Beyond the Black Part 13

Not caught up? Don’t miss out on the full experience! Check out the rest of the story Here. Radley covered the frozen human corpse and its gruesome meal. It might have been the last resident

Not caught up? Don’t miss out on the full experience! Check out the rest of the story Here.

Radley covered the frozen human corpse and its gruesome meal. It might have been the last resident of Earth, certainly it outlasted whoever’s leg it was eating.

“Did you find something?” Hicklepeck asked over the comm.

“Just another ghost.” Radley answered. He continued his search of the outer deck of the ship. The others didn’t need to see how far the vaunted Voyagers had fallen by the end.

Sweqs, Pellina, and the captain argued across the comms about the risks and benefits of trying to restart the ancient systems.

Pellina insisted that they wouldn’t be able to gather any useful data without access to the ship’s computers.

Gadwall cautioned that without knowledge of the ship’s systems, they might set off security measures or weapons. Or permanently damage ancient and potentially fragile hardware.

Sweqs merely supplied whatever data they could glean from the propulsion level.

Radley tuned them out.

He finished the search without anything useful, or any more bodies.

“Radley, any surprises we should know about?” Gadwall asked over the comm.

“Nothing I could see, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.” He joined the captain and the scholars on the bridge.

Gadwall nodded. “All right, Sweqs, power it up.”

Radley turned to Pellina. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Gadwall lose an argument. What’s your secret?”

“Compromise.” Her antennae twitched as system lights flickered on. “And persistence.”

Gadwall checked a setting in his suit. “We don’t have much time and there’s a lot of data to sort through. Let’s get started.”

Radley frowned. According to his suit, they could stay here for days, if they didn’t mind going hungry. Longer if the ship’s atmospheric systems still worked.

Hicklepeck glanced at the captain on his way to one of the newly functional displays. “I didn’t know you could read the Voyagers’ language.”

Gadwall smiled. “Yesterday I would have said I couldn’t. But I’ve studied ancient humans for a long time, including the language.”

Pellina wasted no time examining a display of her own.

Radley spent a few minutes skimming through scanner data, but he couldn’t make out much beyond the obvious. Most of the symbols were gibberish to him. Even if he could read them, hours poring over old logs and reports was torture.

Instead, he went back to wandering the ship. Maybe he missed something in the dark.

Like whatever had the captain worried about time.

The only thing the ship’s lights revealed was how grimy everything had become before the end. Where the Chryl Seven vessel had been pristine, almost sterile, here every surface showed signs of wear and discoloration. The layer of ice had hidden just how much.

Radley followed the inner ring down to the propulsion level. He marveled that it was only one deck below the bridge.

Sweqs was delightedly examining the machinery.

“So what do you think,” Radley asked, “were the Voyagers as advanced as Hicklepeck says?”

“Too soon to tell.” Sweqs answered. “But if not, they were certainly ambitious. This ship alone has four graviton engines, any one of which would put the Broc Mor’s to shame. The extreme cold has done some damage, but I believe they would still be operational.”

“Too bad we’re still in atmo then.”

“No worries. These engines seem to have been designed with atmosphere in mind. I’m still trying to figure out how the Voyagers managed it.”

Sweqs was too polite to say it directly, but Radley recognized the invitation to leave.

He took the hint and left them to their work. Radley spent the next several hours roaming the deserted ship, checking around every corner for trouble.

Footing became ever more treacherous as the ship’s environmental systems kicked in and the temperature rose, slicking the ice with fresh melt.

On his fifth pass by the empty living quarters, the ice had melted enough to reveal dark stains on the deck and walls. Radley suspected bloodstains.

A trail of stains led to an airlock on the far side of the ship from where they’d entered.

Radley followed it out into the frozen darkness, until it ended at another frozen body.

It was gaunt. The head had been smashed in before it froze, and all of its limbs hacked off.

Radley shook his head. Now he knew where the first corpse had gotten its last meal. A brutal end for a civilization like Hicklepeck’s Voyagers. His ancestors….

He turned back toward the ship.

The sky above him was perfectly clear. Overhead, the tell-tale lights of the Broc Mor glimmered faintly amid the sea of distant stars. Crowe probably could have pointed out some of the ones they’d been to, but Radley just let the sight wash over him.

Space had never felt so close planetside.

The view of the eastern sky sobered him, however. A black void rose over the horizon, swallowing the distant points of light. Dawn on a dead world.

Radley flipped his comm over to long-range. “Crowe, you still awake up there?”

A brief crackle of static and then she answered. “Yeah, but I can barely read you. There’s a lot of interference.”

“Any trouble?” He had to repeat it twice before she understood.

“Nothing. Why, you got an itch?”

Radley put his hand on the pouch that concealed his pulse-pistol. “Something like that.”

“Well, everything looks fine from up here. I—hold on.”

“What is it?”

“The signal from the ship just cut out. What’s going on down there?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Radley switched back to local comms. “Captain, Crowe says the ship’s signal just went dark. What’s going on?”

Gadwall’s voice was tense. “I shut it down. Get back here and I’ll fill you in.”

Radley didn’t like the sound of that. “On my way.”

The other four were already waiting on the bridge when he arrived.

Gadwall stood by the ancient transmitter. “We’ve made a terrible mistake coming here. No one should ever find this place.”

Hicklepeck’s scales flushed purple. “How can you say that? This isn’t just your people’s history, all of galactic civilization was founded on the works of the Voyagers. Just a cursory examination of these records has yielded a plethora of insights into your species culture and history.”

“I’m not talking about culture and history.” Gadwall shook his head. “I’m talking about technology.”

“Technology to create stars.” Pellina glanced over at Radley. “Or destroy worlds.”

Gadwall nodded. “Exactly. The war proved we aren’t ready for that kind of power. Perhaps we never will be.”

“The Voyagers weren’t.” Pellina turned back to her display. “If I’m reading this correctly, they knew the ship in Chryl space would fail, so they were constructing another, even more powerful version. Something went wrong at launch. It’s not a true black hole, there’s a ship not unlike the one we found before—but much more powerful—at it’s core.”

Radley shuddered. “How is that possible? The necessary graviton emissions would be…astronomical.”

“If my calculations are correct,” Sweqs said, “the graviton engines on this ship are not only more efficient, but significantly more powerful than our own. If, as Pellina says, they were building a larger stellarforming vessel, then it stands to reason it would be equipped with a series of equally powerful engines. A slight miscalculation would result in a rapidly expanding gravity-well of stellar proportions.”

Hicklepeck’s scales paled, but he pressed on. “So we warn the galaxy about the dangers of using the Voyager technology. It seems we already have a grasp on the concept of not stacking gravity-wells. Why can’t the rest of the knowledge here be shared?”

Gadwall smiled sadly. “No warnings would be strong enough to keep everyone from using Voyager technology. The first species to successfully pull it off would become a new power in the galaxy.

And the consequences of failure are too high to risk. If we unleash this technology on the universe, the death toll will be unfathomable.”

“And that’s just the accidents. What about intentional uses?” Radley added. “It’s not worth the risk, Hicklepeck.”

The Filtonian sighed. “I suppose you’re right. But we must at least salvage the historical and cultural records. To bring back reports of what ultimately happened to the Voyagers.”

“What did happen?” Sweqs asked. “I understand the principles behind the destruction of the star and much of the inner system, but since this planet wasn’t consumed, it should have been habitable for at least a year after the accident. Why didn’t the Voyagers leave?”

“Some did. Right, Captain?” Radley turned to Gadwall.

The captain shook his head. “Our ancestors left before…this. I don’t know of any humans escaping the catastrophe.”

“I have a theory about that.” Pellina said. “I found a system that was tasked with monitoring the graviton levels. I believe that a thousand cycles ago, the gravitational force of the ship causing the ‘black hole’ was much greater. Presumably, like the Chryl Seven ship, some of the engines have ceased functioning over time.”

Radley frowned. “That would make it more dangerous, but as Crowe said, if the planet achieved a stable orbit, any ship should have been able to escape, at least from the far side. While I doubt the whole population could be evacuated, surely ships like this would have left.”

“Not this ship.” Sweqs lit up. “These graviton engines are too powerful. The gravity-well they would create to escape the system would have inevitably linked with those generated by the black hole ship. At best, the artificial field would destabilize before the ship could leave the planet’s natural one. At worst, the fleeing ship would become tethered to the stronger gravity-wells, drawing it in to be crushed.”

“But not the planet?” Gadwall asked.

“Apparently. Natural and artificial gravitons have some slightly different properties, though usually not significant enough for discussion. To my knowledge, they’ve never been tested at this scale before.”

Hicklepeck’s scales turned a sickly green. “So they were trapped by their own engines. It’s sad. The Voyagers bound to a dying world by their own inventions. I wonder what they did for food.”

“You don’t want to know.” Radley said.

“Hmm.” The Filtonian regained his brighter color. “Well, if there aren’t going to be any more expeditions to…Earth, we’d better get back to work. It could take us years to collect all of the data that’s safe to bring back.”

“Actually, that’s the other reason I needed to talk with you all.” Gadwall took a deep breath. “We have to find a way to destroy all of this. In the next two hours.”

“What?” Hicklepeck’s shock rippled across his scales.

“Why?” Radley asked.

Gadwall paced across the deck. “It’s Manodor. We had a run in with some of his debt collectors while you were in Chryl space. I got us out of it by promising to lead them to Voyager Prime. At the time I didn’t even know if we’d be able to find it, let alone what it was. Now that I’ve seen what this technology is capable of…there’s no way we can let those thugs get their hands on it.”

Radley pressed his hand to the visor of his helmet. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner? We could have come up with a plan.”

“I’m sorry, I thought I’d already taken care of it.”

“I’m sorry too.” Pellina stood in the doorway. A familiar rifle clutched in the cybernetic hands of her pressure suit. “But ‘debt collectors’ are the least of your worries. My people will be here soon to take what is owed them.”

Hicklepeck’s scales turned yellow. “’Your people’? Pellina, what is going on?”

Radley didn’t take his eyes off her as the pieces fell together in his mind. “Congratulations, Hicklepeck, you’re one of the few people to see a true Chryl.”

To Be Continued…

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