The Earth was not at its place. That was of course impossible. But
Alice had checked all the data several times, and the space ship
definitely was at the place where the Earth should be. Except that
there was no planet at this place. Just empty space.
It had been her very first interstellar flight. Indeed, it had been
the first time she had left the gravitational field of Earth at all,
as all flight training and tests had been done either in orbit or in
simulators. Tests that she had passed with perfect grades. Otherwise
she would not have been allowed to pilot a ship anyway. Too many ships
had been lost recently, therefore the spaceflight regulation agency
had raised the bars for space pilots.
Alice had been enthusiastic when she finally had gotten the job as
space pilot. OK, it was just cargo transports, and she was alone on
the trips, but then, a typical trip only lasted a few days, and after
all, she was in space. Flying a space ship. Much better than her
previous job as web designer on an astronomy site she had taken only
because she needed the money. After all, she had not majored in space
flight in order to put images of planets onto computer screens. She
wanted to see those planets for herself.
Now this turned out to remain a dream. Not that she hadn't passed by
several planets, but the cargo ships had no windows, for cost reasons.
So while passing, still all she would see of the planets were images
on the screen. Well, at least they were live images, directly from the
camera, not those overcompressed jpegs she had to position on the web
site. She wondered why in all those centuries after its invention,
nobody had ever bothered to replace that image format by something
better. There was no lack of superior formats, after all.
But anyway, now she had different problems. Her current problem was
not that the image of Earth showed compression artefacts. Her problem
was that there was no Earth to be imaged to begin with.
For a moment she had thought it was an electronic malfunction caused
by leaving hyperspace. Always when leaving hyperspace, all electronics
stopped working for a mere fraction of a seceond before continuing to
work as if nothing had happened. Nobody knew why. But given that the
malfunction never had any lasting effects, people just got used to it.
Only newcomers like Alice even consciously noticed it, for more
experienced pilots it just didn't enter their consciousness any more.
After all, the time was too short to react in any way anyway.
Alice always feared that one day there might be a lasting effect. So
maybe that was what had happened this time? But there was no
reasonable way a malfunction could just make the Earth disappear from
the data completely. No, this had to be something different.
"Computer, open the flight chart." She carefully compared the data
with the tracking data the ship had collected during the flight. It
was in perfect agreement. The energy signatures of the hyperspace
tunnels matched the values on the flight charts. The durations of the
hyperspace passages matched. The inertial navigation data between
hyperspace travels showed correct navigation also in ordinary space.
Everything was as it should be.
Everything, except for the missing Earth.
But maybe the flight chart had been erroneous? "Computer, external
camera image to main screen, centered on brightest star." If this was
really the position of Earth, the brightest star should be the sun.
Seconds later, a very bright spot appeared on the screen, with a label
"Magnitude -27.52". That was the expected value for the sun as seen
from space at Earth orbit.
"Computer, block brightest star." She watched a shield move into the
picture until it hid the sun, so that the surrounding stars could be
recognized. She recognized the star constellation as Lyra. Another
sign that she was at the right place. The fact that she recognized
Lyra at all proved being in the right part of the galaxis, as too far
from the sun the constellations would look different. Moreover, at
this time of the year, the sun as seen from Earth should indeed be in
"Computer, manual camera control." She grabbed the trackball and moved
the camera in the direction where Centaurus was to be expected. Alpha
Centauri was so close to the sun that it should not be in its place
when viewed from any other star system. But there it was, at exactly
the place where it should be. There was no doubt: She was in the right
place. But where was Earth?
Maybe the time was wrong. Time shifts were a common occurrence with
wormhole travel, but should not happen during hyperspace passage. But
then, humanity had discovered the hyperspace tunnles only five decades
ago, and the first time the effect had been observed in wormhole
travel was after several centuries of regular use. So it was
definitely possible that it existed in hyperspace, too.
"Computer, locate third planet from the closest star." It took about a
minute, then the computer reported: "Planet identified. Distance to
the star: 1.5 astronomical units." That was the distance of Mars. But
Earth should be the third planet! Mars was the fourth. But then, maybe
Earth was currently right behind the sun, then the ship's system would
not be able to find it. It was very unlikely, but still much less
unlikely than Earth simply being gone.
"Computer, show image of the planet, maximum zoom." A small red disc
showed on the screen. The colour was right for Mars, too.
But there was something wrong with it. She couldn't quite tell what,
but something in her unconsciousness told her that there was some
issue with this image.
"Computer, maximum magnification." The red disc now filled the screen,
each pixel individually recognizeable. And now she saw what was wrong:
There was a straight vertical line going right through the planet's
image, along which its colour showed a sudden change. An effect that
she knew all too well from her previous job. It was a compression
There was only one possible conclusion: This image did not come
straight from the ship's camera, it came from somewhere in the data
storage. Someone had manipulated the computer. Probably all data was
fake. And she couldn't rely on anything the computer said or did.
But she also couldn't just switch off the computer. Without it,
absolutely nothing in this ship would work. She wondered how such a
ship design could ever have been approved by the spaceflight
regulation agency. But then, it was an open secret that the SRA was
corrupt; surely Spaceships Limited had paid a substantial amount to
the right hands for getting the space ship type approval. Anyway,
considering these questions now was moot. She had an immediate problem
to solve, and that was to get home.
As a first step she had to get reliable information about where she
was. Information that didn't go through the computer first. The very
first thing to do was to find out where she really was. She had to get
an impression of the space around her. Not a faked camera image, a
real view, with her own eyes. She started to walk to the nearest
The noises of the bridge vanished as the door closed behind her. Not
that the bridge had been loud to begin with. During travel, the sound
was dominated by the whining of the engines, but the engines were off
right now. The only thing that was to be heared was the humming of the
computers which filled the bridge, and the noise of the fans cooling
them. But now, in the corridor, everything was silent. The only thing
she still heard was the sound of herself walking, and as her ears
adapted to the silence, also her own breathing.
She shivered. Was it getting colder? At first she wasn't sure, but
soon enough there was no doubt. The computer must have shut down the
heating. It would get the colder, the closer she came to the hull.
And indeed, as she proceeded, the temperature fell rapidly. She
couldn't tell how much it was because of her getting closer to her
destination and how much it was due to the ship getting colder
overall. But one thing was for sure: Her clothing was too thin for the
temperatures currently on the ship. She started to walf faster, both
to save time, and to warm herself through the movement.
The ship now got colder rapidly. Did the ship have something like
active cooling? Maybe for the case it had to stay close to a star. She
didn't know about any cooling system, but then, for her trip that
knowledge would not have been necessary anyway. But if there was an
active cooling system, she was sure it was activated.
The falling temperatures also broke the silence of the ship. At first,
she heard no sound but the whispery hiss of the snowflakes landing.
Then, she started to hear cracking sounds. Could it be that some
structural elements were failing due to the cold? They for sure were
not made for this temperature.
Suddenly she had the impression that the air got thinner. Or was it
only imagination? Without any thought, she asked "Computer, control
air pressure." The answer came prompt: "Air pressure normal." But
then, she had already established that the computer wasn't to trust.
But then, what interest would the hacker have to kill her? Well, now
was not the time to ponder this question, now was the time to get a
space suit as quickly as possible. There would be one at the airlock,
so she hurried up.
To her mind came those many ships lost recently. Was that what
happened to them? Hacked and programmed to go who-knows-where, and
then systematically kill the pilot by manipulating the life support
systems? But why?
Now the reduced air pressure was already noticeable. She had to slow
down a bit because she didn't get enough air. How long until she would
turn unconscious due to lack of oxygen? She had the impression that
the ship started to move erratically. Was that the work of the
computer? Or was it just her perception due to the lack of oxygen?
Her pulse went fast as she finally reached the airlock. It was the
only thing that went fast. She was lurching towards the space suit and
tried to get into it. On the third try she succeeded. She put on the
helmet and opened the oxygen valve. Normally she hated the smell of
that breathing gas, but today she felt that a breeze from the ocean
could not smell better.
Quickly she recovered. The ship felt steady again, so it had been just
her perception. Looking at the air status of the suit, she saw that
she had about four hours of air. Four hours during which she had to
resolve the problems, or she would die.
The integrated heating of the space suit made her more comfortable
again. She checked the energy status. Only three hours of energy left.
So she would have to solve her problem a bit faster.
She entered the airlock and closed the inner door. There wasn't much
air left inside the ship, but she didn't want to increase the losses
further. Then she opened the outer door, carefully left the ship, and
connected the safety tether besides the door.
Following the standard protocol for space walks, she then closed the
outer door of the air lock. Right after she did it, she was angry at
herself. What if the computer wouldn't let her open it again? But
then, the computer could have closed it all by itself. Anyway, now
thjat it was already closed, better to not touch it again until
She boosted a bit away from the spaceship and looked around. She was
far away from any star, in absolute darkness. There was none of the
familiar constellations. Whereever she was, she was very far from
Then she noticed something else: Another ship leaving hyperspace, not
far from hers. Surely a rescue team! Someone would have noticed the
wrong course of her ship and followed her. She had to contact them and
warn them about the ship's condition. After all, who knew what the
ship was doing next, maybe fire the main engines when the other ship
tried to dock? Whoever that hacker was, it was clearly a malicious
person, so everything was possible.
She activated the communication system of the space suit. First only
the listening part, to save energy. She would activate the sender as
soon as she figured out the right channel.
Frantically she tried one channel after the other, until she picked up
a carrier signal. She checked the signature. It was her own ship that
she had picked up. But the signal was not strong enough to pass more
than one hyperspace tunnel. It certainly couldn't be picked up by
someone back on Earth, and probably not by anyone on the usual travel
The suit's computer identified digital data, and she put that data on
the Head-up display. It was a set of space coordinates, temperature
and pressure data, and the string "no life detected."
She needed a moment until she understood. The coordinates were the
current location of the ship, the true location. It was there to
specifically tell someone nearby where to find the ship. The rest was
there to tell them that the job was done, the pilot was killed. That's
why the other ship had only left hyperspace after she left the
airlock: Her ship's computer had detected and broadcast the loss of
life signal, and they had interpreted that as her being dead.
Now it was clear to her: It was definitely not a good idea to contact
that other ship. If she wanted to survive, they should not know that
she was still alive. She dragged herself with the safety tether back
to the ship where she could not be seen. Using the suit's boosters
would give her away. She didn't enter the airlock again, as then the
ship would again identify her life signs and the other crew would be
noticed of her still being alive.
She now was glad that she had closed the airlock. That way it didn't
give away that she was outside there. But just in case, she moved away
from the airlock using the handles on the ship's hull. She also
re-attached the safety tether a bit further from the airlock. That was
against the standard safety rules, but this was no standard situation.
She felt how the other ship docked to hers. Instinctively she checked
her HUD again: As expected, the ship didn't pick up her life signals.
Good. Now they would probably enter the ship, and givent the ship's
current status, they would need to use space suits. So she switched
to the standard suit-to-suit channel. The data on her HUD vanished.
At first, she picked up no signal, and she considered whether she
should switch to the ship's channel again. But then, she heard a
male voice: "Can you hear me?"
Another male voice answered: "Yes. You can now enter the ship."
"In a moment. I just get my blaster ready, just in case."
"Don't be silly. Didn't you see the data? The pilot is deat. No
"Better safe than sorry. I'm ready to go now."
"OK, but hurry up. We need to be finished in an hour."
An hour. So at least she would not run out of air or energy while they
were in the ship. But she would have to find a solution to her
situation in that time.
"I'm in. It's a bit hard to move. Everything is full of ice here."
"As it should. Now on the left there should be the door to the freight
"OK, I see it. I'm entering. Do you know where the light switch is?"
"According to my plan, it should be on the left, right after the door.
It might be a bit hard to operate from inside the space suit."
"OK, I've found it. Wow, that's a lot of machines."
"Yeah, five hundred, according to the company's tracking system."
So that was it. Space pirates. Alice had heard some rumours about
those, but nobody had ever seen them, so she had thought they were
just that, rumours. Well, as she now realized, the truth was that
nobody had survived to tell about them.
The voice continued: "On your left, you should see the cargo hatch."
"I see it."
"Open it. I'll then do the rest using the loading crane of our ship."
"How do I open it?"
"Do you see the big red button?"
"Yes. I press that?"
"No, that's for closing the hatch. There's a smaller blue button below
it. Press that."
"OK." Alice heard thesound of the hatch opening.
"Great work! Now go to the bridge."
"Why can't I just go back to our ship? We take the stuff out and fly
away. Nobody will find the ship anyway."
"But what if they do? Then they'll analyse the ship computer and find
our manipulations. And then they'll install software on their ships
that prevents it. We can't risk that. You have to reset the computer
to normal, so they cannot determine what went wrong."
"But what if the pilot is alive? Will that not allow him to fly back?"
"Don't be silly. The pilot is dead. By the way, according to the
flight plan, it's a woman. A quite pretty one, from the image. Selling
her to a brothel would surely have made us a pretty nice sum if we
hadn't had to kill her."
Alice smiled. No, she was definitely not dead. Those pirates were just
too sure of themselves. So sure, they were going to restore the ship's
computers. After they left, she would just enter the ship and fly
The voice continued: "And anyway, we're going to take all the fuel, so
there's no chance to go anywhere anyway, even in the unlikely case the
pilot is still alive."
Alice stopped smiling. She somehow had to stop those pirates from
taking away the fuel. And if possible, without revealing herself. She
wanted to end up neither dead nor in a brothel.
Where again was the filling port? Ah yes, right besides the docking
ring. Where the other space ship was currently docked. In other words,
possibly the most dangerous place for her to be at in this moment. But
she had no other choice. If the pirates stole her fuel, it was game
over for her.
She decided to remove the safety tether from the ship. Having to move
it continuously to different handles would be too time consuming.
Carefully she moved around the ship. Fortunately there were handles
all around it, in case it had to be repaired in space. Alice sent a
silent thank you to the regulators that required it. Since the ship
never entered any atmosphere, drag was no concern, and handles were
an obvious enough feature that they couldn't be easily avoided without
raising questions in the general public. Approval officers could be
bribed, but the public opinion couldn't.
In the communication system she heard the two voices exchanging
arguments whether there wouldn't have been a good way to capture her
instead of killing her. Good, that should keep their attention away
from what happened on the ship's hull.
She reached the point where she could see the pirate ship. She knew
all to well that this meant that the pirate ship now could also see
her. She had to move slowly to not draw attention.
On the other hand she saw that the fuel hose was already connected.
Any second she came later meant less fuel left. Thus she had to move
as fast as possible.
Fortunately the pirates were still busy moving the freight from her
ship to theirs. Another thing that should take their attention away
She moved with the maxim speed she thought she could afford without
being detected. Which was a rather slow speed, actually. She
concentrateed on the handles that moved below her with almost hypnotic
speed. She knew she couldn't afford to miss a single one, as she was
not tethered any more, and the boosters would literally highlight her
in the darkness of space.
She hardly noticed that one pirate reported the ship's computer being
restored to normal state. She only noticed in passing that the pirate
ship had finished the cargo transfer and closed its hatch. She barely
registered that the pirate reported return to his ship. The fact that
the pirate ship undocked didn't enter her consciousness. All that was
in her mind was to reach the filling port.
She was only a few meters away from the filling port when the
unthinkable happened. The pirate ship released the hose and dragged it
in. She immediately knew what that meant. They had finished removing
the fuel. Her ship was empty. She was stranded. She would slowly
Following a sudden inspiration, she fired up her boosters. It made no
longer sense to stay hidden. If they decided to kill her now, it would
save her a long, painful agony.
But that was not what she hoped for. She hoped for the pirates' greed.
Hadn't they argued about the money they could make from selling her?
Well, she would give them the chance. But for that, they would have to
get her on their ship. Alive. And as soon as she was on the ship, the
game was again open.
And indeed, she saw how the outer door of an airlock opened on the
pirate ship. Her tactics had worked! She boosted towards the ship and
entered the airlock. On the inner door, one of the pirates awaited her
with his blaster. Well, that was expected. She showed no resistance as
the pirate brought her to a cabin.
"Are you virgin?" asked the pirate.
"Yes." This was a flat-out lie. But she knew that brothels paid a
multiple for virgins, and she hoped that this way the pirates would
not dare to damage that value. And at least for the moment it worked.
The pirate closed the door, activated the electronic lock and went
Alice tried to use the door's open button, but of course it didn't
work. Well, it was worth a try.
Shortly after, she noticed the typical feeling og being in hyperspace.
She felt it in every part of her body. It was a feeling unlike any
other feeling she had ever experienced. She couldn't describe it, nor
could anyone she ever had met. If you had ever been in hyperspace, you
knew that feeling, if you never were in hyperspace, there was no way
to even imagine it.
Alice had also noted something different, something that nobody else
she had spoken to had noticed. Abount three seconds before leaving
hyperspace the feeling changed slightly. It wasn't a big change, and
easy to miss if one didn't explicitly pay attention to it. But if she
did, she could predict the exact time they would leave hyperspace,
without looking at the instruments.
And currently she did pay attention. Which wasn't hard anyway, as
there was absolutely zero distraction in this cabin. They stayed an
awful long time in hyperspace, but finally she felt that change. They
were about to leave hyperspace.
Now every moment counted. Alice's right hand hovered at the open
button, while her left hand rested on the door. At the very moment
they left hyperspace, she pressed the button and immediately tried to
move the door. And indeed, the door slided to the side. At that
moment, the normal operation of the electronics set in again, and a
blaring alarm was emitted by the door. Alice started to run and looked
for a place to hide.
She noticed an open door to her left. As she entered, she saw that it
was the freight room. All the machines that had been on her ship now
were standing here, although not quite as orderly as they had been on
She noticed that on one machine, the cover was open. And below the
cover, there was a cavern, large enough for her to hide in if she
removed some of the stuff that was there. This would destroy the
machine in question, but who cared at this point. And the parts she
removed could be idden in some of the other machines.
She put the cover on that machine back. She didn't want the pirates to
get the same idea, after all. Thenn she selected one of the machines
not immediately visible from the door, and started to empty its
cavity. It took her not too long to prepare the machine so she could
hide in there. Just as she slipped in, she heard the pirates
approaching, searching for her.
"I really did lock the door" complained the one.
"I don't want to repeat myself again, but you still didn't tell me how
she could then escape."
"Because I have no idea how. It should be impossible. It must have
been a malfunction."
"Enough from your excuses. You're now searching the freight room,
while I look in the machine room."
Alice heard one of the pirates enter the room and systematically
walking by all the machines. She held her breath as he approached the
machine she was in. From the noise, she concluded that he was looking
from all sides, but fortunately it never occurred to him to look under
Finally, the pirate left the freight room without finding her. She was
relieved. For now she was safe.
After a while without hearing anything, she dared to leave her hiding
place. She was thirsty, and also had some other urgent needs.
Carefully she walked along the corridors, seeking a toilet room while
watching out for the pirates. Finally she found what she searched for.
As she opened the door, she found there a drunken pirate in deep
sleep. That was an unexpected opportunity. She looked around, and
found something to tie him up with. One pirate less to deal with, at
least for the moment.
While using the toilet, the made a plan. She was pretty sure that
there were only two pirates on the ship, as she had never heard a
third voice. If that was true, she had to only defeat one other
pirate. At least if she found him before he found the other one.
She heard the door open. Then a voice: "What ... damn drunkard, can't
even defend himself against a woman!"
Alice knew she would have to be fast now. She had the advantage of
surprise, but even while drunk, the other pirate could still pose an
extra danger if she let him get untied.
She ripped open the toilet door and jumped onto the pirate who just
had started to unleash his accomplice. The startled pirate had no time
to react before her fist hit him unconscious.
She tied him up as well, and started heading to the bridge, still
being on the watch in case there was a third pirate on the ship.
However she encountered no one else until she reached the bridge.
The spaceship controls were password protected. What would a pirate
use as password? Of course the main thing on a pirate's mind was
money, so she tried that. It didn't work. She tried some alternate
terms for money. No chance. She tried the names of several currencies,
but to no avail. Maybe something other valuable. Chest? No. Diamonds?
Wrong password again.
Then she found the right word. It was so obvious that she wondered why
she didn't try it right away. It was four letters, and it described
perfectly what pirates were after: Gold.
She first did a check on the life signals on ship. Three life signals
detected. So she had been correct in her assumption: There were only
two pirates on the ship; the third life signal was her own.
Now the rest was a piece of cake. She programmed a course to Earth,
and then she just had to wait. A few hours later, she finally saw the
image of a planet pop up on the main screen. A blue planet. Earth.