disparate that you can never predict what they will do or how best to negotiate with them.”
“The Artisans have always been very helpful to me,” Traephaena remarked thoughtfully.
“Yes,” Minmah said rather grumpily. “Well, we can’t all be popular, can we?”
“Bitter, bitter,” Kasander laughed.
The pilots guided the shuttle towards the wreckage, lining up the vessel so that it was nestled close to the opening in the hull provided by the drone scouts. There was a heavy bump as the clamps attached to the alien ship, anchoring the shuttle in place.
‘Equalising interior pressure…’ A metallic male voice rang out from the onboard computer system. A hissing noise filled the compartment as everyone put on their helmets. Their uniforms were all identical, save for Traephaena’s. She wore an Admiral’s colours – green and purple – along with a hooded cloak. The ceremonial garb served no other purpose than to help identify and differentiate her to any aliens onboard.
The shuttle doors hummed open, revealing the containment room that the drones had erected between the ship interior and any shuttles. It was one measure of preventing foreign contaminants from getting inside the shuttle and its occupants.
Admiral Traephaena took the lead, leading Osa and the rest from the shuttle and into the prefab room. The shuttle doors hissed shut behind them.
“Okay, team. I can’t say what we’re likely to find in here,” Traephaena said, her voice coming clear and calm through the radio, “But whatever it is, I don’t want any firefights in the corridors. Let’s try not to set off an interstellar war before lunch.”
“I can do that…” Kasander muttered, pulling out a spherical device from a loop on his belt and pressing a discreet button on its side. A holographic display of the ship’s interior crackled to life, illuminating the darkness with the ship schematics.
“We’ll try for the center,” Traephaena said decisively, pointing at the display. “There seems to be more warmth coming from there. Perhaps it is the bridge, or at least where the ship’s navigation systems are.”
They ventured outside of the containment room and finally took their first steps inside of the alien ship. There was only the faintest light emanating from strip lighting built into the floors and panels on the wall. The majority of illumination came from the armored Wasean explorers. Their helmets had optics to help them see in such darkness, but the flashlights built into their breastplates didn’t hurt either.
Osa gawked openly at the architecture around him. The walls were built out of some shimmering green material, and punctuated every few steps by gently curving pillars. The ceiling was covered in strangely-carved metal plates, which appeared to undulate beneath the flickering shadows. Curiously, Osa thought he could see unusual patterns swirling beneath the surface of the green stone.
“This is most definitely not a Rit-Phyr or Artisan ship,” Minmah commented in a hushed voice, as the party of Waseans ventured further into the gloom. The sound of their booted footfalls echoed along the abandoned corridor.
“Too ostentatious for the Rej-Jir,” Traephaena replied.
“And not ostentatious enough for the Artisans,” Kasander finished.
“I don’t see any doors,” Osa commented. The sequential nature of the pillars on either side of them was beginning to disorient him. “And this hallway is supposed to be curving around the deck, but…It just looks like an endless line. I can’t feel that we’ve turned.”
“Me neither,” Minmah grunted. “Does anyone else feel sick?”
“Quiet…” Traephaena muttered, guiding them further and further into the ship.
At length, they finally came to a vast, open room, circular in shape. Like the hallways, it, too, was bordered by the greenstone pillars, but featured the addition of furniture. What looked to be chairs and computer consoles sat squarely in the middle of the room in triangular configuration, but they were quite unlike any chairs or computers Osa had ever seen before.
The chairs appeared to be built right into the floor, and didn’t have so much of a seat as a long, serpentine back that was padded with velvety fabric. The devices he took to be computers were hexagonal and rooted to the floor upon a lighted track.
Cautiously, Osa ventured up to one of the devices and gave it a gentle push, sending it smoothly along the track. All at once, there was an uneasy hum of commotion, as distant machines thrummed to life and the lights around them flickered on.
“Osa -” Admiral Traephaena said hurriedly, grasping him by the shoulders and pulling him away from the device.
There was an even louder sound, more of a screech, that suddenly rang out from the bowels of the ship. The noise was so piercing that everyone flinched.
“What the hell was that?” Minmah said, circling on the spot in alarm.
“Sounds like something turned on,” Kasander murmured.
“Well, don’t touch anything else,” Traephaena said sternly, letting go of Osa’s shoulder to inspect some of the other elements in the room. Upon the back of one of the ‘chairs’ was a mass of fabric, and Traephaena carefully pulled it free.
“Is this clothing?” Traephaena asked aloud, holding it aloft. The material was a rich, burnished gold colour, flecked with dainty silver beads. To Osa, it looked very grand indeed, but even more extraordinary was the odd figurine Traephaena extracted from one of the cloak’s interior pockets.
“What’s that?” Kasander asked, as Traephaena held up the figurine in the light.
“No idea,” Traephaena said, turning the object between her fingertips. It was no taller than Osa’s finger was long, and about as wide as that. If the figurine represented a person, an animal or a mythological figure, Osa could not tell. The figure appeared to have a sinuous form, without legs, and a gaping hole where a face would have been on a Wasean.
“Maybe it’s them?” Osa suggested. “These chairs aren’t for bipeds.”
Minmah made a noncommital sound from somewhere behind him, poring over a nearby bench which was strewn with the detritus of the ship’s former occupants. Some of the items were recognisable to Osa; they all watched silently as Minmah lifted up what was assuredly a cup, and tilted it slightly to reveal the oxidised remains of whatever liquid had been inside.
“Where did they go, I wonder?” Kasander said, hands upon his slim hips. “It doesn’t look like any violence happened here. It’s as if the crew just left.”
“Well, we haven’t seen the rest of the ship yet. Maybe we just haven’t seen any signs of a struggle yet,” Traephaena said. “Regardless, these look a bit like computers to me. Do you think you and Osa can access the systems?”
“I wouldn’t even know where to start,” Kasander said, but he pulled out his toolkit anyway: a miniature construction drone and a foldable computer that connected to a pocket-sized display.
Wordlessly, Osa came to kneel beside Kasander as the older fellow ran assessing hands over the alien computer, fingertips discovering nooks, crannies, and finally touching something which caused the machine to whirr as if in acknowledgement. The little drone which Kasander had brought with him unfurled, arachnid-like, and began to carve away a section of the computer’s chassis.
The revealed interior of the computer was unexpected; the Waseans, like many of the known sapient species, used biomechanical components in most of their technologies. It made interfacing almost as much as a medical procedure as an act of engineering. This alien computer had no components Osa could recognise, its interior made up of eight glowing, rectangular crystals held up on a bed of gel.
“Hard drives of a kind,” Osa remarked. “I suppose the gel acts as a conduit between them.”
“It’s as good a speculation as any,” Kasander grunted, unfurling an interfacing module from his own computer and attaching it to one of the glassy shards. The software installed onto the computer, including a linguistics program created by Osa, immediately got to work, scanning and analysing the operating system of the alien ship. It was unlikely that the software alone could decipher the contents of the ship’s logs, but if they could extract some of the files they could finish the translation manually.
Osa and Kasander both hovered by the machines, checking the little display and nursing the process along. They were so immersed in their work that they paid little mind to Traephaena and Minmah, still prowling around the crew deck, and when another sharp screech rang out through the ship they both jumped in unison.
“Admiral -” Kasander began hesitantly.
“Easy, easy,” Traephaena urged, pivoting slowly on the spot. The lights flickered once, twice, and then switched off. The alien computer, too, dimmed and quietened, the scan Kasander and Osa were running abruptly switching off. Even the faint strip lighting which lined the floors and ceiling turned off, plunging the quartet into complete darkness.
Osa opened his mouth to say something – to tell Admiral Traephaena that the optics on his helmet suddenly weren’t working, and he was now reliant on the beam of his flashlight to see his comrades in the dark. His words were cut off by the sound of singing. It was the exact same song that had played from the initial distress call.
For a few grim moments, the entire world turned on its axis, as Osa’s vision blurred and he felt like he was going to be ill. The song was closer than ever, and felt as though it were coming from himself. Someone was babbling the words, ‘come home, home home’, over and over again in discordant rhythm and he realised that it was him.
The feeling of being tightly wrapped in velvet was back, along with a new desire to follow the source of the music. It was euphonious at the same time as it was cacophonous, an impossible combination that made his head feel like it was going to explode from pain…or pleasure.
Still babbling to himself, he staggered to his feet, shrugging off Kasander’s concerned hand. For his part, Kasander was slumped over on the ground, partially held up by virtue of his leaning against the darkened alien computer.
“Help me,” Kasander slurred, his hand falling away as he collapsed backwards to the ground, not moving.
Buoyed up by an inclination not entirely his own, Osa began to step away from the scene, from his fellow officers. Traephaena and Minmah did not move to stop him, preoccupied as they were. He could see Traephaena backing up, hands up in a gesture of surrender. Minmah was drawing closer towards the Admiral, moving like a marionette on strings. Minmah was wielding her sidearm, pointing it directly at Traephaena. Minmah’s hand was shaking and her body was swaying to and fro as if embroiled in a battle of resistance with herself.
“Minmah – put that down,” Traephaena was saying, voice strained.
The rational part of Osa’s brain fought against the music, wanting, desperately, to rush forward, knock the gun from Minmah’s hand. Instead, he only watched with vague interest as Minmah pulled the trigger and in the next instant, Traephaena fell backwards. The sound of the gunshot spurred Osa into action, but not to Traephaena’s aid.
He turned on his heel and marched purposefully into the darkness, navigating out of the bridge and into the pitch-black corridor. Distantly, he registered the sound of two more gunshots behind him, their ominous retorts echoing out of the gloom. The readout of Minmah’s, Traephaena’s and Kasander’s ECG’s on his heads-up display was irritating, so he switched them off.
Without such alarms to distract him, Osa could fully focus on the the song weaving an intoxicating trail through the ship. He practically glided, ghost-like, through the darkness, pulled inexorably down, down, down.
Minutes passed, or maybe hours. Osa had lost track of time. He found himself in a diamond-shaped room, illuminated by a triangle of yellow light overhead. There was nothing in the room aside from a shining dais and an enormous mirror suspended within a circular frame.
Osa drew closer, and closer. His reflection in the mirror bothered him; he couldn’t see his face. For some reason, it seemed very important to remove his helmet. Osa did so, pulling it off and dropping it unceremoniously to the floor.
He drew closer to the mirror, walking up the little steps of the dais until he was close enough to reach out and touch the clear surface of the glass. Close enough to see the shimmering detailing around the edges of the mirror’s frame, so unlike the rest of the room. Swirling symbols were etched onto the sides of the mirror, and they seemed to dance and shine just for him.
His image in the mirror warped, and it was as if the glass changed form into a swirl of pearlescent liquid. The liquid escaped the frame of the mirror with a sigh, pouring from its container to surround Osa.
“Come home,” The mirror said, and it was his brother’s voice, the voice of his family and dearest friends, all at once. “Come home,” The mirror thus commanded again.
Osa staggered forward, extended a hand outwards, and watched it disappear into the depths of the mirror. Whatever was on the other side was warm and welcoming and right. Without a second thought, Osa stepped through the fog.
Osa had been expecting something heavenly; that’s what the song had seemed to promise him as it had lodged in his brain. He’d been expecting to see lush meadows and clear skies, a place of safety you could burrow in and never leave. What he got was an empty white void and an escalation of the song which had been pressing down on him, only now the song wasn’t an insistent weight upon him. Now it cut, and hurt.
There was a popping sound and blood began to stream from his ears, quickly soaking the collar of his uniform. He cried out and fell to his knees, as something, or someone, began to slice into his face, little cuts like he’d plunged face-first into a pool of glass. He could feel the slow, warm slide of blood all over his face and arms. The song was not the only sound in the void; for the first time, he heard voices in the din, and they were not his own. It sound like – like screaming. Alien screams, that howled and wept and begged for help.
For a moment, Osa figured that this was the end of it. He was going to die and he barely understood why it was happening in the first place. In the next second, someone had grabbed a hold of one of the straps of his breastplate and pulled him backwards. The white void disappeared and he went skidding over the dais, tumbling down the stairs. There was someone else with him.
Admiral Traephaena was still clutching on to him, hands unyielding upon his shoulders. She gave him a rough shake.
“Soldier!” She barked at him, shaking him again.
“Admiral!” He automatically said back. The cool air of the ship stung the oozing, open wounds on his face. Osa glanced downwards and saw that Traephaena’s arm, the one which had reached through the mirror, was cut up and bleeding, the uniform shredded as if it had been savaged by some animal.
The song was still insistent upon him, to the point that when Traephaena roughly hauled him up and pulled him away, his legs were stiff. A part of him wanted to go back into the mirror and be torn into little, bloody, pieces. Traephaena had to half-carry him through the corridors and back to the shuttle. Minmah was unconscious on the shuttle floor, watched over by Kasander who appeared to have vomited inside his helmet. The helmet in question was abandoned beside him and his jaw was crusted over with spittle and bile.
“Get us the hell out of here!” Traephaena screamed as soon as they were inside the shuttle, dumping Osa onto the ground. The song wasn’t ringing quite so loud in Osa’s head, now that he was inside a shuttle rapidly leaving the alien vessel, which meant that he was more aware of his wounds and their steady, unpleasant burn. He would have preferred not to pass out, but at some point, he closed his eyes and didn’t open them again. At least, asleep, the song couldn’t touch him.
When Osa awoke, it was inside of the Song of Sunsets. He was in medbay, along with very many others who tossed and turned in agitated sleep. There were so very many patients that the medical floor was partially filled with emergency cots that had been pulled out to accommodate their numbers. He’d been sedated. He couldn’t quite feel his face, but when he lifted his hands to his cheeks and jaw he could well feel the various ointments and bandages that had been applied to the wounds. He wondered if he would scar.
Much to his upset, he could still faintly hear music emanating from either the alien vessel or his own diseased brain. It seemed that all of the others in medbay were experiencing the same phenomena, for they stirred fitfully in time with the rising and falling of the song.
It was Admiral Traephaena who quietened him when he called out deliriously, waving away the overworked medical technicians who flitted from one bed to the next. She spoke softly to him for quite a while before he was able to comprehend what she was saying.
“The ship, the ship…” Osa muttered.
“We’re about to blow it to bits,” Traephaena assured him. “High Priest Praetagal won’t be happy about it, or maybe he will be. Perhaps when he wakes up he’ll have a different opinion of the matter.” She nodded her head at one of the cots a few metres away, and Osa saw Praetagal there, silently weeping in his sleep.
Traephaena looked tired and sick, and her arm was covered in foam packs to soothe and spur on healing, but at least she was standing up. Osa didn’t feel he could have done that if he tried.
“I saw you get shot, Admiral,” Osa said, brow furrowing in confusion.
“I did get shot,” Traephaena replied.
“How are you still alive?”
Traephaena laughed grimly. “Do you think our armor is just for show? You really are a rookie, aren’t you?”
“My linguistics program, the data we recovered from the vessel,” Osa began, gingerly sitting up in bed. “Did Kasander bring the computer with him?”
“We have it,” Traephaena said. “An analysis is already underway. I’ve seen some of the captain’s logs already. Whoever they were, that is, the people who built that ship…They weren’t from around here. I don’t know how the ship managed to find its way into our space but it seems as if the vessel has been drifting for a very long time, maybe centuries. How it was able to hold up so well after all this time is anyone’s guess.”
“Did the logs give any insight into what happened to them?” Osa asked curiously. It wasn’t his place to ask, and perhaps it was insubordinate of him to do so, but he couldn’t help but want to know.
Traephaena’s eyes cut away from him briefly, her gaze going momentarily distant. “No,” She told him calmly. “So far, the data we have hasn’t touched on that point.”
She was lying, obviously. She knew it, and he knew it, and there was nothing to be done about it. He didn’t know why she was keeping the information under wraps and suddenly felt that he didn’t want to know. Whatever was in the logs, perhaps he preferred not to know. Perhaps whatever it was that Traephaena had learned was responsible for the uneasy way Traephaena was looking past him now.
Brightening up with forced cheer, Traephaena nodded down at him and gave him an awkward pat on the shoulder.
“You should rest,” She said. More of a command than a suggestion. Then she swiftly departed the room, not looking back.
Osa wanted to sleep, but he couldn’t. He stared up at the ceiling, too anxious to close his eyes for long. At length he asked one of the doctors if they could provide him a tablet computer so he could draft up a message, and received in return an old model one of the nurses retrieved from an equipment drawer.
Taking a breath, Osa opened up a messaging program using his own credentials, and began to draft up a letter. He hadn’t spoken to his brother in so long, it was hard to know where to start. He was afraid of how Vastis would react. Would he send back an angry reply? Or simply not respond at all? Osa couldn’t decide which was worse, but he knew that the time had come to reach out.
Sequestered inside the medbay as Osa was, he didn’t get to see the moment when Traephaena gave the order to fire upon the alien ship. Nor was his privy to the mute, eerie explosions that followed the detonation of torpedoes upon the vessel’s hull. Osa’s only awareness of the ship’s destruction was the release of pressure against his skull, a quick flash of pain as if a knife was retracted from his flesh. And the music, the alien music, finally stopped ringing in his head. Silence. Blessed silence.