The Grey Void
Gareth D Jones
Commander Ruhiger sat behind his desk, held down in the weightless condition of his ship by the mutual attraction between the fabric of his dark blue uniform and the grey seat cover. The entire office, like the rest of the ship, was a rather dull concoction of greys, broken by the occasional section of blue that also bordered on being of greyish hue. His hands hovered restlessly over the keyboard built into his desk, awaiting instructions from his brain as to what they were to type. He finally decided that he was still not sure and folded his arms across his chest instead.
The last of the crew's official research into the grey hole's properties had been completed almost a month earlier. The relay beacon was in orbit of the hole, ready to begin forwarding all of the information from the five probes that were now spiralling towards the event horizon. All were transmitting on different time scales and all were doomed to the ultimate constriction of the singularity. The scientists, though, had insisted on more time to translate the messages from the so-called 'energy beings'. Ruhiger was already regretting his haste in announcing the initiation of Protocol 23. He just hoped that these messages were not just a glitch in the data translation system rather than an actual first contact.
Of course the Orpheus could theoretically stay in orbit of the hole for another year before heading back for Earth. There were emergency rations and the whole crew could spend the return trip in cryogenic suspension if necessary. Ruhiger was not happy to go with that scenario however. He preferred to have the usual two crew members awake in shift during the entire ten month voyage, as they had on the way out. Whether they left now or waited another whole year would make no difference to the mission. Even if they succeeded in decrypting the messages while here they could not do much about it. Any relief from earth was two years away, and they would definitely have left by then.
The void between Orpheus and Earth was forbiddingly huge. The sooner they were headed home the better he would feel. The scientists might complain that they needed more time, but the Commander had the final word and the ravenous whirlpool nearby lost out in competition with the Earth when it came to popularity with Ben Ruhiger. His hands splayed out, ready to enter his decision into the ship's log.
There was silence around the small oval table while the three admirals considered the bio files displayed on their personal terminals. The luxurious appointments of the executive briefing room, polished oak table, maroon leather chairs, wood panelled walls, could not have contrasted more sharply with the austere environment of the Orpheus so many light years away. Commodore Jeremy Hart, the most junior of those present, always felt frustrated when higher powers were called in on what he considered his own projects. He did not, of course, show that frustration. To his colleagues he always appeared the epitome of a British officer: reserved, well spoken, a neatly trimmed moustache gracing his sober face. On reflection, he considered, there was no way he was ever going to keep a Protocol 23 to himself. He wondered what the crew of the TSS Orpheus were doing now, eleven months after they had sent their startling message. Most likely they were on their way home.
Admiral Tokareva frowned, adding to the already impressive count of wrinkles on his forehead, and looked up slowly from his screen. He waited for the attention of the two more junior officers before speaking.
"Is this woman not rather young for command of this mission?" he asked in clipped English. English had graduated from the standard for international aviation communications to the standard for interplanetary traffic, much to the annoyance of the Russians, Germans, French, Chinese …
"Age and sex have nothing to do with it," Vice Admiral Lucy Lockwood said firmly. She was the only woman in the room and Hart stifled a smile at her predictable reaction. Women were a minority in the Terran Space Organisation, as they had traditionally been in most military organisations. Any suggestion that a woman was not capable of any role was always immediately jumped on, especially by other, more senior, women. "A Commander is a Commander," Lockwood continued, her short pony tail bobbing in time with her words as if to add emphasis, "and this officer has clocked up ten years of space flight experience."
"Are the rest of the crew satisfactory?" Hart asked, eager to move off the subject before Lucy embarrassed herself. He was actually quite relieved that the disagreements were only about the crew and not about the budget. The cost of sending another ship out so far was astronomical, to say the least.
"Yes Jeremy." Tokareva said slowly, nodding over the crew listing. "You seem to have made an excellent selection."
"I'd like more time to check over the alternatives," Lockwood said firmly, as adamant as ever about her own authority. Her piercing blue eyes flicked briefly over Hart to check his reaction. The American was determined to keep her iron grip on the extra-solar department of the TSO, until of course the Russian admiral's post at the head of that organisation became vacant.
"How quickly can the Overture be ready for flight?" Hart asked, determined not to show any irritation.
"One month," Tokareva said confidently. "The specialised equipment required for this mission will also be ready for that target."
The list of such equipment looked very impressive to Commodore Hart as it scrolled across his screen, though he was not entirely sure what some of it did. The work planned for this mission involved such highly skilled people that the closest Hart could come to understanding some of their work was that they were 'measuring things'. As long as the scientists knew what to do when they had reached the grey hole, that was the important thing. The crew he had selected were, he knew, the best. He knew some of them personally; the others had been vetted and recommended by people he trusted.
Quite what the situation would be when the Overture arrived, nobody knew. This time though, the ship would have assistance from mission control. The prototype of the Simulogue Instantaneous Communications System was to be included in the ship's hardware inventory. This meant that reports from the Overture could be received on Earth as they were sent and would be arriving simultaneously with reports sent by the Orpheus months earlier. The Overture would be picking up the weekly reports from the Orpheus still after it had left, though they would receive them closer and closer together as the two ships approached each other. Once past the Orpheus they would have to rely on Earth retransmitting those reports instantaneously back to them. For a while they would receive the same reports that they had already heard. The Orpheus should arrive back at earth before the Overture reached the grey hole, at which point Hart would have less of a headache trying to cope with the complexities of long-range communication.
"Let us reconvene at 13:00 tomorrow," Admiral Tokareva said, interrupting the other man's thoughts. "We can make our final decision then."
Hart smiled. The Russian often used the term 'we' when what he really meant was 'I'.
A mass of wiring and conduit diagrams splayed across the image table in the engineering section of the TSS Overture. A red dot traced its way along from component to component, guided around the blueprint by Lieutenant Lastoviv, the short, dark-complexioned engineering officer who originally came from Estonia. Under his direction the tracer stopped and a large portion of the diagram glowed softly red around it.
"This node is the overheat area." Lastoviv gestured broadly across the face of the table.
"Can you isolate it?" Lana Shepherd asked.
"Of course, Commander," Lastoviv replied in his usual formal manner. "But that would decrease our engine efficiency." He brushed his hand over the side of his head as if smoothing down his jet black hair, even though, like most of the crew, it was cropped short. It was a gesture that Lana had already come to recognise as one of impatience with those who understood less about the workings of their ship. Which of course included everyone.
"Well, I certainly don't want to spend any longer getting to the hole than necessary," said James Rigby, the Australian navigator and third member of the conference. "Eight and a half months is plenty for me, even if I will be asleep for most of it!" The Commander nodded in agreement.
"How about a bypass?"
"D'you have another idea?" James asked.
"We have two alternatives."
"Which are?" Lana prompted.
"We cannot work on the engine while under propulsion," the Estonian said carefully. "Therefore we would have to cease acceleration."
James began shaking his head.
"However," Lastoviv continued, "halting acceleration to make repairs would cost as much time as isolating the problem section and reducing velocity."
"Is it safe to continue, though?" Lana asked. She wished Boris would not talk so slowly. It seemed to take an exceedingly long time to get to the point of anything he wanted to say.
"That is our second alternative. We could continue at our present thrust rate and monitor the situation."
"Just hope we don't fry the whole engine!" James said jokingly. Lastoviv gave him a frosty glare.
Commander Shepherd thought for a moment, unconsciously fingering the tight braids that laced her head in a gesture remarkably similar to Boris Lastoviv.
"That's what we must do." She said finally. "Continue at present thrust, but be very careful with that node."
The conference broke up.
The acceleration of the Orpheus away from the singularity allowed Dom Fraser to stand with his feet more or less on the floor as he gazed out of the port hole. That same acceleration though was, minute by minute, taking him away from the most interesting puzzle he had ever had the fortune to work on -- and he knew he would never be going back. The physical and mental strains imposed by a two year deep space voyage were such that the TSO would never send someone on two of them. Certainly not someone of his age. Dom usually described himself as mid-forties. Before leaving Earth he had felt closer to forty, but now after being cooped up in close quarters with five other individuals for over a year, he felt closer to fifty. Several grey hairs that he had not noticed before now adorned his temples and were making their insidious way up the side of his head. A few little lines had appeared around his eyes and, as the work became more intense, his eyes had begun to feel like they were receding into their sockets.
Dom Fraser was tired. They all were.
I hate to admit it, but Ben's right. It's time to go home. Dom thought about the mountain of data that they had collected, both physical data that they had been sent to collect about the grey hole and the mysterious transmissions from within the event horizon. They still referred to the phenomena as 'Radical Particle Emissions' simply because none of them could come to an agreement about their nature. Dom was convinced that the particles contained a message from intelligent beings rather than just random bursts of energy. For the most part the rest of the crew agreed, though Ella and Roger continued to hold on to a healthy dose of scientific scepticism. The data from the probes would be beamed to Earth for all to study. It's time to let someone else do the hard work!
Dom turned from the view port and walked down the corridor in the slow and ponderous way enforced by the low gravity conditions. He stopped and turned into the third doorway, swaying slightly as his body continued for a second under its own inertia. Kelly looked up as he entered the room and she smiled at him, her nose wrinkling up cheerfully.
"Ready?" She asked. Dom nodded and slid into the semi-reclined seat of the cryogenic suspension unit. The tinted casing slid smoothly up from either side and sealed over him with a reassuring thunk. Kelly waved her fingers at him and turned aside to her controls.
There was a quiet click, a small noise in the surrounds of the ever-active spacecraft environment, but startlingly loud to a sleeping crew member. The small whoosh of the cryogenic casing sliding back into its housing added to the noise and the light became correspondingly brighter, shining red through closed eyelids.
Too early! I haven't slept enough! With a convulsive shiver Lana Shepherd lurched into a sitting position, eyes blinking rapidly to adjust to the glare. The smooth plastic of the seat felt warm under her touch as she leaned back on one arm and flexed her fingers to try bringing them to life.
"What's wrong?" she croaked, managing to focus on the delicate features of the worried looking face before her.
"Sorry to wake you, sir, but there's a problem with the drive nodes." Toni's youthful voice sounded more nervous than usual.
Lana swung her legs off the seat and paused for a moment to take a few deep breaths. Toni must have used the rapid activation option for her to feel this rough.
I hope she had a good reason! Lana thought. Actually, I don't want it to be a good reason! As the youngest crewmember, fresh out of WSO training and on her first deep-space mission, Ensign Toni Martinez was the most likely to need help, but not with the First Officer sharing the watch with her. If Dean told her to wake me, we are in trouble!
Lana finally stood up and felt able to control her body.
"Lead the way," she said. That way Toni would not see her Commander's faltering steps as they headed for engineering. The tall ensign set off in a graceful loping stride that allowed her to move quickly in the half-gee conditions, never missing a step or fumbling a hand hold as they rounded corners.
She's been practicing while we slept. Lana grinned to herself, remembering the first few days aboard when Toni had several times misjudged her stride and bounced off the ceiling or drifted too wide round a corner and glanced off a bulkhead. Now all those signs of inexperience were gone and Toni's close-shaved head kept a perfect line down the centre of the corridor.
All amusement vanished from Commander Shepherd as they entered the engineering section where her bulky second-in-command waited beside the image table. A worryingly large section of the currently displayed blueprint was pulsing gently in a mellow tone of red.
"It's the same overheat problem," Dean began without preamble, his deep voice rumbling around the room. "Several sections have shorted and I've had to cut out the main thruster controls."
Lana leaned on the edge of the table to steady herself and looked down at the diagram.
"I've stopped any further problems for now, but it's going to be a job to get it patched back up," Dean continued.
Lana spent another moment studying the table before looking up at the sandy-haired, broad-featured man who loomed beside it. Dean O'Dell had been an engineer before being appointed First Officer on this mission and was also slated as the Overture's assistant engineer. He knew what he was talking about, and it didn't sound good.
"Are you sure no other systems are affected?" She said, struggling to get the words out over her dry throat and tongue.
"Fairly sure, so far." He looked up at Toni who still hovered nervously nearby, almost literally. In the low-gee environment, she was literally on her toes.
"Can you get the Commander a drink?"
The Ensign nodded and left the room.
"We've started waking Boris on a standard cycle. I can accelerate him if you want …"
"No, no, a couple of hours won't hurt us." She smiled wryly. "I'd rather he woke in a good mood."
They spent a few more moments tracing the course of the overheat until Toni returned with a tube of drinking chocolate.
She's remembered one important lesson: her Commander's favourite drink! Lana took the self-heating drink gratefully and leaned back against a nearby console while she took the first few tentative sips. The smooth liquid coursed down her throat and began to revive her.
"Have you checked the other cryos?" she asked Toni, who looked up with big, brown startled eyes.
"Not since the routine check this morning."
"It's worth checking again. With the other system problems and an unscheduled revival you never know what might happen."
Toni nodded and scooted out of the room. There were two more crew and ten scientists sleeping in cryogenic suspension. They knew nothing of the current problems and she hoped the scientists at least wouldn't need to.
Lana settled back to enjoy her drink. The taste was perfect, but drinking from a low grav bulb just didn't give the same experience. She missed stirring the drink to make the froth swirl, holding the mug between two hands to let the warmth suffuse through her palms; bringing it close to her lips to blow the steam gently away and part the foam to reveal the dark, rich liquid beneath that was almost a match to her skin -- all that before the first sip. In space she just had to imagine those things and simply enjoy the taste. After a moment she felt able to continue with the problems at hand.
"What does that mean in practical terms?" Commodore Hart asked the flight ops engineer who was relaying the latest diagnosis from the Overture.
The lieutenant blinked at him in surprise, as though the reams of technical data he had been in the middle of spouting should be entirely self-explanatory.
"It means all thrust and navigation controls are off line."
"So they can't stop or alter course," Jeremy said.
"How long do they have before their course is irreversible?"
"Well, we were quite generous with our initial power estimates and acceleration curve profiles, so the extra time at maximum velocity can be recovered by increasing the rate of deceleration without running short on power."
Jeremy marvelled that such a simple sentence could be made to sound so grandiose.
"So they can stop and return to Earth safely."
"What of the grey hole?"
"Well." the engineer got that far away look in his eyes that Jeremy knew meant a long and complicated sentence was approaching. "The gravitational distortion will affect the navigational constants and acceleration profile…"
"Will they escape the hole?" Jeremy cut in.
"I -- I don't know," the engineer admitted, looking surprised at his own lack of knowledge. "I've only been working on the flight plan. I'm not an expert in singularities." He paused as if consulting an invisible reference display panel.
Jeremy mentally flicked through the personnel available to him. The top experts in the field were all aboard the Overture, currently still sleeping. Well, not all of the experts.
"Get me the crew of the Orpheus." He said. Their well-earned shore leave was going to be cut short.
Boris Lastoviv muttered and cursed his way around the engineering compartment, switching occasionally between Estonian, Russian and English. He checked LCDs, read gauges and tapped figures into one of the computer terminals.
"It's going to be tight." He said at last to Dean in answer to his question of five minutes earlier. "Very tight. We have seventy hours maximum before we must begin deceleration. Even then we will use up so much reserve power that we will be forced to return immediately to Earth."
"What of the grey hole?" Lana asked.
"We will be way past it, assuming we can steer around it."
"Both systems are tied together." Dean said. "We can't get navigation back without thrusters, and I don't think we can get navigating thrusters back on line as well as the main deceleration thrusters. It could just burn out."
At the back of the room Toni murmured something in Spanish that was probably impolite. Lana looked back at Boris.
"How long until we need to decelerate to bring us to a stop this side of the hole?"
"The communication from Dom Fraser indicates that we can get closer to the event horizon than we previously thought." Boris said. "He suggests that we can skim the gravitic wave flux to enhance our escape vector."
"He also wants us to talk to the aliens while we're there!" said James Rigby. "I'd rather stay away from it, thanks!"
"So, how long?" Dean prompted.
"Seven hours." Boris did not look happy at his own pronouncement.
Seven hours! Lana marvelled. After seven hours their fate for the next four weeks would be sealed.
Thirty-seven hours later the thrusters came back on line.
A huge outpouring of energy bucked the ship as maximum deceleration was applied. In the control deck Commander Lana Shepherd sat in the command seat and gazed out at the unmoving stars.
We're too late, she thought.
Captain Ruhiger, newly promoted and attached to the Mission Development Office, sat at the back of Mission Control and tried to keep out of everyone's way. The entire former crew of the Orpheus was there too, drawn inexorably by the unfolding drama of the Overture's approach to the grey hole. Ben felt somehow responsible for the fate of the crew. It was his call that had sent them on their way, and now they might not come back.
"If they calibrate the approach vector to align with the wave flux morphology…" Dom Fraser's murmurings tailed off. They all knew what had to be done. Mission control and a dozen other specialists had gone over the flight plan endless times. The Orpheus crew had contributed everything they knew. The crew of the Overture knew what had to be done to avoid being trapped by the enfolding arms of the singularity.
All of them knew they had no chance.
But they still had hope.
"All right team, this is it." Commodore Hart's voice drew everyone's attention like a room full of desperate moths to a flame. "They're on their final approach. Good luck. They need us."
The members of mission control turned back to their work with steely determination. Ben Ruhiger and his former crewmates could only sit and watch.
The bridge of the TSS Overture was alive with nervous energy. Dials and gauges flickered, console displays churned out reams of supporting data. All four chairs were occupied, yet there was a strained silence. Nobody knew what to say. Nobody could think of anything suitable for what would probably be their last words, beamed instantly back to Earth for all to hear.
Lana Shepherd sat in the command chair, her face intent on the view screen, dark eyes trying to pierce the depths of space and look for a way around the grasp of the ever increasing gravity waves. She had spent the last four weeks out of the cryo unit; four weeks to contemplate their upcoming destruction. In all that time she had not admitted the possibility of failure to the crew.
There was always hope.
She had made the other crew members take turns on watch and in the cryo beds, despite their protestations. She wanted them all fresh for their ultimate challenge. Now they were all awake, including Robert Blake, the ship's medic, just in case. Also down in engineering, along with Boris and Robert, was Eliza Newton-Smith, the gravitics expert. Lana had felt obliged to waken all of the scientists; they all had the right to send back final messages to Earth. The rest of them were now gathered in the lounge, willing the crew to succeed.
"Thrust status?" Lana said, breaking the silence.
"Main thrusters at maximum," Dean said. "Deceleration continuing."
After all of Boris' work they still could not use the manoeuvring thrusters. All they could do was brake. Hard.
"Live feed enabled," Toni replied, her voice remarkably calm. "Receiving telemetry from orbital probe. Similar patterns from the RPD."
"D'you think they know we're coming?" James Rigby asked, always the one to try lightening the mood.
"We're beginning to integrate with the grav flux," Eliza reported from engineering. "We'll begin to feel some turbulence."
"Acknowledged." Only a moment later a faint rumble could be felt through the base of Lana's chair.
"Forward thrust is starting to level out," James said, glancing wildly round his console as if hunting for the cause.
"Boris?" Lana asked.
"Thrust efficiency is being maintained." He said. "We should still be slowing."
"I'm afraid it's the singularity." Eliza's voice, sounding resigned rather than scared, came over the comm. "Its drag is starting to counterbalance our deceleration."
The mood on the control deck settled further into gloom. Seconds ticked by. Numbers were called off. Minutes stretched out. Data was relayed to Earth.
"RPD activity," Toni said.
Something for Earth to look at, Lana mused.
"Particle emission just jumped almost five thousand percent," Toni continued.
Lana looked up, her curiosity aroused despite their impending doom. The faint rumble had become noticeable through the deck plates and was beginning to vibrate through her feet.
"Has the pattern changed?" she asked, glad of the distraction.
"There is no pattern. The particles are just blasting towards us." Toni glanced over at her Commander questioningly.
"Will they affect our hull, Eliza?"
"No, they have very little mass individually. Our hull is designed to ablate any small particles."
"They've doubled again," Toni said. "Still increasing."
"What about such a large concentration?" Lana asked.
"No. It will be like a shower. The hull could eventually encounter some pressure, but we won't receive any damage."
Not that any damage will matter now. Lana thought grimly. They were interrupted by a grainy voice from the Simulogue.
"This is Dom Fraser. I think they're trying to help you."
"Please keep the channel clear." The distinct voice of Commodore Hart cut in.
"RPD is going off scale. It's almost complete saturation."
"I don't know. I don't think we'll be damaged."
There was a scratching noise from the Simulogue.
"It's the pressure. They're applying pressure!" Dom Fraser's excited voice broke in again.
"Let me see the RPD display." Lana snapped. Toni transferred it to her screen. It was a total white out.
"Deceleration has resumed," Dean announced.
"We've shifted course," James said with excitement. "Fractionally."
"Eliza, take a look at this," Lana said. There was a moment's silence.
"The intercept with the particle emission is tangential to our course shift," Eliza said at last.
"It's pushing us away from the hole."
An almost unrecognisable feeling of hope began to creep cautiously through Lana's chest. She could see it in the crew too, the way they bent over their consoles with renewed determination.
"James," she said, "tie in the wave flux readings to the helm. Let's not have any surprises." Her chair began to rattle as huge forces played with their ship. They could still be torn apart by a violent grav wave, but slowly, ever so slowly, they were beginning to change course and their approach vector was shifting away from the centre of the singularity.
"Particle emission speed has increased," Toni said, gripping the sides of her monitor as though she could force it to yield the information she wanted.
"Angle of incidence has altered too," said Eliza. "They're adjusting their emissions in line with our course shift. It's like a giant barge pole pushing us off." Under other circumstances the antiquated analogy would have made Lana smile. There was no longer any doubt that the emissions were coming from 'them'.
A huge shudder swept through the ship. Lana tried to ignore the constantly increasing vibrations.
"Is our velocity still changing?"
"Rate of deceleration is increasing," Dean said, his voice wavering, possibly with emotion, possibly with turbulence.
"Course still shifting," James said, then turned back to fix Lana with a grim look. "We're almost at the critical distance." She nodded acknowledgement and he returned to his work.
Particle emissions continued to bathe the Overture, pushing it back from the brink of destruction. As the thrusters poured every drop of available energy into slowing their approach, the gentle prodding of the minute particles had a greater and greater effect on the course shift.
"We're about to pull parallel with the wave front," Dean said after an incalculable length of time. The vibrations died away.
"Dean?" Lana said, still not daring to let hope take hold.
"Vector is oh point five degrees away from the singularity," he said. All eyes turned to him for conformation of what that meant. "We're pulling away from the hole."
"Cease deceleration," Lana ordered. "I'd like to get as far away as possible."
She stared out through the main view screen where countless particles had been sent to them as a gift to save their lives.
"Thank you," she mouthed silently, then looked round at her crew, still feverishly interrogating their consoles. "Check all systems," she said. "There are still plenty of things that can go wrong."
But nothing did. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the Overture swung around and headed away from the grey hole. Behind them the radical particle emission died away and resumed its previous complex pattern. A message, almost certainly. Their task now: to find out what it said.
Mission Control was a scene of jubilation. Cheering and clapping, hugging and back-slapping; an emotional response from the mostly American personnel. Two men stood out among the crowd.
Commodore Jeremy Hart, in the centre of the room, stoically British, shook hands with several members of his staff and nodded at others.
Dom Fraser, at the back of the room, lightly restrained by a grinning marine, smiled a slow smile.
"I knew it. I knew they were there. I knew they would help." For the first time, they had proof that Orpheus had made first contact; and that they had met friends.
© 2006 by Gareth D Jones
Gareth is from England and mostly writes science fiction, with stories published by seven different magazines both on line and in print. He is now in his last year of part-time study for a degree in Environmental Science, a subject that, so far, has inspired none of his stories. 'The Grey Void' is a sequel of sorts to The Gray Hole ('Gray' versus 'Grey' being an example of editorial interference).
Links to his published stories can be found at Gareth D Jones Science Fiction.
E-mail: Gareth D Jones
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