You may remember this book as reaching #2 in the all-time horror chart on Authonomy in 2009. Garnering rave reviews from all who read it, a mass market edition is being produced in a limited edition to be released on 2/10/2010 available through all good book shops, and probably a few bad ones too.
The ISBN is now live, and preorders can be made through sites such as Amazon (below) and others.
’Bringing home the stars’ is the updating of the classic ‘haunted house’ formula set in deep space. It uses the setting to provide the opportunity for the maximum amount of suspense and tension through the unusual isolation that being marooned in deep space can offer.
Dezza, a gritty salvager aboard a deep space tug, along with Tubs and Zoë, find a derelict Starliner – the ’Cerberus’ – in uncharted space after their tug’s drive core fails unexpectedly. Onboard the Starliner, a creature able to shift from energy to mass kills Tubs. Dezza and Zoë escape, and the Starliner disappears as its engines reactivate. Back on Earth, mistakes he made aboard the ’Cerberus’ and the loss of Tubs haunt him. His reputation is ruined, he spirals downward labelled as a man who lost his crewmate to a space myth. Whilst he becomes a drunk, Zoë signs up with another crew and disappears back out into space trying to put the experience behind her.
Five years later a man called West from the military offers Dezza a chance for redemption. Return to the Starliner as an advisor for a military crew and stand a chance of regaining his reputation is his offer. Despite his fears and the fact that another salvage crew has disappeared searching for the Starliner, Dezza signs on after West explains that Zoë was one of the first crew who have disappeared aboard the ’Cerberus’.
Jennifer E. Kirk’s writing will appeal to fans of David Conyers, David Moody and China Miéville as well as those looking for a classic update of the haunted house story genre reset in space for the 21st century literary thrillseekers.
The salvage Tug shuddered. Sirens wailed penetrating the sleep induced by the stasis quo-fields. Zoë blinked, sluggish. The alarm meant only one thing; their passage within the Rösenbridge was lost and they were hurtling blindly through space.
Zoë was the first to clamber from her pod and stagger to the bridge. She reached a console and keyed in her codes. For a moment the screen remained blank, then text and telemetry scrolled across.
She sensed movement beside her in the gloom.
“What’s up?” Dezza asked in a calm twang that never betrayed emotion.
“Core collapse,” she said, jabbing at buttons. “It’s jumped us out of the Rösenbridge short again.”
“Shit. I thought Tubs swore blind he fixed that.”
“Obviously not well enough.”
He tapped away on the adjacent console activating the holographic display. In any Rösenbridge mis-jump, they risked blundering into other ships, planets, stars and moons with fatal results. Space might be infinite and almost empty, but Fate had a habit of testing the reflexes of the unwary.
Static crackled and the computer updated the projected image of what lay outside the hull. An arc of grey became an arc of blue shimmering in the air. With agonising slowness the computer decided that there was nothing of immediate harm and the readouts stopped their garish flashing.
Zoë shook her head grimly and keyed off the alarms. “It’s only so long before Lady Luck stops seeing herself clear to keep us from hitting a star. That could have been close.”
“It’s always close. I’ll see what Tubs has to say for himself.”
* * * * *
Tubs lay on an inspection trolley, grappling with the underside of the console panel. Wires stretched out loose either side of him. He studiously ignored the mess to soldier on with careful laser-pen work inside the tangle of electronics.
Dezza leant on the railing, watching him with strained patience. “How long before the core is back online?”
“Just a few hours,” Tubs replied, muffled from beneath the panel, “I’m not sure why it croaked this time anyway. It should have held until we could get to dock and have it refurbed.”
Dezza held his composure. It was not the first time the tugship had dropped from the Rösenbridge short. For the last two months it had become an increasingly regular occurrence, and one which had become tedious fast. The ship’s drive core was old and frail. There were only so many times that ancient electronics could be patched back together. Tubs might be a miracle worker, but eventually even miracles disappoint.
Dezza’s communicator buzzed, and for a moment he felt relief that something would break the boredom of this unforeseen stop in deep space.
Zoë’s business-like voice answered, sounding tinny through the old electronics. “Have you checked the scopes?”
He frowned. Something was not quite right.
“No,” he snapped.
“This one’s the longest yet. According to the navigation sweep, we’re not even at the further colonies. The damn core popped us out more than forty days short.”
“Forty days? Shit!”
He glared down at Tubs’ feet, but the mechanic was oblivious and the gentle buzz of the laser pen drifted from beyond the pair of wriggling legs.
“That’s not the only thing,” interrupted Zoë.
He heard the concern in her voice. Tubs’ work was forgotten and he listened hard.
“The sweep picked up something else. About an hour’s jag away on the ion drive, we’ve got a ship floating dead.”
“Have you tried to get them on the Comm?” he asked.
“There’s no answer. You had both better come to the bridge. If that ship is what I think it is, this drop might just be the break we’re looking for.”
Infuriatingly she seemed intent to drop no clues.
“How do you mean?”
“It’s easier if you’re up here and I can show you.”
She let the communications channel click dead and nothing more except static came from the speaker. He knew Zoë had a habit for the dramatic. Well, let them humour her. With the main drive core out of commission, it was not as if time was at a premium, for now.
He flicked the device into a pocket and kicked gently at the legs beneath him. A muffled cry shot out from behind the wires.
“Leave that. Zoë wants us on the bridge.”
Tubs slid out on the trolley, grumbling. But his griping fell upon deaf ears. When Zoë got one of her ideas they both knew it was best to go along with her.
The holographic projection shimmered in the hot air of the bridge; stinking of ozone. Dezza wrinkled his nose at the smell. It always filled him with a feeling of unease. Maybe it was because every time he stood here he knew Zoë was going to suggest something that he would feel obliged to argue with. He sighed, hating the conflict that usually came.
Zoë jabbed a finger at a small dot floating at the centre of the display. Ripples of static arched through the projection as the computer struggled to compensate for the untimely insertion of her hand into its image.
“This is what we’re looking at,” she said.
Dezza scrunched his eyes, trying to focus on what the projection was trying to show him. It was too small to make out and was lost into the hazy limits of the projection’s resolution. He was about to say something, to ask what it was they were meant to be looking at, when she tapped a few buttons on the console as if anticipating his struggles. The image suddenly grew exponentially in size.
He stepped back in surprise before remembering that it was only a hologram. It did not matter how many times it happened, he could never get used to this contraption.
The dot grew to the size of a large cylinder and sat suspended in the slight glowing field. He squinted; it was clearly some kind of vessel. He racked his mind, trying to think what it could be so far out from the shipping lanes. The shape suggested it had to be manmade, or else he would have said some kind of comet or asteroid chunk. But it was huge, and that kind of vessel always stayed in the tight shipping lanes on the shortest routes between destinations. Of course, it could always be something that had broken adrift from a tow maybe? But it was not likely.
“Bulker?” he ventured.
She shook her head.
“Not big enough. Some kind of Starliner I think.”
He glanced to the reams of data shimmering in the air alongside the main bulk of the projector. She was right: the thing was much longer and more slender than any Bulker could be. With no aerodynamics to constrain a ship’s design, their size and girth was always more a function of the cargo they had to carry.
“She isn’t going anywhere if she is,” he said at last, “Computer says it’s holding a stationary position. It can’t be docked, we’re several light years out into deep nowhere.”
“I think it’s a derelict,” she said.
He was not so sure. A derelict might mean an easy salvage to tow it back to civilisation and a guaranteed ten-percent, but there had to be a reason for it. Out here so far from the shipping lanes, a funny feeling lingered at the back of his mind. Something was not quite right.
“What are you getting on the frequencies?” he asked calmly. If there were distress calls or beacons, that might help them identify the craft, and the reason for her being so far out into deep space.
She shrugged. “Nothing except for a simple docking channel on static.”
“Any response to attempts to raise them?”
“No,” said Tubs.
“This is going to be our big pay-day. We tow that hulk back to civilisation and that’s our pay for the year made in one.”
She seemed so sure of herself, Dezza thought. Always rushing in to the task.
Tubs coughed, and they both looked around.
“I hate to be the realist,” he began timidly, “But our drive core is offline. We aren’t going anywhere near civilisation until we get it fixed.”
“How long will that take?” asked Zoë.
Dezza got the feeling that there was going to be a catch.
He shrugged. “Two, maybe three days work. We need a full refit.”
“Will it let us tow that hulk?” she probed, as if realising the possibility of defeat after getting so close to success.
“It’ll tow,” he said after a moment’s pause, “But I would be happier not pushing it.”
“We can’t leave something this big just drifting!” she exclaimed with disappointment heavy in her voice.
Dezza frowned. Why did Tubs have to pick now to err on the side of caution?
“We could come back for it after getting the drive properly repaired,” he offered, trying to be diplomatic. He knew Zoë’s feelings and whilst he lacked her blind enthusiasm whatever the cost, he knew that Tubs was playing this stubbornly; something was making him look for excuses.
Zoë was not having any of it.
“At the very least, I want to move in closer and scope this baby out. We can do that on the ion drive until the core is back online.”
Tubs had to concede they could do that at the very least. It was clear though that he did not want to. Something was bothering him.
* * * * *
The ion drive fired, bringing gravity swathing through the tug as a change from the peculiar generated variety that never seemed quite right. It pressed the three of them back into the restraints of the bridge seats with a force that had been a while since its last coming.
Through the bridge screen the millions of stars began to slowly revolve as the Tug moved around onto a new course and edged towards the derelict.
Within an hour, one particular pinprick of light grew to be bigger than the rest that set the starscape behind it. They had looked at the long slender form of the Starliner on the computer projection, but now it hung before them for real. The many details lost on the scanner became visible to the naked eye in a way that a computer simulation always seemed to miss.
“Riding and navigation lights are still blinking,” said Zoë softly, “It seems they still have power.”
Dezza checked the read outs on the screen in front of him. On the gauges he looked for background radiation that would show evidence of reactor core activity. He was rewarded as the scan revealed a blip on the radiation spectrum that correlated with a fusion device.
“Our scan show that at least one of the fusion reactors is still online at a low output.”
Zoë looked up from her console, a frown on her face. “All lifepods are gone. Computer systems are either offline or seem to have looped into a system’s crash. Other than that, she seems structurally sound.”
Dezza paused as he considered this. Something still did not add up to him. “Why haven’t we heard about a Starliner being lost?”
He noted that Tubs showed signs of worry again, though he said nothing. Zoë did not seem to have noticed his expression.
“Maybe we’ve been out of the loop too long in the quo-field,” she offered, but seemed unconvinced.
Through the screen they watched the Starliner grow close. Riding lights blinked intermittently, and thousands of portholes glowed faintly. It certainly was beginning to seem strange that a ship this size could go adrift without something coming through to them. Maybe if no-one knew yet? But the shape of the ship seemed wrong, and raised more questions that were left unspoken.
The Tug began a flypast, cruising close at a rate of only a few metres per second. The bland metal side of the derelict passed by streaked dull with the dust of space. Occasionally a dulled and deformed mark showed where its navigation field had deflected meteorites.
“Still trying radio frequencies. No response,” said Zoë.
Moving upwards they passed along close to the upper decks. Here the monotonous steel wall gave way to clear shielded promenade decks and more complex superstructure. A forest of antennas stretched high into the starscape, twinkling as they cruised by in the dim reflections of running lights.
This was not right. The ship’s design was positively out of date. It looked like a museum piece, and none could ever recall having seen a ship like this in service on any port they had ever visited.
“Lifepod bays coming up. All appear empty. What happened?”
One after another, open bays loomed and slid by. Airlocks showed beyond the gloom, but the docking clamps were released and the lifepods were gone.
“Long-range scans show nothing – wherever they went it wasn’t local.”
“So there’s no-one left onboard?” asked Dezza.
“Nothing on the scans, but there’s a lot of dense structure in that thing that could be shielding stuff from us.”
He nodded. Could it have been a life support problem? But a nagging thought in his mind told him that could easily be repaired without having to abandon ship. A thought occurred to him, another explanation.
“Check for radiation leaks from the drive shielding.”
She checked her console. “Already swept. Nothing above normal background levels.”
He frowned. What could have made them run away? From the corner of his eye he saw Tubs at his station. Despite the air conditioning of the cabin, sweat glistened on his face.
“What’s up, Tubs?” he asked.
Tubs looked startled. For a moment it looked like the man was about to break down. There was a look in his eyes of raw, untamed fear. It was a look Dezza could not recall ever seeing on the face of a hardened salvager.
“Hey! Easy now!” said Dezza, trying to calm the man.
“That ship. I know what it is,” said Tubs at last, “It’s a myth that has been doing the rounds of the bars and colonies for longer than I can remember. Like an old yarn, this is the Mary Celeste story they tell when the lights are low and the drinks have flowed. The story must go back at least eighty years.”
“You’re kidding, right?” said Zoë slowly, perhaps not wanting to believe that one of her crew could be so easily spooked.
Dezza looked out of the screen at the bulk of the Starliner. Eighty years? Come to think of it, its style did look somewhat dated. But it was still a tall tale. He too wanted to listen; to find out what could have driven Tubs to be this scared. They had salvaged many derelicts together as a crew before now. Some were beaten up to a pulp whilst others grimly still held crew who had not managed to escape explosive decompression. None had unsettled Tubs as much as this one had.
“She went missing. Just disappeared,” Tubs continued, never taking his eyes off the bulk of the derelict vessel, “Six months went by and they called off all searches. After two years, one of the lifepods was found out near the outer trajectories, floating in space. It was empty, but the log mentioned contact with something that was enough to make a man drop dead with fear.”
Dezza found himself scoffing at the man’s tale. Tubs had a penchant for over-reacting to silly stories, but this had to be one of his best yet. How could he let himself be wound up by mere bar stories?
“How come we never heard about it?” asked Zoë.
“Stories change over the centuries,” soothed Dezza, trying to be diplomatic, “The Mary Celeste story has been around before space travel was ever invented. Everyone likes a good yarn, but you see you never find anyone with actual first-hand experience of the events. It’s always a ‘friend of a friend’.”
Tubs looked past him to the bulk of the derelict easing past silently outside. Their words did not seem to have done much for him and his eyes still glittered with fear.
“Well?” Dezza asked.
“What?” Zoë said. She seemed taken aback by Tubs’ unexpected reply.
“Cerberus,” he repeated, never taking his eyes off the screen. “If that ship is called Cerberus then we go. It’s the name of the ship in the stories I heard.”
Zoë checked the console in front of her with initial enthusiasm. If Tubs could be proved wrong now, then maybe they could get on with their job. But her shoulders sagged as the system found nothing.
“All computers over there appear to be offline. We can’t confirm anything about it, including its name.”
“There must be somewhere we can just read it off her hull?” offered Dezza. Sometimes things could be solved by something as simple as looking out of the window.
She thought for a moment, brightening up. “Most ‘liners I’ve seen in dock have it on the prow. We’re heading that way so we can take a peek.”
“If that name is there, we go?” pleaded Tubs.
She saw in his eyes that he was serious, and laughed. “You’re really scared of an old myth?”
He looked hurt.
“Every story gets another leg in the telling of the Chinese whisper,” said Dezza with a smile as he glanced down to his console and studied the scrolling read out. They would be at the bows of the derelict in no more than a few minutes. Perhaps then that would appease Tubs’ fears.
Deep down he felt the nagging fear that Tubs was going to ruin it all.
The last few metres of the prow were twisted and scorched. A meteorite had penetrated the navigation field some time in the past and struck a glancing blow. Any further back and it might have stood a chance of compromising the hull integrity. But here nothing more than minor deck fittings had been affected.
There was no trace of the ship’s name. Where it had been, the plating was scorched and twisted, then dulled over with a fine layer of silver dust that had accumulated from space. Whatever had done the damage had happened a long time ago.
“No name,” said Zoë at last.
“I can see that,” said Tubs, “Though I don’t like it. We should go.”
She turned to him angrily. “And leave this whole thing floating in space? Not likely!”
As much as he wanted to reply, to run, he could not. Deep down he realised that beneath the primordial fear that he felt, she was right. Superstition was getting in the way of the biggest payday this crew had had in over five years of ploughing the shipping lanes and beyond. Right now all he was doing was driving a wedge between their professional relationship, and their friendship.
For a moment there was an uneasy silence in the Tug, then Zoë turned to Dezza and started outlining plans to dock with the Starliner and board her to check her out. With a falling heart he realised there was nothing he could do any more to influence them. He had been sidelined. His fears had cost him their respect, and he knew that it would be hard indeed to rebuild the trust that he had had.
* * * * *
The docking signal was the only computer activity of any sort they could detect on the Starliner. A carrier signal devoid of anything meaningful, once it would have relayed instructions between vessels for an approach to the airlocks. It was a band of static that at the very least would guide them to the docking point. Aside from that, there was nothing else it could give them.
The port was on the forward third of the Starliner. Beside a row of empty bays where lifepods had once been, a larger bay allowed the Tug to circle in and align itself to secure and dock. There were two airlocks to chose from; both seemed equally as easy to approach.
Zoë never had much faith for computer control, not least because all help from the Starliner was missing. They would be coming in blind and she figured that she might as well take control herself than let the Tug’s on board computer systems make a hash of it. She had never trusted a machine to do a job a human could do equally as well, if not better.
With eyes glued to a bank of monitors and a hand resting on a small manoeuvring thruster joystick, she guided the craft into place as Dezza called out distance readings to her. For more than a few minutes it seemed like they were going nowhere, then the tug rocked and a metallic grating sound reverberated through the hull. For a moment they felt a series of bumps and bangs as the docking clamps engaged, then silence as the engines powered down.
Zoë relaxed and let go of the joystick. Massaging the cramp from her hands she let out a sigh and looked though the screen to the metallic bulk not more than a foot away.
Dezza nodded. He brought up data on his console and read it off. “Computers all off-line on every frequency. We’re going to have to pump up the airlocks manually and go through suited in case our readings on the atmosphere inside are off. We can check out the air with hand-held scanners once we’re inside.”
There were no prizes for the foolhardy. Without any access to internal systems, they could not be sure of exactly what they were going to find inside.
* * * * *
In the confines of the helmet, his breathing sounded dry and raspy from the air re-circulation system. Across the airlock in her cream suit, he could tell Zoë only by her slender figure, accentuated by the figure-hugging material. On her back was a pack that contained the workings of the suit, connected to the oversize helmet by a short flexible tube. It made her head look alien and huge. Catching sight of his own reflection in the mirror finish of her visor, he saw he looked equally misshapen.
“Seals show we’re seated okay. Let’s pump this thing open.” Her voice echoed in his helmet, tinny and raspy from the tiny speaker in his ear.
He nodded and they both took up position either side of the airlock door.
“How’s it looking, Tubs?” she asked.
Tubs answered, from the safety of the bridge of the Tug. “All systems good. Getting back signals from both of you and your scanning equipment.”
It had been a compromise. He had not wanted to step foot inside the Starliner, so they had decided to leave him in the relative safety of a support role on the tug. It was not perfect but, under the circumstances, it seemed the best deal as Zoë had point blank refused to leave this salvage behind. In truth Dezza was inclined to agree with her, but there was always a nagging feeling of uncertainty that had been fostered by Tubs’ raw fear expressed in the story he had told.
Faced with the opportunity not to step foot in that vessel, Tubs had taken it.
“When the lights go to green, release the locks,” said Zoë.
Dezza nodded and turned to the panel. Three lights turned in sequence from red, to amber, then finally flickered to green. As the last one shone brightly he grasped hold of the white lever recessed into the panel and pulled. It slid easily to half way, and then he found he had to use a little more force on it. For a moment he thought it might not go, so he pushed harder. Just when he thought it was no use the lever slipped and thumped all the way to the bottom, catching him off guard.
Pain shot through his fingers. He yelped.
“What’s up?” asked Tubs, his voice thick with fear.
“I just caught my hand. Nothing more.”
He checked the glove of the suit. It was fine; nothing was torn. He might have a bruise on his hand come the morning. Despite the throbbing he smiled to himself. Had Tubs really been spooked by the ‘bogey man’ story?
“Give me a hand here if you’re okay,” said Zoë.
She was struggling with the release lever on the door. The Tug’s door opened okay. He thought he saw a puff of silver dust jet out briefly as air levels equalised. It was probably just debris from space that had collected on the plating.
It rolled back leaving them staring face to face for the first time with the grey steel of the Starliner. He put out his hand and rested it gently on the plating. It felt just like ordinary cold steel and he wondered what it was that made Tubs really so scared.
Zoë rapped her knuckles on the plate a couple of times. Through their helmets they heard the hollow echo reverberate back. She checked her scanner.
“There’s definitely some kind of atmosphere in there. However long this hulk has been floating out here hasn’t made it leak its guts.”
In a panel on the side they found controls for the Starliner’s airlock. The lid opened easily enough, but the controls inside seemed dead. He took out a small toolkit and checked the wiring with a meter. A dial flickered on its readout.
“There’s still some power but the computer control line is down. We’ll have to open by hand.”
They found the release mechanism and struggled with it. Unlike the well-maintained mechanism in the tug, this had been exposed to the vacuum of space for who knew how long. It was stiff and even when the locking bars finally slid out the door did not seem to want to move.
Dezza put his weight against it and heaved. Zoë added her weight too, but for a moment nothing happened. Then there was a grating and they felt something move.
The door slid a little more, and a jet of dust and gas appeared from the edge accompanied by an eerie moan.
“What was that?” came Tubs’ alarmed voice.
“Just gas venting. Nothing to worry about,” Zoë soothed.
With a bit of work, the door slid back in stages, revealing a black hole beyond. They switched on their helmet lights and played them over the interior. The beams cut into a scene of dirt and decay. Whether Tubs was right or wrong, their hunch about the age of the vessel held at least some truth; this had been here untouched for a long time. Maybe that was why they had not received a call? This ship had been missing for decades at least, and in the vastness of space even the largest ship was easily lost into the infinite vacuum.
Dezza remembered to take out his scanner and get a reading. Zoë’s helmet lamp continued to stab through the gloom, picking out the dust-dulled passageway of the airlock level.
“Air is stale. High CO2 and some carbon monoxide too.”
There was an atmosphere, of sorts, but it was more than likely that the air re-circulation system had been offline for a long time. They were going to have to keep the suits on, for now.
“What now?” Zoë’s voice echoed in his helmet.
“We explore, obviously.”