Europa Nightmare: Chapter 5

Senator Alan K Simpson

Data is data, but sometimes it lies. Martin looked at the vid screen and cursed. If the Campbellhad really exploded, it would be nothing but space dust now. They had all watched it explode. All their sensors had recorded the core meltdown. The Simpsoneven had burn marks. But improbably, no impossibly, the Campbell was still there on the vid screen. All their sensors verified that fact as well. And now the Campbell was moving again, ponderously heading away from Jupiter towards the inner planets, with Captain Martin ordering his ship to pursue.

Eyeballs also lie. After everything that had just happened, Captain Martin’s eyeballs were very tired. He needed to get away from the bridge to study the data someplace quieter. He sent all the sensor data to his laptop. Satisfied he had collected everything he needed, he headed towards his quarters. On the way there he stopped at the mess for a cup of coffee and something to eat.

The Simpsonwas lucky to have a real cook. In fact, they had an excellent cook. The crew of the Simpson, including Captain Martin, blamed their extra weight on the Chef. “So, what’s on the menu today, Jelly Roll?” asked the captain as he walked into the mess.

Jelly Roll answered by holding out the captain’s personal, steaming coffee mug.

“You got radar-mods implanted in your skull or something?” asked the captain. “How did you know I was coming down here just now?”

Jelly Roll winked. “It’s my job.”

The mug was from the Class of ’59.

“Sometimes it’s really creepy when you do stuff like that,” said Martin. But that didn’t stop him from grabbing the mug with his free hand and taking a sip. Jelly Roll always kept the coffee fresh, and Martin couldn’t remember a time when there had been old coffee in the urn.

“It’s a small ship, Skipper,” said Jelly Roll. “I know everyone’s footsteps, and how they sound against the metal of the deck plating. Your steps are easy to make out because you drag your right heel a little bit. I’m sure that’s the first place you wear out your boot.”

Martin looked down and lifted up his right foot. “Huh. You’re right. Okay, Sherlock. Maybe you should be the captain of this boat. Or at least head of security if we had one.”

Jelly Roll gave a hearty, rolling laugh, true to his nickname. Everything about the cook was too big for the ship, even his laugh. “This mess is command enough for me, Skipper. Every morning I work as if there’s a storm brewing and every night after supper I relax as if we’re sailing for the Southern Cross.”

The Captain took a step towards the coffee urn intending to get cream and sugar, but after his first sip, he realized that Jelly Roll had foreseen that as well. He decided against going back to his cabin to look at the data, but instead grabbed a table in the corner of the mess. There weren’t many places on the Homerwhere a crewman could get away, but Jelly Roll made sure anyone walking into his mess felt as if it was their own.

“Skipper, I gotta get ready for supper mess tonight. Forgive me being rude, but I need to check on the roast.”

“Roast? Fancy for a Wednesday night don’t you think?”

“No, not too fancy if you’re getting us another prize.”

“Don’t celebrate too early. She’s one of ours. We probably aren’t taking her.”

A look of disappointment crossed the chow boss’ pudgy face before dissolving into his usual smile. “Then we’ll celebrate the upcoming rescue of our Earth comrades from their misfortune.” His round eyes blinked a couple of times. “I have baby potatoes and carrots to go along with the roast. And nice homemade gravy too.”

“What if our ‘Earth Comrades’ on that ship are all dead?” asked Martin.

Without missing a beat, the chow boss said, “The crew of the Homerwill still be hungry. They’ll appreciate Old Jelly Roll taking good care of them in their hour of sadness.”

The captain chuckled. “Like usual, you have all the bases covered. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather be Captain?”

Jelly Roll laughed one more time and headed for the kitchen. As the cook opened the door, the delightful aroma of the roast wafted out. Martin’s mouth watered. But he decided against having a snack. He wanted to be hungry when it was time to eat that roast.

He took his coffee and settled into a comfortable chair. He set his laptop on a small table and began to review the data from all the ship’s sensors and cameras. There was a critical point when all of the Homer’ssensors showed the same thing. The Campbellshould’ve exploded. But it hadn’t.

He went back to the beginning. The sensors showed the engines attempting a dangerous cold start, the core heating up and finally reaching critical mass leading to the explosion that should have pulverized the ship. There was simply no doubt in what the sensors showed.

The cameras showed the same thing. But then he decided to try something on a hunch. He put the time signature up for both the sensor readings and the camera feeds side by side on his screen, superimposed over the images. He ran the sequence. There was a discrepancy. It was very small but it shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The sensors showed the exact moment of the explosion .33 seconds before the cameras. Of course, there is always going to be a delay in how long it takes light to travel to the camera. At the last moment, the Simpsonwas not far from the Campbell. Only about two hundred kilometers away. The light from the explosion should have arrived at the cameras within a millionth of a second. Even if it hadn’t, the sensors and cameras should’ve been synched. There should be no gap at all. So what accounted for that .33 second gap? False information? But why would anyone want to do that? The obvious answer was to scare them away. And that part had worked. The Simpsonhad backed away as fast as it could go, almost blowing up its own engines in the process. But if there hadn’t been an explosion, how did the burn marks on the outside of the ship get there? It was still a quandary, but Martin thought he might be getting closer to figuring it out.

“How does our mystery ship look now, Skipper?” asked Jelly Roll.

Martin had been so engrossed in what he was doing that he hadn’t noticed Jelly Roll sit down beside him. The Chef held a plate of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies. The captain grabbed one from the plate and popped it into his mouth. “Just one,” he mumbled through a mouthful of cookie. “I don’t want to spoil my dinner when we eat that delicious roast. So when did you have time to bake these?”

“It’s all in the planning. I have another batch baking right now. I’ll take them out of the oven in a few minutes.”

Jelly Roll reached across the small table and turned Martin’s laptop so he could see the screen. “Mind if I check out the sensor data?”

Martin chuckled. “You make dinner for the crew, you bake cookies, and now you want to analyze our sensor data. Is there anything you can’t do?”

Jelly Roll didn’t look up from the screen. He stared at it for another minute. “Why did you put the timeline from the camera feed and the sensors side by side?”

“I was just curious.”

Jelly Roll nodded. “And they don’t match up, do they?”

“No.” The man was amazing.

“So,” asked Jelly Roll, “any idea what’s going on over there?”

“I wish.”

The cook turned the laptop away and looked off into the distance for a moment. Then he turned back to Martin. “Well, it’s clear to me that you have a cake problem.”

Martin had just finished eating his chocolate chip cookie and paused before taking a sip of his coffee. “A cake problem? What’s that?”

“You should spend more time in here with me. You’d learn how to conquer the whole solar system. I’ve only got another minute so I’ll make this quick. A cake problem is…no matter how many cakes I’ve baked in my life, I still need to stick in a toothpick to make sure they’re cooked all the way through before I take them out of the oven. Even after all these years, I still have to do that every time. If I don’t, the sponge will usually be either undercooked or overcooked. If it’s undercooked, the sponge will collapse in the middle. If it’s overcooked, the sides will get too brown and it’ll be too dry when it’s ready to serve. The trick is to pull it out exactly when it’s done. Not too soon and not too late. That’s the secret of a good cake. And you can’t do it without checking it with a toothpick.”

Martin scratched his head. “That’s very interesting, Jelly Roll. But what can that possibly have to do with the mystery ship?”

“It’s a cake, Skipper. You need to take a toothpick and stick it in its middle to see what’s really going on.”

“Huh,” muttered the captain. “Good analogy.”

The captain mused on that for a few more moments. Then he said, “I think I might have the right toothpick.”

Martin reached over to a nearby com-box and called the bridge. “Lt. Constance, I need you to start gathering your boarding crew. We’re going back in to dock with the Campbell. I want to know what’s going on inside that ship.”

The speaker crackled before Constance’s voice answered. “But Captain, we got close once already and it almost blew us up.”

“But it didn’t. I’m still working it out, but that ship didn’t explode. That’s obvious because it’s still out there. Somehow…somebody did something to our sensors and cameras so we just thought it exploded. Some sort of defense mechanism on that ship, although not one I’ve ever heard of. But I think we can modify our sensors to protect against false readings. I’ll explain more in a bit. Out.”

Martin turned off the com-box and smiled at his cook. “A cake problem, huh?”

“That’s one sharp toothpick you’re going to stick in that cake, Skipper.”

“The sharpest,” said Martin, reaching for another cookie.

Europa Nightmare: Chapter 4

Europa Station

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.

Find Europa Nightmare here:

https://books2read.com/u/4AgB0J

Europa Nightmare: Chapter 3

Brahe Station

“Holy cow, why are they all so damned big on Ganymede?” muttered Oscar Gunn as he prepared to step into the ring. This wasn’t his first fight, not by a long shot. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be his last fight either. His opponent for this one was huge. Hell, everyone on this moon was big, even the women, the kids, and the dogs. Weight class? No such thing on Ganymede. Why couldn’t he fight jockeys, midgets…sorry, little people, or maybe even ballerinas? Oscar always knew he could knock out a ballerina. But such is life as a bare-knuckle fighter. Ballerinas, little people, or jockeys didn’t climb into the ring on Brahe Station.

Oscar was surprised there was even a fight ring at all. A true one with three ropes and a flexible canvas floor for good footing. It even had the right dimensions: six meters per side. On most stations, they used chalk to mark out the ring on cafeteria floors. Here on Brahe Station, they had a real gymnasium with bleachers, spectators, and a referee. The large inhabitants of Ganymede put a lot of effort into staging fights. They liked to watch combatants batter each other for their entertainment.

Brahe Station was neat and orderly as far as space stations go, giving the impression of being a safe harbor. But Oscar knew that wasn’t the case. Not at all. The nickname for the station was “The Hall of Nine Hostages” and it was the seat of the O’Neil clan. The O’Neils loved mining aluminum, fighting, and taking hostages. Oscar wasn’t from a rich family, nor did he have an immediate family at all, so he hoped they wouldn’t take him hostage after this fight. Why would they? The O’Neils would have to wait a long time before anyone in the solar system gave them a lunar dollar for Oscar Gunn.

Oscar held onto the rope and looked across the ring beyond his opponent. One of the O’Neil’s endless line of hostages was sitting ringside. He had been pointed out to Oscar earlier in the day, a member of a wealthy asteroid-mining family. While there’s a certain distinction to being taken hostage by the O’Neils, Oscar didn’t envy him one bit.

He leaned his head back and whispered over the crowd to Sean O’Neil, the promoter. He was also a big man but he’d begun to shrink with age. For some reason, people aged faster on low gravity moons. Oscar thought it should be the other way around but then again, he didn’t know much about physics. As an eighth grade dropout on Earth, he had learned everything he needed on the streets and in the ring. “What’s my take on this fight again?” he asked.

“Twenty-five percent of the house,” said Sean O’Neil. “Like we agreed to over the SpaceNet. It’s the standard here.”

“We agreed on forty,” said Oscar. He was lying of course. But the fight promoter was lying too. There was no actual standard, and they hadn’t talked about the percentage. It was what you could actually get. On his first fight back on Earth, the promoter in Winnipeg had only given him fifteen percent. He had simply accepted that one, assuming that everyone was just as honest as he was. But when the promoter handed him a pitiful hundred-dollar lunar note, he vowed to always be careful to settle the percentage before the fight started. And the best time was right before he stepped into the ring because there would be no time for the promoter to think about it. Usually, he ran a one-man operation, acting as fighter, promoter, manager and cutman. But on Ganymede, you had to go through the O’Neils. So you had to play hardball.

“Twenty-five percent?” said Oscar, twisting his mouth into a frown. “That’s ridiculous. I’m outa here.” He picked up his fight bag and made motions like he was going to walk away. That would have been a disaster for the O’Neils. Not that Oscar would really do that, of course. He’d never get off Ganymede alive if he walked away. But negotiations were like a poker game and you had to be willing to bluff.

“I guess maybe it was thirty percent,” said O’Neil quickly. He had the look of all the O’Neils, with shifty, rat-like eyes.

“Thirty percent to fight against a monster fighter like that?” sputtered Oscar. He pointed across the ring at his waiting opponent. “You gotta be kidding me. Do I look like I ever lived on the belt?”

O’Neil paused and looked Oscar up and down. “You’re solid, I’ll give you that. But I’m not sure you’ll give my cousins their money’s worth tonight. I tell you what. I might be willing to go forty percent but only if you let my boy knock you out. What do ya think?”

Oscar knew what that meant. ‘Knockout’ meant he’d end up close to dead. Or maybe even dead. If he let that hulking guy connect with even one punch it might be the last punch he ever took.

“I don’t take dives,” said Oscar. He glanced to the bleachers and saw most of the O’Neil clan. They were tapping their feet impatiently. He had the advantage right now. But he couldn’t overplay his hand. He simply waited the promoter out.

“God above all of us,” said Sean O’Neil in disgust. “I should take some of this mutton under my shirt and fight you myself. Forty percent! Ya jus’ wanna fuckin’ spit on me, don’t ya?”

Oscar knew when to shut up. The negotiations were working, although he knew the promoter could have dozens of O’Neil thugs here in seconds to take care of him. And before long he’d be pushed through an airlock. But then again, if that happened the fight would have to be called off. So once again, he said nothing.

“You’re a greedy bastard, aren’t ya?” asked O’Neil. But his voice carried with it a small bit of respect.

Oscar almost smiled at that. What was that old saying, something about how it takes a bastard to know a bastard? He decided it was time to finally say something.

“I’ll give you a good show.”

O’Neil shook his head and grimaced. “Not the show they really want. What they really want is to see my cousin rip your head off of your shoulders. Is that what you’ll give them?”

“How ’bout I catch the morning shuttle and move on?” said Oscar, stepping back from the ring.

“How ’bout we take you hostage?” countered Sean O’Neil. “If you don’t bring in any money, we’ll make you a slave for our house. It’s always nice to have a slave to clean the toilets.”

Oscar cursed under his breath. O’Neil had been getting ready to cave.

All through the gymnasium, rowdy voices were getting rowdier. The impatience of the crowd was the only card he held right now. He had been risking a lot to play hardball with the O’Neils. They might have had pretensions of being a fine house, but when it came down to it, they would always be a pack of thugs under the pressurized dome.

The crowd continued to get louder. Catcalls began pouring out from the top bleachers. O’Neil looked around, taking in the whole scene. Finally, he turned back to Oscar and ran a hand through his thinning gray hair. “Okay,” he sighed. “We’re all here for a little bit a fun tonight. I’m not trying to be the bad guy. We like to be friendly to one another on Brahe.”

Oscar swallowed hard and waited.

“Thirty-five percent. That’s the best I can do. You gotta leave me a little meat on the mutton.”

Oscar knew when to grab onto a lifeline. “Okay,” he said, trying to sound reluctant, even though he knew he had won. “Thirty-five it is. But you’ll have to throw in a corner man. I’m on my own.”

The promoter nodded his head. He looked over into the crowd and whistled. A teenage O’Neil came out of the crowd and ran over to the two men. Oscar didn’t like the look of the kid. He had the same rat eyes as all of the O’Neils, but he also looked eager to please. Oscar knew he could never trust him. He was an O’Neil after all, but he only needed to trust him for as long as it took to finish this fight.

“He’ll do,” muttered Oscar.

The promoter shook Oscar’s hand and smiled with relief. He went over to join his clan in the bleachers. Would he still be smiling when the fight was over? Definitely not.

Oscar handed the boy his bag. “Don’t let this out of your sight. Keep it right next to you at all times. Got it?”

The teenager nodded and smiled. He was definitely a smiler. A real people pleaser. Or maybe he was just an idiot and that’s why the promoter had picked him for the job.

Oscar gave him a stern look. “You’re in over your head. If you knew what was going to happen tonight, you wouldn’t be here. You’d be far away.”

The boy continued to smile. “I’ve seen plenty of fights and plenty of fighters. What makes you so special?”

“You’ve never seen me fight. I’m going to give them something that no one on Ganymede will ever forget.”

The smile left the boy’s face and Oscar chuckled to himself. He had gotten the boy’s attention with that one. Maybe he wasn’t such an idiot after all…

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.

Find Europa Nightmare here:

https://books2read.com/u/4AgB0J

Europa Nightmare: Chapter 2

Europa Nightmare By Wayne Faust and Charles Eugene Anderson

Chapter Two

Senator Alan K Simpson

“What’s the name of that ship again?”

“It’s the Star ShipJohn W Campbell Jr, Sir. It’s a long-hauler making the Saturn loop.”

Captain Matthew Martin had never heard of the Campbellbefore.

“She’s adrift and has no power,” said Michaelson. “Sensors aren’t reporting any life signs.”

Martin had always liked Michaelson. The young crewman was good at his job. And he needed a good crew today. He had known it ever since he got orders from Fleet to intercept the ship. Michaelson had recommended having missiles locked and ready as they approached. That wasn’t standard protocol when an Earth vessel approached another Earth vessel. Maybe if the other ship had been from Mars or Luna. But here, near Jupiter, they were too far away from the open rebellion closer to Earth.

“Keep those missiles tucked away in their tubes. Let’s not show our teeth just yet. Remember, we’re all one big happy family out here,” said Captain Martin.

Martin looked over the shoulder of his navigator, Lieutenant Helen Constance, who was monitoring the data on her screen. He knew it was her first time past the asteroid belt. He had been out here many times before but he remembered his first time. She was probably nervous and excited, even though her icy demeanor never showed it.

It was good to be way out here again, away from the politics and chaos closer to Earth. Although the conflict with Mars and Luna was supposed to be over, there was still a lot going on. Earth had subdued the rebellions, allegedly bringing them back into the fold. It had only taken ten months and three dozen ships of Earth’s Inner Fleet to get them to settle down. That and sending most of their leaders into exile on mining asteroids out past Saturn. Not a shot had been fired. But Martin knew it was only a matter of time before things flared up again.

Nine souls served on his ship, an ancient frigate named the Simpson, after a long dead Senator from Wyoming. Although the Simpsonwas a relic itself. The crew only called it the Simpsonwhen they were filling out reports, but onboard, the crew affectionately called their ship the Homer, after a character in an even more ancient cartoon show that had been making a comeback lately on SpaceNet.

Even though his ship was a privateer, Martin had secured a Letter of Marque from Earth so they could do what needed to be done out here. It gave him all the leeway he needed to hunt and capture any Martian or Lunar ship that caused him a problem. While Earth kept her fleet close to home in order to protect the planet, ships like his protected their interests further out.

Lt. Constance was second in command. Martin had picked her out of all of the other candidates from her class. She had graduated from the Academy in the class of ’74. Earth had just cut back on the Fleet’s budget, in spite of the unrest from the inner planets. Martin wondered if there were any senators from Wyoming that had something to do with that. In any event, there were a lot of candidates to choose from for the XO job. The Fleet wasn’t hiring, but many Earth privateers like his were. Martin only had to interview a few candidates to know she was the best. And so far, it seemed he had chosen well. She had been the one to lead the boarding party onto a loaded Martian merchantman near Venus a couple months ago while the rebellion was still going on. The captured ship had been turned over to the Earth Fleet Station on Ceres. The auction would take place next year, and there would be millions of credits once the ship was sold, inflating all their bank accounts.

And now they were closing in on another ship, a large, black hulk, floating in space against the stars. Maybe this would be another lucrative salvage job. At least Martin hoped so.

“Bring us alongside. Where did this ship come from again?” asked Martin.

Constance pulled up the John W. Campbell’sflight plan. “They made the standard run to Saturn with stops at Titan and Rhea. They were heading back to Earth with a stop at Europa. Normal for a long hauler.”

“Were they carrying anything unusual?”

“Nothing that’s listed. Standard supplies for the colonies.”

Martin looked through the view screen at the Campbell. “It’s a mighty big ship. Looks kind of ominous dead in the water like that.” He added, under his breath, “Sometimes Captains don’t list everything in their cargo holds.”

“Can we take her for our own?” asked Constance. “I mean, Sir, they’re adrift. There’s no power over there and no communication.”

“We might be able to make a salvage claim. But that’s a grim thing you’re asking. Either they’re all dead over there or they had to abandon ship. I’m thinking the worst because none of the hatches for the escape pods are open.”

“I’ve checked…pods are all still aboard,” said Constance, looking at her scans.

“Are you up for another boarding?” asked Martin.

“Sure,” answered Constance, not showing a hint of hesitation.

“I’m sure you’ll want to use the same five crewmen as last time.”

“Sure,” she said again. “You pick good people. People like me.”

Martin glanced over. She wasn’t smiling but merely checking her scans one more time. He liked that Constance was so sure of herself. But he was old enough to know that her confidence might get her into trouble. “There could be a ship full of dead bodies over there. Do you think you can handle that?”

“Yes. And I think my boarding party could handle it as well.”

“Okay. We’re getting ready to dock so we’ll both know pretty soon.”

Michaelson continued to pilot the ship closer to Campbell. When all of the displays were lined up on his screen, he said, “Ready to dock, Sir. Would you like me to complete the mooring?”

Martin said, “Proceed…”

The words had just come out of his mouth when Michaelson cut him off. ‘Sir! Their power just came on. My sensors show their primary reactor coming online as well!”

“What? How can that be?”

“I’m showing the same thing,” said Constance. “Also, their engines are starting to engage.”

“Back us off. Now,” said Martin to Michaelson. “Someone must be alive over there after all.   How could they get their engines started that fast?”

Neither Michaelson nor Constance gave him an answer. It wasn’t possible, was it? Whatever had happened, it was dangerous. Very dangerous. If the other ship fired up engines while they were only meters away…

Martin looked through the viewport and then down at his own sensors. “Reverse full! Get us out of here as quick as you can! Her reactor is heating up much too fast. It looks like she’s getting ready to blow!”

Michaelson did as he was told and the Simpsonbegan to back away quickly. The Campbellshrank in the Simpson’sview screen. But not fast enough. Martin knew that if the other ship exploded at this distance it would destroy his ship as well. “Give me everything you’ve got,” he said.

“Yes, Sir,” said Michaelson. “We’re already at one hundred twenty percent…one hundred twenty-five…one hundred thirty…”

The Simpsonwas an ancient ship and Martin knew it couldn’t take much more. He had a choice between the devil in front or the devil inside.

“How much longer before she explodes?” asked Martin.

She looked at her readings. “Thirty seconds.”

“Distance?” asked Martin.

Michaelson said, “One hundred kilometers.”

Were they still too close? How had all of this happened? Martin wasn’t the kind of Captain who took chances with the lives of his crew.

The Campbellwas now just a speck on the view screen.

“One and fifty kilometers.”

“Ten seconds. Nine. Eight…”

Martin said, “More speed!”

“Five, four, three, two…one…”

The explosion filled the view screen and the bridge was bathed in piercing light. Martin raised his hands to his eyes to shield them. Or maybe it was to protect him from the explosion. The Simpsonshook as if tossed across a dance floor by a bad partner. Loose objects flew around the bridge. Martin could smell hot electronics. He thought that at any moment the hull would breach, leading to annihilation for them all. But the hull didn’t breach. Within a few moments, the Simpsonstopped shaking and objects clattered to the deck. Everyone took deep breaths, and there were nervous giggles of relief all across the bridge.

The old battlewagon had held together. They had gotten far enough away from the Campbelland they were all still alive.

“Status?” asked Martin.

Constance scanned the data filling her monitor. “Our paint is burnt, but we’re unharmed. No systems damaged.”

“Nice job,” said Martin to the crew. The smell of sweat hung heavy in the air.

“Slow to a dead stop,” said Martin.

Martin scratched his unruly, red beard. What had happened? Campbellhad shown no life signs and no power when they approached. Somehow the crew had fired up the reactor. Cold-started the engines. And destroyed their ship within minutes of being dead in the water. Martin didn’t know what to think. Nothing made sense. “Where was the last contact made with the Campbell?”

“Europa, the Swedish tending station there. Two weeks ago…”

Constance paused mid-sentence and her mouth dropped open.

“What?” asked Martin.

“Sir put the view screen on full magnification,” she said.

“Why?” asked Martin.

“I think you should see this, Sir.”

Martin punched some buttons on his console and gaped. There on the view screen, floating in space like a smooth asteroid, seemingly intact, was the Campbell.

“That’s impossible,” muttered the captain. Because it was.

Find the story here:

https://books2read.com/u/4AgB0J

Wayne Faust

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 www.waynefaust.com

Charles Eugene Anderson

Charles Eugene ‘Chuck’ Anderson is a poet, painter, baker, runner, hospital volunteer, and writer who lives in Colorado. He spends most of his days with his pup, Champ. Chuck is a husband and father, and he has a weakness for muscle cars. Chuck’s stories can be found at madcow.press

Europa Nightmare: Chapter 1

HSwMS Skalbagge

Everything went dark on theSSJohn W. Campbell Jr.

Erik Juergenson cursed in two languages. This wasn’t the first time the supply ship had lost power. Not even the first time today. He didn’t dare take his hands off the controls of his ship, Skalbagge. His docking computer would have to recalculate the coordinates if it came back online. He hated to fly blind. Well, only half blind.

Flipping a switch, his smaller craft could go to manual control and he could maneuver out of the path of the much bigger ship. At least he hoped so. Right now it was a monstrous, slate black hulk against a background of glittering stars. They had been only four minutes from docking when the power had blinked out.

Europa Station had called in Juergenson two days ago. The Campbellhad been racing towards Jupiter, flying erratically one minute and on a perfect trajectory the next. The crew had responded when hailed but their voices had sounded wooden, made no sense. The ship had failed all the normal protocols and procedures on its approach to the planet. As they had gotten close, they didn’t correct course. They didn’t use Jupiter’s gravity to slow their ship down. One hour ago, they pulled away from the planet at an oblique angle. Evidently, that maneuver had used up all their fuel and they were now floating free with no power.

Juergenson let out a deep sigh, and the canned air of the bridge tasted metallic on his tongue. He’d have to perform the docking maneuver all by himself. He needed to get onboard and figure out what in the name of Odin was going on with these people.

He pushed a lever forward. The Skalbaggeresponded as it always did, moving towards the other ship ever so slightly. His ship did what it was told. He’d seen to that every waking hour since he’d left Earth five years ago. The Skalbaggewas his environment, his safety net, his world. It had grown to seem like a part of his body. Now he pushed a button which would override the Campbell’soffline docking mechanism. He’d have to eyeball this one and do it the old-fashioned way.

“There we go,” he said, staring through the view screen, talking as if to a lover. “Come to me. I want to hold you in my arms.”

“Three minutes,” said the ship’s computer. It had learned to ignore Juergenson’s flights of fancy, what he called his ‘pillow talk.’

“Inge! Where’s your romance?” he said, looking around the bridge as if there were a woman actually standing there. He’d named the voice on the ship’s computer Inge after his first girlfriend back in Boräs.

“Don’t run away from me. I want to feel your touch,” he purred.

He pushed the lever another centimeter forward. He had done this dozens of times before. Every ship that approached the Swedish colony was greeted by the Skalbagge. The robotic supply ships from Earth didn’t need his help. But the Campbell had a crew. It had left Earth six years ago on a journey to the outer colonies at Saturn. Now it was on its way home. Or, at least, it had been trying.

“Two minutes.”

Juergenson slowed his ship to match the other. He needed to get just a few meters closer so he could dock. He had time enough to send one more automated message, hoping they would respond. Even with no power, they should still have been able to. Every ship had built in redundancies. But there was still nothing.

“One minute,” said Inge’s voice.

“Don’t be shy, my little Älskare,” said Juergenson. “I’ll be gentle. I’ve been waiting two days for you.”

“Initiate docking procedures,” said Inge. The Skalbaggewas close enough now. Juergenson made one more, slight change. There was a gentle quake when the two ships finally embraced.

“Ahh, that wasn’t so bad, was it, my little Flickvän?”

Juergenson looked at his computer screen. The docking seal was good. In a few minutes, he would be able to go and find out what had happened over there. Everything in his gut told him it was going to be bad. He double checked his space helmet to make sure it was secure and in place. He turned on the light in his faceplate because it would be dark over there.

Amundsen Station on Europa interrupted the quiet. “Juergenson, give us an update please.”

He recognized the voice. It was Ljungman. The controller usually made him laugh but now he was strictly business. They were all watching his mission with great interest.

“We have a good seal, and I’m waiting for a pressure match.”

“Be safe, my friend,” said Ljungman.

Juergenson never had time to reply. His own ship went black. Even the power in his faceplate switched off. He tried to turn it on again but nothing happened. His ship was dark. His spacesuit was dark. He reached for a flashlight but it wouldn’t turn on. He hit it but it still didn’t work. And there’s no dark like the dark of space when you’re cooped up inside a ship with no power.

Juergenson was a veteran pilot. He stayed calm. He tried to contact Europa, but his com was dead. He heard a strange pop in his ears. It didn’t sound like his ears popping from a change in the pressure of his suit. Then he heard a noise coming from the air lock. A scraping sound. He heard the door to the airlock begin to open. He stared that way as hard as he could, hoping to see something, but it was just too dark. Suddenly, his flashlight switched on. The beam caught the opening door of the air lock. At first, Juergenson was confused by what he saw coming his way. Then he screamed. But that did him no good whatsoever.

Erik Juergenson’s days of pillow talk were over.

Find the whole story here:

https://books2read.com/u/4AgB0J

Wayne Faust

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 www.waynefaust.com

Charles Eugene Anderson

Charles Eugene ‘Chuck’ Anderson is a poet, painter, baker, runner, hospital volunteer, and writer who lives in Colorado. He spends most of his days with his pup, Champ. Chuck is a husband and father, and he has a weakness for muscle cars. Chuck’s stories can be found at madcow.press