Ever since humanity has taken to the sky, there have been forces at play that seek to bring us back down to the earth. And forces at play that aim to keep us airborne.
Rhonda gazed out of the shielded window from the observation deck and marveled at the sight of the iridescent nebula. From that distance, it was still only a wisp of cloud as big as her head. She placed a hand to the bulkhead and felt the humming of the engine. Her engine. She was the chief engineer. A dozen other ships held a dozen other chief engineers who were all doing their best to assure that their ships were running as smoothly and swiftly as possible.
Through no particular skill of her own, her ship, the Midnight Gadrion, was on course to reach the nebula first. She felt a cautious excitement. This mission would be her last, she told herself, as she had told herself for the last two missions. There were things she loved about tending to the engine of a working ship. But there were a lot of things she did not love about space travel. One of them was being away from her children. And now that both she and her pilot husband were space-faring parents on the same ship, she kept having the paranoid fear that her kids would lose both parents in some freak accident. Or even a not-so-freak accident. Many people took space travel for granted—mostly those who hadn’t ever traveled in space. Statistically, it was safer than riding a vacuum loop train or an airplane, they said. But Rhonda was an engineer. She knew what would happen if the engine failed. There were redundancies, contingencies, and strength built into the engine. It wasn’t like a human brain, powerful yet delicate. If a ship’s artificial intelligence was its brain, then its engine was its heart.
She and her husband had discussed her retirement from space travel. He was the explorer in the family, the romantic hero with the heroic nickname, Soloman “Starman” Reid. She was the tinkerer. She was just Chief Reid. Still, there were some things about space travel she would miss, she thought, as she felt the drone of the engine beneath her hand.
“Reid, do you copy?”
Rhonda was roused from her musings. It was her second-in-command, Georges. She answered his call. He reported some anomalous energy readings from the engine. That’s how it started.
Rhonda’s two young mechanics, Marcus and Sheila, were still on their break. They were usually deployed all over the ship. It wasn’t a small vessel, but its inner workings were cramped to crawl and shuffle through. So they liked to come to the spacious engine room for their shorter breaks. They were chatting about the nebula. Now that it was in view of the naked eye, most of the crew of three dozen often chatted about it. A space-based observatory was being built on the outer edge of the nearest colonized solar system, but it wouldn’t be ready for another half a decade. In the meantime, some of the preliminary readings put out by the nebula hinted at promising discoveries. Exotic particles to study. Desirable resources to harness. Something called condensed dark matter. There were even rumors of secret orders given only to the captains of the dozen ships. Yet, with all of that, there had been no air of danger to the mission. Rhonda’s thoughts of freak accidents and retirement to planet-side were the same thoughts she’d had on her last two missions.
Georges showed her the readings. They looked similar though not quite identical to readings she had seen during diagnostics before. It could have been artifact, an unforeseeable effect of being close to the nebula. Georges had run the diagnostic twice again with the same results.
Rhonda called the bridge and asked for the ship to stop so they could run further diagnostics.
Rhonda knew she would get the credit, alongside her valiant captain and her hotshot pilot of a husband, for getting their ship to the nebula first. They weren’t there yet. There were two ships that were just behind them and might overtake them, especially if Gadrion stopped yet again.
It was the third time she stopped the ship, but this time, Rhonda was truly concerned. The first two times might have been glitches in the sensors. The first stop was just to run diagnostics from inside the ship. The second stop, also ordered by Rhonda, included an excursion to the outside of the ship by Martin and a couple of crewmates cross-trained in the basics of repair and restoration. They checked the sensors, took readings with handheld sensors. There were some discrepancies, so they took a few sensors offline for repair and all was well…for a while.
“Why are we stopping this time, Chief?” the captain asked over the communications link. There was the slightest edge of impatience in her voice.
It wasn’t just a few sensors this time. This time, Rhonda had found a problem with the engine. She found a problem with the ship’s heart.
Rhonda stood before the senior officers of the ship in the main conference hall. She had a display up that showed the problem. Georges was the one giving the briefing, while Rhonda watched to gauge if the faces around the conference table expressed confusion or realization.
The engine core had been taken offline for a certain span during the “night shift.” A few modifications had been made to the core. Nothing dangerous. But the modifications did make the engine sluggish. It may have gone unnoticed, if the engineering team hadn’t become hyper-vigilant after the last two stops they’d made. The security cameras showed nothing or no one present in the area, obvious tampering.
Only senior officers, the Chief Engineer, and Chief’s back-up had access to the core. Barring a security breach, this meant that everyone gathered in that conference room were the only folks who had access. Georges had joined the ship just before the mission to the unnamed nebula. Rhonda had the usual doubts about trusting her engine to someone she’d just met, especially someone who was rumored to have turned down a post as chief engineer himself on a much newer and more prestigious ship, but he had proven himself reliable and trustworthy. He challenged Rhonda often, but always respectfully and professionally, and to her face. He treated the young mechanics with respect and taught them a few new tricks he knew, after running it by Rhonda. He had proven to have a cool head during a minor emergency when they were still dockside. And after all that, both he and Rhonda had proof of their whereabouts when the core had been accessed.
“Are you asking us or accusing us of making these changes to the engine?” the ship’s doctor asked, catching on.
“Asking, Doctor,” Rhonda said. “For help, that is, to find out who might have done it. Maybe there is a member of the crew who has skills and talents we’re not aware of. No harm was done to the engine.” She turned to the captain. “I have a not-so-wild theory.”
The captain nodded her head, her signal that Rhonda should proceed.
“We may have a saboteur onboard…someone who isn’t trying to hurt us, but just cobble us. We are the leading ship. Or that is, we were.”
“You allowed us to be overtaken, Rhonda,” the doctor said. “I understand your need for caution more than anyone. If the crew suddenly started feeling sick the closer we got to that nebula, trust me, I wouldn’t be asking us to stop. I’d be ordering us to turn around. But word has it that we didn’t really need to stop for sensor malfunctions.”
“Maybe you’re right, doc, about the sensors. But…the engine core?”
The doctor shrugged her brows and nodded in concession.
The captain turned her chair toward the group. “I’ll have security interview the crew. See if we can find out if there is indeed a saboteur onboard. Even if their aim isn’t to harm my crew, I don’t like the idea of them harming my ship.” She turned to Rhonda. “See if you can find any more evidence of deliberate tampering, Chief.”
The meeting concluded. Rhonda and her team got the engine back to maximum efficiency, and the ship continued on.
The next day, they lost their communications array. And their primary back-up array.
And the secondary back-up array.
“How can the security feeds not be showing anything?”
“Because someone is tampering with them too.”
“But how? We’re all on the lookout for this saboteur.”
“We may need to come up with some outlandish theories here, folks.”
“It doesn’t get much more outlandish than the doctor suggesting we’re all saboteurs who’ve been mind-controlled to carry out our actions in the course of our daily duties.”
“Should we put ourselves in stasis then?”
“No one has gotten hurt yet, but it’s just a matter of time.”
Rhonda watched as the tension in the room built and built. It was only two days after she had discovered the tampering with the engine. All the crew were gathered in the conference room now. Most of the senior staff were seated. Those who had no chairs were standing, or pacing. The captain stood on the lectern at the front of the room, letting everyone speak for the time being, but poised to jump in if the discussion got out of hand.
After the communications array went down, navigation sensors were next, along with some of the mini-rockets that were used for fine maneuvering. A small fuel tank had come loose and exploded while the recovery team was still suiting up, damaging the port ventral hull of the ship. There was no breach, and the hull integrity was still solid, but the sight of the scorched hull, looking as if it had been damaged in battle, unnerved the crew.
It felt warm in the room. A sheen of sweat was forming on Rhonda’s forehead. But no one had meddled with the temperature controls. It should have been a cool sixty-eight degrees. She noticed her young mechanics, Martin and Sheila, standing in a corner, whispering to each other. There was a third member of their conversation, one of the security guards. He shook his head vigorously at what they were saying and stepped away from them. The mechanics glanced at their chief. Rhonda walked over to them. They looked nervous and hesitant, but also restless about something. She’d seen that look before, during their training. They had something to tell her, but they were worried about her reaction in case they made a mistake.
“Let’s get some air,” Rhonda said. She corralled her two young crewmates outside.
In the corridor, it actually felt cool. Rhonda took a breath and felt some of the tension in her shoulders relax. She glanced out of a porthole window. The ship was moving, slowly. There was a dwarf planet nearby. Spare parts had been launched in landers and satellites ahead of the mission and sent to stable bodies, like dwarf planets or moons along the way for just such emergencies. Not all of the payloads had made it to their destinations. But if the Gadrion’s repaired sensors could be trusted, the dwarf planet was one of the targets for a re-supply lander, and there was a beacon signal coming from the planet. They could land, rebuild their communications array, and send out a warning to their sister ships in case the malfunctions were caused by the nebula, along with a distress call if they couldn’t repair the rest of the ship.
“All right, you two,” Rhonda said. “Spill.”
The two mechanics looked at each other, then at Rhonda. She put on her, “what have you got?” face. It usually worked to encourage them to tell her whatever crazy idea they had. But she never expected nor could she have expected what came next.
“We think we’ve seen something,” Martin said.
“We can’t be sure,” Sheila said. “We’re trying to find proof, but it may be tricky.”
Rhonda looked from one to the other as they alternated.
“Our detectors may not be equipped, even if they weren’t malfunctioning.”
“There is a saboteur. Maybe more than one.”
“But we don’t think it’s a crew member.”
“The doctor just said people have reported seeing things. You heard her. But she thinks it’s hallucinations from stress.”
“We can’t be sure.”
Rhonda held up her hands. “I get it. Whatever it is, it’s hard to believe. You need to stop being coy and just tell me.”
“Come with us,” Shiela said. “We’ll show you.”
And the mechanics led Rhonda to main engineering.
Main engineering was supposed to be empty. It made sense that Sol didn’t want to be in the conference room with all the hubbub and stress. But if he were to be found anywhere else, she would have thought he’d be manning the bridge in the captain’s absence. Instead, he was in her domain, sitting at a client console good only for displaying information and disseminating minor commands. She felt a twinge of suspicion as she wondered what her mechanics and her husband were up to.
“Don’t be mad at them, Rhon. They wanted to come to you first, but well, they had a hard time convincing Carl and he actually saw what they saw. And you’re one of the ‘must see it to believe’ kind of folks.”
Carl was the security guard that Rhonda had seen with the mechanics, the one who had shaken his head and moved away from them. Sol was right. Between the two of them, Rhonda was the practical and pragmatic one. If there was a crazy notion afoot and the proof was enough to convince her, she could convince the captain.
“I haven’t seen it, myself,” Sol said. “But they came to me because I’m the one who knows all the stories. And this one sure sounded familiar.”
Rhonda frowned. “Stories?”
“Sometimes we must turn to legend to find the answers that we cannot find in science.” Sol brought up a display of an alien creature, a small gray homunculus with one discerning feature in its plain gray face, an expression of mischief. “Behold,” he said, “the gremlin.”
Rhonda crossed her arms. Sol knew she didn’t know what this creature was. He took her cue and started his story.
“Back on the old planet, there was this legend that started during one of their major wars. Pilots flying aircraft reported seeing these creatures tinkering with their airplanes, sometimes midflight. No one ever found any proof of anything. And they wouldn’t have with their technology.”
Rhonda raised a brow. “Meaning?”
Sheila took over. “It’s possible that the reason we haven’t been able to detect them is that they’re interdimensional beings. They only enter our dimension when they want to tamper with our stuff.”
“It’s a working theory,” Martin said. “We want your and the captain’s permission to build a sensor to try and detect them. They seem to be perfect when it comes to evading our mechanical sensors, but aren’t so perfect at evading our naked eyes. That may be a clue that we can use. I was thinking the doctor should be able to print some artificial eyes for us. Or we can also put camera chips in every crew member’s eyes.”
“Why do they want to tamper with our stuff?” Rhonda asked.
Sol shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they live in that nebula and they don’t want us going near it and taking all their resources. We were planning on doing that after all.”
“That’s a leap, considering that your story says we first encountered these things a few millennia ago on the mother planet.”
“Some of the stories we found suggest they’re also pan-temporal creatures,” Sheila said. “That is, they don’t experience time linearly as we do. Maybe back when humanity first encountered them, they were trying to stop our technology from developing to this point because they knew we’d get here.”
“You’re assuming these gremlins are connected to that nebula,” Rhonda said. “Where did that assumption come from?”
Rhonda looked at her three crewmates, none of whom had a good answer. She softened. “I’ll grant you that they appear to be related in some way. We’ve been spacebourne for the better part of a year and haven’t had any issues, not like these.”
“These accounts seem to be about mischievous creatures, not malicious ones,” Sol said. “Of all the systems that were compromised, life support remains online, so do main engines. They’ve cobbled the ship, but haven’t disabled it altogether.”
“Have you actually seen one of these things causing the damage?” Rhonda asked her mechanics. There might indeed have been interdimensional beings onboard the ship, but that didn’t mean they were the culprits.
“During our last excursion,” Sheila said. “We saw one of them twisting the bolts off a steering fin with its bare hands.”
Martin nodded. “It turned around and saw us, sneered, and just vanished.”
Rhonda still wasn’t convinced. The doctor was likely right about the hallucinations. But they were still a few days away from the dwarf planet. The mechanics’ proposal wasn’t out of hand. It couldn’t hurt to investigate.
“Let’s go see the captain,” she said.
Not only did the captain approve the engineering team’s plan, but after the ship-wide announcement was made about the gremlins, the crew seemed to grow calmer not more agitated. There were apologies made for accusations thrown around when it was thought the saboteur was human. All crewmates volunteered to wear the camera lenses in their eyes in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a gremlin and recording proof of one. Even if they didn’t really exist, these gremlins seemed to be improving the ship’s morale. They had given the crew something to blame for the ship’s malfunctions besides than each other.
There were discussions about attempting to communicate with the gremlins, and what to do to capture or stop them if they didn’t care to speak or listen. Rhonda helped her team devise detectors and continue repairs.
She took a much-needed break after a fourteen-hour shift in engineering. Sol was waiting for her in the observation deck. His co-pilot was directing the ship. In the absence of the navigational arrays, the ship’s computer had been directed to use the visual sensors as a guide. Sol’s real work would come when they were ready to land. There were others in the deck, but beside the odd burst of laughter, it was mostly quiet. The crew was tired from doing the basic work that the ship’s automated systems usually did.
Sol told Rhonda more stories about the gremlins. Half the crew had seen them now. And still, only blurred images were captured by the lens cameras. Rhonda believed now. She was one of those who had seen one. Rather disturbingly, it was tinkering with the handle to her closet. She called out to it in anger and though she couldn’t hear its laughter, she saw its shoulders shake and she saw the grin on its wicked little face before it vanished. After that, she like much of the rest of the crew remained as fully clothed as possible at all times.
“The stories grew over time, got embellished,” Sol said. He sat on the floor before the window leaning against the bulkhead. Rhonda sat beside him.
“It was said there was just one way to quell the mischief of a gremlin. They lived in the sky and when human beings took to the sky, they grew suspicious. They would go mad with mischief and wreck all human invention. The gremlin king was wise, however. He appeared to the leaders of the world in a secret council and agreed to calm his people—most of them anyway. In return, the human leaders agreed to leave the gremlins alone. As it so happened, the king’s solution was to sing his people to sleep each night with a special song that only he could sing. The song gave them calming dreams and when they woke, their mischief left them.”
Rhonda shook her head. “Anything can happen in myth and legend. How does a person make sense of any of it?”
Sol laughed. “All right. How about this? When we started venturing out into space, I mean getting on the ships ourselves instead of just sending probes, landers, and orbiters, we started encountering the gremlins again. At least, according to some stories from those early centuries. One of them was about the gremlins’ singing king. Well, this is when it first was proposed that the gremlins might be from another dimension and that they might be out of phase with our dimension. They were either naturally gifted with the ability to enter our dimension, or maybe they were advanced and had tech that we didn’t know about that allowed them to come here.”
“And they would come just to break things?”
Sol pointed a finger to the ceiling. “Well, someone thought that the term ‘singing king’ had a different meaning, a practical meaning that was later turned into a fanciful legend about an actual king. This someone was a ship-builder and he theorized that a “singing king” referred to any machine operating at one hundred percent efficiency. The singing of such a machine was the sweetest music to a gremlin. Humans could make no such machine at the time, so the racket from all these imperfect machines drove the gremlins nuts. They had to tinker, but they couldn’t fix the machines the way they were built, so they would always end up breaking them.”
“So they’re here to help? Unlikely. I saw that one in our quarters. He was up to no good.”
“Critical systems!” the captain yelled.
“Still online,” the first mate yelled back, “but all crew should go to stations and brace for impact.”
Rhonda wasn’t on the bridge. She was listening from engineering in the center of the ship and they could still feel the inertia of the ship falling toward the dwarf planet.
They were still underestimating how much they relied on their automated systems to ease and glide the ship into a smooth landing. But they would be all right. The hull was thick. All windows and portholes were shielded. Rhonda was strapped into a chair in front of the main engineering console. The engines were running steady. Rough but steady, like the rest of the ship. Her team was strapped in place.
She trusted her husband, but the ship was rattling so loudly now that she couldn’t hear the bridge, even in her earpiece. She gripped the arms of her chair and forced herself to keep her eyes open and on the console. It was useless. She was being shaken so hard, she couldn’t read anything. A figure appeared atop the center console. It stood, unstrapped, unanchored, a little gray homunculus.
Rhonda expected a smirk of satisfaction on the gremlin’s face, but instead she saw nothing, no expression at all. It merely looked at her and then at her team. Then it vanished.
And then they crashed.
It seemed like hours upon hours that the ship continued to shake after that first impact. Rhonda hadn’t felt the counter-vibrations from her chair, steadying her body, her bones, her brain, suspending her body to protect it from the impact. After several minutes of dizziness and disorientation, her head began to clear. She heard the computer repeating an announcement that the crew was clear to unstrap and begin reporting injuries and damage.
That first day on the dwarf planet was spent assessing damage to the crew and the ship. There were injuries, but thankfully nothing serious. All crew made it to their chairs and all survived. The ship had fared worse. They had located the emergency lander containing spare parts and a team was being assembled to retrieve it the following day, after rest and an extra check-up from the doctor. But there was no way the lander contained all the parts needed to get the ship flying again, and even if it did have entire chunks of hull, the crew did not have the machinery or expertise or room to make the major repairs. They would have to find the communications array on the lander and send out a distress signal.
There was no fear of being stranded. The lander would contain extra rations and potable water, assuming it had landed undamaged. There were many ships out there that could come and save them, unless of course, they were also beset by the gremlins.
Rhonda volunteered for the excursion team to go find the lander. In a bit of good luck the Gadrion was now only half a day’s trek from the emergency lander.
The next day, the excursion team encountered another bit of good luck, more than a bit, for the emergency lander was intact and sitting in a swirl of dirt where it had made a picture perfect landing. It was four times the size of Rhonda’s quarters aboard the Gadrion. The inside was sectioned. Medical supplies and consumables, including food and water, were in one section. Equipment, tools, and spare parts in another. There was even a section containing parts to build a few temporary weather-resistant shelters. Not enough for the entire crew, but between the shelters and the safe parts of the crashed ship, they would be able to hold out for a long while.
The half dozen members of the excursion team used their short-range communicators to notify the ship. The crew’s spirits were rising again. The captain even asked the excursion team to look for some goodies in the food supplies, like whiskey and chocolate.
The important task now that the crew of the Gadrion was all right, was to warn the crews of the other ships and call for aid from headquarters.
Rhonda stood in the constructed shelter, shivering despite being wrapped in four layers of insulation. The power source in the emergency lander was solar and was still charging, so they’d had to bring the array to the ship and use the ship’s engines. But after that it only took a few hours for them to get the communications array up and running.
Rhonda let her team do the work. The crew didn’t want to be idle. The ship’s aft section was safe and sturdy enough for most of the crew to start distributing or cooking food. Others took turns in the excursion suits to set up shelters outside the ship for the teams who would work on patch repairs that were needed before their rescue.
The array beeped and cracked with activity.
“—copy? We have detected your beacon and are on our way. If you make repairs and are flight-ready, do not launch. Stay in place. That is an agency order. This is Captain Barnes of the Morning Starlight. Midnight Gadrion, do you copy? We have detected your beacon and are on our way….”
It was a repeating recorded message. Rhonda frowned. If the Inter-system Space Agency was ordering them to stay in place, something had happened. Maybe the gremlins had downed other ships. But if the space agency was sending a ship to retrieve them, perhaps they had found a way to resist the gremlins.
The Gadrion’s captain started broadcasting a message on multiple frequencies, keeping her message as simple as the recorded one.
It was only moments before someone responded, the same Captain Barnes who was coming to their rescue. Rhonda and the few crewmates who were gathered around the captain in the main shelter listened as the captain of the Morning Starlight told them all that had happened after they lost their communications array.
One by one, the other ships in the mission had fallen victim to the mischief of the gremlins, starting with the loss of communications, so the ships could not warn each other or the space agency. Other ships were forced to land or drift. All had managed to make it to a beacon, or an emergency lander or orbiter, and get a warning and a distress call out.
A few of the slower ships with more robust systems and multiple redundancies managed to keep going despite the gremlins’ efforts. The closer they got to the nebula, the less often they saw the gremlins. They got close enough to launch probes into the nebula. The probes sent back no signals, no data. The space agency instructed the remaining ships to break off from their mission, go to rescue their sister ships, and return home for further assessment. All but one ship followed the orders. But the others saw what happened to that one ship. Its captain flew it recklessly into the nebula, and the rest of the ships lost contact. It wasn’t gremlins that time. The ship inside the nebula just went silent. The other ships sent word to the space agency that they planned to mount a recovery. They wanted to launch grapples into the nebula in the hopes of blindly catching hold of their sister ship and pulling her out.
While they were standing by for the agency’s instructions, the nebula began to change. It seemed to condense and pulse. The Gadrion’s crew were close enough to have seen some of it if they hadn’t been busy crashing onto a dwarf planet.
The nebula started to push outward and a portion of it changed shape into something like a tendril. And the tendril split in two, and split again into four. It reached toward those ships that still hovered close by. The ships began to fire their engines and move away.
Three of them failed to escape. They were caught up in those tendrils and dragged into the nebula. The one ship that escaped reported back to the space agency.
The agency immediately sent out a command for all mission ships to turn back if they were still flying or stay in place if they were crippled. Rescue ships were deployed and were warned about the gremlins. The space agency had done what the Gadrion’s crew had done. They researched the beings and gave their rescue ships ways to detect them, and possibly even thwart them. The Gadrion’s captain hadn’t allowed anyone to fire weapons at the gremlins. But the space agency authorized the use of weapons in case of dire need.
“No!” Rhonda said suddenly.
The voice of Captain Barnes stopped talking. Rhonda’s crewmates turned to her.
“Don’t you see?” Rhonda said. “Captain, tell the agency to order everyone not to fire at the gremlins. I don’t think they’ll hurt the rescue ships. But just in case, we need to get back to work on some way to communicate with them. Let them know we got the message.”
Rhonda looked at Sol, whose eyes widened. He gave a slight nod of understanding.
But the captain frowned. “What message?”
“They saved us,” Rhonda said.
The captain shook her head. “Chief, they knocked us out of the sky.”
“But they did it to save us. They knocked us out of the sky, so we would live to fly another day.”
The captain hesitated, peering at Rhonda, gauging her judgment. Then the captain contacted the space agency and conveyed her chief engineer’s message.
Their mission had become a very different mission. They had set out to explore, and it seemed they had made a terrible enemy.
But it seemed they had also made allies.
Copyright © 2016 Nila L. Patel.