“Do you see that?”
“See what?” Richard Jeffers turned from his console to his partner, Nguyen Li, who was scrutinizing a patch of starfield—the same patch he’d been studying for the past three days, for all Richard could tell. Leaning forward, his head bent alongside Li’s darker one to peer at the display panel. “I don’t see anything. Maybe it’s time to take a break, Win.”
“It was there, just for a second. Something moving. Fast.” Sitting back, the spectographer rubbed his eyes and stared at the screen again. “I swear it was there, Richie.”
Richard shrugged his shoulders and ruffled Li’s short-cropped hair. Stellar spectography duty on Confederation Science Outpost CX-2114 (“a place so boring they couldn’t even come up with a name for it,” Li had complained) wasn’t the galaxy’s most exciting posting, situated as it was on the outskirts of inhabited space. Of course, that’s what allowed them to escape the light and electromagnetic pollution that interfered with astronomical observations in more densely populated sectors. They’d made good progress on the galactic mapping project and captured some especially clear images, and they only had another five weeks to go before their tour was up and they could hand the station off to their relief crew. Richard couldn’t wait.
“Okay, I give up,” Li sighed finally. “Let’s call it a night and we can search the images tomorrow with fresh eyes, for whatever I saw and for whatever else is there. How does that sound?”
“As long as you promise to actually sleep and not come back in here to stare at the screen all night, that sounds great,” Richard agreed. “Come on; neither of us is going to do any more good here tonight. We’re both so exhausted our eyes are crossing.”
Li had to admit that was certainly true for him. Resolutely setting the recorder to auto and the computer to pick up and note any changes so he wouldn’t have to look through the entire night’s footage in the morning, he pushed away from the console and smiled at his partner. “Your turn.”
“My turn for what?” Richard countered with a grin, just starting to rise from his station when a klaxon sounded, the harsh scream so unexpected that he dropped back into his seat in shock. “What the—”
“There!” Li shouted, pointing to the spark of light moving across his monitor. “Proximity alarms. I told you there was something there!”
“The supply ship isn’t due for over a month. I can’t imagine who else would have business out here in the back end of the galactic arm,” Richard countered. Moving to the comm console, his fingers flew over the keys and knobs, trying to lock onto a signal. “Unidentified ship, this is ConSci post 2114. Please identify yourself.”
Silence greeted his words. He switched to a wider frequency in the hopes that the silence was an inability to hear them rather than an unwillingness to respond. “Unidentified ship, this is ConSci post 2114. Please identify yourself. Repeat, please identify.”
A blast from the unfamiliar ship’s weapons was the only reply. The station rocked precariously, knocking Li to the floor and almost sending Richard there as well. “Unidentified ship, this is a science station, not a military vessel. We have no hostile intentions. Desist immediately.”
Again, there was no response. Fingers flying, Richard ran a diagnostics check, transferring as much power as he could from the sensor arrays to the station’s energy shields. He hoped whoever was firing on them was just trying to get their attention. Their shields were designed to deflect space dust and the random asteroid, not a deliberate attack. And they had no weapons, because who’d want to attack a two-man research station?
Apparently whoever was out there, Richard realized, as another barrage shook them only seconds later. Turning back to the comm, he reconfigured the frequency to a Confederation channel, even though he knew they didn’t have the signal strength to reach anyone in real time.
“Richie, we’ve got to get out of here,” Li insisted, pulling himself up off the floor, his lips bloody where the impact had caused his teeth to break skin. “The shields on this piece of junk might keep out the space drek, but they aren’t going to do anything against weapons fire.”
Richard looked back once more at the ship and snapped a final image, shooting it off via the space waves toward home. If they didn’t make it out alive, hopefully the image would get through and give somebody somewhere an idea of who to go looking for. “Let’s go.”
The narrow corridors that usually felt so cramped seemed endless now as they raced toward the docking bay. Another impact slammed them from one wall to the other, the lights flickering and then going dark, replaced slow seconds later by the dim glow of emergency lighting. “Faster!” Li shouted, reaching for Richard’s hand to pull him along behind him.
“Hit my knee,” Richard gasped, moving as quickly as he could despite the pain in his leg. Rounding the last bend in the corridor, he skidded to a stop, unconsciously gripping Li’s hand more tightly. “Shit,” he whispered, the word echoed by the slow hiss of a pinhole leak, their precious air escaping into space. The door to the docking bay was buckled, the paint melting away and dripping in gobbets to the floor. “Shit, Win….”
“Richie....” The two scientists stared at each other, acceptance darkening their eyes. Richard reached out his other hand toward Li, but before their fingers could meet, a final blast from the unknown ship hit the main power core, the resultant explosion tearing the fragile metal apart.
It took three days for their last message to reach Confederation headquarters. The Admiralty commanders studied the image, but could find no familiar markings on the unusual ship. In the face of an inexplicable, untraceable new threat, they did what they always did.
They blamed the space pirates.