Aphelion Issue 183, Volume 18
April 2014
 
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Cheng Ho

by R. Michael McLellan



The screen jumps and jiitters momentarily, as though playback or recording equipment is being hooked up while the monitor is activated. The speakers emit staticy pops and hisses, and during all of this, a voice can be distinctly heard saying, "C'mon... sssssssssssshhhhhhIT!!"

The screen fades into static, and the speakers emit an especially admirable burst of static and feedback, then suddenly clear, as does the monitor. A weary looking face gazes out of the monitor, glancing off screen a few times, then nodding with evident satisfaction. The face is that of a middle-aged man, and is framed with graying hair that still maintains a certain spry blondness. His lips curve in a somewhat crooked smile and he begins to speak.

As per the company's request, I am starting up a log so that the good folks at home can know if I wash my hands after I use the bathroom, use too much oregano in my Italian food, or perhaps a few more mundane, important items, such as what happened to their silent spaceship.

The message from home was a terse one. "Captain Stillson," (that's me, Captain Jim Stillson) "this is Henry Rodriguez at Mars Base Mesa. You have been in hyperspace for almost six months. You are nearly to your destination, and you have sent no logs. As per the terms of your contract, I must insist that you begin keeping logs and transmit them to us. If you want to collect that reward, it is necessary that we are able to review your findings in a timely manner." Officious little bureaucrat.

Six months.

It had started as a milk run. An unusually long milk run, but a milk run nonetheless. Most of the longer hyperspace jaunts are one month hops between earth and Sirius. We have colonies on Rigel, Centaurus, and Sirius, but excepting Rigel, they are too close to allow boredom to get a foothold. It's unusual but not unheard of that a freighter would be sent to one of the outer colonies on Rigel... oh, say, a four month jaunt. The freighters are equipped with entertainment and recreation facilities to make it bearable, but four months in a tin can, all alone, is still four months.

Oh, and about that- pilots almost never have to travel alone.

I have been in this tin can for just shy of six months. Alone, as you may have already inferred. My bunk smells like sweat, no matter how often I change the linen.

Okay, I'm not going to fill these logs with a bunch of pissing and moaning. Let's just say that I've been in here for almost six months, you made me go alone because you lose too many ships out here and you wanted to minimize the risk to personnel (thanks a lot, you cheap--) and I'm not bored but I am restless and ready to walk in the woods. The realwoods, not my simulated woods. The company pays its pilots well, and there is the added reward Rodriguez mentioned, we'll get to that in a minute; so it'll be worth it. How many people in their early 40s do you know of that are contemplating retirement?

It'll be worth it. It will.

My bunk reeks of sweat. Put that in your report.

####

Seven months ago, the Chinese-Israeli Confederation received a distress call from the city-ship Cheng Ho requesting an emergency resupply of termicullite for its life-support system after a fire in their storage bays reduced their once inexhaustible supply to just enough to last roughly 11 months for a populace of about 1000 people. It takes over two years for a ship its size to reach earth from where it is, while my tiny little freighter can do it in about six months.

Cheng Ho was essentially a deep-space exploration vehicle; built by the wealthiest elite of earth and manned and staffed by subordinates and their families; hired by the conglomerate of corporations that built her. It was designed to extend the boundaries of explored space on missions lasting five years. It was expensive, considered a massive boondoggle by many of the saner thinkers back on earth. Capricorn Exploration funded the vessel, helped along by the government after some well-lobbied (bribed) politicians ramrodded funding through the various twists and turns of government policy-making. In spite of this, it was considered very prestigious to land a five-year job on the explorer vessel, and only the very wealthy and well-connected could hope to do so.

It had a magnet-assisted vacuum transit system. The recreation center was immense, and included a forest with a decent sized duck pond. Its science and technology laboratories were state of the art and attracted the finest minds from the finest Universities. The amount of power it generated for its hyperdrive was tremendous. It was the epitome of elite.

So now its populace was endangered. Immediately upon receiving the distress call, engineers from Biosystems Technologies got to work growing a new mass of the bio-synth substance right here in the huge storage bays of this freighter.

The mission was simple: drive out... alone... drop off the groceries, save those wealthy indispensables, drive home. Alone. Collect my reward. Retire. Piece of cake, right?

Sure.

The earth-room is as close to relaxing in the woods as I get. It's pretty close, as long as I don't get up and try to move around too much. But if I sit by my campfire (simulated) in my lawnchair (one of those cool sporty ones with the head and foot-rest and cupholders) roasting a hot-dog (edible but simulated), and drinking a mixer (real, thank you very much) I can almost pretend I'm back at home looking up at the stars, smelling the night air, and letting the breeze (simulated) rustle softly in my hair. But it's obviously not the same. The stars look different. The perspective is wrong. In hyperspace, they float by slowly but noticeably... and they are closer. Sometimes I feel like they resent my intrusion among them.

I am so ready to be home.

####

I continued to receive reports from earth as I proceeded out towards Rigel and beyond. Following my departure from earth, Cheng Ho had apparently become a bit of a madhouse. People were vanishing. There was fighting among the populace. In addition to the missing people, somebody... ( I screwed my eyebrows together when I got this report) ...somebody was slaughtering the animals. Pets, livestock, imported wildlife, nothing was safe.

The final report from Cheng Ho was sent just over a month ago. There had been a mutiny led by the First Officer against the crew. The mutineers were attacking Command, Civilian Law Enforcement, and Communications. The Captain stated that he and his loyalists were attempting to repel the mutiny, but if they weren't successful, they would separate the Command section of the ship and set auto-destruct, rather than allow the science facilities (as well as all those wealthy families) to fall into the hands of the mutineers. In either event, the Captain promised a final report.

Apparently either the mutineers were successful in seizing Communications, or the Captain had run out of time and destroyed the Command section prematurely, because this report never came.

The next communiqué from Rodriguez following the Captain's final log took almost a week. When it arrived, he informed me that there was a 25 million note reward for the successful retrieval of their expensive boondoggle. To that end, they had enlisted the military. A frigate from the Jupiter Navy had been dispatched and was now five months behind me. I would reach Cheng Ho first, but since I was just a civilian pilot making a supply run, the official Company orders were to hang back and wait from the military.

Here, Rodriguez took on a conspiratorial air. "I am authorized to inform you, however, that Frank Welsh, the CEO of Capricorn Exploration, will concede payment to whoever brings back their ship first. They are anxious to retrieve their ship, complete their investigation and the ship's required quarantine as quickly as possible, and return it to service. Naturally, Capricorn Exploration and Biosystems Technologies would not be liable if anything were to go wrong, but if you believe Cheng Ho is safe to approach, and you can bring it back to earth before the Navy gets there, you get to retire. If not?" He shrugged. "Then you get to split it with the military detachment that is on its way out to you. I think it's -- what? About forty men and women?" The little bureaucrat was a good salesman, I'll give him that. His tone was just the right kind of dismissive as he said, "I mean, it'd still be a nice chunk of money, I'm sure."

I was left with the impression that they'd written off the crew. A bunch of real humanitarians.

Still, twenty-five million was twenty-five million. I certainly hoped that the Captain had somehow pulled off a miracle and saved his crew, but that didn't mean I wanted to dilute the reward among the military grunts unless I actually had to.

####

"Cheng Ho, this is Freighter Alpha 41, chartered by Biosystems Technologies. My Registry number is 234555132. My Piloting Class is..." I babbled out the incoherent bureaucratic blather, wasting nearly a minute and a half and concluded with, "Do you read?"

Static crackle answered me. Outside, the massive city-ship remained in geo-synchronous orbit around a large, yellow star. It was uncomfortably close to that star. Oh, not dangerously so, but it was close enough for a barbecue. Its running lights were active, and its life-support system was functioning within parameters. Geordi LaForge and Montgomery Scott working in tandem could not ask for better readings from their systems.

Cheng Ho's Command pod was still in place.

"Cheng Ho, this is freighter A-41, do you read?"

No reply.

I was holding the stylus for my data pad, using it to feed my computer approach instructions. I began to tap it repeatedly against my chin as I stared off into space, pondering this development. Ahead, Cheng Ho grew slowly in my viewport.

I tried hailing the ship again with the same results. I maneuvered close to the city-ship's spaceport. Small skimmers for atmospheric exploration were parked here, as were a couple of more wicked-looking skimmers, and a battalion of armored sleds of the type that the enlisted folk in the Jupiter Navy laughingly called Abrams, after the old American cold war tank. That is essentially what they were- armored cannons with rockets.

It was here that I noted the first outwardly visible sign of trouble. There was a light coating of frost here. It was on all of the ships parked in their cradles, and nearby equipment. Its source was a nearby airlock. The frost was tinged with a reddish-brown substance, and it was fairly plain what that substance was.

Atmosphere had been vented here, and some pour soul or souls had been vented along with it.

I looked at this for a long time, then keyed the mic again.

"Mayday, mayday, mayday, this is Biosystems freighter A-41 to explorer vessel Cheng Ho. I require immediate assistance."

A long moment passed, then...

Nothing.

Eventually, the city ship's rotation showed me why: the Communications tower had been utterly blasted away from the hull of the ship.

I pondered this for awhile.

A reward and pilot's fee of just over twenty-five million notes awaited me on earth, and the wording on the contract was clear: when I returned home, Cheng Ho had better be with me if I wanted that reward.

Still, I had expected to receive some sort of reply from the ship upon my arrival.

In addition, I had no idea what the internal situation was. Massive numbers of the population were reported as missing. The last communication from Cheng Ho indicated that the Captain was going to repel the mutiny or, if unsuccessful, he would destroy the command section of the ship. Clearly, the command section was intact; I was looking right at it through my viewport. The destruction of the communications tower explained why there had been no further communications, but why was the ship parked here uncomfortably close to this sun? Cheng Ho's sensor suite was intact, so they had to know I was here. Why no reception committee?

Regulations state, of course, that if I were to approach an unresponsive starship, I would spend a full year in quarantine. Let the colonoscopies and immune-system boosting enemas begin! Wooo!!! Goddamn, when they say your ass belongs to the Company...

But the reasons for this could not be argued with, not really. The Chinese-Israeli confederation was petrified that some spacefarer would one day bring home the black plague of the twenty-second century. There were thousands of pages of regulations designed to prevent this.

My mind kept juggling regulations and notes. Twenty-five million of them, to be exact. I tapped my stylus against my chin for a few moments, then reached out to work the maneuvering thrusters. A year in quarantine would be worth it. The reception area would be uninhabited (what with it being exposed to space, and all) so I would be able go there and make an assessment as to the tactical situation and get out quickly if need be.

####

A half-hour later, a soft chime and a green light signaled that oxygen cycling was complete. The inner lock slid open smoothly and I stepped into the newly repressurized Reception Area of Cheng Ho's Spaceport.

I was still wearing my EVA suit, of course. What, do you think I'm fucking stupid? Shut up.

Reception showed all of the chaos one would expect of a large, well-furnished area that has been unexpectedly exposed to the vacuum of space. There was some debris around the airlock that hadn't made it out the door before the near-instantaneous venting had equalized the pressure with the outside. Decorative plants, some wall paintings untouched by talent or taste, a coffee mug (World's Best Daddy -- an impossibility, of course, as I am the World's Best Daddy), lots of broken glass, paper, and a pair of pants that had snagged on a protruding switch on the airlock panel.

I stared at the pants for a long moment, then stepped around a large post in the center of the room. The post held various flatscreen monitors, and another of those vile paintings. As I approached the reception desk, suddenly some piece of fanfare began blaring from speakers set in the ceiling overhead.

Blind panic gripped me. I turned and bolted for the airlock only to collide with the large post I'd stepped around a moment before. I tried to bolt again -- right into the post again. A small, isolated part of my brain said quietly, "Quit running into the post, stupid." So I did.

Changing gears like that brought me to my senses. Up on the post, a benevolent, oldish man of Chinese descent was on the monitor, running through some sort of pre-recorded welcoming spiel. He was dressed in a sharp military uniform, but his face was soft, his hair was not cut to regulation (two years in the Jupiter Navy, yo!) and there was something a little too relaxed about him that suggested he wasn't truly a member of the armed forces.

"Your military bearing is lackin' something, boy. It's lackin' a pair o' NUTS!"

Memories of a drill instructor from ages ago. But old Sergeant Bricklun was right. This man looked like he kept his balls in a safe back in his cabin. This would be the civilian Captain of Cheng Ho.

"Funny," I said to his image on the viewscreen. My voice was not steady. I cleared my throat and said in a steadier voice, "Funny. Now fuck off."

The computer was apparently programmed well enough to consider that a dismissal. With a soft chime, the Captain disappeared, leaving me alone once again.

I regarded the monitor thoughtfully, then stepped behind the counter. A little finagling, some sweet-talk, and soon the computer coughed up the security menu. I queried the computer to find out when the last activity occurred in this airlock. It returned, "Fifteen minutes ago."

I smiled, ordered the computer to disregard my own activities, and queried it again. It returned a more sensible reply: three months ago.

Video showed a crewman backing into the frame, with a large assault-grade beam weapon, a Hammaker auto-fire, if I know my weapons at all. (I do.) He was pointing the Hammaker somewhere off camera. He backed toward the airlock, and now a second man joined him in frame. The second man's back was to the camera, but I could tell he was in uniform, and that this one was military, judging by his swagger, and lean frame. No softness here that I could see.

The first man fired his beam at the second, and my mind's eye showed him falling all the way to the ground before I realized that that's not what I was seeing.

The Hammaker is an accelerated particle weapon which actually uses a simple laser, but borrows some of the same principles involved in our Hyperdrive technology to make it into... well, something else. At that range, it should have eliminated the military man from right around his beltline on up. There should have been the remnants of a torso standing there, shooting out a few startled spurts of blood as the inertia from its final heartbeat lagged away to nothing. Er... sorry. I've seen it happen.

The military man flinched a little bit, but continued to advance. Despair (but not surprise, I noted) crossed the first man's features. He reached out, toggled the airlock, and both men were gone in an instant. The airlock finished cycling, and I was once again looking at a pair of pants hanging from a toggle on the airlock panel.

I realized my mouth was hanging open, so I shut it. My mind refused to accept it, so I said it aloud: "He spaced himself."

If the military man was a threat, why not keep shooting? I mean, obviously he was wearing some sort of body armor, but the beam weapon he'd been using was, well as I've already said, it was a damn powerful one. Four or five shots- if he had time to make them- should shred their way through any armor. And, as far as I could tell, the military man's head hadn't been covered. That was the part that troubled me, though. If his head wasn't covered, the particle dispersal should have taken it off even without being pointed directly at it. I finally dismissed it as the mercurial nature of fate. What else could it be?

But again, it begs the question: Why not fire again?

Unless he expected the result, and recognized the futility of continued resistance.

My mind shied away from that thought and its implications. Instead, I turned once more to the keyboard. One other query showed the current population – counting both crew and civilians- of Cheng Ho to be one.

Me.

I was on a dead ship.

Ooo look!

I looked around quickly, suddenly feeling very exposed, and very watched. The sane, thinking part of my brain insisted that I could not possibly have heard a voice, whispering gleefully, almost lustfully. The gibbering, subconscious part where all of our fears and worries haunt us insisted that it had come from all around me.

I never really did find out what the sound was. But I noted some air injection hissing from the biounit set in the ceiling near the sustenance station to the right of Reception. Sometimes the hard rubber tubes that carry the air through the filters get hard and brittle and let air leak. The sound it makes could have been what I heard.

Suddenly I was ready to leave. I'd had two scares in twenty minutes and my breath was coming in short gasps. I was in the process of sealing my suit up, when my mind flashed a startlingly clear image of stacks of money sitting on my kitchen table back home. Stacks of bills with many zeros on them. Stacked so high that they seemed almost to sway like a skyscraper on a windy day. The oven door hung open, and the compartment was stuffed with row after row of neatly stacked bills. More bills and bright, shiny coins adorned the chairs, the counter top, the top of the cooler. The sink and the coffee pot were full of gleaming coins and jewels, jewels which spilled out of the sink and all over the floor, where more coins, jewels, and bills were stacked in every available corner. Rubies and emeralds and saffires and a few diamonds, their hard surfaces gleaming in the fluorescent lighting of my kitchen. There were two neatly wrapped bundles of bills sticking out of the toaster.

"Son of a BITCH." I said. My voice sounded hollow in the helmet. "FUCK!" But even dropping the big "F" didn't vent enough of my self-directed anger, so I pounded the console with my gloved hand.

I called up a schematic of the city ship so I could find the nearest travel tube, still muttering and swearing under my breath the whole time. Hellfire and bloody damnation. When I had it, I left Reception in the appropriate direction, detouring only to pull those damned pants down off of the airlock panel.

####

The rest of the ship was in varying degrees of cleanliness, ranging from debris, garbage, and unidentifiable but nasty looking smears on the walls, to areas so spotless that Sergeant Bricklun himself would have been brought to tears of joy and gratitude.

I reached the tunnel-tube without incident. Of course I did. It was a dead ship, wasn't it? I entertained myself with thoughts of the massive reward. As I boarded the tunnel-tube, it occurred to me that they might try to screw me over. No CEO ever handed a wad of cash that big over to a little peon like me without trying to shaft said peon somehow. The more I thought about it, the more I considered it a given. Well, they'd have a fight on their hands if they chose that route. The lawsuit would be epic. I was going to be a regular Perry Mason when this thing reached court.

These were my thoughts as I sat in the travel tube and keyed my destination. I laughed. Perry Mason? More like Walter Mitty. I was still chuckling as the tube-car began to move.

My mood soured about two minutes later (it's a big ship) as the computer chimed, "Obstruction ahead. Re-routing to nearest available station."

"Um... alternate routes?" I said aloud.

"None available from this transport."

"Shit," I said.

"Sorry," the computer said. Cute.

At least the computer had the decency to deposit me at the city-ship's amusement boardwalk. It appeared that I would be... comfortable while I worked out how to get past this latest obstacle.

####

Cheng Ho's boardwalk had everything. Arcades, interactive holo-sex programs, wildlife refuge; although whatever had happened to the people seemed to have happened to the wildlife as well, for the faux wilderness was eerily silent, except for the fish splashing in the duck pond. Apparently, whatever oddness had claimed the animals here hadn't bothered with the fish. I haven't had real seafood in... well, in six months, and I'm embarrassed to admit, I didn't then, either. I knew enough of the rudimentary techniques of fishing to land a few of the scaly little animals if I were so inclined, but I am a product of my processed culture, and I don't know the first thing about preparing a fish for eating.

All good things must come to an end. The Recreation Quarter (as one of the holos informed me it was called) was great, but holos do not replace real people. I'm not even talking about sex here. I was craving the company of people. But these holos weren't really capable of providing anything but the most rudimentary of illusions. Their conversational skills were somewhat stilted. "What would you like me to do now?" and "I do not understand what you mean," were phrases I heard commonly. No matter how many holos I added; no matter how much I told them to converse amongst themselves, no matter how normal I ordered them to behave, there was an underlying silence and eerie sense of unreality that was impossible to ignore. After about a day, the idea that I was dancing on the graves of the populace of Cheng Ho took hold and wouldn't let go of me, so I decided I'd better see to my mission. I'd decided that I would probably need to use the ventilation system to get to the access corridor that leads to Control, which was where the "city" part of the ship ended and the "spaceship" part began. I reluctantly began to search for a security terminal.

As it happens, I am just full of good ideas. The ventilation system was indeed the way to go. I found my way through dusty corridors and dark and twisting junctions with valves and pipes that threw crazy shadows about in the light of my EVA lamp. Eventually, I made it to the corridor. Once there, I walked on through and straight to the Central Information Center. JNav would refer to it as Combat Information Center, but it was the same thing: I was at the ship's CIC.

I served two years in the reserves, and I'll tell you, the Jupiter Navy has nothing like this. No Spartan, asture control center here; I was in the lap of piloting luxury. Plush seats abounded. Even the walls were carpeted. There was a sustenance station parked between the helm and the rudimentary weapons station. I tried and failed to picture my CO's reaction to the idea of having a snack while piloting one of JNav's frigates around and about the Roman god's various moons. Nobody would ever mistake this for one of JNav's battle wagons.

Soft lighting and softer music completed the atmosphere. Had it really been playing to that empty room for almost a year? Creepy.

I sat in the ridiculous Captain's chair and started sweet-talking the computer again. I didn't have any of the passcodes, but once again, my military background saved me, in the form of a systems analyst background. I was no pro, and my hacking techniques were quick and dirty, but they did the job without too much data loss. After I had kissed the computer's ass to its satisfaction, I was into the Captain's personal Webspace.

At this point, my corporate superiors, the military, and Capricorn CEO Frank Welsh himself, all of you are wishing I'd cut to the chase, but the fact is, I can't. What happened here doesn't... well, you'll think I'm crazy. By the time you realize I'm not, it'll be too late. If I just came out and said that, just as an example, the crew was eaten to the last man by giant angry badgers, you'd never believe me. You'd demand details. I'm simply giving you the details first so you can hopefully skip the skepticism later. (And no fair, fast-forwarding.) You could bypass all of the debates and soul-searching, and all of that, and take the action that the little voice in the back of your mind is screaming at you to take, and your wallets are screaming at you not to, and what my dinky little freighter is incapable of doing, destroy Cheng Ho before it reaches earth.

Oh, yes. It's on the way. One of the first things I did upon hacking the CIC computer was to direct the computer to plot a return course to earth. I then engaged it. drives slowly revved up and eventually engaged, and the massive city-ship left its perilously close orbit around the star. There was a restless stirring in the air as the ship ascended away from the sun and into deep space. It was total bullshit, of course, but I could almost imagine that I felt it get cooler.

These logs, as well as my EVA suit's camera footage (which totally backs up my story) will be transmitted via subspace, arriving at earth in approximately two months. Cheng Ho's greater mass means a longer return trip to earth than my little freighter would provide. That means that when you get these logs, you will have slightly more than twenty-seven months to overcome the greed and the bickering to do what you have to do.

####

Of course, I knew none of that, yet. Even in the CIC, I could hear the powerful hyperdrives ramping up. The ship was empty, its crew missing. The suits wanted their ship back, and I'd already pulled away from the star it was orbiting. Soon it would be in Hyperspace and a couple years from now, it would be home. It would sit in Quarantine for a year or so (maybe even on the same asteroid as me!) and then the banks and companies would get their toy back. Twenty five million notes! I sat back in the plush captain's chair and tapped my pen against my teeth thoughtfully. Now that the ship was getting ready to jump, it was time to start digging. It was time to find out what had happened to the 1000 people who called this place home.

I didn't have to search hard. The Captain had flagged several log entries pertaining to "the problem" as they'd called it at first. Toward the end, nearly every log entry was flagged thus. But the flags helped me separate the earlier "problem" logs from laundry lists, inventory, feline population (apparently, not too long after launch, they'd developed a problem with stray cats in the city-sections of the ship), psych logs, and Everything Else.

It started about fifteen months--

.........drrrrrrrrdrdrdrdrdrrdrdrdrdrdr THWAP! drrrrrrrrdrdrdrdrdrrdrdrdrdrdr THWAP! drrrrrrrrdrdrdrdrdrrdrdrdrdrdr THWAP!

I leapt from the seat and tripped over my feet. For the second time in a couple of days, complete terror had taken control of me. Thankfully, I didn't run into any pillars, posts, or anything else this time. The sound was a loose vent rattling in its frame as Life Support kicked on, presumably because some putz of a freighter pilot was in the CIC breathing up all of the oxygen.

My terror gave way to mild irritation. My adrenaline stream still had a little bit of blood in it, and my heart rate was through the roof, so naturally my mild irritation manifested itself as stark, unreasoning rage. A short time later, I turned away from the now-mangled (but oh-so-silent!) ventilation grill and returned to perusing the logs.

November 13, 2179 -- Prelim notation 61477391 1430 GMT

Documented Presettlement Contact 26

Presettlement colony located -- uncharted world in system Epsilon Eridani -- Initial Contact declined -- edict implemented at request of colony...

I remembered this. It had been big news just over a year ago. To understand why, you have to look almost forty years before that.

In 2140, the first of what became known as pre-settlement colonies was discovered: a human colony on a world orbiting Arcturus. Interstellar travel was in its infancy for us (still is, really) and it was certain that no earth-based space-faring people had made it out here before.

First Contact was tricky. They spoke no language we recognized. That is, not until linguistics experts studying their language realized that their language shared some common elements with Sumerian, and pre-Sumerian languages. The aspects were too pronounced to be ignored.

The discovery that earth shared some sort of relationship with some space-faring race in the distant past rocked the world's political and religious organizations on their heels. Stocks tumbled. Fortunes were lost. Whole corporations went bankrupt. As is often the case when the wealthy corporate interests that control the news fall on hard times, this was treated as the looming apocalypse by the pundits. The Catholic Church, perhaps seeing its doom in the incompatibility of their teachings with discovered fact, lobbied the various governments of earth to suppress the knowledge, but it was far too late. The information was everywhere. Fortunately, government was fairly sane at that time, and attempts by the unusually powerful lunatic fringe to establish a reason to invade and plunder were largely ignored. Once we'd established diplomatic relations and trade with these people, their existence and mostly peaceful ways could not be discredited. The Arcturus Presettlement colony was here to stay.

When Cheng Ho reached Epsilon Eridani, there were 25 known pre-settlement colonies, and no new colonies had been discovered in more than eight years. They became the news sensation of the month- especially after our overtures of trade and diplomatic relations were politely declined. They were the third colony to decline membership in our growing confederation, so it was only a mild shock. What was a greater shock was the Eridani's stated preference that we maintain no contact with them and that we never visit their world again. The other two worlds that had initially chosen not to join up, as it were, still maintained peaceful trade with us. One had even reconsidered since then and was now a functioning member of our confederation.

Cheng Ho left the system almost immediately. The news pundits debated the story for awhile. As usual, mud was slung, blame tossed around, old grievances were aired anew, and criticisms (mostly inaccurate) were thrown around by various government officials, all right there on CNN (Confederated News Network.) In other words, it was a typical news cycle.

In these modern times, a couple of months is an eternity in the business of reporting the news. The Eridanis eventually became a trivia question, and life went on, presenting newer and more exciting news for CNN to feverishly disseminate to the masses.

Except that the Captain of Cheng Ho had flagged the Epsilon Eridani First Contact log as the probable start of the catastrophe that had evidently swept the explorer-city ship.

The next flagged entry was about three months after the First Contact. It was rather horrific, and no doubt traumatic to the poor child who logged the complaint with ship's security- a ten year old boy tearfully reported discovering his dog dead in the Central Atrium. The manner of death was gruesome, according to the Investigator. The dog had been sliced open the length of its body and its entrails allowed to spill out into one of the fountains there. Security stated that it had all of the earmarks of a ritualistic sacrifice. Security was ramped up, people presumably guarded their pets for awhile, but there were no more eviscerations, no flagged entries for almost two months.

Then people began to vanish. The animals disappeared from the duck pond and surrounding environs. By the time the First Officer led a mutiny against the Captain five months later, over half of the population was missing. This confused me, because the First Officer was one of the people originally listed as missing.

Soon my confusion was cleared up.

The mutiny was successful. The mutineers succeeded in destroying the Communications tower. The last entry from the Captain was that he was about to separate the command pod from the City-section. He clearly failed that as well, however; there was no entry to indicate why.

There was one final entry, made by the civilian law enforcement section of the population. It stated that the mutiny had wiped out the crew, and that many of the missing civilians had returned. But they were altered. They, along with the mutineers, had become hostile, rabid versions of themselves, virtually invulnerable, except...

"You're fucking kidding me with this, right?" I said aloud.

According to the Log report recorded by civilian desk sergeant of Cheng Ho, the returnees seemed vulnerable only to sunlight (rare enough on the city-ship), holy symbols, and garlic.

I re-read the log: sunlight, holy symbols, and garlic. Hey, it's all him. I didn't write this shit. I laughed at first too. I sat back in the plush seat and shook my head. My thoughts were a disquieting mix of game show hosts, hidden cameras, missing people, and of videos showing soldiers that don't fall when shot, and men so desperate to escape that they open themselves to the vacuum of space. I struggled to laugh it off, and reminded myself that I didn't believe in the boogeyman.

The desk sergeant clearly believed. His entry indicated that the population had been 100% compromised. He did not know how to override the computer failsafes to engage the autodestruct. Those same failsafes prevented him from diving Cheng Ho into the nearest star, so instead, he parked it as close as the computer would allow.

I refused to believe that Cheng Ho was full of vampires. I insisted that I refused to believe this. I'd been in the Recreation Quarter for a full day and I saw nothing. Fucking vampires, I thought scornfully. But my scorn was false. He spaced himself. The military man shrugged off a particle-dispersement beam and the other guy spaced them both. The back of my neck was all prickly and I was suddenly very aware that I was the only human being for many, many millions of miles around. I gazed thoughtfully (okay, fearfully) at the stars. The faint haze of hyperspace occluded them somewhat but they were still clearly visible. The star Cheng Ho had been orbiting so closely was now smaller than a pencil's eraser and growing smaller as the ( sun set) city-ship continued to accelerate.

You were safe until you pulled away from the star

I pounded the armrest of the chair angrily. I will not give into this. But my inner voice would not stop gibbering.

The desk sergeant was right. You were safe until you pulled away from the star, from the Sun and jumped to light-speed and now they're waking up. They're all waking up.

"Bullshit!"

I took several very quick breaths and nodded to myself. Okay, time to admit it: I was getting a first-class case of the heebie-jeebies.

I'm not nucking futz. At first, I read the Captain's log with every bit as much skepticism as you are now. I'm sure you and your fellow suits are having a chuckle and suggesting "space madness" and nodding wisely. I don't blame you. The only other explanation that's turned up besides mass insanity is so unbelievable as to be laughable, but I do know that space madness or some other mass insanity didn't claim the people of Cheng Ho. Perhaps when you are done with this, you'll think I'm insane too.

In any event, all I had was a dead ship with an unbelievable explanation, and almost a mile of ship between me and my freighter. My mind was gibbering near unreasoning panic as my skepticism slowly faded away. What finally convinced me was the desk sergeant's final statement before ending his log – he himself had been bitten, and was heading to Reception where he was going to do the one thing he could do: space himself.

I decided that it was time to go.

But first, I would do earth a service. I ordered the computer to abort its return course to earth. I dropped Cheng Ho out of hyperspace, slowed to below relativistic speeds so the sublight computer could orient itself, and finally brought it to a dead stop in deep space. A small part of me knew it was insane; there couldn't be vampires, there was no. Such. Thing. But there were plenty of clues, enough to cast doubt upon what I knew to be reality. There were enough clues to have me jerking at every small sound or shadow. There were enough clues to cause me to stop the ship and err on the side of caution, reward be damned.

By this time, my nerves were as taut as piano wire. My mind kept telling me to leave. Decelerating the ship was a jerky affair. Even on the best of days, piloting a ship like Cheng Ho is a bit like driving a giant bumblebee with rockets for wings and a rhinoceros shoved up its ass, and this was not the best of days. My motions were jerky and amateurish as my hands hovered uncertainly over the controls while the gibbering primate that lives in all of our heads shouted over and over, "Bullshit, let's GO!"

I forced myself to finish the task. Then, I ordered the computer lay in a course back the way it came. I wasn't even thinking about the money by then. This motherfucker was going right back to its parking space around the sun where I'd found it.

I was moving the cursor to enable the course correction (OK Cancel) when the monitor went dark.

"Whaaat?" I said aloud. I threw switches, swiped my palm over receptor pads, I even tried rebooting the system. (When in doubt, give it the old three-fingered salute. One of those stupid, ancient expressions which makes no sense. Something to do with early computers.)

I was actually considering pulling the floor plates up to get at the power conduits underneath when I heard a noise. A whispering, giggling sound, full of lust and hatred and... well, insanity. It started off to my right near the front of the CIC. Then it was to my left, then oh god the gibbering lunatic sound was behind me...

It was in the walls.

I'm sure I left. I mean, when my blind panic lifted and I came to my senses, I was no longer in CIC. I was in the ventilation shaft I'd used to get to Command. Certainly not the route I would've chosen with that voice in the walls. But I had no memory of deciding to come this way.

And I was hopelessly lost.

The vents looked identical, and before too long, I realized I had no idea where I was going. It wouldn't occur to me until later that I was in a dusty vent shaft, and all I had to do was retrace my prints in the dirt to find where I'd turned or failed to turn off my course. Stop yelling at your monitor, it occurred to me eventually. Just let me tell the damn story.

I'm sure you can imagine how nightmarish it was crawling through a dark ventilation shaft after you have been confronted with the possibility of mythological terror made real. The sounds of my passing echoed and reverberated throughout the shaft, sounding like there were three or four

vampires

people crawling in there with me. Of course, when I stopped to listen, there were no such sounds, just the occasional pop and crackle of heated metal constricting and contracting in the thousands of miles of ventilation ducts.

When I finally admitted to myself that I had no idea where I was, I began casting about for an exit. It didn't take long. After all, my heebie-jeebies notwithstanding, it's not like I was in an unending, labyrinthine maze with no exit; I wouldn't be crawling around in the shaft until starvation and thirst ended my journey, nor would unseen fangs sink unexpectedly into my neck in the pitch-black darkness of the shaft. There was no reason for my neck to feel so utterly naked and exposed. There was no purpose for the near-puckering of my skin as it anticipated the sudden sharp prick.

These were the things I told myself while I fumbled around, quietly convincing myself that I was slowly suffocating in the enclosed shaft. When I found the opening, I threw it open frantically, needing two attempts. I took in a great lungful of air.

Gag. Revulsion. Fear. FEAR. Gag.

The stench that assailed me was too strong, too cloying... too liquid to be referred to as merely an "offensive odor." It filled my lungs and throat. I hurriedly quit breathing through my nose, and the stench seemed to coat the inside of my mouth. This last sensation, real or imagined, was Officially the Last Straw. My stomach rolled most unpleasantly, and up came lunch.

Still retching, I took a long look. I had apparently located the cavernous sewage recycling center, and for a moment, I thought that was the source of the smell. But the massive vats were sealed, and showed no signs of having been breached. Besides, the odor wasn't raw sewage. That has a distinctly vile, equally pungent odor all its own. No, this was the odor of the slaughterhouse, one whose contents have been left to rot. It came from the multitudes of animal carcasses (and not just a few human carcasses, as well) that had been carelessly tossed and left to decay wherever they landed. It seems I had found the missing wildlife from the recreational quarter, as well as a fair chunk of the human population. Dogs. Cats. Feed cattle. People. The mangled remains were everywhere. It was at my feet. I giggled insanely as I recognized a pile of ducks from the duck pond, their feathers dry and tired.

Suddenly, it was cold. The ship sounds seemed to fade into a distant background. Strange sounds reverberated all around me like beetles skittering across linoleum. I looked around the floor, quickly casting about for the source of the sound, and when I looked back up, I saw that I was no longer alone in the cavernous room.

About fifty yards away stood a man dressed in all white or all black. My memory seems to switch at random whenever I try to recall my first meeting with an unholy creature of myth. When I can get my mind to call up his face, he seems the archetypal vampire. Jet black hair, pale white skin, ruby-red lips, and the fangs. In this particular case, it's not the appearance of this... thing... I don't know what to call it, except to say that it was evil. It's not its appearance that inspires terror, it's his presence. It's as if the very fabric of reality rejects our presence in the room together. A living being animated by his spirit or his soul if you will, and an undead being animated by... whatever. Two incompatible life forces staring at each other across half the length of a football field; one seeking to devour the other, and... "Oh God," I whispered. I tried to lift a foot and it was like somebody had poured a gob of rubber cement on the soles of my shoes , and o my god how did he get so close he's right there heisnexttomeheisrightthere he is RIGHT FUCKING THERE-

Sound what's that sound a sound wake up

I reached up and very deliberately smacked myself in the temple, and came back to the here and now. The vampire was indeed only a few feet away from me, his (its) expression a horrific combination of grief, of horror, lust and greed, and an indescribable longing. It quickly changed to one of surprise, for I hadn't imagined the sound that helped snap me out of the near-trance I'd fallen in. It was a sound I recognized from my JNav days: a standard chime calling the crew to Action Stations. The vampire's attention was no longer on me; it was looking up at the flashing lights, a look of confusion, of half-remembered training on its face. I quickly fell to my hands and knees until I found a loose rib from some poor fellow lying near my feet. Apparently he'd been dropped from one of the catwalks above, for it was only loosely connected and came free easily. I popped back up just as quickly, making a terrified whining noise in the back of my throat. I reminded myself to breathe, and realized with mounting panic that I couldn't unlock my throat to do so. The vampire was only just now turning back to face me when I thrust the bone into his abdomen and up inside his ribcage to his unbeating heart. It actually went in quite easily.

A wailing pain filled my head, and a horrific sadness filled me as I considered what I'd done. A fleeting image of the man's face the man's life flashed through my mind; a serene, innocent existence, warped and corrupted by my awful and willful act of unprovoked, unreasoning violence....

I was ready for its glamour this time. The fact that I couldn't breathe and I could hear my blood roaring in my ears helped me fight it off. I tore my eyes from the undead figure before me. I took a quick glance over my shoulder so I could plot a retreat. I quickly looked back at the vampire.

He was gone. In a moment, so was I.

My flight from the sewage recycling plant is but a sketchy memory. It started with me taking great whooping breaths as my throat unclenched. I remember retching again on the torpid air. I remember deciding that there was quite simply no fucking way I was going back into those ventilation shafts. Fortunately, it appeared that I had traveled far enough to bypass the obstruction in the travel tube, because when I came back to my sense of self, I found myself inside of one, my EVA suit fully sealed, and the oxygen feeders set to their highest levels. Apparently I'd weathered some sort crisis from the nearly unbreathable air back there, but I had only the slightest nudge of memory of setting the feeders.

This one didn't appear to be a public tube. It seemed that a family owned it. There was a ramstick full of what they are calling music nowadays. There were toys scattered about in the rear compartment (although no teddy bears or dollies, thank god. I don't know if my tortured brain could've withstood the cliché.)

Hanging from one of the many dials on the panel before me was a pair of plush, oversized dice. Hanging from the same dial on a soft, velvety rope, was a medallion of the Star of David.

####

Vampires are creatures of myth and legend, and yet here I was, making my way through the innards of a city-ship infested with those very beings. Did that make all of the rest of the myths real? Why does a holy symbol cause such pain and discomfort to these creatures? Did it mean that there was truly an inherent holiness to such artifacts? I suppose it fits -- if there are unholy creatures, then that implies that some sort of reflective holiness exists somewhere. And yet, didn't the pre-settlement colonies mean we had to throw all that out the window?

Didn't they?

I've heard it said that God is a force of nature. Certainly, when I stood in the cavernous sewage recycling plant, every fiber of my being telling me that I quite simply could not co-exist with that life-force, I felt its unnatural aura, its indescribable being. Did nature itself so abhor this monstrosity that it manifested itself to bring me to this travel tube I so desperately needed? Or is it more than that? Folks commonly assume that it was necessary to throw out the old religions in favor of recognized fact when we discovered the Presettlers -- that Humanity most likely did not originate here. Should we perhaps instead assume that most of our assumptions are invalid (one could live by that philosophy, huh?), and a Superior Being, one at war with the unholy legions of Darkness, guided me here? Is our Faith not wrong, but simply incomplete? Are we right to disassociate ourselves from notions of Heaven and Hell simply because of that?

The question is quite simply too big for me. I'm just a goddamn freighter pilot. (Er, sorry.)

Perhaps it was simply a coincidence?

If that were the case, I figured I was most likely screwed.

This stream of thoughts was interrupted as a portion of this tube's course took the car outside of the ship. The external passage was brief, but not brief enough to prevent me from seeing a soft blue glow through the transparency. The glow was coming from a region near the ship's massive drive system.

Cheng Ho's hyperdrive system was coming back online. Somebody had awakened the sleeping computer, presumably the same somebody who had put it to sleep in the first place. I had doubted that it was headed back to its parking spot near the sun. In fact, I had very strong suspicions that its destination and mine were the same. But there was nothing to be done. I would have to trust in my freighter's smaller mass to bring me to earth ahead of Cheng Ho.

I was not going back to the CIC.

I would be at Reception in moments. I hurriedly verified the seal on my pressure suit and clutched the Star of David in my hand, wrapping the velvety rope around my wrist so I wouldn't drop it.

I don't mind telling you that I would've preferred a Hammaker auto-fire. It might not put one of those bastards down, but it'd sure put a fuckuva nice hole in the hull. My suit's maneuvering jets would do the rest. I wasn't quite as certain of the efficacy of the Star of David.

And yet-

As I stepped out of the travel tube, I felt suffused with a curious confidence, almost a sense of invulnerability. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil... An innate sense of well-being traveled through me, filling me with a sense of right... of rectitude. As soon as I stepped into Reception, I noticed two things. First, the feeling of two incompatible life forces occupying the same room had returned, and second?

The Captain of Cheng Ho was standing between me and the airlock.

...fear no evil... I shall fear no evil...evil...

His expression managed just the right combination of sardonic amusement, understanding, and even a little bit of friendly concern.

...evil...

"I suppose our secret's out," he said.

"Uh-huh," I allowed.

He smiled. "I don't blame you for being cautious."

"Good," I replied. "That means I won't have to carry around a bunch of guilt with me after I'm gone."

He laughed with jovial good humor.

"Do you mind if I smoke?" he said.

"Not if you get out of the way, I don't." My voice was raspy as I tried to disguise my fear with ire.

He smiled, and stepped aside, gesturing toward the airlock as if to indicate he wouldn't hinder me.

I simply stood, waiting. He smiled widely, showing me pearly white teeth and a perfect pair of gleaming stiletto fangs. He took the hint and stepped back much farther, lighting up a cigarette as he did so.

"After you leave, then what?" he said. I kept walking. God, I could feel his will trying to usurp mine. "Will you return home," He continued, "tell all of your people about me, and save the earth? Then what? Collect your fat paycheck, and earn the unending gratitude of the Capricorn CEO?"

That struck a chord and my step faltered. I recovered quickly, and kept moving. He took a deep drag on the nic and continued. "Or perhaps they'll screw you. Oh, sure! This is an expensive starship. I bet it has tons of bank liens against it." He laughed. "Good old Frank!" His expression became intense. "Perhaps Frank'll order you silenced rather than write off this multitrillion dollar investment. Hell, that'd work out just fine for that fat-cat CEO, 'cause then he can contact the insurance company and collect on his dead peasant policy." His voice carried exactly the right note of outraged comradery. It was perfect. He paused, and his voice took on a snarky, pondering note. "I wonder how much of a bonus ol' Frankie collected last year."

I stopped walking, my jaw clenched. Bastard, I raged inside. I'm not sure if the thought was directed at the creature in the room with me, or at every CEO who ever screwed one of the little people to increase their bottom line.

Frank Welsh, you asshole. Put THAT in your fucking report. Ass. Hole.

He took another drag on his nic and puffed it out in a cloud.

I was whispering to myself. I don't know how long it was going on before I realized it. I thought of the ludicrous idea of a vampire smoking a cigarette. I knew I was being glamoured again, but this time I was powerless. I felt such a wave of outrage at the thoughts swirling around in my head.

I kept thinking of all the people stepped on by rich corporations and their CEOs.

I kept thinking of all the people preyed upon by... creatures such as this.

The two thoughts swirled around in my head, conflicting, confusing, and I thought of the vampire smoking the cigarette again.

He didn't inhale the smoke.

Reality jarred my senses. The glamour fell away, its weight almost seeming to try to drag at the firmament of my reality me the way a receding wave will drag at the sand under my feet at the beach. Suddenly I saw that my thoughts weren't really conflicting at all, and I realized that what I'd been whispering over and over was, "There's no difference."

"Sure there is," the Captain said soothingly. "At least you know what I'm going to do. There's no doubt, and I won't insult you by trying to hide it from you." So hypnotic. He didn't inhale. "That's more than you can say when you're signing a contract with those fat cats."

Yes, so hypnotic, but I was no longer swayed by it. Suddenly the Star of David was very hot in my hand, so hot it was uncomfortable even through the insulating layers of my EVA suit.

I smiled. "That's bullshit. When you sign a contract, there's always fine print involved, and yours isn't any better than theirs is."

He snarled and lunged at me. God, his speed was inhuman. His mouth opened wide, his fangs glistening under the fluorescent lights, and he hissed. It was a hiss that echoed in the corridors of my brain, a verbal and psychic assault, designed to intimidate and cow.

He caught himself up short very quickly as my arm raised itself, seemingly of its own volition. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.I gripped the Jewish holy symbol tightly and interposed it between myself and the thing before me.

The medallion blazed to life, emitting a blinding blue light. There is not one bit of cynicism in me when I tell you that it was the light of righteousness and good, a blazing blue light that embodied all that was fair and just with no taint of evil or corruption about it. And it burned him.

His hiss turned to an intense howl of hatred, pain, and despair. He retreated, and I stepped forward, brandishing the medallion boldly. I shall fear no evil. I shall fear no evil. I shall fear no evil. I have never seen such a look of intense hatred like the one I saw on his face. If it could burn, Cheng Ho would have gone up like a supernova. I held the Star of David higher, comforted by its blazing blue radiance. Where the medallion evoked Justice and Light, the Captain was corruption and taint. Where the medallion shone with the righteousness of God, the Captain evoked the abyssal darkness of hatred and blood.

With a last snarl, he was simply.... gone.

There was a pop, followed by a sudden, brief gust as air rushed to fill the vacancy left by the vanishing creature. The medallion ceased glowing, and reaction set in almost immediately. My hands knees began to tremble, and I pocketed the medallion.

"So fuck YOU," I told his vanished form, my voice quaking.

I stared for a long moment, then thought- not for the first time since arriving- It's time to leave.

So finally, I did. And shortly after I untethered from the docking port, so did Cheng Ho as I left its hyperspace bubble.

Gone.

####

I am heading home. I wish I felt relieved. My freighter is haunted. The quiet of space is oppressive and daunting. Something skitters and dances behind the bulkheads, robbing me of sleep. The earth room no longer soothes me. Doors bang open or shut just after I leave the room. Any room.

I have taken to sleeping in the airlock with my Hammaker auto-fire laying across my lap, and the Star of David's velvety rope wrapped around my wrist, the medallion tied to the palm of my hand. Unfortunately, my precautions were in vain. While I was shaving this morning, I noted two raised bumps, like spider bites... BIG spider bites, just a few inches down from my right ear.

I am transmitting these logs, not just to Biosystems Technologies and not just to Capricorn Exploration. No, I will also send them all, every last one, my EVA suit's camera footage, and Cheng Ho's logs right to the Managing Program Editor at CNN. You can't stop it, it's already happened.

Should Biosystems deign to pay my reward, I wish it to be split evenly between my son and daughter. Matthew, Jennifer, there's a world of things I wish I had time to say, but the funny subaural thumping noise, that presence behind the wall is back, and it's getting louder. And it's calling me. It's like I can feel it pulsing in my neck under the puncture wounds. I don't think I have very much time at all. I love you both very much.

There just isn't any reason to have illusions about my ability to maintain vigilance, let alone my humanity, for the six month journey back. Not with those two little bumps on my neck. Not with that... presence calling to me. And it no longer feels so vile. It feels kindred. I feel foolish for having been so afraid of it. And that, more than anything, tells me I am nearly out of time. My eyes stray again to the airlock control panel, and in just a moment, I will override the emergency failsafes on the airlock's inner doors – all of the airlocks. After that, I will do the same to the outer door. I will do what I have to do.

But I have to do it now.

I wonder if, in twenty-seven months, when the multi-trillion dollar Cheng Ho fires its braking thrusters and enters sector .001, will you wealthy decision-makers do what needs to be done as well?

Will it even occur to any of you?

END OF LOG


© 2011 R. Michael McLellan

Bio: Mr. McLellan says: "I have been writing as a hobby since a teenager. I'm not what you would call prolific; this is only the third story I've submitted for any sort of publication, and it has been a VERY long time since the last submission. My writing style has changed a great deal since those other two stories, but if you are interested, both of those other stories may be found in the Aphelion Webzine archives. One is a whimsical piece of fiction called "The Weapon" and the other is a fantasy filled with a dark and angry humor, called "Airline Food." (Be warned- Airline food is NOT a friendly story; and neither is its protagonist.)

I live in Central PA, and am a Residential Assistant for the mentally challenged."

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