Mission Control Tipius received the final transmission from Expedition Zeal in the middle of the night.
Expedition Zeal was a human-run ship headed straight into the sun. Wedeck’s measurements revealed a level of frequencies as to suggest sophisticated technical manipulation of such frequencies. As in, a civilization around the sun that no one had ever seen before. Either that, or the manipulation was occurring at a much farther distance away through some remote method.
The technology that stationed Tipius in the clouds of Venus was eventually modified to conditions around the sun. Molecules which strengthened their bonds according to heat could be programmed to divide or deactivate themselves as necessary. How far into the sun could someone go with this? No one knew that yet. Expedition Zeal was an examination.
All around Wedeck, other lights turned on as his companions roused themselves. Captain Lorraic shuffled in, still in her slippers. She stood exactly in the doorframe. Behind her, the complete darkness of her quarters. “Do I need to be here?” she asked.
“This looks like the real thing,” said Wedeck. “They’re coming back.”
Lorriac bobbed her head, either in affirmation or exhaustion, turned and shut the door behind her. A moment later it opened again revealing her fully lit quarters and her in uniform, hair tied up, seemingly washed and awake. “Talk to me Wedeck,” she said, approaching his station, “when did this start?”
Wedeck composed himself, adjusting to her miraculous transformation, and turned to his readings. “Seven minutes ago. We’re still decoding, but we’ll have something shortly. It’s on the 675 Zhz range which is exactly -”
“What we’ve been talking to,” said Lorraic.
“What’s been talking to us,” corrected Wedeck. “But we tagged their transmitter with an artificial dampener so we could differentiate their signal from . . .”
“Whatever’s out there.”
“Exactly,” said Wedeck. “This was, of course, sent hours ago but . . .” he knocked on the head of Officer Lefan, in charge of atmospheric examination.
“Hey,” said Lefan, who had been in mid-yawn.
“Anyone home?” asked Wedeck.
“Yeah yeah.” Lefan switched from local to solar and pointed. “There they are. They’re coming home.”
“All right,” said Lorriac. “Who’s on breakfast and coffee duty?” She assigned Yethaa, the doctor. “We need extra for the crew of the Zeal as well.”
“Sure,” said Yethaa. “Not like I know medicine or anything.”
“Woah, doctor,” said Wedeck.
“She hears us complain enough,” said Captain Lorriac. “Let her have her fun.” But Yethaa was already gone.
Everyone was so nervous about the decoded transmission that hanging around the table was impossible. The Captain made an exception about eating around the instruments and immediately regretted it. The sight of her crew around these computers with bagels, cream cheese, and coffee - she would be the laughing stock of command if anything happened.
“Here it is,” said Wedeck. “Everyone gather ‘round.”
“They’re approaching fast,” said Officer Lefan. “Why don’t we just wait and hear it from their own mouths?”
“Can I kill him?” asked Yethaa.
“Belay that, doctor,” said the Captain. She gestured to Wedeck. “Go ahead. Read it.”
He turned to the translator. “This is . . . well, okay. It’s coming slow, but here it is.”
Transmission: Brother Buttons and Sister Twist were two polar bears who loved to ice skate. Mommy Cuddle and Daddy Sweets did not understand.
“I taught Buttons to reach under the ice and catch fish, just like my daddy taught me,” said Sweets. “But instead, he chooses to slide around. And then, once his claws grew, he stands and skates. Where did he learn that from?”
“I know what you mean,” said Mommy Cuddle.”Sister Twist loved to roll around in our cave. That’s why we named her Twist. But I thought she would grow out of it. Not grow into it.”
“Still,” they said together, “we love our babies just the way they are.”
While the other kid bears learned to walk around in the snow, hide from the wind, and dip their paws in the water, Brother Buttons and Sister Twist worked on their skating routine.
“I think they’re just jealous,” said Sister Twist. “It is so hard to walk in the snow. And sometime it’s deeper than you think.”
“I agree,” said Brother Buttons, “my friends run and jump and hide. But on the ice we are faster and can jump higher, and there’s no need to hide.”
“Still,” they said together. “They’re our friends and we love them just the way they are.”
One evening, Buttons and Twist raced each other over and over again while their friends bet on who would win. “Best two out of three,” they said. But the game was so much fun it increased to three out of five, then six out of ten, then eleven out of twenty . . . they soon lost count and everyone was having so much fun they didn’t notice how dark it was getting.
“Oh no,” said Junior Marble, a friend from school. “My parents will be worried. It’s almost time for dinner.”
“Just one more,” smiled Sister Twist. “I’ll race you home.”
“Hooray!” shouted all of their friends.
Brother Buttons and Sister Twist disappeared into the night as their friends bounded after them toward all of their home caves.
“Oh dear,” said Mommy Cuddle, “I haven’t seen Brother or Sister in hours. Their dinners are going to get warm just sitting there.”
“Wait,” said Daddy Sweets, “I think I hear . . . claws on the ice.”
Sure enough, in a flurry of ice shavings, Brother Buttons stopped right before the front of the cave.
“You know,” said Daddy Sweets, “you are going to crash one of these days and we’ll all have to carve new furniture. Now go wash up before dinner.”
“Is your sister behind you?” asked Mommy.
“She was in front of me the entire way,” said Brother Buttons. “Didn’t she make it?”
“Oh dear,” said Mommy. “My little girl.”
Mommy walked to Sister’s place at the table. But there was no dinner. It was as if no one had sat there.
“I couldn’t have forgotten,” said Mommy. “I’m sure of it.” She roamed to the back of the cave and peeked in Sister’s room, only to find Sister sound asleep in her corner on her bed of dirt.
“She must have had her dinner and washed up and gone to bed, all before I got here,” said Brother Buttons.
“Sounds like someone could learn a thing or two from her,” said Mommy Cuddle, nudging Daddy Sweets in the ribs.
“Maybe we all could,” said Brother Buttons, hugging his parents. And they ate dinner together as a family while letting the speedy Sister sleep, because she had earned her rest.
: End Of Transmission :
Silence. Polar, arctic silence as Wedeck scanned the faces of the crew one by one. Lefan was the first to break it.
“What in the holy fuck does that mean?”
“Officer!” said Captain Lorriac.
“It’s a bit . . . confounding . . .” Wedeck conceded.
“Are you sure that thing’s working right?” asked Lorriac.
“It makes sense,” said Wedeck. “It’s coherent. Just . . . not in this context.”
Lefan turned back to his sensors. “We’ll get to ask them because they’re almost here.”
“What are their onboard readings?” asked the captain.
“I’m not getting any,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Lorriac pushed herself to the side of him, forcing him backward in his chair.
“Hey calm down, Captain, this is not uncommon in high-pressure atmospheres to lose data. I’m sure they’re all fine. There was no distress call and someone, the entire crew in fact, is necessary to get the ship back to us.”
“When did it stop?” asked Lorriac.
Lefan scanned the log. “About . . . two days before reaching the zenith.”
“Jesus,” said Lorriac. “I would have liked to know.”
“Sorry,” said Lefan. “I’ve just seen this a lot.”
The captain remained at her station while the crew initiated the docking procedure. Lefan tried several times to contact the crew, but no success.
“How about this, Lefan?” she asked. “This common as well?”
“I’ll need to take a look at the ship and assess the damage,” said Lefan. “Then in future we’ll build things that won’t fail under those conditions.”
When all locks were in place, Captain Lorriac and Doctor Yethaa headed down. She requested Security Officer Ioco as well. Standard procedure for receiving a ship without communication.
At the Captain’s nod, Ioco released the airlock. The ship opened, revealing an empty hallway. After a few moments of no sound, Lorraic called. “Hello? . . . Captain Wyman?” Not even an echo. “I don’t like it,” she said to Ioco. “Proceed with caution.”
With one hand on his stunner, Ioco stepped into the new ship. He checked the hallway, then the peripherals on the adjoining room. He motioned the Captain and the Doctor ahead.
Using a tablet with a blueprint of the ship, they made their way toward the bridge. They passed some empty quarters. Empty mess hall. At the closed bridge doors, Lorriac said, “I’m warning them we’re coming in.”
“All right,” said Ioco, “but then we enter as if in skirmish.”
“Agreed,” she said. Her hand poised over the keypad to enter the override code for the doors, Lorriac called out, “Captain Wyman, we’re coming aboard.” She opened the doors and Ioco jumped in, stunner at the ready, taking in all corners, then lowering his gun and nodding the Captain and the doctor in.
The crew were all in their spacesuits, scattered around the bridge. Captain Wyman in his chair, slumped over. Other crew were in their chairs, face down on the controls. Some on the floor.
“Analysis,” said Lorriac to doctor Yethaa.
“Already on it.” Yethaa held her tablet up, showing the Captain her readings. “Nothing,” she said. “A little stale, but the air is working fine.”
“We’re going to inspect the Captain,” said Lorriac to Yethaa. “Just stand here and yell if you see any movement.”
The front face-covering of the spacesuits appeared solid black from the outside, so it was impossible to tell if it was in fact, Captain Wyman in the chair. Lorriac addressed him a final time, then told Ioco that she was going to open the mask.
The visor shot up, revealing torn curtains of shredded muscle barely covering the screaming skull. The muscle had hardened and dried and the smell was faint, the atmosphere of the suit preventing some bacterial decomposition. “Holy fuck,” the Captain whispered.
They tried two more visors. Same story. Devoured alive. Either inside the suit, or put back afterwards. The doctor’s tablet showed no sign of foreign bacteria or other unknown infection. They headed to Tipius and spread the news. Just for safety, when retrieving the bodies, Doctor Yethaa wore a hazard suit. Likewise when she performed the autopsy, revealing that the group had been dead for two thirds of the expedition. Returned through unknown means.