A tale of ecological disaster and rebirth.
Sol was almost three when his parents died. Their passing was quick, though painful, and there was nothing he could do to help them.
They taught him about death. He understood the biology, the mechanics of death, but not the human toll. Suffering their last excruciating hours, they thought only of him. Advised him, warned him, whispered their love to him with their last breaths. But none of it prepared him for the loneliness and sense of loss that followed, the first in his short life.
Until that day, life aboard the UCS Bamebridge was a child’s paradise. Every corridor or compartment, every service tunnel and crawlspace, even between the decks and bulkhead became his playground.
From as early as he could remember, his parents encouraged his exploration of the immense vessel that was home. His father spent hours teaching him every control, every system, going over the detailed schematics of the ship inch by inch to satisfy Sol’s insatiable curiosity.
He took to it all with ease for a child little more than a year old. By that time he was already more than three feet tall and we’ll into his education. Only the occasional reminder by his mother that he was something rather exceptional caused him to reflect on it. But with no other children to compare himself too, he usually accepted the praise with a shrug.
Sol knew he was different. One glance into the mirror told him he didn’t look like his parents, or Sam, or any of the other occasional spacers he observed. But his mother told him not to be concerned and with a smile promised he was merely an improvement, an upgrade. This he understood and, of course, took his parents at their word, as children do.
Once, while again beating Sam in checkers, Sol asked the older man why he was so different. Would he ever meet any other kids like himself?
No, Sam told him, putting a weathered hand on Sol’s shoulder. You are unique, special but singular, he answered, an odd sadness in his voice. He called him a gift, something Sol didn’t understand at the time, but it made him feel better.
Why, Sol demanded, do I always have to hide when visitors come on board? An often repeated question his parents seemed reluctant to answer.
Sam had simply smiled and told him they were afraid he was so special, someone might steal him away.
That seemed reasonable enough to his young mind, if a bit frightening, and he never questioned it again. Sam reminded Sol, like his mother, that most people could not read, write and speak at six months of age, nor do any of the other amazing things Sol could do. The idea seemed silly, but Sam had never lied to him so Sol found no reason to doubt.
Of course, Sol's life was not confined to the limits of the ship. Outside lay a world of danger, excitement and beauty he never tired of exploring. That is, when his father allowed him to travel with him to distant mine sites or roam the vast catacomb of tunnels while he worked. There, in the endless, shadowy caverns, his imagination took hold.
Since being old enough to sit up at a computer console, Sol loved to read. In under a years time he exhausted the ships entire data base of fiction and educational material. Still hungry for knowledge, he started through science books and technical manuals to keep from being bored.
In the tunnels, he acted out his favorite stories, fighting great beasts or evil pirates, taking safaris through jungles he had only seen pictures of, dreaming of the same adventures all young boys do.
But most of all, he dreamed of seeing Earth.
Every time he asked his parents when they were going, he never got a straight answer. At first, it was merely annoying, serving to provoke his curiosity. Later, it became clear that the subject agitated them, so he quit asking.
Still, it became clear to Sol that something was amiss.
Their last words to him only reinforced his misgivings. They warned him to at all cost avoid being seen by the Federal Marshals. Someone would come for the ship eventually, his father cautioned, once conditions permitted. The Company would want their equipment back, and to confirm the fate of their employees for relatives back home.
Sol must never fall into their hands they repeated over and over. He must continue to repair the Bamebridge's burned out systems, remove the location transponders, then take the ship to some remote corner of the Belt. The ship could support him for years, until Sol could think of somewhere else to go.m
Why, or for how long he was to hide out, they would, or could not say. Then died too quickly for him to learn any more. He could not understand why he was in so much danger from people he didn’t even know. But he knew his parents loved him and we’re only trying to protect him. Sam taught him that.
Poor Sam, the man who had been like a grandfather to him, suffered the same fate as his parents. Radio communication became virtually non existent through the intense interference caused by the unknown radiation.
Still, Sam and his father devised a clever means to get signals through, if for short range only. Wherever the sudden radiation burst had come from, they were quick to learn it affected the entire quadrant. Sam and his crew were dying too, as was everyone else they could reach within the range of their limited equipment.
Only Sol remained unaffected.
Shortly after burying his parents on the surface of the barren asteroid, the radio fell silent. Sol sat alone at the communication console on the bridge of the Bamebridge for days after, searching the wavelengths for any sounds of life. All he heard was static.
As if to punctuate his isolation, several days later he witnessed the destruction of Sam’s ship, the UCS Lucifer. It happened not long after Sol finally succeeded in getting the main computer system back on line, along with the primary sensor array.
Once powered up, alarms went off immediately. It reported a ship in his vicinity on a collision course with a nearby asteroid. He checked its registration code-of course it was Sam
Sol was desperate to contact him or anyone on board, but no one responded. Helpless, he could only watch on the view screen as the huge vessel dove into the nearby asteroid. A sudden tremendous, blinding flash announced the final moment of the Lucifer.
Sol wept. In that instant, the depth of his isolation struck him. Everyone he loved was now dead. He was now alone in the world, one that apparently meant to do him harm. And there was no one left to turn to for help or advise.
For weeks after, the computer continued to detect explosions from the demise of other ships in the quadrant. Abandoned and derelict, one by one they met their end from either mechanical failure or gravity.
Eventually, more than half the commercial fleet was gone, leaving only those orbiting at safer distances or tethered safely, like the Bamebridge, to some unnamed ball of frozen rock.
Months passed. Sol spent his time continuing the extensive repairs required by Bamebridge’s delicate systems, searching the deep mines for anything he could salvage, or quietly studying the ship’s manuals. As time went on, he found the isolation tolerable as long as he kept busy. So he established a routine, filling his days until exhaustion overcame him and sleep came with ease.
Unfortunately, so did the nightmares.
It was from this dark slumber that Sol awoke one morning to the blaring of the alarm indicating an incoming message. The klaxon broke him free from another frantic dream. As usual, he was racing in panic through the ships endless corridors, from some sinister, unseen enemy. He sat up with a start, for the moment confused, the alarm banging in his ears.
Its harsh staccato cut through the haze, setting his feet to running for the bridge. Bursting through the hatch, he leaped to the communication console and powered up the receivers.
With gain on maximum, he strained to hear through the hail of static. First, only the crackling and snapping of invisible sparks. Then, slowly, Sol heard the distorted echoes of a distant voice.
The words were unintelligible. Sol worked the controls, fine tuning until he located the narrow band on which the signal traveled. A bit more tweaking to the wavelength and noise suppressors, and a booming voice crystalized in the speakers.
“…brige, repeat, UCS Bamebridge. Do you copy, over? This is the salvage ship UCS Atlantic. We are 10 kilometers off your starboard bow. Please respond, were are equipped to receive your signal. UCS Bamebridge, please respond.”
Sol’s heart virtually leaped into his throat. He bounded from the seat not sure which way to run. His mind raced, trying to remember what to do. His parents made him promise he would be prepared. Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, he rushed off the bridge with purpose.
Sol ran first to his quarters, grabbing the large haversack he kept for just such an emergency. He stuffed a variety of personal items inside then ran back out the hatch, making his way as quick as possible to the galley. There he jerked open the heavy, stainless steel door to the food locker and dove inside.
Sol snatched whatever food was in reach, nutrition not withstanding. He took the snacks he liked, things easy to carry and slow to spoil. Finally, he grabbed as many bottles of water as he could carry and bolted back out the door.
By now, the haversack was too heavy for him to carry, so he just drug it behind him with both hand. He knew where he would hide. Deep below the engineering deck, into a crawlspace no adult could navigate without alerting him.
He let go the bag and darted back into the bridge one more time. At the navcom console, he listened as another message called from the speakers.
“UCS Bamebridge; this is Captain Harris of the Atlantic. We are now only one kilometer off your starboard bow. Prepare to be boarded.”
Sol switched off the radio before leaving the bridge, also powering down the command console, the main computer and as many system as he possible. He wanted to leave no clues to his presence, but realized that was impossible. He would have to take his chances, regardless.
Sol put the bridge into sleep mode, and ran back to his waiting haversack. He made for engineering as fast as his thin legs go, dragging the heavy bag behind him.
Moments later, Sol was crawling between massive conduits deep in the bowels of the ship. His load slowed him down, and made too much noise as it banged against every obstacle and bulkhead. He cringed with each sound, knowing the intruders would be entering the ship at any moment.
At last, Sol reached his special hiding spot, safely tucked away beneath one of the massive housing units of the atomic thrusters. He curled up into one corner and turned off his lantern. The dark washed over him, warm and reassuring, a sanctuary he hoped from those that would do him harm.
For Sol had no doubt, remaining unseen was now a matter of life and death.