Last line short Story - Asymbolus

Captain Culari moodily stared out of the two-foot thick plexi-glass window of the Gobri, one of the many ships of the Terran Galactic Exploratory Unit. Stars seemed to twinkle at her in jest, or perhaps they were mocking her lack of experience under the belt. Turning away in self-disgust, she pressed a button, which covered the window in a black film, blocking the stellar view from sight. Sighing, she rested her head on one hand as she flipped through the reports before her with the other.
"Captain?"
The hail cut through her thoughts like a knife. She blinked in irritation at the flashing intercom light and she contemplated smashing it, but instead she flicked a switch, cleared her throat and responded, "Yes, Lieutenant Etwin?"
"We have another one."
Culari knocked back her chair with her haste to stand, "What!?" A frown puckered her smooth brow, "Damn, HQ will not like this one bit." She paced her cabin, her thoughts darting through possibilities, "Same as before?"
"Empty as a tomb."
She muttered another crude curse under her breath. This would make it the fifth shuttle that had been found in the past two weeks. Drifting, with its distress signal blazing away strongly, among the stars. The fifth one scrubbed of any and all life, or even any sign of life. Ship's logs were empty; all files appeared to have been erased. In fact, for the previous four ships, all ship data had been deleted. Even the hard drive archives had been removed, and those where nearly impossible to get rid of.
She repeated his words faintly, "Empty as a tomb. Yet its energy reserves are all up to full levels and no wear on engine thrusters. It's as if the thing was new." Rubbing her aching neck, Culari sighed and sank down to examine the reports on the other four shuttles. The findings were identical to this one. "Ok, Lieutenant, you know the drill. Pull her in and get a team together and get the ship to scan for any microbiological life."
"Yes, Captain."
Sifting through the reports once more, she shook her head slightly - all four of them were the same. Although the shuttles were all different years and makes, they always appeared new and unused and seemingly never occupied. She pulled on her jacket, the bands marking her rank on the sleeve, with deftness she didn't feel; she couldn't help but have a sense of dread about the whole situation.

Striding up to the Captain's Bridge where the main computers were held, she glanced at the people examining the constant current of incoming data. She wanted to oversee the work on this shuttle; though the shuttle outwardly appeared the same, she sensed that there was something different that she couldn't describe. Feet padding silently up the ramp, she assessed the crew working in the workspace below. Coming up behind Lieutenant Etwin, she asked, "Anything?"
Her voice made Etwin jump and he turned around with arms crossed over his chest frowning. He ignored Culari's amused smile and merely shrugged then nodded in the direction of the scanning technicians. "Other than the registration number, it's the same as the others - nothing's there. Zip, nada, nothing."
She winced, Head Quarters was getting impatient. "I'll send in the registration number and see who the shuttle belongs to. They are not a patient lot, they want answers, and they want them now."
Etwin again shrugged and rolled his eyes, "What can I say? There are no answers."
Silence fell over them like a cloak as they observed the tedious but methodical work of the scanning crew. They were now looking into removing the outer hull panels to see if there were any breaks in the tiles. A beeping had technicians racing to the central computer from all corners of the room. Culari squinted and leaned over the railing to have a better look.
"What have you got, Bertrum?" she shouted down to the head of Computer Biology Technician.
Extremely young for his position by any person's standards, he had excelled in all his studies and had applied to work for the Space program. The best of the best, he'd been taken on without a question. He looked up at the Captain's eager face and smiled a wolfish grin, "No big news. Jus' results to the scan - they say that th' shuttle contains parts from five different countries. Computer components are all American." He chuckled, then added, "Bad taste in technology." He was Russian.
Culari discounted his comment, and pondered aloud, "Mixed, practically all shuttles are mixed! Any idea about the registration number?" His shaking head was her answer. She pushed shoulder length hair behind her ears, then rethought better of it and tied it back in an elastic that had been around her wrist. She was just about to ask another question of Bertrum, when another technician shouted out frantically. He backed away from his computer as if were going to explode.
Culari frowned, it was becoming a permanent feature to her face, "What's he saying?"
Bertrum's face blanched, "Not good news." He rushed over to the technician and began speaking rapid Russian. The whole time the man waved his arms at his console, shaking his head and refusing to step an inch closer. Finally, Bertrum pushed the chair closer on its track and took a sit. The screen was black, but he quickly rebooted it.
Turning a speculative gaze at Etwin, she gave him a look that reflected his thoughts, What now?
Watching Bertrum through narrowed eyes, Culari, noted how his wiry figure tensed as the screen flickered to life. Leaning forward, Bertrum began tapping keys, attempting to access the mainframe, he only was at it for a few minutes, when, as if he'd just been burned, Bertrum quickly pushed away from the computer. The screen exploded, sending shards of glass everywhere. Smoke began furling out of the ventilation shaft of the central computer and rapidly grew into a small tongue of flames.
Culari wasn't worried about the fire, knowing full well that the fire detector would extinguish the flames once it had pinpointed it with its detectors. Noting the numerous cuts on Bertrum, she shouted to Etwin, "Get medical up here." She was just glad that there was nothing more serious. It would be tragic if she had to file out a death report within the first year of her working here. But Bertrum wouldn't be such a loss.
Jogging down to the floor, she stepped up to Bertrum and demanded, "What was that all about?"
He held a cloth to one of the worst cuts, his face seemed to have aged ten years in ten minutes. The cocky boyish look was gone; bewildered, he answered, "I really don't know, Captain. Seems to me that the computer has somehow obtained an excess load of information, don't seem to be able to take it all." He shrugged feebly, "Dunno, Captain."
She could see that he was badly shaken and wished that she was more computer literate. "Is it possible to look into this from another console?"
He recovered from his trance-like stupor, "Look into it? What do you think I am? A kid from kindergarten? Of course I can! I'm a Computer Biology Technician! An expert with computers!" Struggling to his feet, he pushed past the crowd of curious on-lookers. Waving a hand, he shouted out, "Back to your seats! Show's over and we've got work to do!"

"Got it, Captain." Bertrum skipped into the room, his arrogance returned - flaunting his perfection in both looks and mind. "Figured out what happened. Something has uploaded itself into our system. Our computer couldn't handle it - whatever it was would've blown out the whole system, except that it dispersed out and balanced." He flopped into a chair and grinned, "Told you I was good."
Culari looked at him skeptically, wondering if he was really referring to his mind. He'd had his eye on her the moment he'd stepped aboard the ship and she hated him for that reason alone. "Nicely done, Bertrum. Is it a virus?"
He shrugged from his seat, "Can't say, seems to have disappeared whatever it is. I checked all systems and didn't find nothing wrong with them."
She nodded then spun back to her computer, tapping her feet impatiently as she waited for the latest news from HQ. Glancing up at Bertrum again, he was staring at her. She managed to contain the urge to roll her eyes, "Yes?"
"You look stressed, Culari."
She bit her tongue from the scathing remarks she yearned to shout at him, but replied coolly, "That's Captain to you, and if you have nothing else to say, then you are dismissed."
Twisting back to her computer, she did her best to ignore Bertrum's look of discontent. Before he left, he stood before her desk and saluted mockingly, "Aye, aye, Captain." He added bitterly, "I have some specimens to be looking at that we just pulled in anyways."
Her nose twitched, but she nodded her acknowledgement in his direction. She watched his back out through the sliding door, and only when the slid hissed shut that she let her breath leave her.
After what seemed an eternity of waiting, the computer beeped and a communications link was reestablished between the Gobri and HQ. The familiar face of the Exploratory Unit's Head appeared, he didn't smile or greet her, but jumped straight into it, "How much time do we have?"
Culari looked at the gages and clock, "We have a large window this time. Direct link, no satellites, but after we'll be orbiting Jupiter for a bit before we'll be able to reach you again. Just the usual," she offered a smile.
Auctor returned the smile, but it never reached his cold eyes. He looked down and began sifting through the large pile of papers on his desk, he continued, "I've looked into registration numbers, as you requested, and found something very odd indeed. Our reports indicate that the shuttle you have is actually here in Port 17. I checked it out myself, it just returned from a trip to Mars, but other than that, it's been berthed here."
Culari's frown deepened, "I don't understand, Auctor. How could two ships be registered under one number, not to forget that one of them is there with you and the other is here."
The man shrugged, "This has never happened before. What I find interesting is not the fact that there are two, but the fact that the one you have seems to be in mint condition - never used. We all know that a ship has to have been at least once for it to leave our atmosphere."
She smirked, "I'm not one into the paranoia, and this may sound a little odd, but it seems that you have a duplicate." When she noted Auctor's skeptical look, she added, "Oh, come. You know just as well that there is no way to duplicate a ship. With them being all slightly different so that they can be identified in case of an accident, there's no way to duplicate them down to details."
He gave her a strange look that unsettled her, but all he said was, "It has not been proven."
A shadow seemed to fall over Culari, what her boss had just said made perfect sense and she didn't like it one iota. Rubbing her face with her hands as if to wake herself up, she blinked away the sleep that constantly was at the edges of her mind. "What should I do with the shuttle then? For that matter, what should I do with the other four? They don't have registration numbers; they've been scrubbed by the looks of it."
His simple answer, "Destroy them all."
Auctor signed off at that point, leaving Culari to stare at the black screen; black, empty - like this whole mess - void of any clues or ideas as to how to deal with the situation.

"Those were his words?" Etwin stared at Culari in aghast.
"He wants them gone. I'm not arguing, but there's something not right here."
Etwin shrugged indifferently, hiding his opinion. Leaning over, he pressed the intercom switch and exchanged a quick word with the docking bay workers. Facing Culari once more, he said, "They'll be launched in five minutes and fired at in precisely ten."
Those five minutes seemed to drag by, like time was holding onto the tails of the seconds passing and Culari constantly checked her watch.
"First shuttle away."
The Captain sighed and nodded. Four more to go, she thought.
A cry of alarm pierced through the air, a technician suddenly stood and backed away from his computer console. The cry was echoed as more and more screens blacked out. Bertrum came up to the computer beside Culari.
"What's going on, Bertrum?" She seemed to be asking him that a lot lately.
Alarm written all over his face, he muttered, "I don't know. Computer's hard drive is shutting down different sectors on board. Can't do anything to stop it. It's already disconnected the power to the five shuttles in docking bay R9!"
"Evacuate those divisions! No power, no life support."
Bertrum paused, "Can't, on board communications systems are down."
"Well at least seal those sectors, I'll not lose everyone and everything because of this!"
"It appears that I only have control over half of them, should I proceed with those that are functioning?"
"Dammit yes! And hurry up!"
The lieutenant leaned forward and whispered in her ear as to not panic anyone, "It's locked us here."
Etwin's quiet remark had her stomach churling, "What?"
"With the docking bays shut down, we can't escape."
Culari shut her eyes tight, something didn't seem right. Something was eluding her, on the edge of her mind, yet not wanting to present itself. Something finally clicked into place and she cursed, then reeled around and bolted from the bridge and raced down the corridors, behind her Bertrum and Etwin followed. She came to a paneled door with large windows overlooking a small lab. Over her shoulder she alleged, "Those 'specimens' weren't mineral samples you pulled in, were they Bertrum. They were something else."
Bertrum looked nervously to Etwin, then to the back of Culari. He swallowed down the bile that was rising in his throat and shook his head, "No. As I suspected, they were something else. There's no way something so small could be just left drifting in a small pack like that. When I took the space pod," he hastily added when he saw Culari's furious glare, "all with the Lieutenant's permission, of course."
Etwin nodded his head in confirmation.
"I was only going to take one sample. They were only a football in size, and weighing nearly the same. But when I took the one, the others seemed to follow," he wiped the sweat from his forehead, "So I took them all. There were precisely twenty-one of them. And they really were like footballs. Leathery and soft, they were so easy to cut open, but when we did, we were shocked to find that there was no substantial matter within. They were empty sacs."
Culari shouted at his face, "What the hell did you think you were doing in keeping this information from me?"
Glaring at her with baleful eyes, Bertrum straightened, "As head of my unit, I was under no obligation to tell you anything."
Culari slammed a fist into the side of head, then shook her head in disgust and ground out, "The hell you weren't! The welfare of my crew on board this ship is my utmost concern. In order for me to keep it that way, I need to know everything that happens on board. Now, tell me everything." He was about to protest but decided against that when he saw Culari's stormy face.
He sighed and his shoulders visually slumped in defeat, "There was much debate of what we should do with them. They contained no biological cell structure so to speak, but they were organic.or rather something similar. Within the shell, there were cells, but not the cells that make up any Earth organisms. To put it simply, they were like our batteries with solar panels to gather energy. I figured that if I could find out a way to replicate them and how they worked, I could make a fortune."
Etwin, his chiseled face gray, sneered, "And as usual, greed and money are at the base of things. A Human weakness to be sure, but the downfall of us all because of it."
Staring down into the empty lab, Culari cringed as she saw those scientists that hadn't made it out of the lab quickly enough, their bodies were strewn across the floor. On the tables above them, were the twenty- one sacs. All opened and cut up. She frowned, "Are they supposed to look like that?"
"Like what?" He stepped up beside her and looked down.
"Like sawdust."
"They seem to be deteriorating, or something." He muttered under his breath, "How strange." There were pieces in solutions, under electron- scopes, in nuclear radiation testing, they showed no sign of deterioration. But the pieces that weren't being treated, sitting next to the scalpel appeared to be rotting.
Fuming, Culari voiced every curse in her head that she knew. They were all going to die because of an unknown thing had entered her ship, _____and then it all came to her. She gasped, it seemed unlikely, but at this point, she was for any idea that would come. Walking to a wall- mounted computer console, she ordered Bertrum to get her into the mainframe of the Gobri. He looked like he was about to cry a flood of tears, she felt repulsed by his actions, filthy because he had contaminated the good intent of this mission.
"Why?" he sniveled. He certainly didn't look like the young attractive idol that had arrived on her ship on the first day.
Her nose twitched in agitation and disgust, "I want to talk to my ship."
He didn't argue, he was in no position to question her sanity and personally, he didn't really care anymore. She could go insane for all he cared - they were all going to die, he just hoped that she was first. Once he'd gotten in, he sneered, "Talk away."
She eyed him as she stepped up, turned and t then ran her fingers over the keypad and typed out:

The words blazed white against the black background and the cursor flashed, on and off, on and off. Time seemed to slow and Culari counted the number of times it flashed. Three times, before the letters began to appear.

An echo of her words. A shiver wound its way down her spine.
I
I am Asymbolus - an ancient race we are - I too am Captain of this ship.
Culari looked to Etwin, then to Bertrum. Understanding seemed to dawn on Etwin and he too turned his gaze to Bertrum.
Bertrum backed away, "What?"
"You still haven't figured it out?" She asked incredulously, turning back to the console she typed out a question for the benefit of Bertrum.

A long pause ensued.

Culari closed her eyes in pain for this unknown being. She knew for sure now.
I'm sorry. Thought it was not by my hands, I take responsibility and I ask that you cease your current actions on my people. They, like your young, are like my family, in this sense we are alike. Is there something I can do to allay your hatred for us?
Though no emotion can be sent through words via computers, Culari felt the words shouting at her in anger when they appeared.

Culari's head ached and she faced Bertrum, her eyes were dull, her voice dead, "Now do you see what you have brought upon us all? She was just like any other protective mother and you killed her young."
Bertrum backed away even further, things were getting way out of hand. Auctor had promised him that this wouldn't happen, that those sacs wouldn't harm anyone! Flitting thoughts raced about in Bertrum's mind, but none stronger than the fact that Auctor had known of the existence of the sacs all along, but wasn't sure what they were so he sent them to do the dirty work!
A hissing began, at first the three of them thought they were imagining it, but then their breathing became laboured. Culari sat down on the floor, and began panting, Etwin followed suit, gasping painfully as the oxygen rich air was vacuumed out.
Feeling the need to explain his reasons, Bertrum choked out, "Auctor - I was sent by him.betrayed us all.he knew about.the sacs.he knew about them.wanted me.me to collect them.then bring them back .he knew.I'm.I'm sorry.so sorry." his voice trailed off. His lungs screamed for oxygen, and he could feel his heart thump painfully against his ribs. Head aching with the lack of air, he screamed out his last breath and blacked out - never coming to.

Auctor handed out folders to the congregated Senate of the Investigations of Astronomical Activities. Portraying that of a grief-stricken man, he accepted the words of comfort from them. He'd grieved, as was his duty - he'd lost a lot of good men and women, nearly four hundred to be exact. But that was already in the past, time continued to flow; time to get funds for his next project. Bertrum, the clever lad, had managed to contact him with the information on those sacs he'd found. It was time for him to collect in. Clearing his throat, he announced, "As you all have surely heard, there was an devastating accident, or event, whichever you'd like to call it on board the Gobri. Because of this, I'd like to apply for funding for my next project, which is an expedition to find out more about this phenomenon."
The head of Senate nodded, "I see your eagerness to find out what happened to your men. If you would kindly read us what you have in these folders?"
Auctor nodded, "Absolutely, it is merely a summary of our findings." Flipping open his folder, he pulled out a sheet and read his somewhat modified report.
Final Report by Auctor Fulmen - Head of the Terran Galactic Exploratory Unit: Under examination and investigation. We arrived thirty days after the last message from the Gobri; systems were functioning normally as we docked and boarded, nothing seemed to be amiss other than the fact that there was no oxygen to speak of on the Gobri. Bodies were perfectly preserved due to the fact that there was no oxygen for decaying process to take place. Everything should have been preserved and left as they were the moment the oxygen had been removed from the sealed ship. All rooms contained what we had expected, except one. Despite every reasoning pointing to decomposure only occurring in the presence of oxygen, our findings have shown otherwise. In one of the rooms, once we had looked it up on the original blue prints, we figured that it must have been a biology lab - we know not of its true contents, for all that was left, was a pile of sawdust on the floor.