Author's introduction: Beyond streaming subscriptions, I don't watch TV. I don't even have access to it. Every now and again I'll steel myself and, with a due sense of dread, type 'news' or 'headlines' into Google, just to catch up on the latest mayhem in the outside world. Imagine my surprise when I typed in 'news' last weekend and instead of one of the Four Horsemen, a story about an amazing discovery popped up at the top of the feed. I was so delighted, I got inspired! Twenty-four hours later, this was sat on my hard drive and I was taking a nap, because my Inner Writer appears to think I'm an owl.
So, here is my tribute to two incredible crews and the discoveries they made. Oh, and it's set in space. Because, well... Come on.
By Liz Hudson
Not for the first time, Hester's elbow nudged the untouched cup of coffee perched on the corner of his console and a flash of panic followed by relief chased across his face.
He cut a glance at Mayfair at the next array over. She wasn't looking at him, but she was smirking. "Good thing they're anti-tip, hey?" she said in a rolling South African accent, eyes tracking across her readout.
The conical mug featured a grippy pad on the bottom and Hester peeled it off the corner of his console with a sticky pop. The liquid inside had congealed a skin. He looked around, weighing his motivation to return the cup to the research vessel's little galley, and then set it on the floor beside the bolts securing his chair to the deck. He'd probably kick it over, and it would still make a mess, but at least it wouldn't screw up his equipment.
The deck trembled and the coffee jumped in the mug, rupturing the skin. A few drops sloshed onto Hester's shoe. He glanced at Mayfair again; she was still smirking, still not looking at him.
Hester refocused on his screen and appraised the visual of the ice field as another chunk smashed into the ship and the reinforced hull worked with inertial dampeners to absorb most of the impact. Another small rumble bled through, making the deck shudder a second time.
He flicked back to his survey readout. "Okay," Hester said, nudging his glasses back up the bridge of his nose with one long finger, "nothing in grid location thirty-three sierra." He enlarged his AEV stats and checked its condition. "Technically, it has enough juice to cover the next search sector, but it's borderline," he said, seesawing his hand. "What do you reckon, Anni?"
Mayfair sucked her teeth. "Nah," she said. "Bring it up and I'll swap it out. The ice field is blocking out a lot of light, so the solar recharging cells aren't pulling their weight. Runtime calculations are over optimistic. Not worth the risk."
Hester keyed in the command to recall the autonomous extra-atmospheric vehicle and stood, stretching out the kinks in his shoulders to an ensemble of synovial pops. The little unmanned survey craft would rise to just below the ice field and then wait for Mayfair to take manual control and guide it home. She was, by far, the better pilot.
"Could take the opportunity to wash that cup out, hey?" muttered Mayfair, still focused on her screen.
Hester ignored her and wandered over to the reinforced plexiglass window in the hull. The ice field spread out around the Agulhas III like a nimbus. The onboard systems automatically steered them around the larger chunks, and the reinforced hull plates protected them from the rest. As Hester watched, several more lumps ploughed into the red skin of their icebreaker vessel and exploded into clouds of beautiful, lethal shards.
Below, the hulking mass of a plantoid sluggishly rotated. The third rock in the Weddell system had thus far yielded nothing more interesting than several wrecked satellites and the twisted skeleton of an unmanned probe.
With no real atmosphere to fight against, Hester's AEV returned from the surface rapidly and he saw it, weaving its way back home. Glancing over his shoulder, he watched Mayfair, hands on joysticks, using the onboard cameras to steer the little craft through the minefield of space ice. The AEV passed out of sight below his feet and Hester knew that it would be autonomously communicating with the docking gear and rising into their belly.
"You want to deploy another one or take a break, get some sleep?" Mayfair asked.
Hester joined her at her console. "We've got another one ready to go?" Hester queried. Mayfair nodded. "Send it," he said.
"You sure?" Mayfair said, glancing at her watch. "Been a long one."
"Send it," Hester said again, without hesitation. "Our survey window is closing. Soon as the planetoid passes back out of line of sight with its sun the ice field will get too dangerous and we'll lose our shot at it. I want to get it checked off so we can move on."
On the display, Hester watched a small digital blip detach and head back down towards the surface. Inserting a fingertip beneath his lenses, Hester rubbed crust from the corners of his eyes and settled back into his chair.
Four hours later, a staccato whine penetrated the nebulous haze of sleep deprivation. Hester jerked, moving his hand without thinking to catch his glasses as they fell off his face. There was a clunk below him and it took Hester a moment to realise he'd kicked his coffee cup over. The cup itself was rolling around a spreading puddle of brown fluid, trapped in an ever decreasing orbit by its tapered shape.
Mayfair hurried through the door back onto the survey bridge, followed by another of their colleagues, Harrison, and Hester belatedly realised he'd been alone when the AEV's proximity alarm had triggered.
"What have we got?" Mayfair asked, gingerly stepping over the puddle and shooting Hester an exasperated look.
"Not sure yet," Hester said, and his fingers got to work on the input controls, firing off a series of rapid commands to his AEV unit.
"Probably more mangled space junk," Harrison said, placing one large hand on the back of Hester's chair and leaning over his shoulder. Through a treacle thick Aussie diphthong, Hester heard the note of anticipation.
Hester took a moment to examine his own feelings and felt the familiar flutter of anxiety in his stomach. Sick excitement. And then the pragmatic dampener of a reality check. It was always space junk. The odds were astronomical that it would be anything other than space junk. "Almost definitely space junk," he agreed.
Numbers scrolled across his readout. Collectively, the three researchers leaned closer to the display to follow the sensor data as it dashed by. There was a pause.
"Looks quite large though," Mayfair said, a moment later.
"Better have a closer look then," Hester said. He aimed for calm and matter of fact, and thought he just about managed it. He flipped on the onboard cameras and together they drew another couple of inches closer to his screen.
The little survey vehicle was still a ways from the artificial mass it had detected. The video feed wasn't particularly clean, thanks to interference from the ice belt, but it was clear enough to pick out a sizeable lump resting on the planetoid's surface.
Hester realised he wasn't breathing, and sucked in a chestful of recycled air. A hand extended over his shoulder and Harrison traced a shape on the profile of the lump.
"Could be a nacelle," Harrison said. Hester recognised the sound of a man keeping his excitement forcefully in check. "Definitely a ship," Harrison confirmed, as the AEV drew closer and began to pick out more detail. "And it's an older one. Right sort of model and size."
Hester abruptly took his hands off the controls and rotated his chair. Hope hung in his colleagues' expressions. He schooled his tone. "Ice fields are dangerous," he said. "Plenty of those older ships got holed and went down trying to cross systems like this one. Yes, it's a ship, but it might not be the one we're looking for."
"There's an easy way to find out," said Mayfair, failing to conceal a gleeful grin.
Hester rotated back to his console, took a steadying breath and enabled manual control of the survey vehicle.
The wreck was in pretty good shape, considering. "Damage to the hull," Harrison pointed out with a finger. "Impact damage here and here."
The cameras swept over buckled titanium plates, likely where the nose of the ship had taken the brunt of the impact before settling back on its belly and canting to rest on the slightly crumpled port nacelle. Hester resisted the urge to halt the little craft for a closer look and kept it roving along the body of the wreck. A yawning jagged hole towards the stern suggested a plausible and chilling cause of death.
"If it's Her," said Hester, "what we need will be on the stern." As he navigated around the protrusion of the starboard nacelle, he felt a large hand clamp onto his shoulder. A second later, Mayfair's hand came down on his other shoulder.
"It’s Her," said Mayfair with an affirmative nod; as if stating it confidently enough might force reality to yield to her will and make it so.
"Here we go," Hester said shakily, as the AEV began to scan upwards from the keel. The group sucked in a collective breath and held it.
Outside, a chunk of ice slammed into the hull of Agulhas III, unnoticed.
The camera picked out a shape in bas-relief on the worn hull. The gold paint on the five point star was in remarkably fair condition, considering its age, and matched the lettering arching above, picked out in tall ornate capital letters:
E N D U R A N C E
Hester felt a warm spot of moisture on the back of his hand and realised it was a fallen tear.
He exhaled in a rush of breath.
"It’s Her," he said.
Liz has been waging a cunning campaign of procrastination for, well, her entire life. Her most recent schemes for avoiding completing a full length manuscript were a mid-life crisis Masters degree in Creative Writing and starting the Writing Voices website. She is now busy entertaining new strategies for continuing the cold war against her writing career. Keep going.
Imagery by Maxim Potkin via Unsplash