In space, no-one could hear them sigh.
They were at cruising speed, no input was required. As kids, they had longed to fly through the skies and the void, imagining the exciting adventures it would bring to them. What they hadn’t factored in were the long and frequent periods of intense dullness.
And the sickness. Oh, the sickness. Travelling faster than a beam of light did not do wonders for a man’s head, or his stomach.
“How much longer to dock?” said Waters.
“Couple of hours,” said Black.
Waters sighed. “Christ almighty.” He returned to his silence, as deathly as the nothingness on the other side of the shield glass.
He leaned forward and flicked a switch on the cockpit. There was a brief high-pitched squeal as the radio resuscitated, followed by steady static. “We’re at least an hour from range,” said Black. “You know that.”
“Sure I do. But even white noise is better than no noise.”
“Yeah, well, it’s giving me a headache. Turn it off.”
Waters sighed again and motioned to flick the switch back. Just before he did, though, the static cut out for a couple of seconds, as though the interference were suffering from interference. The static returned momentarily, but kept dropping out. “Radio’s fucked,” said Waters.
“Yeah, great, well you’re paying for that.”
“It wasn’t my fault!”
“It wouldn’t have broken if you hadn’t’ve switched it on in the first place. Just turn it off.” Waters flicked the switch. The static – and silence – stayed in place.
“Yeah, I got that Jimi, thanks.”
As they glided through the emptiness of the cosmos, the gaps between the static started to get shorter and shorter, the white noise becoming a stabbing pain in the two men’s ears.
“I’m gonna smash that thing in a minute,” Black said.
“No…wait…” said Walters. He had the distanced look of a man who has had an epiphany. “It’s Morse.”
Black adopted the same expression for a moment. “Hey…you’re right. It’s a Mayday. But who would be using a static channel to make a signal?”
“B-1-S-E-C-A-1-4-1-5-9-M-A-Y-D-A-Y-M-A-Y-D-A-Y. It’s automated, it must be. Have we got time to check it out?”
“Jimi, we’re an hour behind schedule anyway. I just want to get home.”
“It’s a distress call, Jake. That used to mean something to us.”
“We’re not those men any more.”
“I know we’re not. But we’re still good men.”
“Mostly good men. Come on, it’s not far off-course. Might be a reward!”
Black maintained course for a few moments. Walters just stared at the side of his head, in the hope that it might irritate his partner into submission. “Fine,” said Black. “But if I’m late for dinner you’ll have Margie to answer to.”
“Oh God. Well, we’ll just have to be quick then, right?” Black snorted out a laugh and turned the control stick to the left. The glowing red circle that they were heading for – like a neon light guiding weary alcoholics – rotated and vanished from view as their craft banked.
The pulsing static got stronger and faster as they approached the co-ordinates in the Morse. Walters pulled down a small screen from the ceiling while Black flew towards it. The screen flashed with many red dots, scattered liberally around a white arrow in the middle. “This place is a junk zone,” Walters said. “Might want to bring up long-range.” Black nodded. Walters flicked switched and pressed buttons on the dashboard. He seemed to be operating at random but, like a lab monkey, knew exactly what he was doing. The scruffy hair and unkempt clothes belied a man who knew more about the innards of a computer than how to use a razor efficiently.
A silver sheet-metal screen slid down in front of the window, effectively blinding the two men for a moment. The lights inside the cabin dimmed as the screen began to crackle with energy. It turned from silver to pure black. The hundreds of millions of stars in the sky reappeared one by one. Then, thin red lines began to outline various rocks and pieces of metal, previously completely invisible. Walters fiddled with more buttons. A yellow scan line intermittently began to rise from the bottom to the top of the screen. Black maintained his direction, except for the occasional bank to avoid junk.
A few minutes later, the yellow line stopped scanning and outlined what was unmistakeably another ship in the middle-distance. When they got closer, Walters retracted the screen so that they could see it for the first time with their real eyes. Black flicked on their ship’s searchlight.
It was the colour of static and had two cigar-shaped engines on the bottom. On top of these engines was a large storage container, rectangular except for a narrow ‘tail’. At the front was a box, about half the size of the container, which appeared to be the cabin. It looked to have been added almost as an afterthought. Chinese characters on the side marked it as a cargo ship. Overall, the vessel was roughly four times the size of the personal ship that Walters and Black approached in.
Black lined up his port side near the front of the ship. As he did so, the static – which was now almost deafeningly loud – completely cut out. “Thank God,” he said.
It was a meticulous process, lining up docking ports. Both ships used the standard connection shape and size – like a large door with its top two corners sheared off – but getting them in perfect alignment was a challenge even for a pilot as experienced as James ‘Jake’ Black. He’d seen more action than ten men put together, but it still took every fibre of his being to make sure he could create a tight dock.
But he did it. There was a slight hiss and one green bulb lit up on the dashboard. One next to it began to pulse amber, and it continued to do so for about ten seconds before it too turned solid green. “Pressurised,” Black said. “You’re good to go.”
“Me?!” said Walters. “Why can’t you go?”
“It’s was your idea to come here, Jimi. I’m not putting my neck on the line to satisfy your curiosity.”
“But of course, you’ll take all the credit if we look like heroes?”
“Precisely,” Black said with a chuckle.
“You’re a dick, have I ever told you that? It’s a good job you’re my best friend, or I’d be in prison for murder by now.”
“You love me really.”
“That remains to be seen.” Walters stood up. As he did so, he held his stomach and groaned a little.
“You OK?” said Black.
“Yeah, just the Barrs. I’ll be fine soon.” He grabbed a headset microphone from a shelf above his seat, then he walked down the stairs and out the cockpit door. “Later, alligator,” he said as he crossed the threshold.
“While, crocodile,” came Black’s voice in his ear. Walters walked along the corridor, his heavy boots echoing on the steel lattice floor, and down another stairway. On his right was the airlock door.
“You’re sure this thing is pressurised?” he said.
“Yes,” said Black. “You will not die this day, Jimi.”
“Because, you know my worst fear is being sucked into the vacuum.”
“I know, I know. You can bridge without fear. Now, go.”
Walters took some deep breaths. His hand hovered over the door switch. He closed his eyes and pressed it.
The door slid to the side and revealed a short walkway. The sides were made of black rubber and looked much like the vestibule of a train or bus. Making a transition between two ships in deep space always terrified Walters – just the thought that he was a few inches away from the freezing non-atmosphere of the void was enough to set his stomach rumbling again.
He walked, half a step at a time, towards the other ship’s door. The whole walkway wobbled with every footstep. After an eternity, he reached the foreign ship and pressed the entry button.
The ship was dark as closed eyes. Walters fetched a small torch from his belt and shone it around the immediate area. Directly in front of him was a steel lattice staircase leading up, he assumed, to the cabin. A gun barrel-shaped corridor extended far beyond his torch’s range to his left. “What are you seeing, Jimi?” said Black over the radio, forcing Walters to jump.
“Christ, you scared the crap out of me! Jesus…give me a chance, I’ve only just got in.” He decided to take the stairs. He moved with stealth, attempting to make as little noise as possible. His boots still sent sound waves bouncing off the cool walls, however, making him flinch with every step.
At the top was a door on his right. Walters put his hand on the handle and turned. He held his breath as he opened it to reveal…
Well, there was, of course, a typical control panel, filled with hundreds of, at a glace, meaningless buttons, switches, screens and bulbs. All of these were blanked out. No power surged through them whatsoever. They were ex-buttons.
“There’s nobody in the cabin,” Walters said. “No power at all, either, from the looks of things.”
“None at all?” said Black. “No, you must be missing something. There must be auxiliaries. A dead ship doesn’t just send out a Mayday.”
“Jake, I promise you, this thing is juiced out. I’m going to look in the cargo hold. Maybe the crew are in there.”
“My name’s Jimi.” There was no response.
Walters went back down the stairs, a little more quickly than he’d ascended, and walked down the corridor. It ended with a door on the right, which was stuck half open like a broken blind. He put his torch in his mouth and grabbed it with both hands. With a good tug, it pulled open completely.
It was freezing cold, and for a split second Walters thought that he’d accidentally opened himself onto the vacuum, before he realised how ridiculous that would be. “This place is like a fridge,” he said.
“What’s in there?” Walters took his torch out and shined it around. The sight was enough to let his stomach get the better of him. He vomited on the cold hard floor, the sick mixing with the congealing blood that lay there.
“You OK mate?” said Black.
“Fuck…” Walters spat out the last of his bile. “Jake…Jesus Christ.”
“What is it?”
“There’s…you might want to call someone. They’re dead Jake. They’re all fucking dead.”
TO BE CONTINUED