It was the middle of the night shift, which meant that all the lights were dimmed to half illumination. Gregor didn't approve of this procedure, he thought it was sloppy and inefficient, but he stoically kept his tongue. In fact there were a lot of things about this ship that Gregor didn't approve of, but beyond all else he was a professional. As the second in command of this ship, he would carry out the captain's orders, regardless of whether he approved or not.
Gregor marched his way down the corridors to the fore end of the ship. The door at the end opened automatically, and he stepped onto the bridge. The lights were dim here as well, although not quite so much, but things were quiet. With a sweeping glance Gregor took in the scene, immediately noting who was on the bridge, and where they were. Everyone was where they should be, except for one. Vanessa, the ship's science officer, was in her seat at the sensor array. Sal was at the helm at the front of the bridge, just before the enormous great screen that currently showed what lay directly in front of the ship; it was filled with stars drifting by as the ship moved at faster than light speeds. Sal looked bored, and stared at the display as though in a trance. Gregor clenched his teeth at such a blatant lack of self-discipline. The only other person on the bridge was the captain, Logan. The captain was sprawled in the captain's chair in the centre of the bridge. There was a faint snoring coming from it, and Gregor rolled his eyes.
He approached the chair from behind, and came up beside it to look at the captain. Sprawled was the right word. One leg was hitched up over one of the arms of the big chair, and consequently over the display set into it, and the captain's head lolled against his shoulder. Gregor shook his head, and proceeded over to Vanessa's station. As he approached he caught a glimpse of what she was doing. On one of the several screens at the science station, the active scans were on display. These were on the screen in the corner, the rest were filled with data packets and storage. It appeared that Vanessa was sorting through the ship's database.
"Doing a little spring cleaning?" he said in a low voice once he was standing by her shoulder. She turned her head to glance at him, and then returned to her work.
"What are you doing on the bridge?" she asked, deciding to ignore his question. "You're not on duty for another four hours."
Gregor shrugged. "I didn't know what else to do. I'm not accustomed to being 'off-duty'. I have no idea what I'm supposed to do with myself."
Vanessa heard the quotation marks drop into place as he said it, and sighed inwardly. They'd had this conversation before, always with the same results. Part of her didn't want to have to go through it again, but the rest of her actually pitied the first officer. Most people that knew Gregor would have found this impossible to believe, but Vanessa had what could be called an 'old soul'. She had a knack for empathising with people, and she had a cryptic wisdom hiding behind her pale blue eyes. Vanessa was a kind woman. She didn't have to work at it, it just came naturally. She handed out kindness and sympathy the same way others handed out criticism.
"You're supposed to use the time to relax." she explained once again. "It's an opportunity to have fun and do something besides work all day."
Gregor's face pinched as he tried to understand, but it seemed to Vanessa that it was something of an alien concept. She swivelled her seat to face him and tried again.
"Look, you used to be in the Syndicate, which is an organization that is built on the foundation of rules, regulations and protocols. Surely when you worked for them you didn't work all the time, there would be rules against that."
Gregor's face lit up ever so slightly at the mention of the Syndicate. He'd admitted to her once that leaving the Syndicate had been the hardest thing he'd ever had to face, and she knew that if he could go back to them, he would in a heartbeat. That was partly why she pitied him. He hid it well, but he was filled with the wretched sadness of the lost, lonely and out of place. It was visible to all those who knew how to look for it, and to Vanessa the sadness came off him like steam.
"The tried to give me time off." he said. "But they stopped bothering when I reported back for duty anyway. Eventually they gave me a certificate of exemption so that my down time was limited to six hours a day for sleeping."
Vanessa's jaw dropped. He hadn't told her this before. "You actually got EXEMPTED from NOT being on duty?"
Gregor nodded, his face ever passive. Apparently he wasn't capable of picking up on sarcasm. A loud snore from the captain's chair averted his attention, and he frowned again.
"It bothers you that he falls asleep on duty, doesn't it?" she asked, softly. He nodded, still glaring at the captain. She patted his hand, and he almost flinched at the contact. "You did well in the Syndicate, Gregor. I get the feeling that you fit well there, in their world and the way they saw things. Logan is a good captain. I've worked with him longer than anyone else, and I've seen him handle every situation that's been thrown at him. He may not fit in the structured and ordered way of thinking that you come from, but he knows this ship, and he knows this crew. Once you've worked with him a little longer you'll see for yourself that he's a good captain, and a great man."
"Yes, I'm sure." Gregor said, but he didn't sound as though he believed it. "I just wish he'd wear pants during the night shift."
Vanessa said nothing. She couldn't deny that she'd wished the same thing herself.
"Well if you're having trouble finding things to do in your own time, I'm sure that some of the others would welcome some help."
"No!" said Gregor, almost in a panic. "No, that wouldn't be right. As first officer my duty is to ensure the captain's orders are followed by the rest of the crew. It wouldn't be proper for me to step out of my jurisdiction."
Vanessa laughed, and covered her mouth so she didn't wake the captain. Sal cast a curious glance their way, but then went back to fiddling with his console.
"You still need to learn that this is a very informal crew you're in now, Gregor."
"But everyone has their job to do; their function aboard this vessel." said Gregor, frowning. "Without structure a crew cannot function."
"You're right. But as I keep reminding you, this isn't a Syndicate vessel. We don't have technicians and specialists for every single minor function of the ship. We help each other out all the time! We work with what we have, and if everyone helps each other out, we don't need the extra crew. If you think about it, it's actually more efficient."
Gregor hesitated, torn. As a rule efficiency was a byword in his way of life, but it was a stretch to seeing it in the relatively wishy-washy way this crew seemed to operate. Everyone doing everyone else's work. Vanessa giggled at his expression, which only confused him even more.
"It'll take some getting used to." he said eventually. "I suppose I should go sit in my quarters until my shift starts again."
"No that's ok." said Vanessa, and she gently grabbed his wrist before he could turn to leave. "You can hang around the bridge if it makes you feel better. But next time, don't be afraid to ask around to see if anyone could use a hand. I guarantee that you'll hardly ever get a no for an answer."
"I will." he said, and looked up to see her raising her eyebrow. "I promise."
Their conversation was interrupted by a sudden, loud notification from her console. It was loud enough to cut through the captain's snoring and wake him, which he did with a snort.
"Whassat?" he asked blearily, scratching his week old stubble. "What's going on?"
"There's an incoming transmission, sir." Vanessa replied, turning back to her station. She flicked her fingers across her console, bringing up the information to her screens. "It's a recorded message, captain. It appears to be a distress signal."
The bridge became tight with subtle tension. The captain was now wide awake, and Sal at the helm was now fully alert.
"Is it a Syndicate transmission?" the captain asked. Vanessa poured over the computer's analysis of the distress call. It was several moments before she eventually answered.
"No." she said, and everyone relaxed just a little. "In fact the signal isn't tagged at all. It's not coming in on any of the frequencies normally used by . . . well, anyone."
The captain was silent as he thought about this. "Are we close enough to hear it?"
"Yes sir." she said, and engaged the transmission playback. The sound of a man's voice came crackling over the speakers on the bridge. Static was making it difficult to hear, but everyone was able to understand perfectly. But all that was being said was a list of numbers being read aloud.
". . . ven, one, eight, two, five, two, six, six, eight, seven . . ."
"What the hell is this?" the captain asked. Vanessa checked the analysis again.
"This is near the end of the message captain. It's on a loop, so it will repeat again soon."
Even as she spoke the rattling off of the numbers ended, and there was a static filled pause over the speakers. The sound of someone breathing heavily could just be made out. Finally two words were whispered, and they were thick with emotion and desperation.
Then there was an audible click as the message repeated again.
"To any ship passing close by, my ship has been destroyed. My escape pod landed here and I am in desperate need of rescue. I'm transmitting from the second planet orbiting twin stars, and my spacial coordinates are as follows: eight, six, nine, one, four, four, seven six . . ."
Everyone on the bridge looked at one another as the distress call rattled off the numbers again. Everyone was confused.
"Spacial coordinates?" Sal blurted out. "Who the hell uses spacial coordinates anymore?"
"No one." said Gregor. "Spacial coordinates became obsolete after the standardization of quantum technology. This technique hasn't been used in more than a hundred years."
"One hundred and sixty four years, sir." Vanessa corrected, her eyes still glued to the screens. The end of the message played again, the last two words ringing across the bridge. Logan asked Vanessa to stop playback.
"Very well. Sal, set a course to the second planet in the nearby twin star system. And alert the crew, we're on a rescue mission."
"Um . . . actually sir, that might not be true." said Vanessa, and it was clear that she was deeply disturbed by something that she'd found. "I've just seen the log series for the message. Every time it loops it counts each playback, and I've just managed to convert the count from the binary. Sir, this distress call has played back 28.27 million times."
"Well, how long is that in real time? The message isn't that long."
There were tears in Vanessa's eyes as she spoke. "Sir, that's almost two hundred and fifteen years of constant playback."
There was silence on the bridge again. The twin stars were now visible on the view screen, and everyone watched them grow steadily larger as they approached.
"Very well." said the captain again. "Sal, confirm a course to the second planet. We're going to find that man and bring whatever's left of him home for a proper burial."
Gregor approached the captain. "Sir, I don't believe that would be a wise course of action. We have a deadline, and we can't afford to waste resources on a salvage mission like this."
The captain stood up and faced his first officer.
"Vanessa, how far away are we from Helix?" he said, locking his gaze with Gregor.
"Ten hours at C3, captain." Vanessa answered promptly.
"There, you see? We're ahead of schedule. We don't need to be there for another two days."
Gregor didn't like it, but above all else he respected the chain of command. It was built into his bones. "As you wish, sir."
"Glad to hear it. Now go get me some pants.