Three light-years out from Earth, on the J-Type Freighter "Olympus", early 2096
Spacer Third Class Robert Wise was feeling just a bit too old for his job. In point of fact, he was a good fifty years older than almost everyone else on the ship, probably one of the only octogenarians (at least, the only human of that advanced of an age) in space. There were many days when he questioned his own sanity at his particular choice of career—most of his friends were comfortably retired, resting in lovely little communities on Earth and maybe playing some shuffleboard on occasion. They certainly weren't opening up entirely new chapters to their life, setting off to the stars like some starry-eyed teenager. At present, he wondered if retirement wouldn't have been a wiser decision.
"Report, Spacer!" the first officer, Mike Chambers, ordered.
"Yes, sir," Robert responded in a voice weakened only minutely by his age. "Polarized hull plating is maintaining seventy percent integrity. It will fail though if we don't haul our asses out of this ... whatever it is ... soon. I can't give you an exact estimate of time since the radiation intensity is varying immensely, but I'd say five or six minutes at most."
Robert's hands flew over his console, trying to coax a little more information out of the failing main sensor array. No matter what he tried, he couldn't seem to get anything useful out of the computer.
"Why didn't the sensors spot this phenomenon in the first place?" Jill Branson asked from her place in the captain's chair in the center of the bridge. "And just how the hell did it pull us out of warp?"
"Unknown," Robert responded. "I can only guess that this energy cloud's electromagnetic interference pulled us out of warp. Zefram Cochrane built the chambers for our warp core himself, and we haven't even been pushing the speed specifications for a J-Type ... I seriously doubt if this was just some mechanical glitch."
Such a thing certainly would have been possible back in Robert's heyday of course, back in the early 21st Century. Back then immoral corporations were close to ruling the world, and the planet was spiraling towards the disaster that would be WWIII, a particularly bloody chapter of human history that Robert himself had fought in. It was his extensive experience on early space-capable fighter craft and impulse warships from that war that had enabled him to join the Western Coalition Merchant Marine, despite his advanced age. Unlike back during the war when planes would fall from the sky due to shoddy and rushed construction, there was little chance a modern vessel would possess much if any in the way of technical problems. Ever since Zefram Cochrane had brought warp travel to humanity, Earth had rushed headlong into a nearly utopic state. The new governments on Earth were few, nearly immune from corruption, and had steadily solved a great many of the problems that had plagued Earth for generations. There was even talk of forming a "United Earth" government, something that would have been inconceivable even a generation ago. The new Western Coalition was fanatical about safety and reliability aboard space vessels, and the J-Type freighter 'Olympus' was no exception to their standards.
Captain Branson stood and approached Robert's console, staring towards the display intensely.
"Just what the hell is this thing anyway?" she asked him, staring the rapidly fluctuating energy readings.
Robert shook his head with frustration. "Other than that it is a cloud of energy of some sort, I really couldn't tell you, Captain. I can definitely say it wasn't on our sensor screen even three minutes ago; the log confirms this. I checked just to make sure I wasn't growing inattentive with age."
Captain Branson smiled wryly. "Robert, me and you both know that you have ten times the experience and capabilities of any other crewman on this vessel, and you are still able to keep up with the rest of us ... including scoring damn nearly perfectly on your physical evaluation ... and I have no lack of confidence in your skills. That's why I accepted your request to serve on this vessel. I'm hoping you can use that well-seasoned brain-"
"Ouch," Robert commented with a smirk.
"—experienced if you prefer then, but I'm hoping you can use it to conjure up a way out of this mess for us. We have no thrusters, no impulse engines, no warp engines, our hull will buckle inside of five minutes, and main power will fail even before then. What can we do?"
Robert shook his head slowly. "There's not a lot we can do. With the consistency of the energy drain, our escape pods would never be able to escape this phenomenon before becoming disabled. Since our reaction control thrusters are offline and we have no form of propulsion available..."
"What is it?" Captain Branson prompted urgently as she saw the look of hope in his eyes.
"We jettison the cargo using emergency explosive detachment procedures," Robert stated forcefully, punching numbers into the computer to calculate thrust variables even as he continued to verbalize his plan, "and then open the aft-facing exterior supply bays to space. The release of oxygen and the force from the cargo decoupling combined will generate enough thrust that we'll clear the central part of this cloud within three minutes. We'll be cutting it incredibly close, but it's a shot."
"Do it!" Branson ordered as she took her seat, and both Robert and First Office Chambers began tapping rapidly at separate parts of Robert's console. Three seconds later, the ship shuttered and everybody grabbed to the nearest handrails—the Olympus was low enough on power that the inertial dampers were nearly completely offline—as the ship suddenly plunged forward through a swirling cloud filled with pockets of intense radiation.
"Two minutes forty-eight seconds until we clear the most intense section of the cloud," the helm officer shouted from her post over the sounds of the acceleration and emergency alarms.
"Three minutes fifty seconds until main power failure!" Robert informed the bridge.
"Transfer auxiliary batteries to the structural integrity system!" Chambers commanded.
Robert attempted to do so, keying up a series of switches that would dump power from the auxiliary banks into the fields of energy responsible for reinforcing the hull. His computer warbled back at him in a distressed tone.
"Power shunts offline," Robert reported, "unable to access auxiliary circuits. Estimated three minutes thirty-five seconds now until hull failure; there is a considerable margin of error there though as the peak energy intensity levels are all over the board!"
"Ma'am!" an engineer exclaimed from a rear-facing console at the back of the bridge. "I don't know what just happened, but some sort of energy build up suddenly disabled the hull polarization on our ventral side."
"Evacuate the crew to the upper decks!" Captain Branson ordered. "What's the status of the ventral hull; has any of the energy burned through?"
"Negative," the engineer replied, "but radiation is now flooding those decks. Lethal radiation doses registered in some of the most exposed sections. I'm isolating the environmental controls for that section and containing the radiation; we won't be able to help the crew who have already been exposed, but we might be able to keep the radiation from spreading throughout the ship."
The ship shuddered and pitched as the flow of the energy around them changed suddenly, and two of the seven bridge crew fell to the ground, a young man from Argentina whom Robert had only been recently getting to know taking a blow to the head from the side of a console on his way down. From the amount of blood he could see Robert would have to guess he would not be getting to know the young man any further.
"Jesus," Captain Branson uttered in a half-disbelieving tone as she gripped the sides of her chair with white knuckles. "Dr. Royce to the bridge!"
The engineer at the back of the room shook his head, punching at buttons on his console furiously.
"Captain," he stated, "internal communications links are down. Internal sensors are detecting radiation in additional sections of the ship, and of the original twenty people we had on board, sensors are only detecting fifteen remaining lifesigns."
"How long?" Branson asked her helm officer in a coarse, breaking voice.
"One minute twenty seconds until we've cleared the worst of it!" the helm office reported.
"Can we make it that long?" Branson asked, looking directly at Robert.
He shook his head slowly towards her.
"Captain," he stated, his voice fighting the cacophony of alarms sounding in the background. "Our hull polarization is failing across the ship. Radiation is pouring in, and we have maybe two minutes of power left. Even if we break completely free of this—whatever the hell it is—our life support systems will only be able to support all of us for a few hours at most, even if we restore auxiliary power. I checked the status of the dilithium chamber, and the computer reports complete decrystallization. There are no known vessels within a month of us, and even if we could launch our escape pods there'd be nowhere for them to go."
Captain Branson placed her head in her hands and closed her eyes. The ship bucked a few more times and sparks flew from a console not two meters from her. She did not as much as flinch.
"There's got to be something..." she muttered. "Something ... some way..."
"Deck two hull breach!" Chambers announced as all kinds of lights went red on a diagnostic board next to him. "Containment doors coming down. We've lost thirteen percent of our overall atmospheric reserves. Six casualties by computer estimates."
There were now only nine people remaining alive on the vessel according to the computer; six on the bridge, three in the engineering bay.
"Everyone follow me to medical!" Captain Branson commanded loudly. "We can use the cryotubes!"
"Ma'am!" Chambers objected, his eyes wide. "Those are for medical emergencies ... just for keeping people in stasis until we reach Alpha Centauri in case there are casualties. We only have four, how are they possibly going to help?"
"Just do it!" Branson commanded, heading off the bridge and down the corridor. Some of her bridge crew took a second or two, but all of them followed.
As they rounded the next corridor, all of the lights went out and the ship went absolutely silent. It took several seconds, but emergency lights snapped on and the crew was able to continue towards the medical bay.
"Everybody in," Captain Branson ordered, pointing towards the entrance of the small two interior rooms that made up the medical bay. "I'm going to go get the remaining crew."
Branson turned around to head down a different corridor, but before she could make it even a few steps a piercing sound filled the hallway.
"Hull breach!" one of the bridge crew hollered, panicking and turning to run in the direction that flashing lights were now indicating, but tripping over a small gap between two sections of gravity plating. Robert dodged into the medical bay, knowing that it was isolated from the environmental controls of the rest of the ship, and Chambers followed him in. Another crewman tried to join them, but the computer slammed the door shut as the hull breach became catastrophic. Part of the crewman's foot made it into the medical bay, but the rest of him did not.
Robert sat on a nearby chair, steadying his breathing. If not for the fact that his heart was a genetically engineered replacement, replaced back during the war before genetic experimentation had become illegal, he might have had a heart attack.
"We have to make sure the Captain is okay," Chambers muttered, looking around in disbelief. The medical bay was completely isolated, with no windows, and the only entrance was no sealed. It also had its own internal low-yield auxiliary generator, designed to keep the medical systems functioning no matter what. Inside of the pristine and orderly medical bay it was difficult to believe that the entire ship was falling apart.
Robert lifted himself out of his chair, and headed to a nearby console. He tapped a few controls and brought up a full report from internal sensors and damage control systems.
He turned to Chambers and sighed.
"Sir ... Mike," Robert said, his voice heavy, "over forty percent of the ship is exposed to space. We've cleared the worst of the radiation, but most of the ship is flooded, and main power is gone. The main computer is failing and probably won't stay on much longer. Also ... we are the only lifesigns registering on this ship."
"What do we do?" The first officer's voice sounded broken, confused, and lost.
"Captain Branson was bringing us here for a good reason," Robert stated, looking at the cryotubes built into the wall of the medical bay. "The Olympus has no dedicated medical staff and little in the way of serious medical support- no surgery capabilities, no advanced diagnostic equipment. Instead we have four of the latest in cryostasis chambers. They require little power, have their own internal power back-ups and are linked to an auxiliary generator, and each chamber is controlled by independent built-in computer systems. Since they weren't powered on when we hit the anomaly, it is likely they were largely unaffected by the radiation. We can program the medical bay to transfer all power to the tubes and have the ship keep us in stasis until a search and rescue arrives. It's the best chance we've got—in stasis we require very little in the way of resources and energy. As it is we have only basic emergency rations in this room. We could last a week, maybe two ... and no ships could make it here in time, assuming they even start looking for us immediately. In the tubes we could last months, even possibly years if took that long."
Mike Chambers argued with him, tried to come up with alternatives. In the end, there just wasn't another option. They programmed the tubes, rerouted power from the medical bay and pulled themselves into the tubes.
It was only as the sequence was beginning and he was having just a few last thoughts before being rendered unconscious that Robert let himself realize the truth. They were in the middle of open space, had no power signature, and while their route was known it was almost five light-years long and search parties wouldn't be able to arrive for months, if that. Even then it would be like trying to find a specific rock in the Grand Canyon.
He was going to die in space.