What Happened to the Stars?

#picturefiction #flashfiction

Captain Murtaugh of the Interstellar Trade Commonwealth exploration ship Wahoo rose from his command console and crossed to the science station.

“Keg,” he said to the insectoid officer. “Have you scanned sector four? Something happened to the stars, it’s almost like they’ve disappeared.”

The four foot tall insect chirped and whistled in its own language. The translator module attached to the front of its harness translated for the human captain.

“Yes sir, I have been examining the aberration. Our sensors are not returning any feedback on its composition but visual examination indicates an amorphous mass, possibly a form of dust we have not encountered before. It’s is blocking all visual targeting of the stars beyond as well as sensor readings in that region.”

“So the stars are still there, right?”

The science officer cocked its oval head. The Chi’iro species did not possess expressive faces but somehow it managed to convey shocked annoyance at its captain’s naïve question.

“Of course not sir; our readings are merely blocked. The aberration is estimated to be two light minutes distant from our position and covers approximately seven light minutes in all directions. The distant stars obviously remain unaffected.”

Murtaugh nodded his understanding. He was a professional spacer but he still fell victim to his race’s primitive fears when faced with the unknown. This could have been an impediment to his position as an Explorer Corps captain but he channeled his fears into determined action.

“Navigation, determine where this thing ends and plot a course for us right up to the edge; I want a closer look at this—whatever it is.”

The navigator and pilot immediately sprang into action and within minutes the gravitic drives of the Wahoo hummed with power and the ship raced across the void toward the pulsing black mass which obscured the stars.

The Wahoo was very close to the galactic core and stars filled their field of view in every direction. Murtaugh was reminded of Christmas lights from his childhood on Earth. Thousands of lights of every color created a visual spectacle without par. Views such as this were why he became an Explorer. It was beautiful, except now there was a black mass which pulsed, expanding and contracting almost like a living thing, and it blocked the beauty of the cosmos beyond like nothing he had ever seen.

“Captain we are within 1,000 kilometers of the edge of the anomaly,” Lieutenant Peterson said from the navigation console.

“Keg, any readings yet?”

Murtaugh turned from the unsettling blackness filling the screen to face his science officer.  The Chi’iro’s four hands flew across the console. It chirped to itself as it worked the sensor array of the Wahoo.

“Sir,” it said. “Visual allows us to locate the boundaries of the anomaly but our sensors still refuse to even recognize its existence. This is truly baffling.”

“Is it solid? Is it dust? What the hell is it Keg?”

“Sir I have been using every sensor at our disposal. The anomaly does not return any sensor echo. I have used lasers of every spectrum and they appear to simply disappear at the boundary; I am unable to determine if they are blocked or if they become undetectable after passing the boundary. I honestly have no information.”

“How about launching a probe to sample the boundary layer sir,” Lieutenant Hogath, the pilot suggested.

“Good idea Hogath,” Murtaugh said. “Keg make it happen.”

Keg rose from its station, hopped to the lift and left the bridge for the lower decks of the starship.

Long minutes passed while the bridge crew watched the blackness slowly pulse and fluctuate in front of the ship. Murtaugh had paced the width of the bridge for the fortieth time when the communicator chimed.

“Captain,” Keg said. “The probe is prepared. It is programmed to approach the boundary and attempt to sample it using a manipulator arm.”

“Excellent,” Murtaugh said. “Launch at will.”

A ringing thud, more felt than heard, ran through the ship as the probe launched. The probe was a seven meter long cylinder propelled by a small gravity drive which could accelerate it to within a fraction of light speed. In a military ship the probe would be a torpedo, armed with an antimatter warhead; the Explorer Corps modified such weapons of destruction for use as tools of exploration.

Murtaugh watched the small probe dwindle into the distance as it flew toward the black mass. The ship’s sensors continued tracking the craft as it flew beyond visual range.

“Range 300 kilometers,” Keg reported over the ship’s communicator. “200, 100, 50—sir the probe is approaching boundary layer. I am deploying the arm.”

Far beyond the range of sight, the tiny probe came to rest against a wall of blackness. A mechanical arm deployed from the side of the probe and stretched toward the black. Minute pulses of drive power brought the probe even closer and the mechanical arm thrust into the blackness. The entire black shape convulsed across its massive surface. The probe was sucked into the blackness and disappeared from the Wahoo’s sensors.

“Sir it engulfed the probe,” Keg announced needlessly.

“Hogath,” Murtaugh said. “Back us up. If that thing can grab the probe it can grab us; a thousand kilometers is nothing compared to its size.”

Lieutenant Hogath began to tap commands into the drive console and the Wahoo began to retreat. The black mass flexed and surged forward. The distance between the boundary and the starship disappeared in an instant. The Wahoo rang like a bell as the edge of the blackness impacted it. Collision alarms sounded and every crew member who was not strapped in was hurled across the deck.

“Damage report,” Murtaugh shouted as he struggled to his feet.

“Captain,” Keg’s voice came from the speakers. “I have sensors again. It’s, it’s unbelievable. I detect proteins and amino acids. This is an organism.”

The ship’s hull groaned and the sound of crumpling metal filled the air.

“Hogath get us out of here,” Murtaugh screamed.

“I can’t sir,” he was nearly crying. “Drives are not responding. I have hull breaches reported from all sectors. External pressure is—oh my God.”

A cracking sound filled the air and the ceiling above Murtaugh’s head split opening the bridge to space. The air within did not rush out as it would have in the void but instead black, viscous fluid poured in through the breach and through dozens of other breaches opening across the ship.

Murtaugh and his crew screamed as the acids of the fluid digested their bodies.

 




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