Distress

~ a short story

Through the winding, forceless chasms of the outer void, a beacon chimed its detectable pulses without end, without expectation of a return. Affixed to the starscape’s deadness, a silver beaming mass of angle and arch culminated in a starship stilled and dead at sea. Still lit with the faraway, secondhand particles of the sun it was before drawing toward or away from, it provided an odd locus to a traveler’s sight out here in the great beyond. A fly in the aether; ‘out of place’ to the eye of a conscious observer, but right there where it was always supposed to be, to the eyeless entity of space-time determining such positions upon the shifting, sparkling dance floor of the ‘verse.

Myriad reflections of interior superstructuring superpositions of dancing going on within its holds and hallways chaotically displaced any one reality from taking place inside the stilled starship. From out of it launched a distressor ringing, ringed and rung, along every frequency, throughout the many aeons of time since mysteriously sourced crisis-level origins had required its tripping.

Still intact and adrift, the vessel’s fading lumens and absent aurals indicated its finitude. It would not last forever, though it had lasted for long. No one listened. One could presume, no one ever would. Eventually, its distressing scream into the void would blink out, like all of its predecessors. Its mission uncharted, and now forever unknown, had left it in a far reach of space, suspectly unannihilated, apparently abandoned. Why? How? When? Questions without answers, their tracks lost to time.

At present, the X.S.S. Zeno waited. Without hope, without fear, without an animating thought or action to the limits of its unpeopled perimeters, the craft merely continued to exist. From the outside, a derelict. From the inside, however, a whirlwind of possibility…

~

“Captain,” came the crispy voice of the android named Mo, same as ever in tenor and tone, despite the coming perforce sentiments from his routine scans and their conclusions. “Scanners are picking up a signal. Nearby. Within a parsec. A ship.”

Captain Nabu inspected the screen. A kypertal-class starship. A flyer not seen in a thousand eras. Like something out a dream, preserved in the hypersleep stasis of these far reaches? Sleeping, untouched, lying in wait. Waiting for what? A sleeping agent of the shyfters…?

“On approach. Hail its-”

“Sir, it’s emitting a faint signal,” Osmarck cried out from the communications dock behind him on the bridge. “Captured on two, no three. No… Every available channel…”

“Our proximity triggered a latent distressor, contingent on the proximal characteristic,” Mo said calmly. “‘Distress,’ repeating. A distress signal. An old standard for interstellar emergency. It’s been going continuously, for as long as it has been stalled at its current location.”

“Unresolved distress… Too late now,” Osmarck said. “This ship is ancient, Cap. Must’ve sat out here-”

“Message?” Nabu asked. He sat in a central chair, amidst his crewmates on the bridge. Before him sat Mo, his golden bald head facing forward, attention fixed upon a matrix of nav-screens. Behind him stood excitable Osmarck and mute Pinch, at comms and engines, respectively. By his side, Aati viewed refreshing stills.

“Nothing,” Aati said. Nabu turned to her, viewed the same receiving screens, where the ancillary message would appear alongside any distress signal. Aati blinked her six eyes with consternation.

“Scanners at full,” Nabu commanded.

“Ongoing,” Mo said, who’d employed a full scan the moment they were near enough. The ship continued its approach. On the bridge-view, the Zeno came into physical view. The crew of the Ablutionary, well-versed in alienoid histories out of necessity given their profession, looked upon an artifact that even their furthest living ancestors, artificially prolonged past their given mortality, would consider as a blast from the far past just the same.

“The X.S.S. Zeno,” Aati said. “An old explorer-class, from the First Era…Unbelievable. Nearly.”

“What do those scanners say?” Nabu intoned. An aura of unease captured him then. If it was a shyfter trap, then it was a wild choice. Or an accident. The Ablutionary, a nomad-exterminator (NE) warship, had made the far jump to these outer voids as a starting point to their two-pronged quest: exterminating vestiges of any and all shyfter lifeforms within the galaxy, and gathering the derelict resources and equipment left behind from any unknown phenoms they might come across. A whole fleet of NE’s was launched in the wake of the final sols of the Shyfter Wars, in which the Intergalactic Alliance finally gained the upper hand over the evil, shapeshifting other-dimensional beings. Their ruthless sprawl into civilized galaxy had devastated life everywhere; the Intergalactic Alliance itself came into existence, out of simple surviving necessity, during the seven decades of warring with the shyfters. Previously longstanding and bloody conflicts between Gestrats and the Grells, Jojerians and Ghavs, Humans and Thralls, and many others all fell apart. A superior threat had emerged. Extinction lay upon the horizon of this brave new world, full of infiltrating, nigh undetectable monsters, each one capable of killing tenfold itself before being stopped. The Windosaurs were wiped out entirely by an early shyfter raid. Dozens more interstellar communities came close to such extinction at the hands of these beings from the depths of nightmare.

The shyfters were only defeated due to their lack of organization, and their animalistic impulse to go as fast and far as possible into habitable planets and their organic peoples. Purely instinctual beings, they established no bases to breed themselves from in security. In the later sols of the conflict, their forces became stretched, and therefore, easier to kill. The first planets invaded — and the time it took to incur the mass casualties of their people, threshing through the meats and metals of their unprepared peoples — saved the remainder. The development of android warriors and android-led starships played a pivotal role in this turning tide. In the end, the planets far enough from the shyfter threat to see it coming, were able to unite to defeat the immediate threat.

But the threat was not yet ended. The shyfters were not yet extinct themselves.

Nabu sighed, awaiting Mo’s analysis.

“Something’s wrong,” were the first words from the android. Mo shook his head, directed at the console with increasingly rapid movements of his hands and his attention, working through scanning routines toward a reportable conclusion.

“Visuals seem off,” Aati proclaimed, watching from the bridge-view. Nabu noticed, too. The view of the ship, through the docks and the glasses, darkened on approach, were now filled with lights. Moments later, they blinked out.

“Scanners found something,” Mo explained, still at work on the nav screens, “But then, the arbitrations changed, the calcs reformatted. Something else. I didn’t say anything initially Captain. I assumed there was a malfunction within our system. So I rebooted it, even while maintaining a phantom up of the old sys to keep a continuous scan…”

Nabu narrowed his eyes, he’d never heard Mo speak with such uncertainty. The android never paused.

“Mo?” Aati said.

The android turned, his golden skin sheening from the lowlights of the bridgedeck. He shook his head, “It’s too much. Either our scanner functionality is shattered… Or that ship has … all kinds of … everything… on it.”

“All kinds of everything?” Aati said with disbelief. She and Nabi shared a glance. “Osmarck, give us second pair of eyes on the navs. Lieutenant Mo, step aside for the moment.”

Osmarck sat down at the android’s nav console and began running a set of routines. A few moments later, he was gasping out of excitement or fear or both.

“Scanners are showing out, alright. Sensors are working just fine… But it is what they are showing that doesn’t make sense. My conclusion would have to be a malfunction as well, like Mo was saying…”

“But what are the scanners showing!” Nabu shouted down from his chair, nearly bursting from it to see for himself.

“Well, Cap, it’s impossible,” Osmarck turned back to the Captain and began to read off a summary of the scans. “Organic life by the thousands, more population than a ship of that size or class would ever carry, all dead. All kinds of races and ages… Children, my god. Then, nothing, only a few moments later. Nothing visible beyond the vestiges of a smallform atmosphere. Then, a few moments on from that, hydrogen… The holds, the cabin, everything from the deck to the engine, full of hydrogen gas. Inert and stable, but shifting toward instability… Then! Only a few moments after… Hallendroidikas?? A whole fleet of the old machino-weapon model… Then something else, another element, another beast, another form of blankness. Each time the change occurs within about five seconds. The ship is currently full of … some kind of fungi.”

“Fungi?” Aati and Nabu said in unison. They both descended to the screen to see for themselves, not relenting to the insanity of the communication officer’s words themselves.

“Even if I look back at the minute-to-minute history of the logs, from Mo and my own assessments,” Osmarck said, “Every five seconds there has been a different form of life, organic or inorganic, chemical or elemental, or a sheer absence of anything that might be called life, upon the wide holds of this starship…”

The four bridge-mates continued to watch the shifting mixes of impossibilities of the marked ship, per their own starship’s scanners, for another half hour, increasingly astounded at the showings. High fidelity scanners, freshly developed and installed upon their hunting warship, allowed for full range visuals of the item being scanned, in real-time. In this case, the angled, sheening wilderness of the X.S.S. Zeno repeatedly came into view. Half-constructed pareto blocks, a child’s toy from an aeon ago, scattered upon the holds. Malarkian redbeasts, a ferocious xenopredator native to only a few planetoids in the Newver System, alive and roaming and fighting one another for those few precious seconds. A mass of tendrils, with no solid shape or form, licking at the grates, wrapping themselves around the inner engines and screeching. Thousands upon thousands of … cats. Mewing into the void until they too disappeared into smoke, into liquid, into nothingness.

“We have to investigate,” Aati finally declared, clearing her multi-throat and many-mind, from the bewildering sights and sounds of their mark. The others kept watching. Captain Nabu was already shaking his head. He raised his attention to his number one, the second-in-command of their starship.

“I don’t like it,” was all he offered, before his eyes were drawn back to the chaos of the scan, now a sound alone, a threshing, sinking, slurping sound with no visual minutia to unpack beyond it. The sound grew in pitch and volume, nearly painful, before the five seconds were up, and a set of magenta crystals covered the halls of the Zeno.

“Explain,” Aati commanded his commander. Nabu shot her a glare.

“It’s just like the shyfters.”

“The fact that it … shifts?” Aati said, without jest or reproach, as she was nearly wholly incapable of disloyalty or disrespect toward a superior. Nabu interpreted it as such nevertheless, his mind intensely racing toward the worst conclusions, toward the most dangerous iterations of the scene playing out before them…

“Because it’s dangerous. Because it doesn’t abide the laws of this universe. Because it doesn’t make any sense, and it is relentless in each of these regards!” he spat with venom.

“The shyfters have never shown any such technology. They can shape their organic form to an exact copy of any organic form they come into visual contact with. And though they can do a great bit of damage with such an ability, that’s it. They do not captain starships. They do not build things. They do not use the materials around them or experiment toward any kind of novelty… They cannot shapeshift the emptiness of a starship’s interior to their liking — to inorganic and elemental matter, to hordes of beasts or formless flesh from the beyond the void… This is something unknown to the Alliance. Something dangerous yes, but highly unlikely it has anything to do with the shyfter threat…”

“We should make haste to escape its near-orbit and blast it out of the void in a fiery reign of thermonuclear cannon fire,” Nabu proclaimed with convicted confidence, his eyes on the bridgeview of the ship’s calm exterior.

Mo turned in his seat. “Our primary task is to explore, gather information and resources. Is it not true that such a ship as the one we have discovered, an interstellar craft from the First Era of humanity’s travails in the wider exoverse beyond their Sol, will be wielding a trio of Terra-core crystalloids, retrieved from deep within the dying Earth’s infernal inner core-”

“Yes! Sure. Maybe!!” Nabu shouted, becoming animated at the sights within his minds more than the ones before him. Of shyfters escaping their grasp, launching unto the inhabited planets in their wake still recovering from the last attack.

“Those crystals are inveterately rare, Captain,” Aati interjected.

“We can’t take any chances. Can’t take any chances… Not out here…” Nabu continued.

Silence fell on the bridge. Osmarck was nodding. “It’s true our primary objective is exploration, commander. But our greater task out here is to exterminate any shyfter threats. Or any other kind of existential threat. Given what we are seeing… this ship and its phenomena might classify as such, regardless of those cores aboard it. If they’re even still intact.”

“We have zero evidence this is related to the shyfter threat,” Aati repeated herself.

“How many times has hesitation before one of their novel schemes of savagery cost us the initiative, and a planet?” Nabu retorted.

“If we fire our thermos upon that ship, and it’s full of hydrogen, or worse… xyrium or vivium or zendrogen — we will end up wiping out the sector of all its matter, turning an unprecedented span of space into dark matter, causing untold worse chaotic phenomena than we are seeing currently,” Aati said calmly.

Nabu ran a finger through his hair, breathing deeply, gritting his teeth. The others watched him, reconfiguring their advisements and reactions to match his energy.

“It’s true, this is a singular quantum phenomena — we have an experimental view into The Box Paradox — and we have no idea what we’d be firing upon,” Osmark expounded. “Something dangerous, or something inert. As we can see, they are present in nearly equal measure. However, Commander Aati, we also do not know what we might be walking into when we dock upon her and open the door. The shifting may cease, all of those possibilities collapsing into finality — like in the box experiment. Or perhaps more likely, the shifting will continue, and us with it. Or us in spite of it, blasted from matter into nothingness alongside all of our five-second stars…”

“It’s simple,” Nabu interceded, “We just wait until we see a favorable outcome upon the scanner — and then we fire!”

Mo shook his head, his neutral face ready to explain why, “I’m sorry Captain, but that will not work. The full-fidelity scan our ship is completing — from within this distance or any closer it will not make a difference — takes longer than five seconds each time. Sometimes, it takes as many as ten seconds to complete. As a result, each time we take in the sights and sounds upon the systems of our own ship, the reality upon the holds and hallways of that ship out there has already changed into something else. We don’t know what the ship’s state is in real-time. It is something we will not be able to see, and plan around, until another five seconds has passed.”

“We’re always at least five seconds behind,” Osmark said with a click of his tongue.

“Either way, we’ll be going in blind,” Aati said.

“The goddamned box paradox!” Nabu shouted, slamming a fist onto the console, seething with fear and determination to determine the right course.

The captain raised his head from staring upon the latest monstrous recapitulation upon the screen and looked away, to the stars and this strange box amidst them. He paced with arms crossed, continuing to speak his mind. He spoke rhetorically, inviting his mates to converse and counter.

“We take a chance, and destroy it with the thermos, bracing for an immediate lightspeed getaway to avoid any ill-effects.”

“Besides casting away the Terra crystals, if we hit an elemental build up inverse to the thermonuke blast composition, we will be risking a lot more than just our own ship. Nearby inhabited planets inside of a few parsecs will be vaporized in our wake.”

“If we can escape in time, which is doubtful against many of these variations…”

“We dock and investigate, taking samples of some of the shifted material, make our way to the engine and transport the core crystals into our hold back here.”

“…And risk instant death in the midst of the shifts.”

“How do we navigate an away team on a ship like that, experiencing this kind of phenomena? You can’t safely prepare.”

“And how do we — the Alliance’s greatest scientists and explorers — pass up an opportunity to observe, investigate, and experiment with a once-in-a-universe quantum phantasm of impossibility before our very eyes?”

“Then we wait. And observe and perform a survey from range, scanning the iterations of this strange ship’s inner reality, cataloguing and indexing every single one. We try to detect the patterns and possibilities and formulate a theory on the observed realities and why it is occurring. What might it mean for physics, for the advancement of our own techs-”

“We may be able to deduce what happened to the crew. Why this ship was out here in the first place.”

“And why it flicked its distress.”

“By viewing all the old ones, we try to assume the next reality — and plan accordingly, toward exploration or destruction with a hypothesis in hand.”

“And only one experiment to work with…”

“And all the while, while we abandon our truer mission for the Alliance, the shyfters we would be hunting and killing, forge ahead freely, without opposition, upon the remaining planetoids heretofore free from their terrors and tyrannies… killing more of the universe’s precious populations, breeding and spreading without recourse while we twiddle our thumbs and play science in the far reach!”

“Commander!”

“Number One!”

“Lieutenant!”

“Sir, the latest iteration-”

“The crew. Alive!”

“And then gone again. And on to the next one…”

“What if we…

~

On and on the arguments went, before the anomalous X.S.S. Zeno, finally sighted. Seen, but not understood. Observed, but not cohered. Interiority like a matrix of mirrors, simultaneously volte-facing, about-facing, the starship’s reflections reverberated their own special infinities. Its superpositions disassembling and reassembling in the random aethers of undiscovered, undiscoverable physicalia before the mystified eyes of this bridge’s operatives, its processing reality continued to shift and iterate while the distress chime played undaunted. Each time, each chime offered a minute variant upon tone, pitch, rhythm, melody. Each chime offered a novel breath into the archive of reality — species warped or birthed, elements amplified or developed anew in an instant, forces from the past or future, or from beyond the veil of this reality… Nearly unnoticeable to the listener, the distressing song recomposed itself each round similarly as something brand new, corresponding to the unique configuration of matter within the box. Building and building. This music built to an infinite crescendo even as the energy from its finite source faded.

It builds to an end, unknown and unknowable, while the universe around it listens, incapable of guessing at what was in store when the final note struck, collapsing this dancing, shapeshifting immateriality into terrible, singular certitude.

Sooner or later, intervened upon or not, the song would be finished, all of the past possibilities realized at once, for better or worse — a new ‘verse born from the vaporized dust of the old. ~