The Cypulchral Cloud loomed on the vidscreen, like a purple and grey wall of fog. It had a definite outer border, but tendrils of the cloud extended beyond its perimiter. Apart from its strange density, it didn’t seem all that special to Captain Ortega. He’d seen many nebulae in his time, most of them larger. Captain Calen and Ensign Trell, on the other hand, were staring at the cloud with a sense of trepidation that he hadn’t seen on either of them before.
As they neared, the cloud filled more and more of the viewscreen until it was all that could be seen. Ortega thought he detected the faintest hint of pixelation on the screen, but it left before he could put his finger on exactly what had changed.
“We’re hitting the first stages of the cloud now,” said Ensign Trell. “Motes of dust, and initial electromagnetic interference detected.”
“Will the scanners even be worth it in there?” asked Ortega.
“If the tales hold true, they won’t hurt,” said Calen. “The weird and uncatalogued energies within the Cypulchral Cloud will interfere with scanners, but won’t disable them. I’ll take a fighting chance to see any dangers before they come my way.”
“Captain, it may be worth our time to disable certain features of our computers,” said Trell. “If the reports can be trusted, the cloud’s ability to upload corrupted data can do serious damage to some systems. If we encounter the Soul Survivor it may also help us to prevent him from uploading his mind into our ship again.”
“Excellent plan, Ensign,” said Calen. “He took my ship before, but I’ll see him frozen in hydrofire before he does it again!”
“You mentioned drifting pieces of scrap before,” said Ortega. “Do you have any plans for avoiding them if our sensors go down?”
“Not one,” said Calen. “If I’m fast enough on the controls I’ll be able to bob and weave away at the first sign of trouble, but not before we take a few bruises.”
Ortega nodded. If not for the potential risk from Doctor Rogers, he would concede that the cloud wasn’t worth exploring. Even without the ghost stories that surrounded it, the Cypulchral Cloud’s hazards would warrant a ship more specially designed than the scuttler.
“Having second thoughts?”
Ortega looked at Trell. She’d caught him staring through the viewscreen, and likely had a good grasp on his feelings.
“Always,” he said. “A part of me is worried that Doctor Rogers knows nothing about this place. He might just be running here as a convenient hiding place.”
“Too late to back down now,” said Trell.
“Because we’re here,” said Trell. “Only cowards turn back from an engagement once the course is set. We’ve not even encountered any dangers that would warrant a tactical reevaluation.”
A chime sounded. Captain Calen snapped out of her studious examination of the viewscreen and Trell turned back to her station, looking nervous.
“What’s that?” asked Ortega.
“We’re being hailed,” said Calen. “Normally we automatically receive them and log the messages.”
“I removed our regular acceptance of hailing frequencies when I disabled some of the computer’s functions,” said Trell. “I didn’t want to take any chances with any features that allow external sources to automatically do things to our computers.”
“Should we answer?” asked Ortega.
“It would be safe normally,” said Calen. “But it’s also exactly the kind of thing that wouldn’t be safe in the old stories about this place.”
The chime sounded again. Ortega turned to look at the impending wall of purple mist and vapor. It didn’t look dangerous yet.
“I don’t see any ships that could be sending a hailing frequency,” said Ortega.
“There are none in the range of the scanners,” said Trell. “The scanners don’t penetrate the cloud, though. Neither do our eyes. A powerful transmitter from just inside the cloud could be hailing us.”
“Could we locate the source of the signal before accessing it?”
“Ordinarily, yes,” said Trell. “But not now. The amount of interference we’re receiving is already playing havoc with some of the data that our sensors are picking up. It might be safe to open the message and see what it says. If we’re lucky, we could close the signal if it appears to be nothing but a jumbled message.”
“Is it safe to do that?” asked Ortega.
“No,” said Trell. “Any exposure could potentially work faster than I could keep up with.”
“There’s one other factor we need to consider,” said Calen.
“And that is?” asked Ortega.
“It could be a distress call. I know we’re all thinking it… it’s the most likely reason to hail a ship out here. We can’t let our fear of what it might be keep us from answering it as we usually would. Trell, prepare to instantly close the message if it’s nothing but garbage. Ortega… if we’re lucky, this is The Soul Survivor realizing he’s made a terrible mistake and trying to find a quick rescue.”
“I doubt that,” said Ortega.
“As do I,” said Calen. “Regardless, it’s a risk we have to take. Trell, open the channel.”
Ensign Trell nodded and activated the communications array. Moments later a man’s voice rang through the bridge.
“-ease respond. To any ship in range, we need assistance. This is a repeating message. Please, respond. To any ship in range, we need assistance. This is a repeating message. Please, respond.”
Trell looked to Captain Calen as the message continued to loop. Calen nodded and Trell entered a command. Seconds later, the message broke off and the same voice, speaking in real time, came over the loudspeaker.
“Are you a rescue vessel? Really a rescue vessel?”
“Yes,” said Calen. “We’ve heard your distress call and can lend assistance if-”
“I’m transmitting my best guess as to coordinates,” said the voice. “I worked them out beforehand, they’re attached to the carrier as a secondary signal. The moment you have them, you need to cut transmission!”
“Why?” asked Captain Ortega.
“Because the signal will find you,” said the voice. “Assuming it hasn’t found you already.”