Apparitions

PT1

Junior Weapons Officer Erich awoke as the ship's claxons were blaring. Smoke filled the flight deck of the Nidhog, pride of the 2nd Fleet, as warning lights flashed. The pain that focused on the left side of his face shot down to fill the entirety of his body as he shakily got to his feet from his station. Tasting the blood in his mouth, he recalled the onslaught that proved no real competition as the ships of his world's fleet met the invaders. Was it really the case that the primary blast cannons had only managed to fire off three times before the ship was swept aside? As memories of the Skipper's orders began to flit about in his mind, he knew how ineffective her commands and his actions had been.

Even at a distance of one spatial, the full force of the blasters had only managed to cripple one of the enemy Dreadnaughts before his ship had been caught by their attackers weapons. Having been the Weapons Officer for only a short while, Erich cursed himself for the periods between salvos as the main blasters of the Nidhog recharged. He knew it was simply a matter of physics but he could still hear the Skipper's voice calling on him to fire as he watched the indicators helplessly.

Touching the side of his face sent waves of agony though him. As his fingertips became wet with his own blood and the scorched flesh at the side of his head proved very tender, he looked about the flight deck for the med kit. Only able to open his right eye, he tried to assure himself that it was a temporary condition. Shouting to the other members of the bridge crew as his voice cracked and sputtered from the smoke and pain, he wanted to reject what he saw as his training kept hold of him.

Through the smoke, he could make out the shapes that slumped in their seats at the various control panels. The Skipper, whose body was hunched in the command chair, her hand clutching the communication controls in a rigid death grip, looked as though she was pondering her next orders.

Pulling her fingers from the small row of buttons, Erich decided the med unit could wait as he held down the transmit switch and hoarsely spoke into the grill while the smoke tried to choke him. "Fleet Command. This is pursuit ship Nidhog please respond." Lifting his finger from the switch, his ears were met with dead static. Trying again as his index finger jabbed at the send switch, calling to any ships for a response, the result was the same. Hoping it was nothing more than a failure in the com system he called out for the ship's computer.

"Orac, status report!" he shouted out, hoping the main computer was still on line. Hearing the flight deck's speakers crackle to life as the computer's monotone voice began listing off the damage report, Erich wondered if a rundown of currently operational systems might be shorter. "Orac, scan the area for any other fleet ships. Use widest range possible." As the ship's computer buzzed while conducting the scan, his hopes began to sink until the monotone voice confirmed his worst fears.

"Pursuit ship Nidhog is the only Fleet ship within maximum scanning rage. All other ships are of a configuration conforming to specifications indicating Voon Empire. Voon ships currently number five hundred and twenty nine. No further information." Letting the words sink into his mind as he watched the environmental controls begin to clear the smoke from the fight deck, Erich considered his dwindling options.

"Orac, direct communications towards Central Command and send the ship's log and status by pulse beam at highest priority level. Report when Central Command replies with confirmation." After a few moments that dragged on like eons, Orac's report made Erich's head spin as much as his injuries.

"Central Command signal is off line. No further information." Shaking as he braced himself on the arm of the commander's chair, Erich forced himself to give the next order.

"Scan spatial system grid reference 1001 for Central Command." After another delay of moments that only made his anxiety brew, the ship's computer responded.

"Spatial system grid reference 1001 not detectable. No further information." As panic tried to well up within him, Erich whispered the next instructions.

"Orac, scan area of Spatial system grid reference 1001 and report all findings." Coming almost too quickly, the ship's computer began describing what could only be a debris field of planetary proportions.

As his throat tightened, Erich comprehended the evidence and was slapped by the one inescapable conclusion. The Voon Empire had finally won out. Eallair, his home world, was simply gone. As his body shook with the realization of the undeniable, his eyes filled with tears. It was gone, all of it. His home, family and race all nothing more than fragments set on courses to speed through space. Fearing the answer as he braced himself, Erich addressed Orac. "Number of life signs on pursuit ship Nidhog. Report." As the computer's activity tone rang out, Orac's voice sealed Erich's fate.

"Number of life signs on pursuit ship Nidhog is currently two. No further information." Before he could order Orac to locate the other survivor, Orac spoke again. "Correction, number of life signs on board pursuit ship Nidhog is now one. No further information." Erich had missed the last gasps of the only other survivor. Though he was still memorizing the names of the crew, he mourned with all of his soul as he considered the loss.

All fifteen of the other officers and crew of the Nidhog were gone. Only he had survived. Observing the gaping hole in the chest of the commanding officer as the front of her jumpsuit was torn open and covered in blood, he could only stare. As the last of the smoke was vented out of the Flight Deck, he walked to each station. The Com Officer's head lay at an impossible and sickening angle as his eyes had rolled back in his head. The Navigation Officer, her blond hair matted with blood, lay across her control panel. Lifting her to sit back in her chair, Erich could see the other side of her head was now missing. Screams wanted to escape his lips as he looked at the dead figures around him.

Erich was only just out of the academy, serving on his first ship and was now apparently the lone survivor of a race that had just begun to explore and colonize space when the Voon Empire had found them. Refusing to forfeit their liberties to the Voon, they had surrendered their very existence. Though only a junior officer, Erich knew if the home world had been destroyed, none of the few colonies Eallair had established stood a chance. If they were not already pulverized, they soon would be. The Voon were nothing if not efficient and thorough. Looking at the fixed stare of the skipper in the command chair through his tears, he found he envied her and the rest of the dead.

Feeling an odd numbness, Erich asked Orac when the engines and weapons systems would be on line once more. "Auto repairs completed on main engines, jump drive is currently operational. Weapons will require seventy eight time units before repairs are complete. No further information." As he pondered ramming the ship into the nearest Voon vessel, offering his life as a last act of defiance, he decided that he really did not have it in him to commit suicide. The main thrusters offered little hope of evading the vastly superior war ships of the Voon. Still, having no set jump gates, if he initiated the jump drive, his exit point would be completely random. Rather than emerging from Slip Space at a fixed point within a corresponding gate, he would come out at a point that could never be predicted. Perhaps even at the center of a star or the edge of an Event Horizon. Perhaps into nowhere at all.

As Orac came to life, the computer's report shook Erich out of his dark thoughts. "Information. Voon Dreadnaught approaching pursuit ship Nidhog. Five spatials and closing. No further information." Making up his mind not to die that very moment, Erich shouted the order.

"Orac, initiate Jump Drive and execute." Hearing the computer's warning about no fixed jump gate being available, Erich growled as he wept. "Don't you think I know that? Confirm instructions and comply!" Sobbing openly as Orac confirmed the orders and brought the Jump Drive on line, Erich stumbled to his acceleration couch and held on as the gravstraps took hold of his body.

Squinting against the glare as the ship faded around him to enter Slip Space, he still wondered why he was clinging to life. While never all that religious, he knew it was not fear of some punishment in the Land Of Ancestors. "Perhaps", he thought, "I am just not ready?" Though it made no real sense to him, he wanted to evade the Voon if only to choose a better time and place for his life to end. Some meaning beyond simply giving up. Maybe he was just scared. Erich admitted to himself that the last was as valid an explanation as any.

Breathing deep as the Nidhog became nonexistent for a moment and then flashed back into normal reality, Erich half hoped he was in the pull of a singularity as the claxons once more shrieked at him. Still only able to see out of his right eye, his head spun from side to side as he tried to figure out what was going wrong now. "Information. Gravity well of eighth magnitude detected. Advise evasive actions. No further information." Orac's voice called out calmly.

"Then do it already! Get the Nidhog out of here!" Erich shouted as his head swam in agony. Eighth magnitude was no black hole or a star but most likely some gas giant. Pressing the vid button on the arm of his acceleration couch, Erich's eyes went wide as the banded giant filled his monitor screen. While the inertial dampeners made it impossible, he could sense his stomach being pulled as he watched the nose of the ship come up and to the side of the planet. Initiating a slingshot orbit as the thrusters fired at full power, Erich's fingers dug into the arms of his couch.

Watching the screen as the Nidhog was flung around the giant world, skipping along the edge of the gravity well as it shot out towards the star system's host, a dull looking yellow dwarf, he felt sick. There was no way of knowing how far from his home system he had traveled but he knew the nearest similar star was just within the range of his people's most powerful telescopes. The intrepid heroes who had set up the jump gates in the systems of their neighboring stars, had spent almost a lifetime in cold sleep to arrive at their destinations. The nearest Yellow Dwarf was estimated to be at least several life times away at full speed in normal space.

"Why worry?" he whispered to himself as he remembered there was no home system for him anymore. While he still breathed, he was, for all intents and purposes, dead after all, just as his people now were. "Please restate inquiry. No further information." Hearing Orac get stumped by his nonsensical question made Erich smirk.

"Nothing Orac. Please plot a course that avoids the big hot thing these planets are orbiting and open all com channels. Monitor for any non-natural signals and advise me immediately."

"Confirmed. Multiple signals being received. Translation units extrapolating. Translations completed. Please state when ready to monitor signals. No further information," Orac's unemotional tone making the monumental observation all the more surreal.

Artificial transmissions! Intelligent life of one form or another! Though he knew it would be completely alien in nature and there was always a possibility of it being hostile, just knowing there was life, intelligent life, that could not be Voon this far out, made Erich's hopes soar. "Orac, please display signals on my monitor," Erich shouted out excitedly.

"Signals are audio only. Sampling compiled and commencing. No further information," Orac replied calmly.

"Audio only?" he thought to himself. Not terribly advanced but then if they were not too advanced they might not be able to kill him just yet and that sounded like a very good thing. Closing his good eye, Erich listened as voices began speaking about subjects that meant nothing to him. Translating a language is one thing but understanding it is another matter. Aside from the more universal concepts, he could only guess at the meaning of most of it.

As the sampling of signals played through, he lifted to a sitting position in his acceleration couch. Music! He was hearing music! The alien voices were singing to him and instruments began to emit melodies. Listening to the strains as they helped him forget, if only for a moment the utter horrors of his existence, Erich flinched as he tried to smile. "Orac, locate the signals carrying music and set course for the source."

"All signals originate from the third planetary body from the system's star. Course set and thrusters at normal. Arrival in one hundred time units. No further information." Orac's voice calmly making the observation as the indicators lit up to show that the main thrusters had been initiated.

One hundred time units and he would get to at least observe the species that took a moment to sing to him. Erich wanted to push the engines to maximum but he knew that in light of the condition the Nidhog had to be in, it could be a very bad idea.

Though he had no idea what a lollipop was, the voice that sang about it made it sound nice to be on the ship it was named for. Erich found himself humming along and learning the words to the song "On The Good Ship Lollipop." Whoever it was that was singing it, she had to be female and very young. The thought made his mind pull up memories of his little sister who was now certainly dead. As his tears for her welled in his one good eye, he could not help but sing along with the happy child who tried her best to cheer him.

As Orac gave him the planet's dimensions, Erich was left puzzled. "Recheck data and report on third planet." Having Orac confirm the information, he could only wonder what sort of life could have developed on a planet so diminutive. "Happy singing bugs?" he mused silently as he did the math. At whatever size, they were better than the cold silence of space that only held signals from stars and background radiation. While he had no intention of making planet fall, he hoped they would not mind his hanging in orbit for a while as he tried to figure out what, if any next move he wanted to make.

Just before passing out, he wondered if the bleeding had stopped at the side of his head. Not wanting to feel the pain of touching his wounds again, he closed his eye and asked Orac to scan for musical transmissions and give them top priority. If he never woke up again, at least happy voices would sing him to his ancestors.