On the edge of the galaxy, at the very ends of the spirals, space becomes space. Nothing but the ship holds back the dark. You breathe in the darkness and it chills your lungs, creeps, slowly, inevitably, into your bones, deep inside, past the liver, spleen and kidneys and finally, you know, you’ve lost something.
We get asked why we go out to the Edge and what part of our emotions make us erase ourselves from the settled part of the galaxy. Most of the time, I shrug or give a pat answer like, “It’s there.” They nod but think edgers are all crazy and mostly we are. That’s why we have the meds. They help ameliorate the shit that happens inside your head when you’re alone for five years sealed in a can like old meat. I tell myself I’m an explorer but know it’s not true. Some go in pairs and often only one returns. Most who go out to the Edge delude ourselves into thinking we want to escape the crud of humanity, but the reality is no one wants to be that alone.
Contact keeps us alive and mostly sane. A transmitter sends out an automated CQ on standard communications bands. CQ is a general call which means, “I’m just looking for someone to talk to.” Another voice. Even if conversation takes days, it is still touching another human.
The Bender Drive allowed humanity to travel between stars but communication was still hampered by the limitations of electromagnetic radiation. A ship could pass through bent space but no messages. The big brains thought quantum entanglement would be the answer but it never materialized as a communications technology. The breakthrough was always twenty years distant. The Bender Drive, bent space-time without using a lot of energy allowing interstellar travel. It wasn’t precise and there were mass limits. Only small ships survived the journey. It is hard to build a coordinate system that includes space-time so there is a huge margin of error involved with location. Consequently, ships had to be sent to uncluttered areas of space. Fusion drives were then used to reach the planets in star systems.
What do we find out here? Sometimes, rare habitable planets or resource rocks with the precious raw materials civilization needs. The mother load for ‘explorers’ are the occasionally derelicts with non-human technology. Five have been documented but still don’t know where they come from. Fame and riches for the discoverer. After the accolades and few minutes of fame, some government or corporation hauls your prize away. Nothing seems to come of it.
So we drift around on the Edge, broadcasting our CQ without really expecting an answer. It has about the same probability of answer from a message in a bottle thrown into the expanse of a wide ocean. Zip.
The com chimed me out of a vid I was watching for the thirtieth time. Receivers detected a signal or thought it had. Radio frequency noise is rampant out here. Hell, everything radiates some kind of RF so that even legit signals can be buried in the grass. Spurious signals from pulsars appear to be ordered. The dark can make you grab hold of random nothings. I talk to myself way too much out here and record it for posterity in the autolog.
The filters ID’d this sig as probably-maybe-possibly intelligent. Maybe. The ship’s AI is good at tweaking out signals but nothing is better than the human ear and a finely honed hand on the knob.
Buds in the ears, I strained to hear pulses, voices, clicks, or anything that indicated of a living being on the other end.
It was a voice and sounded female. I looped it and commanded the AI to analyze. Results:
Possibly human speech. Possibly female gender.
Yeah, big help. I pushed the buds tighter into my ear.
“Zzzzzffttt, hel….crash, zzzfftt, fizzzt, fizztt, hello? Hello? Run…emer…p…..r….zzzzft. Crew…”
More noise. It sounded like a distress call but not automated. I checked for correlating emergency beacons. Nothing showed.
“This is Columbus Man,” I spoke as I keyed transmit. “Do you copy?”
More static and noise. The signal was burried in the background.
“Columbus Man…….zzzzft…..zzzft… copy…rew…dea….need help…” I instructed the AI to localize the signal. It used to require at least two locations to triangulate. Technology and algorithms improved. It gave me a direction.
“Set course and engage fusion drive,” I told it. It gave me a: Not advised.
“Why the hell not?”
Anomalous signal unverified. No correlating beacon.
“Override protocol. Set course and engage drive.” It acquiesced and filed a formal advisement. AI with attitude. Who needs it? A short hop with the Bender, next sector if you believed the grid layover.
The shipped popped into space even further out on the arm. Emptiness. I could sense it before the instruments validated. Nothing out here.
The long range nav-radar, displayed a blip, small, single dot pixel on the screen.
“Initiating manual control. Steering toward the vessel.”
“Vessel not validated against background noise.”
The AI filed another formal advisement which meant it was disagreeing with me. It’s why we still have humans on ships. Who better to assess extraordinary circumstances? The image grew larger on the nav-radar but I wasn’t close enough for a visual yet. I signaled on the com again.
“This is Columbus Man. I have you on radar. Copy?” There was a delay but she respond although the signal was still down in the grass. I guessed her power was low, possibly transmitting on micro-watts or antennas were damaged. Possible reasons for lack of distress beacon.
Exterior imagers picked up a dark something, irregular shape, more like an asteroid than a ship. I activated exterior lights. Nothing. I steered using the nav-radar. I was along aside now but nothing showed on screen. Cameras were glitchy on this old tub.
“Zzzzxft, airlock….zzzft, zzft…en….fffft…” I heard a clank and felt the thud as the ships touched.
“Recommend suit and helmet. Situation unknown. Filing Advisement.”
I ignored it. Someone needed help. I cranked the airlock open.
The ship’s log ends here. The derelict Edger craft was located by another Edger when the AI initiated a distress beacon. The owner had stepped out into empty space without a suit. No body recovered.
– Gene Turchin
R. Gene Turchin runs away from West Virginia winters and hides out in Florida for a few months where he is currently working on a science fiction novel and comic book scripts. Most recent published works can be found in VerseWrights, 365 Tomorrows, With Painted Words, Aurora Wolf, Literary Hatchet, The Ginger Collect, Eye To The Telescope, The Broadkill Review, Astounding Outpost, Event Horizon and Aphelion Webzine.