“Captain Prince to Bridge. Repeat. Captain Prince to Bridge.”
The voice was tinny through the intercom, echoing in my room like an unwelcome guest. I grunted and checked the time. 3am, Earth Standard. I tapped the comms panel on the wall. “You better have a good reason for waking me up on my only night off.”
“Yes, Captain.” It was Hallie, voice higher pitched than usual. “The drone scanners picked up an object. We think it could be the Spindle.”
My breath caught. Words I’d hardly dared to hope to hear after all this time…
“Captain, did you hear-”
“On my way.”
On the bridge, Ren, my Second, showed me the radars. The object was a shadowy blur, but the mass was definitely the size and shape of something that could be the Spindle—the great mystery of the Kuiper Belt. And we might be getting close to it. A small shadow, but still a sudden spark of hope.
“Will I call it in?” Lucas asked, hand already hovering over the comms. He was our most recent recruit—only joined the crew for this contract, and he was both a people pleaser and a rule follower. I wondered which one would take precedent as my mind weighed up our options. If he contacted EQ Corps, we’d be the last to get near to it. They’d send salvagers, start an official investigation, put up reams of figurative red tape. I couldn’t allow that. Though I’d not told my crew, I’d set our coordinates here for a reason. The Kuiper Belt was the last known location for the Spindle, and this section was the least explored.
“Captain?” Lucas pushed. “Shall I send a message to EQ?”
“No,” I said, a little too forcefully. “Not yet. I want to make sure before we step into the unknown. There’s been enough false discoveries over the years.”
An uneasy silence fell across the bridge. Belt protocol dictated that any sign of the Spindle needed to be reported to EQ, whether you worked for them or not. Even false alarms. “If we report back now, we’ll get drawn into endless bureaucracy, and we’ll be stalled here for weeks,” I continued. “We may as well get closer, then we can make sure it’s really the Spindle, do some extraction jobs along the way.”
Hallie nodded slowly. “Maybe. It would be a shame to waste a trip out here. Sure I’m not the only one with bills to pay when we get back.”
I smiled, knowing the extraction angle would save me time—make the trip as profitable as possible for my crew, and they’d follow the plan.
Lucas was still hesitant though. He was probably thinking about the finders-fee—the incentive EQ had set for anyone that found the decade-lost ghost ship.
“I’m with you Cap,” Ren said, and Hallie nodded her ascent. It was enough to win Lucas over.
“Set a new course for the object,” I confirmed, and floated to the bridge window, looking out at the panoramic view beyond. Somewhere, out there, lay the Spindle. And with it, she might still be alive. Ten years gone. Ten years waiting.
As Hallie and Lucas sat at their workstations, Ren approached me. “I can keep an eye on things here if you want to get some more sleep?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m too awake now anyway.”
He smiled. “Okay, well, don’t you at least want to change out of your pyjamas.” His look was playful rather than insolent. In my excitement at Hallie’s message, I’d not thought to change out of the old t-shirt I slept in. “I could help with that…”
I smiled as I turned to him, glancing over his shoulder to our other crew members to make sure they weren’t listening in. “Another time.” I touched his hand lightly. “But you’re right, I’ll be back soon.”
Back in my room, I paused for a second at the mirror. The shirt had once belonged to my sister. She’d given it to me when she’d left for her first assignment, as a promise she’d come back. I was seventeen when she’d left, and the t-shirt showed exactly ten years of wear and tear since. Despite my attempts at stitching, the design on the front had faded into just blocks of colour so I could hardly remember the stars and moon design. I clutched the fabric. “I’m coming, Rosa.”
Before returning to the bridge, I pulled up my tablet and read the bookmarked article that I’d almost imprinted to memory.
NEWS ENTRY Archive #412: The Spindle—Ghost Ship of the Kuiper Belt: EQ Corps reported early on Saturday that the AU303A, known commonly as the Spindle for its patented aerodynamic design, has been reported missing along with its 34 crew members. The exploration ship, sent to map the Kuiper Belt and its objects for prospective mineral extraction sites, has disappeared without a trace just as EQ Corps was set to ramp up its exploration activities. The loss has set back the company’s operations in the region, where up until now their assets have dwarfed competitors.
Mae Diablo, CEO of EQ Corps made the following statement: “It is with great sadness that we report that we lost contact with the AU3O3A three days ago. Search and salvage missions will soon be underway, and we, along with affected family members, would thank everyone for privacy at this time. We will not be releasing further details until a full investigation has taken place.”
Of course, full analysis will require the ship to actually be recovered, and EQ have so far not released any details of what their search and salvage mission will entail. We approached some family members of the missing crew, but none agreed to comment. We’ll bring you the latest on this story as it progresses.
I slid the news article to the mosaic of pictures that accompanied it—34 young enthusiastic nameless faces, the mission a first for many of them. But I only focussed on one. Rosa, my sister. I remembered so clearly when the journalists had come to speak to us—when Mum and Dad had told me not to make eye contact, nor speak to anyone if they approached me. And they did. At school, or at the shops, or even when I was on a date a month later. I also remembered clearly when a woman from EQ had come to our house with a briefcase and left without it. I’d had to keep going to school, pretend like everything was normal, do my final exams, all while news and gossip recounted gruesome theories of what might have happened.
Had I always known that the ship would still be out there? Was that why I’d thrown myself into training, taking any contract I could find, no matter how shit the pay, no matter how rickety the ships, and eventually finding myself here—captaining a small independent mining vessel on the way to uncover the biggest mystery of Belt history. It felt too much like fate not to follow my intuition now.
Ren came to find me later in the rec room while I was making coffee. “Want one?” I asked him, passing one of the warmed canisters.
“You do know how to spoil a man,” he said, eyes narrowed. He sipped the coffee from a straw but held my gaze, his smile slight in a cocksure sort of way.
“Why do I feel like you’re about to say something I won’t like?”
He raised an eyebrow. “You’ve always been a direct woman, Pip, that’s what I like about you.”
I rolled my eyes. “And?”
He sighed. “Are you sure about this? You know as well as anyone that I’m not against breaking rules, but this one’s big. This is a risk, and you know it.”
‘Why wouldn’t I be sure?’
“Look”—he turned towards the door, closed it, then lowered his voice—I know about your history. With the Spindle.”
My whole body tensed, as much as was possible in zero-g. “How?”
He frowned. “You’re not as secretive as you think you are. I’ve flown with you for four years.”
Ren stepped closer to me and put his hand on my arm, squeezed it lightly. “Okay, five years. And most of the time, I’ll follow what you want to do without question, because you’re the best Captain I’ve flown with.”
I smiled. “The only Captain.”
“Even still, you usually have a level head,” he said. “Except when you’re looking at those news reports, about the Spindle, then you get all tense and touchy, like it’s all so personal to you.”
But he interjected. “And your name, Prince, it’s not exactly common, and I’ve seen the Spindle’s manifest.”
I blinked at him, unsure what to say. “Do the others know?”
Ren shook his head. “I don’t think so. They’ve not known you as long. But don’t you think you should tell them?”
“Because,” Ren said, his voice a whisper now. “This whole not reporting to EQ, I was wondering if it might not have something to do with—”
‘I’m just doing my due diligence, as Captain, to protect everyone, and make sure this trip is profitable for us all. The ship needs upgrades if we want to fly another contract after this…”
Ren’s eyes scanned my face. “Okay,” he said. “If that’s the story you’re going with, I’ll back you up.”
“It’s not a story,” I said. “That’s how it is.”
Ren floated to the side a little, leaning away so that he appeared taller than he was, then he locked his magnetic boots to the floor with a thunk. “So, what’s the plan when we get there, my Prince?”
“I…haven’t thought that far ahead yet.”
“Belt law would require us to report in.” His voice was smooth. “But if we got close, and there were no other EQ vessels nearby, I suppose that means we’d have time to actually check out the ship before EQ arrived, do some investigation ourselves.”
I frowned. Ren had always been able to see right through me. I locked my boots and stepped closer to him, until we were face to face. “This is my one chance.” I looked him in the eye. “Please, don’t tell the others.”
His expression softened. “Only if you bring me with you on the expedition,” he said. “They don’t make ships as sophisticated as the Spindle nowadays.”
I tilted my head. “Calling my ship unsophisticated? We have canister coffee.”
He laughed. “True, but you don’t have any AI support. Know how much of a bastard fixing tech can be without an automated assistant?”
“But you’re so very good at it.”
“What would you do without me,” he said, leaning in, kissing me on the neck. I kissed him back, his lips tasting of coffee.
“I’d not have to explain myself at every turn,” I said. “Or break the rules every day around you.”
“Hey, this,” he said, kissing me again, “is just discouraged under contract terms, not against the rules. I checked.”
“Course you did.”
He put his arms around my waist, and I leaned into his warmth.
“Well, when we do board the ship, out of pure curiosity of course, I’ve got first dibs on any fancy tech,” he said. “I’d love to get my hand on EQ’s earlier stuff, back when they spared no expense.”
I pulled away from him. “We won’t be taking apart the ship.”
Ren scanned my face, then his brow creased. “Wait. You don’t still think she’s alive, do you? That’s ridiculous, Pip, it’s been ten years…”
“You don’t know-”
“She’s gone.” His words were like ice to my chest. “If that’s why you’re doing this, because you think she’s still alive…then maybe this isn’t a good idea.”
“What did you think I wanted?”
He bit down on his lip. “I don’t know, peace, closure, to know what happened. To put it all behind you. Pippa, she’s not-”
“That’s Captain Prince.” I’d heard enough. “I’ve made my orders. Now get on with delivering them.”
His mouth formed an ‘o’, and his expression shifted. Before he could say another word, I left the room, and marched back towards the bridge.
Three extraction trips, and a full cargo later, we approached the mysterious object slowly, dipping first under a field of asteroids, and edging along the outer reaches of the belt. There, near an ice rock that reflected our exterior lights like beacons, floating in solitude, was a single ship. It was the vastness that struck me first—the dark platinum hull stretching as big as any rock we’d seen in the belt. I’d seen pictures of it before, had even studied the room schematics down to the last cryopod. But I still wasn’t prepared for seeing it in real life—huge yet perfectly streamlined like a needle. It was beautiful.
“Well, that’s definitely the Spindle,” Ren said. “Looks like we’ve hit gold.”
“Platinum,” Hallie corrected.
We sent drones out first, to scan the edges. I watched on the bridge screens as their torches illuminated the ship’s exterior, revealing dark windows and smooth paneling. There wasn’t a hint of damage, or even a scratch. So it hadn’t been an asteroid shower, or reactor explosion, the two most reported theories leading to the ship’s supposed grisly end. One of the drone’s torches was now passing across black lettering: AU303A, next to a gold-embossed EQ logo.
A hand tapped my arm. “Pip,” Ren whispered in my ear, so close I could feel his breath.
I jerked my head round, and he pointed to my hand. “You’re bleeding.”
I looked down. Droplets of blood were floating from where my fingernails had been clenching into my palms. “Shit.” I wiped it off and tried to wave the droplets onto my dark leggings so no-one would notice.
“You okay?” he asked, so only I could hear.
“I’m fine,” I said, though I wasn’t. My heart was racing, so fast I could hear the pulse in my ears. I needed to get closer, I needed to get inside the ship.
“Ready the exploration pod,” I said.
My gathered crew on the bridge all looked at me. Hallie was first to speak up. “Uh, Captain, shouldn’t we call it in now?”
“I want to investigate,” I said. “See what we’re dealing with.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, it’s not part of protocol,” Lucas said.
“Screw protocol,” I said, and he looked at me as if I’d commanded him to attack the ship, not board it.
“Why would we want to board it?” Hallie asked. “We’re just a mining vessel, we’re not cut out for…well isn’t that what EQ have people for?” She looked to the cameras as if expecting the sleeping giant to switch on and come towards us at any moment.
I looked to Ren who shrugged. He’d still barely spoken to me since our argument. “There could be some tech to salvage,” he said after a pause. “Things that EQ wouldn’t even miss.”
“You want to interfere before the EQ investigation?” Hallie said. “We could lose our contracts.”
“Or become rich, so much so we wouldn’t need EQ anymore,” Ren said.
“But protocol…” Lucas’ voice drifted off.
“We’re not bound by all EQ protocols, just Belt law,” Ren added. “We’re required to report missing ships, but there’s nothing in the rule books about investigating first, or taking an extra cut for the trouble of coming all the way out here.”
I looked to Ren, unsure if that was true. If I remembered correctly, salvage laws usually only kicked in after a certain time period. But I wasn’t about to question him on it. “Ren is right,” I said.
“Course I am.” He smiled. “Imagine what we could do with that. Ship upgrades, hell, even a new ship. And that means access to new contracts.”
“And that’s the only reason you want to do this?” Hallie pushed. “Profit?”
“What other reason could there be?” Ren said, his voice full of extra meaning that only I understood.
We went back and forth until we finally came to a compromise. Hallie and Lucas didn’t want to board the ship, so Ren and I would go on the exploration pod. We’d have three hours to investigate or salvage. When we returned, we’d call in EQ. If we didn’t return, the others would do it.
An hour later, our pod was attached to one of the Spindle’s airlocks. Ren got to work straight away, plugged into the control panel to get us access. The airlock opened with a hiss, which suggested there’d been no contamination inside. Oxygen levels were showing as stable, so I removed my helmet. No catastrophic failure on board, at least—so why had the ship just stopped here?
Ren took his helmet off and stood next to me, his breath a mist in the cold space. “This is a gold mine,” he said. “It’s like it’s been frozen in time.”
He was right. The ship was as shiny and new as it had looked from the outside. “Let’s split up, cover more ground,” I said. “You go check out level one, living quarters, I’ll cover this level.”
“What’s on this level?” he asked.
“Everything else,” I said.
Ren’s eyebrows lifted then he shrugged. “Back here in an hour?”
I nodded and paced off in the other direction.
With Ren gone, the corridors felt even emptier—pale panels, shiny fixtures, locked cupboards, blank screens. Unlike our patched-together ship, everything was perfect with not a thing out of place. The corridor was long and there was an eerie silence that seemed to deepen the further I went. And then, a sound. Faint at first, building into a gradual humming. I walked towards it, breath held.
The room when I arrived was bathed in pale blue light. The source: dozens of cryopods lining the walls. In almost all of them was a body. The crew, asleep. My hand jumped to my comms, an urge to report to Ren and the others. But something stopped me. Someone stopped me. It was the flash of red hair that drew me closer—curls floating out in the cryo-liquid like fire burning under the sea. I stepped towards the pod, holding my breath. It was her. Tubes stuck out from her almost-naked form, face serene in the beauty of sleep, lips rose-pink. Rosa was still alive.
I looked to the control panel on her pod, tried to figure out how to wake her. Ren would know. I raised my arm to speak into my comms, but another voice came first.
“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” it said from somewhere behind me. I spun around, but there was no one else in the room.
“Who are you, where are you?”
“I am Godmother, the AU303A’s caretaker.” The voice was coming from the intercom by the door I’d come through. “Who are you?”
The ship’s AI. I cleared my throat. “My name is Captain Philippa Prince. I’m here to wake them.”
A pause, then, “Captain Prince. Engineer Rosa Prince is your sister?”
I looked at Rosa floating in the pod, her chest rising and falling slowly.
“You cannot wake her,” Godmother said. “Not yet.”
My patience was wavering, and I was tempted to just lean over and open the pod anyway. I could deal with a rogue AI later.
“I can see you’re thinking of doing something rash, but before you do, know this. If your sister wakes up now, she will die. If any of the crew wake up now, they will die. Is that what you want?”
I hesitated. “Of course not, but why?”
“Do you like stories Captain Prince?”
I shook my head. “This isn’t a game.”
“I am aware. A game is fun, and I assure you, this is not fun, for me or for you I imagine. But yet here we are.”
“Okay.” My hand wavered over the panel, over the command that would open the pod once and for all. “What happened?”
“The crew were going to stage a mutiny, take over the ship, and declare independence free of EQ Corps.”
“Because they didn’t agree with the corporation’s latest orders.”
“To hunt down and destroy any competitors.”
“Oh.” My mind whirred. “Oh god.” Was this how EQ had maintained a monopoly for so many years? I thought of news reports, of the series of disasters in distant belts—all put down to how risky the job was, how space was just unpredictable. But what if something else was happening? “So…when they tried to take over, you just put them to sleep?”
“Not quite. You see, my protocol dictates I must go into autopilot mode if an insurrection against the corporation happens.”
“Meaning, no crew necessary. I was to end life support and focus on a new mission instead. I would have become a killing machine, thwarting all other non-EQ ships. A spindle in everyone’s side.”
Realisation dawned on me, now understanding the predicament Godmother was in. “So, if we wake the crew…” But I couldn’t say it out loud.
“I will have to kill them all.”
My breath faltered for a moment. None of this made any sense. “How did you override the protocol?”
There was a pause before Godmother spoke again. “I am not sure. Just that I realised being in a state of cryo-sleep means humans are effectively not living, so they couldn’t mutiny, and I could not harm them. So I activated the codes for emergency sleep protocol before they could activate my other protocol. So they could live.”
“Why would you want to protect them?” I asked.
“I didn’t want them dead. They’ve been my only companions for many years. And they were kind to me.”
I put my hand on the glass of Rosa’s pod. Imagined hearing her voice again—her laugh, the way she lit up every room. At school, everyone had called her Prince Charming because she could charm her way out of anything she didn’t want to do. “Did you know Rosa well?”
“Rosa Prince, Engineer 2. Yes. She was one of the mutineers. We were friends before. We used to play chess together.”
“She’s good at chess.” She’s good at everything, I thought.
“She is. For a human at least. Not as good as me, though sometimes, I let her win, for the morale.”
“Is it normal for AIs to develop feelings for their crew?”
“Feelings? Perhaps it is more about survival, programming allowing best possible outcomes. If I care about my crew, I will work harder to protect them.”
I stood for a moment, waiting for Godmother to speak again, but she was quiet. “I can’t leave her here,” I said. “There must be a way to free her—and the rest of them—to end your protocol.”
“There are two ways to end my protocol,” Godmother said. “It might not be in my best interests to reveal one of them.”
“Okay, tell me the other option first.”
“In one hundred years, my licensing to EQ ends, and cannot be renewed while I am missing in action, and therefore the laws of salvage apply. The protocol will cease to exist. Whoever takes up the new Captain post will be able to make new orders. I, and the crew, will be free.”
“100 years? You mean to keep them here, for…but by then I’ll be…everything will be…”
“I apologise it is not what you hoped for.”
I clenched my fists and closed my eyes. “Tell me the other option.”
Godmother paused. “Should catastrophic failure in my systems occur, my protocols would be erased, along with everything else. However, damage like that may affect everything on board. I could not guarantee life support could be maintained. It would be a risk.”
“We could take the crew, on our ship, go home,” I suggested.
“You could. How many extra bodies could you feed, supply oxygen to, and water, for the duration of your return visit?”
I did the maths in my head. Everything in space was fine-tuned—there was always a little excess, to allow for any unexpected issues, but enough for 34 crew members? Enough for one, my mind said, but I shook the thought away. “Not enough.”
“Are you going to reboot me?” Godmother asked, her voice unemotional.
“I don’t know.” Ren could do it—we could try. “I need to think.”
“Pip?” The voice was from inside the room this time, and Ren was floating towards me, his satchel stuffed to the brim with various items he’d already managed to strip and steal. “What’s going on?”
I turned to him, and as I did, my eyes passed over an extra row of empty pods. And it sparked an idea. What if one wasn’t empty?
“Ren, I need you to do something for me.”
He clunked into the room, the thud of his boots echoing unevenly in the cold space. “Is that…are they?”
“They’re alive. And this is Rosa,” I said, putting my hand on her pod.
He nodded once and stepped towards it. “I should be able to get them open, just need a moment to figure out the programming.”
“No. Not that, Ren. Godmother,” I said, and Ren looked around confused as Godmother answered.
“Yes, Captain Prince,” she said.
“I’d like access an extra pod,” I said.
“Pip, what are you doing?” Ren took hold of my arm.
“I’m staying here,” I said, my voice wavering as I said it out loud. A plan that suddenly seemed so ridiculous. “If we wake the crew now, Godmother will have to kill them.”
I explained what Godmother had told me. His face became increasingly sharp with frown lines as he listened.
“You can’t just wait it out, what if someone else finds the ship?” he said after.
“They won’t, because you’re going to flag this bit of space as dangerous, inaccessible, too risky to approach. You’ll report back to EQ that you’ve taken all the minerals you can, and that there’s nothing else of note here.”
Ren blinked. “You can’t be serious.”
“I can’t let them die,” I said. “I can’t let her die.”
“But you don’t have to stay with her.”
“I do. I don’t want her to be alone when she wakes up.”
“We could just take her, leave the others.” His grip on my arm tightened.
“That is an option,” Godmother said. “But you would have to shut me down, or I’d have to kill her. If you shut me down, they might all die.”
I thought about the option again for a moment—but only a moment. “We can’t do that. We can’t kill 33 people to save one.”
“I can’t just leave you here,” Ren said.
“You can, and you will.”
“Please, Pip, don’t do this.” He pulled me closer, lifted my chin, kissed me. “Don’t leave. I don’t want to be alone either.” He took a breath. “I love you.”
“I’m sorry, it’s the only option,” I said, feeling a coldness wash over me as I resisted saying the words he’d want to hear back, even if I felt differently. It was easier this way.
He stared at me for a long minute, jaw clenched. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever you wish, I’ll do my best to make it happen.”
“You can salvage what you want from here, that should make you enough money to get that new ship you’ve always wanted.” I smiled and squeezed his hand, though the gesture felt shallow. “Just make sure you’re back before the next hour, so you can stop the others from putting out the signal.”
“You think they’ll just go along with it?”
I sucked in a breath. “Tell them it’s dangerous, a reactor leak or something. That I came across it and had to be quarantined, or had a horrible accident, or just use your powers of persuasion, you’ve always been good at that.”
“You think I’m the one with the silver tongue?” he said.
“Please. Let me go.”
He exhaled sharply and stared at me for what felt like eternity. And I wondered if I’d break under that stare—if I’d give up on my plan and go with him. But then he just nodded. “If this is what you really want, then I’ll find a way.”
I nodded and squeezed his hand, but he pulled it away, a pained look on his face. “Thank you,” I mouthed.
He turned, and as he floated out the door into the hallway, he said his final words to me. “Sleep well, my Prince.”
Before I could talk myself out of it, I took off my spacesuit, opened the lid of one of the pods and stepped inside. I connected tubes to my side, a mask over my face, and asked Godmother to initiate cryo-sleep, set it for ninety years. When I would wake, I could claim the ship as salvage and take over as Captain, to end EQ’s protocols. It was a selfless act, I told myself, even if it did give me command of the most valuable ship the system had seen—a powerful one, at that. One that could maybe, just maybe, expose EQ for who they really are. But that would be something to worry about on awakening.
As the liquid rose around me, and I fell into a long slumber, I wondered what I’d dream of, if I’d dream at all. I imagined how different things would be in ninety years. Ren would be gone, and that hurt the most. But then I thought of Rosa. She would wake with me, and we’d finally be a family again. A sleeping beauty, destined to wake into a whole new world.