WARNING:
CONTENT IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. POSTED SECTIONS MAY UNDERGO EDITING. YE BE WARNED.

In A Starship's Wake

By Stephen Schamber

Chapter 19: Phantom Signal

    Joseph sighed as he reassembled the rifle he had just finished cleaning. Fifteen hidden compartments in the walls and bulkheads scattered around their ship held a total of fifty-five weapons, an assortment of rifles, pistols and shotguns. The compartments were strategically placed so that no matter where you were there were weapons at hand if the ship was suddenly attacked. It was also a lot of weapons to maintain; they didn’t do you much good if they weren’t working when an attack happened.
    “Cleaning” was a somewhat misleading term, Joseph mused as he locked the magazine back into the rifle and set the safety. Gauss weapons were the standard among spacefaring nations and represented all of the concealed weapons on Garden Variety Animal. Firing them didn’t produce much in the way of grit and grime to coat their innards, so maintenance was more about checking the functionality of the electronics. It was still called “cleaning” because that was what the process had always been called.
    Tyrone walked into the workroom as Joseph turned his attention to the pistol. The ship had two such rooms, exactly the same size, just in front of the cargo bay. This one, on the starboard side, served as an office for both of them. Each had a desk against the fore wall, and Joseph was seated at a large table against the aft wall. The other workroom was casually labeled “storage” by the two. More accurately, it was where the junk that didn’t really belong anywhere else in the ship accumulated.
    “Is it that time again?” Tyrone gestured to the weapons.
    Joseph nodded. “Once a month. It’s not something we want to get behind on.” He pushed the retaining pin out of the weapon and set it carefully on the table.
    “Nope, it’s not.” The pair had been attacked by pirates twice since they started operating. Neither incident had gotten as far as repelling boarders, but it was plenty of motivation to take the maintenance schedule seriously. Even if they operated solely inside Teton Sector space, a freighter could expect a brush with pirates for every ten years in operation.
    “I’m on compartment eleven, if you feel like helping.” Joseph gave his partner a mock-stern look.
    Tyrone narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to one side. “Which end did you start at?”
    Joseph laughed and set the pistol’s slide on the table. “I started on fifteen.” He gestured to the check sheet in front of him that listed the compartments. “You would have noticed before now if I’d started with the cockpit.”
    “No kidding. Also, you would have made me help by now.” Tyrone ambled over to his computer and looked at it, but didn’t wake it up. “I think we’re still booked on cargo for another month or more. I guess I don’t have anything better to do. I’ll grab comp...”    
    Tyrone was interrupted by a loud klaxon, and several red lights mounted in the ceiling began flashing slowly. The same thing would be happening all over the ship. Both looked around in confusion. Were they under attack? Joseph reached for the slide to put the pistol back together, then stopped as he recognized the alarm pattern. The ship hadn’t detected an attack, it had picked up a distress signal.
    Joseph saw understanding dawn on his partner’s face as Tyrone made the same connection. Tyrone opened his mouth, but before he said anything the klaxon stopped, cutting off mid-squeal. The lights stopped flashing a moment after. The whole alarm had lasted only a few seconds.
    “What in God’s great galaxies?” Tyrone gazed up at the lights, scratching his head.
    “That’s not supposed to happen,” Joseph agreed. “Maybe a computer glitch?” He rose as well, dropping the pieces of the pistol on the table.
    “It’s never happened before, why would it happen now?” He wavered on the edge of the door. “We’d better check it out.” He swung into the corridor, Joseph one step behind. “If a system error set it off, it should have kept going until we reset it.”
    “It might have reset itself,” Joseph said. “We’ll be able to tell if it did. Hopefully that’s all it is, I’m not keen on responding to a distress signal right now.”
    “I guess it almost has to be an error,” Tyrone contradicted himself.
    “Why is that? I’m used to you changing your mind mid-thought, but I still like to hear the logic.”
    Tyrone shot him an irritated glare, but let the smart-aleck comment pass. “Because no distress signal cuts off that fast.”
    “Well, there are ways that could happen too.” A foreboding grew in Joseph with every step. “None of them are good.”
    Joseph hustled to comm station to bring up the alert system as soon as they reached the cockpit, leaning over it instead of bothering with sitting down. “No glitch.” Joseph frowned at the computer screen. “The receiver notified the system to trigger the alert and to deactivate it.” He switched to the computer that controlled the communications array. “Same thing here. It looks like an actual transmission.”
    Tyrone pressed his lips together. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
    “Not much, no.” Joseph couldn’t think of anything else to look at that might explain the incident quickly. “Maybe the comm array was what was glitching?”
    “I don’t know, but we need to figure it out. I’m going to drop out of FTL.” Tyrone settled in the pilot’s chair. “Get on the sensor systems and do a LADAR sweep once we’re out, I have no idea what’s going to be around us. I’ll start checking the comm logs.”
    “You got it.” Joseph slid into the sensor station. On small ships like theirs all the functions except flying could be performed from any of the five cockpit stations, but it was usually easiest to do from the designated position.
    The bright light in the windshield dimmed as they dropped out. Joseph initialized the sensor sweep as the windscreen began adjusting the tint. There wasn’t enough light around them for it to filter out anyway. The gravity detection system responsible for identifying any large objects nearby was already indicating that they were well outside any star systems. The LADAR system looked for smaller objects at closer ranges; anything from ships and stations to floating space junk.
    “There’s nothing near us.” Joseph rose as the sweep concluded and moved to the copilot’s station. “No planetary bodies or stars close enough for passive detection to notice them, and not so much as an empty beer bottle on LADAR. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Finding anything out?”
    “Well, it wasn’t a glitch in the comm equipment.” Tyrone’s tone was perplexed. “It was definitely an actual signal, but we were only receiving it for a few seconds.”
    “Maybe they were only broadcasting it for a few seconds?” Joseph’s heart sank. That would mean the ship broadcasting it or their communication equipment was destroyed. Neither possibility boded well for the ship and crew, nor for any attempt Joseph and Tyrone could make to help.
    Tyrone didn’t answer immediately, studying the screen. “No...I don’t think the broadcast was cut short. We lost the signal. Look at the end of the log.” He pointed to the relevant part of the file he was examining, adjusting the screen so that Joseph could see it.
    Joseph obliged, leaning over to examine the display. The computer had made adjustments to try and get clearer reception as the signal weakened. “You’re right. That would have cut the signal off suddenly. The computer can tell the difference.”
    “Exactly.”
    “That doesn’t make sense.” Joseph worked his jaw, trying to think of possible explanations. Distress signals used special coding and were broadcast through a ship’s faster-than-light communication gear, not the comparatively slow-moving and short-range radio or laser equipment used within a system. Other ships would pick them up and respond, but the goal was to hit the deep-space relays that would notify emergency services and local authorities, not just nearby ships. 
    Actually, now that Joseph thought about it, they would normally be transmitted on both systems. This far into space, only the FTL signal would be received by anyone. Most of the time.
    “It started the same way.” Tyrone had scrolled back to the start of the log and was examining it, brow furrowed. “The computer noticed a faint signal and started trying to adjust to receive the whole thing.”
    “Why did it fade out in a few seconds then? A distress call should be going out on FTL comm gear.”
    “I don’t know.” Tyrone spread his arms. “Calling for help from someone they know is close enough to hear, maybe?”
    “Maybe.” Joseph dragged out the word, reluctant to acknowledge that possibility. It hadn’t occurred to him until Tyrone mentioned it. “That sounds like the beginning of a conspiracy theory to me.”
    “A little bit, I’ll admit, but so does a...three and a half second distress signal.” He consulted the log for the exact length as he spoke. “What can you think of that’s more likely?”
    “I was thinking jamming or damaged FTL comm gear.” Jamming had a little aura of conspiracy-theory around it too, but it was a common short-term strategy for pirates. Then again, maybe Tyrone’s theory wasn’t all that far-fetched. If the transmission was from a vessel engaged in piracy, it wouldn’t want to contact emergency services if there was another source of help nearby.
    “Those are good too,” Tyrone said.
    “Did we pick up anything useful? A ship name or the reason for the Mayday?”
    “No. As far as I can tell the only complete piece of information we picked up was the type of transmission, which triggered the alarm. If it hadn’t been a distress signal we would never have noticed the array picked it up.”
    “Wonderful. We’re completely clueless then. No idea what’s going on.”
    “Other than knowing it wasn’t a glitch, yeah.” 
    Joseph crossed his arms and made a face. “We don’t even have enough to retransmit and say we’re receiving a distress signal. Anyone we talked to would think that it really was a glitch, and we just couldn’t figure out what caused it.” Neither spoke for a moment, trying to postpone the inevitable conclusion.
    “We should go check it out.” Tyrone said it at last, and turned to another computer screen. “I think I can figure out where we were when we picked it up and make a mini-jump back.”
    “Yeah, we should.” Joseph sighed. “Your wife is never going to let us hear the end of this trip. First I got us on the Ventalian Mafia’s naughty list and now we’re investigating phantom distress signals.”
    “Too right she isn’t,” Tyrone agreed. “Are you going to help me with the navigation calculations or just stand there?”
    “Neither. I’m going to go grab our weapons and armor. Usually I don’t worry much about wearing a sealed suit when we’re in flight, but if we’re going to go poking around looking for trouble we’d better put it on. It might save us a tongue-lashing from Justine.”
    Tyrone snorted.  “I doubt that very much, but it’s worth a try. Besides which, you’re right, it’s just common sense at this point.”
    Joseph detoured back to their combined office first, remembering the rifle and pistol he’d abandoned on the table there. He slung the rifle over one shoulder and grabbed the pistol parts, sweeping back out immediately. Reassembling it as he went, he took the weapons back to their hiding place in the corridor. He would have to finish with them later.
    In his bedroom, he retrieved a large duffle bag that contained his armor and pulled his rifle off its rack. As long as they had time to prepare, he’d prefer his own weapons to the emergency guns. They were for sudden attacks, and this wasn’t.
    Joseph ducked into Tyrone’s room to retrieve a similar bag. Hopefully he’d checked his armor over since the last time they talked about it. They were four days out of Couradeen now, so there had been plenty of time. 
    Thoughts of Couradeen led to thoughts of Allison. Justine wasn’t the only one who would never let them hear the end of this little adventure. In a brief moment of panic he tried to remember when she’d last called them, then realized it had been the day before. She’d been calling every other day since they left, just to keep in contact. No matter what this turned out to be, he didn’t want her calling in the middle of it. She could find out after it was over.
    Tyrone was still focused on the computer screen when Joseph returned. “Finding anything out?” he asked, tossing the bags down. He set Tyrone’s rifle on the top of the computer terminal where his partner could see it.
    “Yeah.” Tyrone got up and reached for his armor bag. “We were passing through the Oort Cloud of a system when we picked it up. There’s no indication in the Teton Expedition Register that anyone is out there, but it could still be a surveying ship or something of the sort that got stuck.”
    “Is it a settled system?”
    “Not as far as anyone knows. Its name is ‘ASC 5223-7 13.’”
    “A surveying designation?”
    “Yeah. Ace Surveying Company, from expedition seven in 5223, thirteenth system they visited. I looked it up.”
    Joseph lifted one eyebrow as he fastened the front of the airtight sub-layer of his breastplate. “Isn’t thirteen systems a lot for one trip?” He squashed the two halves of the metal layer together until they latched. It was tighter than he remembered, he might need to have his armor adjusted.
    “Yes, but they weren’t taking that close of a look.” Tyrone grunted as he latched his own. “I should have paid more attention to this. It’s tight.”
    “I was just thinking the same about mine. What were they checking for? Habitable planets and valuable resources I suppose?”
    “Exactly. And only easily-accessible sources for the latter. They didn’t find much of anything in this system, and it was never explored further.”
    “It will be now, at least a little. Of course, if we do happen across anything valuable I’m of the mind to keep it.”
    “Well, it’s technically a Teton Sector system. There’s no requirement to report any valuable resources before registering a claim. Still, I wouldn’t get too excited. We’re far more likely to find pirates than some goldmine they missed over two centuries ago.”

Published: May 13 2018

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© 2019 by Stephen Schamber