Aaron Ljungman was normally a very calm person, at least outwardly. Like most Swedes, he kept his emotions beneath the surface. But right now those emotions were percolating way down deep in his gut and threatening to erupt like an Icelandic volcano. Erik Juergenson was his best friend way out here on Europa. In fact, the two of them had been boyhood friends in Boräs, following the same path through school and graduating from the same class in the Swedish Space Academy. All Swedes had to stick together in space. They were a small minority compared to the Americans, Russians, Japanese, and Chinese. But Erik was more than just a countryman. And now he had gone missing.
Nobody got along with each other particularly well out here. There were too many conflicting interests and too many national characteristics that clashed with each other. So it was up to the Swedes on Europa to play their historical role as diplomats. Back on Earth, Sweden had managed to stay out of all the big wars, ever since they sat out World War One and World War Two. Okay, they took sides in the early Colonization Wars on the Moon but that was ancient history by now. Since then, they had gone back to being the kind of people who could see both sides of every argument. And they were able to make a lot of money while doing it. The Americans hated the Russians. The Russians hated the Japanese. And everybody hated the inscrutable Chinese. But nobody hated the even-tempered Swedes. So they were rarely in danger. Until now.
“Replay that video again,” muttered Ljungman.
“Here you go,” said Broberg, and she pushed a few buttons. Both she and Ljungman stared at the screen, Broberg tapping her foot and Ljungman gritting his teeth. They both knew what was coming.
On the video, Skalbaggeslowly approached the hulking John W. Campbell Jrlike a beetle approaching an elephant. It was almost as if Erik had known something was wrong and seemed reluctant to get too close. That was unusual for Erik. He was usually fearless when docking. But not this time.
And that’s when the lights on the Campbellblinked out. Not an earth-shaking development, for that had happened several times since the Campbellhad contacted Europa Station. But this was right before docking. The com was still open and Ljungman could hear Erik utter curses in both Swedish and English. Normally he would have chuckled at that. But he knew what was going to happen next.
The Skalbaggecontinued to approach and it was clear that Erik had switched over to manual docking. Again, not that unusual. He was good at doing this and had done it a hundred times before.
“Ahh, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” said Erik’s voice on the video as the two ships docked. Watching, Erik felt a rush of affection for his friend who always talked to ships like girlfriends he was making love to. It was his ‘pillow talk.’
On the video, Ljungman heard his own voice say, “Be safe, my friend.”
And that’s when everything went skit.
“Oh, Helvete! I’ve just lost power,” said Erik’s voice, not too loud but with an edge. He was an experienced pilot but he’d probably never lost power immediately after docking. It would be really dark in his cabin, with his ship butted up against the massive Campbell, blocking any ambient light through his view screen.
Broberg and Ljungman could barely see the two ships clinging to each other against the black background of space.
“Aaron, can you hear me?” asked Erik.
“Yes, yes, I can hear you,” came Ljungman’s voice in reply. Erik couldn’t hear him. No matter how many times Ljungman replied, there was no response from Skalbagge. But the com was still open and Broberg and Ljungman could hear every sound from the cabin. There were small clicking sounds as Erik tried his flashlight, his faceplate light, and several buttons on his console. Then it was quiet for a few moments, with just the sound of Erik breathing. Between engine noise, crew noise, and radios, a ship’s bridge is normally a noisy place. But there were no crew members on this ship. It was especially creepy to hear only Erik’s breathing, in and out, in and out, faster and faster as he became more alarmed.
Then they could hear another sound. Something was scraping against metal. The metal of the airlock? And then there was a pop like a pressurized can of tennis balls exploding. And then something else.
Ljungman felt sweat trickle down the back of his neck as he listened to this sound. It was almost like…well…like slithering.
And that’s when Erik screamed. The sound made Ljungman and Broberg nearly jump out of their seats, even though they had heard it before. It wasn’t a soft scream. Not even close. It made the speakers distort. And then it cut off.
All of that would have been bad enough. But what happened next on the view screen was simply mind-boggling. It could have been a trick of the light. It could have. But Ljungman didn’t think so.
For a brief moment, the lights of the Campbellswitched on. They could clearly see the Skalbaggesilhouetted against it like a small, black bug. And then the Skalbaggebegan to shake. Over the com, they could hear things rattling around on the bridge, as though the ship was in the midst of a meteor shower. Then the Campbellbegan to phase in and out as if there was something wrong with the video. A rift opened all around the Campbell‘s docking bay, a blacker than black opening larger than a small spaceship, larger than the Skalbagge. And then, suddenly, the Skalbaggewas gone and the lights of the Campbellblinked out.
“Slow motion again, please,” said Ljungman, his voice low and insistent. He had watched this many times already but he was drawn to it like a train wreck. A train wreck involving his best friend. His buddy. His kompis.
In slow motion, it wasn’t hard to see what the whole incident looked like, as hard as that was to believe. First, the Skalbaggebegan to vibrate. Then it began to shake like a wet dog. And then a rift appeared in the Campbell, looking exactly like a…well…like a mouth. The mouth opened wider and sucked in the Skalbagge. Or, rather, it swallowed the Skalbaggewhole. The mouth closed and Erik’s ship was gone, leaving just the floating, dark hulk of the Campbellin its wake, hanging in space again with no power, no movement, nothing.
“Odin only knows what happened to my friend,” muttered Ljungman.
“Do you think he can still be alive?” asked Broberg.
“There’s only one way to find out.”
“You’re not going out there, are you? Think about what almost happened to that American ship. When it got close, the Campbellfired up its reactor and blew itself up. The American ship barely got away.”
Ljungman ran his hand through his curly, blond hair. “But it didn’t blow itself up. It certainly looked like it did but it’s still hanging up there, undamaged.”
“Well, something happened. Our sensors showed a huge explosion, as if the reactor had really exploded. Maybe if the American ship hadn’t gotten far enough away it would have been pulverized.”
“Maybe.” Ljungman stared down at the floor.
Broberg reached over and turned Ljungman’s face towards her own. “You can’t go out there. Space Fleet will never give you permission.”
Ljungman sighed. “I don’t plan to ask Space Fleet.”
“But you’ll be drummed out and sent home. That is if you even survive.”
“Well, I’m going out there anyhow. They just finished repairs on Trollslända. I’ll just have to get a crew together. A lot of people on Europa owe me favors.”
Broberg gasped. The Swedes were the diplomats of space. They didn’t get involved in conflicts except as peacemakers. They were not well represented in Earth Fleet. But they did have a few warships, just in case.
Warships like Trollslända.
Wayne Faust has been a full-time music and comedy performer for over 40 years, playing in 40 states and overseas in England, Scotland, and Holland. His funny songs have been heard on the radio all over the world and on the Internet. While on the road, he writes science-fiction and has over 40 stories published in various places, including Norway, Australia, and South Africa. He’s published two full length books, “Thirty Years Without A Real Job,” a fast-moving and entertaining memoir of his life in show business, and “12 Parables,” a collection of short stories. You can find more than you’ll ever need to know about Wayne on his website at http://www.waynefaust.com
Charles Eugene ‘Chuck’ Anderson is a painter and writer who lives in Colorado. Chuck’s stories can be found at madcow dot press.
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