Chapter 6 : Escape capsule

The Beluga headed towards the source of the faint, intermittent distress signal. Could a remnant from a pre-war ship really have survived this long, he wondered ? Could someone, or something, be luring them into a trap ? Jack had his doubts but he decided to keep them to himself.

“I’m going to keep her below light-speed so we can monitor our gyros. Signal strength is increasing. We can compute the range exactly now - 26 billion kilometers and closing.”

The passengers were quiet in their cabins, and Hugo sat contemplating in a fetal position behind one of the minilab consoles. Jack looked carefully through the front porthole but all was dark and still.

“Something on the scanners now”, Jack said. “We have two objects … the smaller object is the signal source, moving slowly away from the other. Probably the escape capsule and the debris of the parent ship. From the distance between them and the relative speed, we can compute the time since separation … that would be around … 75 years. This makes sense now - it could well be the Virtis. I’m going in … setting up the rendezvous sequence. We’ll be there in 35 minutes. Hugo will you take over the main console ? I‘m going to brief our passengers.”

Hugo now started to type frantically. After a few seconds he gave Jack an update.

“I have some technical data now from the capsule. There are two modules: a service module for power, navigation and communication; that is connected to a cryogenic chamber. The service module is too big for us to take on board. But there is a protocol - I can signal it to separate from the chamber. What do you say, Jack ?

The service module, effectively a small robotic spacecraft, had been towing the frozen pilot back to Greenshoot, a journey that would have continued for centuries more, were it not for the chance encounter with the Beluga.

“How long do we have to process the chamber after separation?”, Jack asked.

“Not long”, Hugo said, “but there’s some good news, I have just connected to the service module navigation computer.”

“Yeah ? So what ?”

“That computer has star charts. And they cover this region of space.”

Jack’s mind raced to keep up with Hugo’s.

“You’re not telling me we should download the charts from an escape capsule ?”, he asked.

“I have fed those charts into our navigation computer already”, Hugo said, still typing.

“But … the charts are seventy-five years out of date”, Jack said.

“No”, replied Hugo, “all star charts record time and motion as well as position. Our computer handles it automatically to give us correct current positions.”

“Of course”, Jack said, now recalling his old academy training.

Hugo had no real world experience, but in theory his idea was sound. Proceeding even with small jumps was risky anyway. Ships had been lost on charting missions because their sensors malfunctioned. And how could he trust the Beluga when the maintenance guys had been stripping it down ? He might as well trust these old charts.

“Good thinking Hugo. You’ll get a commendation for this - if we get back again.”

Jack ushered Irwin and Daff into the galley. Irwin leaned forward onto the table with clasped hands and looked intently at Jack who sat opposite. Daff, sleepy and dazed, sat down next to Irwin.

“I have to tell you”, Jack said in a calm, somber tone, “that this ship has, in the past hour, received a distress signal, and I am now going to follow the standard fleet procedures - that is to rendezvous and make a visual assessment of the situation. I believe there is an escape capsule and if it is intact we will take it on board. This may take another twelve to twenty-four hours because we will have some work to do on the capsule.

There is some good news though. We have used data from the capsule to update our charts. We can therefore plot a course directly to Greenshoot, and the delay to the mission schedule, overall, is only a few days. Now, are there any questions ?”

“How many days ?”, Irwin asked. Jack drew breath and puffed his cheeks.

“You see, we have two issues really that are affecting us. One is the capsule which we will need to deal with. The other is the navigation error which we experienced on our last jump, and as a precaution we will need to recalibrate the engine controls before we jump again. How long that takes will become clear later. Right now the engine is functioning normally so I’m hopeful that we won‘t be delayed for long.”

“Jack, there is no reason to risk this mission, either by delaying us unnecessarily, or risking contamination from this thing - whatever it is - that you are proposing to take on board. When we get to Greenshoot we can send a subspace message using their high-power transmitter, that will reach earth in a few hours and they can dispatch a rescue crew from there that is properly staffed and equipped. Now will you get on with what you are supposed to be doing, and get us to Greenshoot.”

Daff had now woken up.

“Contamination ?”, she said. “Surely you’re not going to expose us to this, we are civilian passengers. This isn’t an exploration ship anymore, it’s a shuttle, the only purpose of the mission is to get us to Greenshoot as fast as possible. Now you had better stop this nonsense, and … remember who you are working for now.”

Jack smiled. He had heard that before from cocky passengers - even from hitchhikers - who started thinking they were in charge and that he was some sort of cabin attendant. He decided to ignore Daff and directed his reply to Irwin.

“I can assure you Irwin, that no-one in the fleet wants to take any risks with your safety. We will use our sensors to scan the capsule when we reach it and if there is anything dangerous in there, we won’t touch it.”

“Jack, in the end our safety is not of paramount importance. I am not worried, personally, about contamination - although I would be sorry to see anyone else harmed. We four have been tasked with something of enormous importance. Perhaps I have not explained this as clearly as I should have done. This new technology - the new antiviral that has been found on P36 - has the potential to save millions of lives, it can bring hope to people everywhere who are living in fear. Failing to arrive on time for the meeting, or introducing contaminants to their colony, could undo all the diplomatic effort that we have made thus far.”

Irwin was now speaking with passion, red-faced and gesturing wildly with his arms.

“The government believes - and I have been briefed on this at the highest level - the President himself attended this meeting - that the future of the Unity government may depend on our success. They are relying on us to deliver this serum !”

Jack was unsure how to respond to this argument, which on the face of it sounded reasonable enough, and was glad to hear Hugo call down from the control room.

“Jack - alarm received, entering a debris field, this must be the wreck of the Vortis.”

“Excuse me for a moment”, Jack said.

With a neat jump he projected his bulky frame up through the round hole in the ceiling and into the cockpit, without touching the ladder. He put a hand on Hugo’s shoulder and looked at the navigation monitors. They were passing close to the Vortis - or what was left of it.

“Proximity warnings. I’m maintaining speed and accepting course corrections.”

The Beluga was now closing in fast on the capsule. Jack sat down next to Hugo and checked the sensor readings on the target, looking for anything suspicious.

Mass 460 kg, dimension 3.5m, temp -271’C, spin zero.

“Opening front cargo door. Disabling G-field. Engine stop. Powering up thrusters.”

Jack had forgotten to tell the passengers about that. He called down to them as they sat waiting at the table.

“Guys, we’re losing micro-gravity for a while. Return to your cabins please.”

“Capture sequence started.”

Jack and Hugo strapped themselves into their chairs. The floating, silvery grey coffin-shaped object was visible for a few minutes in the front port before passing under the Beluga’s nose. They watched it drift slowly into the ship on the cargo bay monitors.

“Closing front cargo door. Enable G-field.”

There was faint tremor through the ship as the capsule hit the cargo bay floor.

“That should wake him up”, Jack said.

“Pressurizing. Running environment sensors in cargo bay. Results are negative.”

“Good job Hugo. I’m going to take a look at this capsule. I want you to stay here and keep a close eye on the atmosphere in the bay. If anything looks suspicious sound the alarms.”

Jack jumped down to the crew deck, and walked to the dimly lit hatch at the far end of the galley. The control panel showed pressure in the cargo area was equalized, but there was an alert for the temperature difference - it was freezing down there. He pressed the override and with a hiss the hatch slid open. He looked through to the vertical shaft that dropped into the cargo bay. It was a long way down there, even in micro-gravity. He backed into the shaft and stepped onto its vertical ladder, punching a button to close up the hatch, and descended carefully to the cold lower deck. The sight of the capsule surprised him. It was bigger than it looked from the cockpit, standing above his own height, with clouds of freezing vapor streaming down from its sides and across the floor, and a faint blue light coming from inside. Its surface was frosted over but the side of capsule was partly translucent and he could just about discern the shape of a figure lying in there. He approached, and with his sleeve wiped away some of the frost.

DSC Defence Vessel Vortis - emergency chamber opening sequence started

The message flashed on and off, and from within the capsule came the high-pitched whir of a turbine. It grew higher and louder into a shrill noise that reverberated around the cargo bay and left Jack covering his ears in pain. There was something monstrous about this capsule. He backed away from it, and for a moment wished that he had ignored its beckoning signal and left it floating forever in space. Mercifully the noise stopped, leaving only a ringing tone in his head. Then in a slow, smooth motion the side of the capsule opened like a drawer. Lying in it was a spread-eagled figure, completely still, and covered in a smooth white membrane. This was unlike any cryochamber Jack had seen. Should he cut the membrane away ? He came closer and leaned over the body to see if it was breathing but there was no sign of life. The body seemed to be in good shape though, fit and muscular. Probably a young pilot. Then suddenly the ship’s alarm sounded. “Get out of there Jack, you’ve got a toxic atmosphere. I‘m flushing your air.”

There was a rush of wind in the bay. Jack hauled the body out of the capsule and onto his shoulder, and bounded across the deck. A gale was blowing down the shaft while he climbed. He pulled himself up with one arm, and with the other, desperately hung on to the limp body as it flailed around. He shouted to Hugo to cut the G-field, but his voice was lost in the roar and commotion. He hit the hatch control and it opened, and he thrust the body through onto the galley floor, following it in as paper plates and cups and bits of clothing flew out, and slammed the button to close up.

Hugo dropped down from the cockpit and knelt by the body, as Jack sat on the floor struggling to get his breath. The membrane over the face was starting to dissolve in wisps of smoke, starting from the mouth and eyes and gradually revealing the rest of the man’s face.

“He’s alive Jack, he’s breathing. Should I take him up to the medical table ?”

“The chemistry … it’s not like the capsules we have. I don‘t think we can help here with the recovery. Let‘s just hope he‘s OK.”

“That makes sense”, Hugo replied, “we couldn’t identify the vapors in the cargo bay that were coming off that thing.”

Irwin came out of his cabin and looked briefly at the scene in the galley. He pursed his lips and looked away like someone quietly suffering an insult. Daff emerged from her cabin and joined Hugo next to the man on the floor. His head was now fully revealed, golden haired, with young skin and fine, symmetrical features.

“A remarkably good state of preservation”, Hugo commented.

“Indeed”, Irwin added. “He can rest in my cabin for a while”, Hugo said, “I can sleep in the lab.”

“Does he have a name ?”, Daff asked.

“We don’t have any information on him yet”, Jack replied, “unless you know something about a ship called the DSC Vortis.”

Irwin suddenly looked interested in the visitor being carried away by Daff and Hugo.

“DSC - that could be the Deep Space Command”, Irwin said, “- the fleet of the neutral colonies during the war. None of those ships survive now of course … at least we don’t think they have. They were some of the most advanced vessels ever built. Those technical capabilities were lost during the final battles. If we could salvage the computers they could be of immeasurable value. Could you access the Vortis main computer, Jack ?”

Coughing and spluttering came from Hugo’s cabin.

“I think the Vortis was destroyed. We’ll be able to ask the man himself later”, Jack said. “I have a lot of work to do and we are still on a state of alert here. I’m going to eject the capsule and set a course for Greenshoot right away. I’ll be purging the atmosphere and that will be noisy for a while. But please go back to your cabins and try to get some sleep.”

He looked in on Hugo and their mysterious guest, who now showed his first signs of movement.

“Keep an close eye on him, Hugo.” Jack returned to the cockpit and had some time to calm down and reflect. After all the trouble, the passengers were quiet, and the mission more or less on schedule, despite Irwin’s protestations. The decision to go for that rescue had been tough, one of the most difficult of his career, but who, he wondered, could have handled it better ?

The ship proceeded slowly at first, with Jack running constant navigation checks, but the readings were good, and the ship at last passed light speed and accelerated into the darkness. Hours passed with nothing but the hum of fans and the slow, reassuring motion of the star simulator. The pilot’s seat suddenly seemed like the most comfortable that was ever designed, contoured to support every tired muscle in the most relaxing ways, and Jack started to doze off. Half-way between sleep and consciousness, he heard an unfamiliar voice on the Beluga, regaling Hugo with stories of star fighters, talking about the war as if it were yesterday.

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