An entry for the 'Amore Tank Your Heart' writing contest - short story category.
“There is some music that is so terrible that it consumes all those who approach it.” - The Phantom of the Opera
There it was again. Voices of the past, calling out from the impossible reaches. The command deck crew shared confused glances as the broadcast continued, static-laden conversations from long-dead ships becoming increasingly desperate and pleading as it played back over the ship’s speakers. The final voice was that of a female pilot, “unable to shake enemies from her six” - before cutting suddenly to silence. For a few seconds, there was nothing but the hum of the ship’s engine, bringing everyone back to the here-and-now.
Then it came again, starting over with orders issued from a carrier captain to the fighter wings.
With a nod from the commander, the comms officer shut off their external receiver channels and plunged the deck back into near-silence.
“Thoughts, Lieutenant?” the commander asked, his tone sombre as he addressed the comms officer directly. The commander seemed as shaken as the rest of them, though quickly masked it behind a veneer of control and authority.
The woman thought for a moment. “A warning,” she ventured. “A marker that suggests the area is not as quiet as it seems.”
“But there’s no broadcast beacon”, piped up one of the navigation crew. “No comm-capable structures, no deployed objects - nothing’s out there that could be projecting this signal on a public channel like this.”
“There must be something relaying the signal,” the lieutenant answered, chewing her lower lip thoughtfully. “If it were just a single set of consistent dialogue then it may be some sort of black box recording. But there were at least five distinct channels, overlapping and varied enough that they can’t all have come from one ship. By the content, it sounded more like a small fleet.”
The commander was nodding with each new piece of information. “Get it to intel”, he ordered. “See what they can make of it when they separate out all those channels. For now, get us back to the relay station. Navigation, start working on those coordinates we recovered from that comm tower before we took the gate. If Control allows, I want us to be out on a recon pass of the area they belong to as soon as possible.”
The ‘aye, sir’ responses went unheard. The commander dropped heavily into the chair behind his own console, one hand brushing the fine stubble at his chin absently. I don’t like this, he thought darkly. I don’t like it at all. What happened to those people? When, and where? And why are their final moments being played back for anyone in a hundred clicks to hear? His brain whirred trying to make sense of it, digging through memories to see if anything such as this had been reported before. They were the first exploration and recon team to be sent out this far into the unknown - or maybe not, if that broadcast’s point of origin really is from this area. In his years of working in reconnaissance and exploration for the Sisters, he had never heard of any phenomenon such as this.
As the specialised cruiser entered warp, the split-second blip-blip of two unknown vessels registering then disappearing from long-range directional scanners was missed by the navigation team; their thoughts still clouded by the cries of dead pilots, and the slow creep of fear that trouble may yet lie ahead.
“Nobody could see the ghost in his box, but everybody could hear him.” - The Phantom of the Opera
“Where the hell did they come from? Open channel to the rest of the fleet, order them all to get out of here!”
“Alpha Six, report! Alpha Six! Dammit. All remaining fighters, return to carrier, repeat, return to the carrier!”
The knock on the door was hesitant. Expedition group leader Taela waved a hand over a panel before calling “Enter”, dismissing the reports meant for the eyes of the senior Sisters only. The young woman who entered gave a short bow as she entered, hands clutching too-tightly to a data pad and a waver in her small smile. “A report from the relay station, ma’am.” The voice was slightly too high, a barely perceptible quiver in the delivery belying the speaker’s nervousness. Taela stood and reached out a hand, prompting the young Sister to scurry forward. The hand that proffered the data pad was noticeably shaking.
“Sit,” Taela said, a soft-spoken order but an order nonetheless. The Sister did so, knees and ankles and hands pressing together as if they were bound. A true fear in this one, Taela noted. She had a small suspicion she knew what she was about to read.
// RELAY STATION R-259-D
//EMERGENCY REPORT - MIA
MIA? Not what Taela had expected. The young Sister’s fearful state started to seem more warranted.
//Received broken distress transmission from Commander Nakunaru of the SRV Ekleipo, reporting possible hostile engagement. Did not respond to request for visual confirmation, no information given on the nature of the potential threat.
//Transmission was distorted with apparent router corruption - Ekleipo’s transmission was interspersed with clips of the unknown broadcast reported by the Ekleipo on a previous expedition.
Taela frowned. Router corruption? That was odd, even in the relatively closed set of channels available in wormhole space. There was a chance it could have picked up the distortion from the relay station’s internal router, though it was highly unlikely.
//Two supports ships were scrambled to investigate, but found nothing on arrival. Transmission-encoded coordinates may also have suffered corruption - support ships registered nothing on short- or long-range directional scans, including no sign of the Ekleipo. Indicated region was clear of debris or wreckage, response teams currently report no further signs of the Ekleipo - consider ship and all crew to be MIA.
//Copy of final transmission appended to this report. Analysis is ongoing.
Her own hands were shaking slightly now, Taela realised as she lowered the data pad. What have we discovered?
“Ma’am?” The Sister’s hands were balled into nervous fists. “I suggest listening to the transmission in private.”
Taela didn’t look up. “I think at this point, we’re beyond such things as internal confidentiality on this matter. You may leave, if you wish.”
To her credit, the young Sister seemed to steel herself. “Thank you, ma’am. But I’ll stay. I want to-” She cut herself off with a small shake of her head. You have someone precious onboard the Ekleipo, don’t you. I’m so sorry.
It took just a few keyed commands to transfer the report’s attachment to her main terminal. With one last keystroke, the room’s speakers crackled to life.
“--Nakunaru of the Ekleipo, request immed---ships on us, like nothing we’ve ev--Alpha Six, report! Alpha Six! Dammi---can’t break away, taking fire from unkno---Open channel to the rest of the fleet, order them--some sort of advanced weap--”
Taela paled as it continued, until the voice of one of his crew cut through the chaotic overlap of broadcasts.
“Sir, we can’t shake them! Evasive action isn’t working, they’re on top of us every way we turn! Is this what happened to-”