D. A. Ratliff: Night Strings

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Night Strings

By D. A. Ratliff

I couldn’t feel the ship.

Unnerving sensation for a captain.

I had walked too many decks for too long not to miss the ever-so-slight vibration from the stardrive. It wasn’t there. Not for five months and twenty-seven days. Not that I was counting.

Every night as I walked the deserted corridors of the ESA Lassiter, an Astro-class cruiser, from bow to stern, the events of that day, six months before played in my head.

I had just walked onto the bridge, received the latest communications from the Comm officer, and then asked Commander Renaldi for a report on the status of our guests. We were transporting one hundred colonists from an established Earth colony on Elan III to Starbase 9 where they would meet up with transport for passage to a new settlement. The trip was to take nine days at maximum hyperspeed, and we were three days out.

“Captain, our guests have settled in nicely. They have set up their schedules for meals and showers, not much we have to do.”

“I wish all of our guests were as….”

The Alert claxon sounded as the bridge plunged into red light.

My science officer stared at his view screen. “Captain, quantum filaments just appeared on sensors. There are several, and we aren’t going to miss them.”

“How long?” 

“Seven minutes, ma’am.”

“Shields up.” I turned to the Comm officer. “Ship wide, please.” He nodded, and I spoke to the crew and passengers.

“This is the Captain. All hands to battle stations. Brace for impact. At least one quantum filament is on course to strike the ship in seven minutes.”

Renaldi spoke before I had a chance. “The passengers.”

“Get down there.”

One stream struck us, a glancing blow, but enough to knock out all electrical systems, and with the stardrive disabled, we were many lightyears from help. The Lassiter was dead in space.

The next hours were frantic as the crew struggled to bring the emergency backup systems online. First, repair crews worked to stabilize life support, then restore power to the galley and freezers, med bay, and communications. It was twenty-three hours after the collision when Renaldi and I stood outside the hangar bay doors. Time to tell our passengers what we were facing.

Renaldi introduced me. “Captain, this is Reggie Donovan, governor of the colonists. Reggie, Captain Miriam Jacobs.”

I glanced around the room at the anxious families. There was no easy way to tell them what was facing us.

“Mr. Donovan, I want to thank you and the others for your invaluable assistance in helping clear debris and tend to the wounded. I believe you understand what happened to us. As you know, we managed to bring the emergency life-support system online and are still working on full life support. The rest of our systems remain inoperable.”

“I can’t understand how something so large and dangerous could sneak up without notice.”

“Quantum filaments can be hundreds of meters long but virtually have no mass. Almost undetectable until they are on top of a ship because of high energy particles and subspace distortions.” I took a breath. “Other than life support, we have a couple of serious problems. We find ourselves in an empty section of space. If we could bring our impulse engines online, the nearest M-class planet is seven months away. We have no communications. The high energy particles fried the array and repairing it will take time. As we are in empty space, and too far from Starbase 9 or the colony we just left, their sensors will not pick up the filaments, and without the drive activated, they will have difficulty finding us.”

“Like the old Earth saying, needle in a haystack, Captain?”

“Yes.” I glanced at Renaldi before I went on. “So, there is one other issue. We were to take on provisions on Starbase 9. Even without all of you here, the ship’s Steward and the quartermaster have informed me that we are going to run out of food in six months. We will need to sit down with you and decide how we are going to ration food.”

“Captain, we have provisions with us, staples like flour, salt, sugar, dried meats, and fruits. Where we are going is more primitive than the colony we left. Our goal is to establish an agricultural trade outpost in that section of the galaxy. What we have is yours to add to the food supply.”

“Thank you. Mr. Donovan, the one thing I will not allow is for your children to go hungry. We will adjust accordingly.”

I stood outside the hangar bay on this night several months later, listening to the soft whimpering of some of the children and the cries of our newest “crew member,” a baby born three weeks ago to one of the colonists. Out of the small viewport, the faint Vesari Nebula glowed blue with another kind of newborn, stars. I stood there, waiting for the first soft notes that rocked us to sleep at night—the music of a violin.

As the sound of stringed music began to drift through the intercom, peace swept over me. I shouldn’t be peaceful for we had little time left. My chief engineer and his team managed to get the distress beacon activated, but with low power, the signal’s range was minimal. Yet, standing in the dark corridor with only a few emergency lights activated, I allowed myself to feel hope as Yeoman Ki Mikato played her violin.

Mikato was a botanist assigned to hydroponics. I had met her when she first came on board in one of my Greet the Crew receptions. Touring the new hydroponics garden set up in an empty storage hangar a month after our ordeal began, I was impressed by her enthusiasm and knowledge. Her expertise would provide much needed fresh food grown from the colonists’ seeds. Still, it wasn’t going to be enough.

When she requested to see me the following day, I was surprised, but several crewmembers over the first few weeks had stopped me to chat. I was not only a figure of authority to them but a mother in many ways when they needed comforting.

Mikato entered my ready room, carrying a strangely shaped case. “Captain, ma’am. I am sorry to bother you, but I…” She paused, looking uncomfortable. “I would like to offer the crew some comfort. When I was very young, my grandmother did this for our colony. We were on Magora.”

My heart skipped a beat. A vile race of humanoids enslaved the Earth colonists on Magora for two years, forcing them to turn over valuable minerals mined there. A wary captain of a supply ship had felt something was wrong, although the colonists insisted all was well, and he notified the Earth Space Alliance. When the ESA arrived, a battle ensued, and many colonists died at the hands of the alien humanoids.

“I’m sorry, Yeoman. I’ve read of what happened there. The bravery of the colonists who fought alongside the ESA when they arrived is legendary.”

“I joined the ESA because of that day. I remember a kind man in uniform who protected my grandmother and me until he could get us out of harm’s way.” She placed the case on my desk. “If I may, Captain. This is my grandmother’s violin. She would play at night to calm the children, but my mother always said that it calmed everyone.”

Mikato opened the black leather case, revealing a beautiful object nestled in wine-colored velvet. The case itself worn, the velvet frayed, but the instrument was pristine. The polished wood body was gleaming in the downlights above my desk.

“Yeoman, I have seen violins before but rarely outside of a museum. This is lovely.”

“Yes, ma’am. With computers able to make the sounds of all instruments, the real ones are difficult to find. My grandmother taught me to play, and I would like to play for the crew as she did every night for us. It brought us hope in the face of what we were dealing with on Magora.”

Her voice broke slightly, and I couldn’t speak for a moment, overcome by the heartfelt need of my crewman to bring joy to us.

“I think your gesture is wonderful, and I think that the crew will love having you play.”

“With internal communications restored, I would like to play at ten o’clock in the night, as everyone settles for bed. Perhaps it will help everyone sleep better.”

“Perfect.”

From that night until now, I stood in the passageway listening to her. Mikato played music she said was from Earth’s Old Masters. I had grown so fond of the music of one composer, Beethoven, that I had the Comm officer record it for me, and I played it often. The music was soothing, powerful, and gave us hope. I leaned against the bulkhead as she finished the piece from the observation deck where many of the crew went to listen each night. I preferred to listen with our guests, now our friends, as the music lulled them to sleep. Only when quiet overtook them, did I leave.

The following morning brought the news I was dreading. Our rations were meager, as were medicines and supplies in general. Hydroponics was providing some food, but it would not be enough. The Steward had done all he could to stretch our food supply. Unless ESA found us soon, our fate was clear.

Dinner for us was rarely a big affair, but I asked my senior staff to join me. The cook had made bread from the dwindling flour supply, and we had tomatoes from hydroponics—a feast of sorts for us. No one spoke for a bit as we savored a slice of bread and a tomato. My chief engineer had begged off. He remained diligently working to restore the external communications array, and I noticed Commander Renaldi had not arrived. I was about to ask where he was when the door to the Captain’s dining room slid open.

Renaldi was flush, still partially dressed in an excursion suit. “Captain, he did it. We have Comm.”

Rushing onto the bridge, I was pleased to see the communications officer already hailing the Starbase. We waited what felt like an eternity hearing nothing but static until a faint voice crackled in the air. I motioned for the Comm to go ship-wide.

“Lassiter, this is Starbase 9. Good to hear from you. We have your coordinates. Help is on the way.”

The excited voices of my crew and new friends began to pour through the Comm. However, our voices began to quiet as another sound replaced our cheers. The sounds of violin strings in the night. There was no better way to celebrate our rescue than the music that had seen us through.

~~oOo~~

The next day, a Halkan Republic ship that had been on routine patrol arrived with food and medical supplies. The following day an ESC Starcruiser arrived with a full repair team and more supplies. They offered to take our passengers on board, but Reggie Donovan refused. They were coming to Starbase 9 on the Lassiter as planned.

The ESA Hyperion began towing the Lassiter to the Starbase while repairs were underway. Their captain invited my crew and guests to dinner and a movie aboard his ship. I suggested another form of entertainment for part of the evening. As we enjoyed dessert, Yeoman Ki Mikato played her violin for all. I gazed about the room, pleased my crew was beaming with gratitude as they listened to her play.

I knew I would never captain another ship unless Ki Mikato were on the crew. We had faced death, and she had given us joy. For me, there will always be strings in the night.

*******************

Author’s Note:

I wrote this with thanks to the Star Trek franchise for borrowing the quantum filament. It appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and described, as I did in the story, from an article on sabrizain.org. There is a real counterpart in astrophysics, called a plasma filament, which is basically an electric current in space plasma such as occurs in Earth’s Aurora.

Resources:

 http://www.sabrizain.org/startrek/Astrometrics/Quantum_Filament.html

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Please visit D. A. on her blog: https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/

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