by Michael Kingswood
Pan blew away steam that was rising from his coffee mug, then lowered his nose over it to catch the fragrance without getting his nostrils scalded.
Deep, dark, and thick said his scent neurons to the rest of him, and he smiled slightly in approval. What was it his first captain said? If you can’t put a spoon into your coffee and have it stand straight upright, it’s not brewed right.
This was just about there. Perfect.
And it had taken long enough to get it that way. Getting any sort of coffee bean was difficult enough in a long-haul ship like the JOSEPHINE. And weeks cruising through the void far away from any resupply, let alone a stable gravity well and natural atmosphere, meant that when he did manage to get some, it didn’t last long. Not the way his crew swilled the stuff. Which meant they had a tendency to just take whatever they could get and run with it.
It had taken a lot of cajoling, and some outright coercion, to get it into the skull of Jack, the crew’s cook, that when he said only the good stuff, he meant it.
But Jack was finally getting up to standard.
Pan leaned back into his gimbaled couched and felt the gel within its cushions adjusting to match his body’s new position. The gimbals creaked slightly as well, and he made a mental point of tasking Kimbe, his chief engineer, with taking a look at it. He loved this couch; he’d had it for years, ever since he took over as JOSEPHINE’s Captain, and he hated to hear it squeaking in pain like that.
Pan chuckled softly at his silly thought, then he raised the cup to his lips and sipped.
Naturally, the intercom picked that second to beep into his office compartment for a second before a gruff female voice piped through.
“Coming up on the coordinates, Skipper,” the voice said, and Pan recognized Hatha, his Navigator.
Perking up immediately, Pan straightened and placed the coffee cup down atop his desk. It was standard sheet metal with a fake wood top, bolted to the deck just in front of his couch, not gimbaled at all. The designers probably figured if the gravplates had gone out, he wouldn’t need to be doing any paperwork.
Or maybe it would have just been too complicated to gimbal it in unison with the couch.
Probably a mixture of both.
His office compartment was small by planetside standards, but huge for a ship, even one the size of JOSEPHINE. Maybe two and a half meters on a side, it had enough room for his desk and couch, and for a pair of locker shelves on the bulkhead to the left as he faced the airtight hatch that marked the space’s entrance. He also had a little stainless steel wash basin and sink off to the right.
The walls were painted gray, though years of grime that were too ingrained to be washed away by any amount of cleaning solvent made them drift toward black, and the deck was the same. The overhead was the standard mess of cable runs, LED lighting fixtures, and ventilation ducts that one saw everywhere on the ship.
As he let go of the cup, the last of the coffee’s aroma faded from his nostrils, replaced by the slightly sour smell that came from the atmosphere processing gear down in Engineering. He suppressed a sigh at that loss, but that was easy considering the Navigator’s report. Excitement surged through Pan, and he grinned a little bit more broadly.
On the right-hand side of the desk’s top was inlaid a control pad and miniature ships status display. He tabbed open the navigation plot, then hit the intercom controls.
“Thanks, Nav. Get the sensors spun up, and I’ll be right there.”
Pan stared for a second at the nav plot. They were right where Nav had said they would be; right where Pan had told her to bring the ship. Twenty degrees above the ecliptic of the Melrose system, four and a half standard AU out toward Galactic North, and forty-five degrees to spinward.
The middle of nowhere.
But if the information he’d managed to ferret out of official records was accurate, and his extrapolation of orbital variances and drift were correct, somewhere out there in the vicinity was a bigger salvage than anything his crew had ever seen. A massive payday, enough to set him up for life, and do really well by his crew as well.
If he was right.
Pan pushed himself up to his feet and picked his coffee cup back up. Then he did take that swig, much more than a sip.
It was just as rich and thick as the aroma had advertised, and he immediately felt a surge of energy as he swallowed and its warmth spread down his esophagus into his belly.
He shivered slightly at the pleasure of it, then nodded to himself and strode toward the hatch.
Time to get to work.
* * * * *
If Pan’s office compartment was larger than most spaces onboard ship, JOSEPHINE’s bridge was smaller.
It didn’t need to be big. Just large enough for the pilot’s couch and control panel at the ship’s bow, surrounded by a hemispherical bubble of transparent plasteel that allowed the pilot a panoramic view of the space ahead of and to all sides of the ship. And then, further back, within the normal confines of the ship’s hull, the navigation station, which consisted of a horizontally mounted touch-controlled vidscreen that ran the ship’s navigation program and, on each bulkhead athwart the vidscreen, controls for the port and starboard optical observation systems—telescopes to sight key stars to get a fix.
Of course, JOSEPHINE almost never used those observation systems. Most times the navigation program updated ship’s position automatically by interpolating time-coded transmissions from a cluster of satellites parked at stable Lagrange points throughout the system, similar to how planetside systems function inside a Global Positioning System. Those signals combined with the data from JOSEPHINE’s trio of inertial navigation system ring laser gyros in the space just aft of the bridge made for a tight navigational fix, most times.
The observation systems were just a backup; especially since the stars would shift completely once you went through a jump point to a new system.
Getting reacquainted with them was always super fun.
Like every other space on the ship, the overhead in the bridge was a mass of pipes and cables and vent ducts. Unlike most spaces, there were also a multitude of system status displays, an alarm panel for emergencies, and in the forward starboard corner, just to the side of the pilot’s blister, an array of communication gear.
It was cramped, but efficiently laid out, and Pan spent so much time there that it felt almost more like home than his bunk did.
When he walked in, Hatha was bent over the horizontal plot, tapping at her lips with her left index finger.
She was big for a spacer, and not just because she had an inch or more on Pan’s—average for a man—height. She was downright plump, expanding the offwhite jumpsuit she was wearing like a gas bubble ascending slowly through a liquid.
It was that way on every underway. She’d come back from a few days down time looking almost svelte and trim, though she never really qualified for either term. And then by the time they docked again, she had expanded noticeably.
Not that it mattered. She wasn’t on Pan’s ship as a plaything, and in the year she’d been aboard Pan had no complaints at all about her competence.
“Status?” Pan said as he stepped next to her.
Hatha turned to look at him, and her curly black hair bounced slightly from the movement. She shrugged. “We are where you wanted to be,” she said.
“But ain’t no one else here,” came a voice from the pilot’s blister. “So why’d you drag us all the way out here, Cap?”
Pan looked froward to see the pilot’s couch rotated 180 degrees so the man in it could look right at him.
Carl was short, dark, and wiry, with a near-continual expression of good humor on his face and eyes that twinkled with mischief. He could also thread JOSEPHINE through tight confines better than anyone Pan had ever seen. His jumpsuit was the kind of olive green that military flyboys liked to wear. And why not? He’d done his eight years in the Navy before bailing for the riches and glamorous lifestyle of a salvage crew, as he liked to put it.
You could always count on Carl for a joke, even at his own expense.
Pan returned Carl’s inquiring look with a raised eyebrow. “For the biggest score you’ll ever see, that’s why. Got the scanners up?”
Carl nodded. “Yep. And they ain’t showing diddly.”
Which didn’t necessarily mean anything. It had taken Pan less than a minute to get to the bridge from his office compartment. Light speed latency meant they might not have gotten an active return from a nearby object yet.
And then there was the other factor.
“Pick up the visual and IR scanning,” he said. “What we’re looking for might not give a good radar return.”
That made Carl’s grin slip slightly, and he cocked his head to the side. “What is it you think’s out here, Cap?”
Pan just smiled. “Call it a surprise.”
He felt Hatha’s quizzical stare as the pilot turned back around to face forward in his blister and keyed additional commands into his controls. Pan ignored her, stepping forward to the edge of the blister to look about.
Clearly visible from this angle, the plasteel of the bubble was marked with a computer-generated Head’s Up Display, showing JOSEPHINE’s course vector and projected track ahead, as well as compass rose overlay in azimuth and elevation. Various blue or green dots, surrounded by squares of the same color, were imposed on the display, showing smaller velocity vectors as well. Ships, their data transmitted by their transponders and interpreted by JOSEPHINE’s. Blue for Navy, Green for civilian.
But there were no yellow track markers yet; nothing unknown.
Pan didn’t say anything, and silence reigned for a couple of minutes. Then Carl spoke again.
“Still nothing, Cap. Think you brought us on a wild goose – ” He paused, and despite being behind him, Pan could practically see the pilot’s eyebrows rise. “Hang on,” he said after a handful of seconds. “What is this?”
A yellow dot and square popped into view on the blister bubble, about fifteen degrees off the starboard bow and twenty degrees depressed.
Pan stepped forward, so he was standing next to Carl’s couch now, squinting as though doing that would somehow magnify the target for better viewing.
“Small IR variance and visual reflectivity there, Cap.”
Pan nodded. He was actually surprised there was still any IR signature at all; it had been long enough the entire vessel should have completely cooled. But reflectivity would be expected. Ships of its class were generally darkened for stealth, but nothing was perfect. And especially after what had happened to her…
“Got an image on the lower forward camera. Calling it up now,” Carl said.
A moment later a dialogue window opened on the blister bubble, taking up a third of the space on the starboard side of the bubble. It took a second to fully compile the image from the camera’s data stream. Then Carl gasped in surprise. More like shock.
The dialogue window showed a vessel that had been torn open in three spots, its innards exposed to the void. It was completely dark, but despite that its original form was easy to see. It once had been sleek, with a bluff bow that sloped upward to a long flat hull. Gravitic engine nacelles mounted alongside the after third of the hull. A hangar deck, one side of its bay doors knocked askew. And a raised bridge station, jutting up from the hull’s spine almost like the conning tower on an old submarine from old Earth.
A POTTER class frigate. Or it used to be.
“What the hell is an Icaran Confederation Navy ship doing way the hell out here?” Carl’s voice had gone up a quarter octave from shock. As well it should have. The Icaran Confederation stopped two jumps from here; Melrose was an independent world, friendly with them but not allied in any way. There should have been no reason for one of the ICN’s Frigates to come here.
But it hadn’t always been that way.
Pan’s smile broadened. “That, Carl, is the former ICS BOBBY JENKINS.”
“JENKINS? But she – ” Carl broke off talking as the impact of that thought fully came home to him.
Pan looked back at his pilot, and found him looking at his Captain like he was insane.
Hatha was doing the same. But she had also gone pale, like someone had just stepped on her grave.
Pan just smiled all the wider.
* * * * *
The boarding and salvage party consisted of Pan, Kimbe, Lars, who was one of Kimbe’s technicians, and Hatha. They gathered to suit up in the corridor outside JOSEPHINE’s port side airlock, located almost exactly halfway down the hauler’s body. Here the corridor had been enlarged from its normal meter and a half width to form what on a Naval vessel would probably be called a quarterdeck: a half-circle about three meters in radius that extended from the hull inward, specifically fro this purpose: to allow space to prepare for an EVA, or to maneuver cargo or material that had been brought aboard or was about to be shipped off.
The quarterdeck was brightly lit, as were all the ship’s spaces except for the bridge, and painted a lighter shade of grey that almost approached cream colored. Six EVA suit lockers were mounted in the convex bulkhead across from the airlock doors, along with an emergency medical supply locker marked with the standard red cross on a white square.
Just in case someone got decompressed, or otherwise injured, in the void.
Pan had never developed a liking for EVA. The suit was uncomfortably tight on his limbs, from necessity to avoid bruising from the vaccuum of the void. And the helmet and life support/propulsion pack were bulky. And for some reason, no matter what he did the helmet always seemed to fog up on him.
But EVA was necessary for his salvage job, so he lived with his dislike of the process. Funny how money made that easier to do.
The team paired up to don their suits: Pan and Kimbe checking each others’ seals and atmosphere regulators while Lars and Hatha did the same. It took about ten minutes, and though Pan was itching to get to his prize, he didn’t begrudge the time.
The void was an irritable mistress, and she showed no mercy for slipshod mistakes.
“You sure this is a good idea, Skipper?” said Hatha over the suit comm channel as Pan made a final check of Kimbe’s helmet seal.
“You’re not superstitious are you, Nav?” Pan said in a joking tone.
Her silence spoke volumes for a few seconds. Then she replied, “I’ve just heard rumors is all.”
And who hadn’t? ICS BOBBY JENKINS had been lost with all hands while making a patrol through the Melrose System fifteen standard years ago. The ICN had never released all the details, but scuttlebutt soon held that she had lost core containment on her fusion reactor, and the emergency shutdown and ejection system had acted too slowly, so she had been caught up in the resultant explosion.
But that explanation had never rung true to Pan. He’d come up through the ranks as an Engineer before he shifted over to command responsibilities. And he knew how bad an explosion of that kind would be. There wouldn’t have been anything left of the ship at all.
But starting a year after the incident, reports began coming in of sightings of the derelict ship. And one clip leaked out showing the ship, adrift and holed but otherwise whole. Just as she was now, half a kilometer off JOSEPHINE’s port side.
That clip had been taken down and purged from official, and legal, network nodes almost as soon as it was posted. And the ICN released statements repeating the official story, which were repeated and amplified by all the respectable news feeds.
But Pan remembered seeing the clip and, combined with the sightings reports, being intrigued.
The ship had encroached on his consciousness, and he had determined that he would find her. And see what had really happened.
And get some good military-grade salvage out of it, of course.
It had taken a long time, and a lot of careful digging. Back-channel inquiries to acquaintances. The occasional bribe. But he’d managed to recreate the ship’s track up until the time of the incident. From there, it was a matter of integrating the various sighting reports and estimating a position from the star pattern in the leaked footage—pulled down from an illicit network node—and he was able to estimate the ship’s orbital track.
A lot of work, and now it was going to pay off.
“I heard she’s haunted,” Lars said over the comm, earning a snort from Kimbe. “No really. That’s why the ICN never tried to recover her.”
Pan rolled his eyes and turned around so Kimbe could check his rig. That let him get a view of Lars’ blue eyes and stringy blond hair through the dome of his own helmet on the other side of the quarterdeck.
“That’s just silly,” Pan said. “There’s nothing over there but metal, stores, fuel, and ship parts.” And answers, but Pan didn’t say that. “The kind of ship parts that are real hard to come by outside of the Confederation. The kind that will make us all a ton of money.”
Which was entirely true. The POTTER class was old now, but she still was a cut above the warships Melrose was able to construct locally. The Navy Department would be happy to get their hands on some of those ship systems. And especially on the torpedoes that were almost certainly still strapped onto their stows in JENKINS’ torpedo room.
Lars looked doubtfully at him, then shrugged as Hatha slapped the top of his helmet to indicate all clear.
“You say so, Skipper.” He didn’t sound entirely convinced.
“I do,” Pan said. A second later, Kimbe smacked the top of his helmet, and he nodded. “Ok, everyone set?”
Thumbs up all around.
Pan grinned. “Let’s go earn some money.”
* * * * *
The other thing Pan didn’t like about EVA was the smell of the suit’s portable atmosphere system.
It wasn’t noxious or anything. It was actually quite subtle, a little lemon on the breeze. But to him, at least, it seemed to build over time, growing stronger and stronger until that little bit of odor dominated his nostrils and made him want to tear his helmet off in annoyance.
When he’d first experienced that, way back in his greenhorn days, he thought there had been a problem with his suit. But extensive testing and inspection of that suit had said no to that notion. And everyone else on the ship had looked at him like he was nuts when he’d brought it up, after that.
But even now, five ships and Lords knows how many suits later, it still happened.
It was all in his head, Pan knew. But that didn’t stop it, so he’d long ago learned how to suck it up and work through it.
It still sucked.
When the four of them settled onto onto the JENKINS’ back, the magnets in their EVA boots holding their feet to the derelict’s hull easily, the buildup had already started. It wasn’t bad yet, so it was no problem pushing the annoyance from Pan’s mind. But it was there.
“Ok, hangar bay’s back this way,” Hatha said, as she lead the way aft.
They had decided rather than trying one of the ship’s airlocks, which might or might not still be able to cycle open, that they would enter through the ajar starboard-side hangar bay door. It actually was larger than either the airlock or Underway Replenishment hatches, and it would allow certain ingress, saving time.
So Pan allowed the Navigator to take the lead, falling in behind her as his team trooped back down JENKINS’ spine, and tried not to focus on the lemon his mind insisted on constructing in his suit.
The hangar bay was two decks high on the POTTER class, and opened onto the back of the ship’s lowermost decks, giving the vessel a look as though someone had scooped out the upper-right corner of a rectangle, when seen from the side.
Getting down from the spine of the ship to the base of the bay was fun, but then walking “down” a wall always was. And then they were inside the bay itself.
There were no lights, of course. As many years as JENKINS had been adrift and cold, there was no way her batteries could have retained any charge. And of course the fusion drive was out. So Pan’s team switched on their suit lights.
As the beams from their lanterns splayed around the hangar bay innards, Pan couldn’t help feel a bit of awe, and trepidation.
It was a very large space, larger than any crewed space on JOSEPHINE. Wide open, with room to dock two Surveillance and Reconnaissance skiffs, and all the support and maintenance gear those skiffs would require to function. But there was only one skiff docked in the bay now, on the port side. That starboard side, where Pan’s team had entered, stood empty.
Seeing that skiff sitting there, black and dead like a corpse, sent a little shiver up Pan’s spine. Which was silly; he’d been in plenty of derelicts before, and seen everything that could seen in a ship’s broken body.
But there was something about this one…
He gave himself a shake. This was no time for grousing, or losing focus. They were there to do a job. Best get to it.
“Hatha, think that skiff might be functional?”
The Navigator had been taking a close look at it, as Pan had drifted off into fantasy land. Walking its length and focusing her light on key pieces of equipment. As he asked the question, she straightened. “Could be. The hull looks intact.” She moved forward toward the skiff’s blunt nose, and its single airlock hatch. “Let me see if – ” Her breath caught and she let out a little noise that wasn’t quite a yelp.
“What’s wrong, Nav?” Pan said, already moving to assist.
“I’ve got bodies here,” she said.
She was peering through the transparent plasteel of the skiff’s canopy, where the pilots would sit, when he reached her side. Immediately he saw what had brought her up short, and he swallowed. There were two men in the pilot and co-pilot seats. They didn’t have EVA suits, just the kind of olive jumpsuit that Carl liked to wear. They weren’t strapped in, just sitting there. And they were clearly frozen from the deep cold of the void; they didn’t show very much sign of decay at all.
They almost could be wax mannequins. Except for their coloration, and the slack expressions on their faces.
“Jesus,” said Kimbe. He had moved over to the skiff as well, when Hatha called.
Pan nodded in agreement.
“They must have taken shelter in the skiff when the incident happened,” Hatha said. “Hoped its life support would keep them alive until a rescue could arrive.”
“Poor bastards,” said Lars, and Pan could hear the dread in his voice. The thought that maybe the Skipper wasn’t right to shoot down notions that this place was haunted, after all.
Or maybe that was coming from within Pan’s own head.
“Well if it kept them alive then, it will probably still work now.” He turned to look at the Chief Engineer. “Kimbe, get down to engineering. The fusion plant’s toast but see if there’s any hope for the fuel cell generators. It’ll be a whole lot easier to get the skiff out if we can open the bay door,” he gestured toward the still closed door that separated the port side of the bay from space, “instead of having to cut it out.”
Kimbe met Pan’s gaze and nodded within his helmet. Then he patted Lars on the shoulder and the two of them turned toward the airtight hatch leading forward into the guts of the ship.
Pan turned back to Hatha, who was fiddling with the skiff’s airlock control panel, probably hunting for the mechanical interlocks that would actuate it even without power.
“Let’s get up to CIC and the bridge,” Pan said.
Hatha stopped what she was doing, straightened, and looked at him with a questioning expression on her face.
He shrugged slightly. “More good equipment in there, and this isn’t going anywhere. Besides,” he paused for a breath, “I’m curious what really happened here.”
“You want the deck log.”
“We’d have to power up the systems to even have a chance of retrieving it, and who knows if that could even work after all this time. And anyway, what’s the point? If the ICN thought there was anything useful on it, they would have come taken it years ago.”
Hatha’s brow furrowed, and her eyes narrowed. “You know something you haven’t told us.”
Pan had to hold back a wince at the accusation in her tone. And she was right; this entire trip had been out of his routine. But how to explain it?
After a moment’s contemplation, he shook his head. “No, I really don’t. But there’s always been something about this ship, and what happened to her. I’ve never been able to put it out of my mind. I don’t know what happened except I’m certain the official story isn’t true.” He spread his hands, palms out to her through the gloves of his suit. “It’s like a calling, or something. I need to learn the truth.”
Hatha snorted softly. “So it’s not about the big payday. Never was.”
Pan chuckled. “Well, there is that, too.”
She just looked at him, the void between them seeming to contract as she took in his words. Then she grinned and let out a little laugh of her own. “All right, skipper. Let’s go find the answer to your mystery.”
* * * * *
The hatch Kimbe and Lars had taken led into a small airlock that then passed Pan and Hatha into the corridors and compartments of the ship.
It was much different than JOSEPHINE.
Where as his ship was painted grey, JENKINS’ bulkheads and overheads were pristine white, the floor covered in bright blue tiles that were flecked with black and gold. The corridors were punctuated every three meters by hatch coamings for airtight compartment stops, and there was damage control equipment everywhere: portable fire extinguishers, hull patch kits, hoses that could be flaked out to fight a more serious blaze. The bulkheads were marked in a series of alphanumerics that Pan knew told the ship’s level, which frame corresponded to the nearest bulkhead, and how far out from the centerline of the ship it was, and ever so often there were red scuff pads beneath manifolds in the overhead containing four to six small plug-in fixtures.
Those would be Emergency Atmosphere System manifolds, so the crew could continue to move around and fight the ship without EVA suits, even with a loss of internal pressure. Pan had heard about them, but never used them, having never been in the Navy. According to Carl the Navy’s underway uniform was vacuum rated, so the crew just had to plug into the EAS air lines to get breathing air, and they could move easily about the ship.
Pretty slick, but it didn’t do them much good here.
That thought was still floating through Pan’s head when he turned a corner and got proof of how correct he had been.
There was an EAS manifold just around the corner. Floating in the corridor, emergency breathing mask still over his face and still plugged into the manifold, was another dead man. His coveralls, the underway uniform, were navy blue and he had two golden bars on each of this collars. His nametag, embroidered onto the right breast of his coveralls, named him Cooper, and his face was blackened and distorted beneath his mask.
He must have suffocated there in that mask when the air to the EAS line finally ran out.
Pan reached out and touched him, and his body gently floated away from his touch toward the bulkhead where his breathing tube was still plugged in.
“Bad way to go,” Hatha said.
Pan nodded in agreement.
They found the ladderwell leading upward and ascended to the next deck up, where the CIC should be from the schematics Pan had seen. And sure enough, when they exited the ladder, the found a passage running athwartships. Halfway down it, in the centerline of the ship, they came to two closed airtight hatches. One leading forward was labeled “CIC” by a blue label plate with white writing above the hatch coaming. The other, leading aft, was labeled “Officers Country. Official Business Only”.
“Wardroom and staterooms through there,” Pan said, gesturing toward Officers Country.
He nodded at Hatha’s question, then paused. Maybe it was the Captain’s quarters he wanted. He might have a personal log, to supplement the deck log.
Pan was just running that possibility through his head when his comm crackled to life, static in the signal immediately telling it wasn’t from Hatha even before Kimbe’s voice came through. Interference from the ship’s structures, most likely.
“Skipper, I found something.” From the tone in his voice, it was a bad something.
“What’s up, Kimbe?”
“Bunch of dead guys,” the engineer said.
“We expected that.”
“Yeah. But these guys were shot.”
Pan stopped dead, and he looked over at Hatha. She looked as taken aback as he felt.
“What do you mean, shot?”
“I mean someone put a gun to two guys’ heads and blew their brains out. Maneuvering is covered in blood and grey matter.”
What in the hell? That didn’t make any sense…
Except that it did. Maybe. If the official story wasn’t true. Which as he’d told Hatha, he was certain it wasn’t. But still, he hadn’t expected to find something like that here.
Pan swallowed. “Right. We can figure that out later. Any luck with the fuel cells?”
“I can do you better than that. If what I’m seeing is right, it looks like the reactor is intact. Give me a half hour to get power up from the fuel cells, then another hour or two to warm the reactor up and I can get you full power.”
“Not even a little bit, Skipper.”
Hatha’s mouth formed the words, “What. The. Fuck,” though she didn’t say them.
Pan agreed completely.
“Ok, Kimbe. Get the fuel cells up then see if you can get lights on while you bring up the reactor. It’s creepy in here with just flashlights.”
“Ain’t that the damn truth.”
The comm clicked off.
Pan and Hatha just looked at each other for a several seconds. He could see her brain was whirling in circles as much as his was. Had there been fighting aboard? Small arms wouldn’t hole the ship like it had been, though. So what the hell happened here, and why?
“Well,” he said. “Not going to find any answers standing around here. Let’s get this door open.” He gestured toward the hatch leading into CIC.
Hatha gave a little jerk, then nodded.
The airtight hatch had an electronic control pad on the wall to its right, and a mechanical handwheel installed in the center of the hatch itself.
The handwheel was stuck. Of course. Years of utter cold would do that. It took both him and Hatha tugging on it, and even then he wasn’t sure they’d get it to budge. Until it did. A quick pop that he could practically hear as much as feel, and then the handwheel turned freely.
After a few seconds of turning, the handwheel stopped as it reached its end of motion. Pan took hold of the door’s latching mechanism handhold, then pushed.
It didn’t budge. Not one millimeter.
He tried again. Still nothing.
“Is it stuck, or…” He trailed off as he spied a small gauge built into the bulkhead above the electronic control panel. It was mechanical, and marked off in kiloPascals. A differential pressure gauge, and one of its sensing tubes ran into the bulkhead. “Damn. CIC’s pressurized.”
He shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course the heart of the ship’s combat systems would be designed to hold pressure, even if everything else had been breached. But, he still was.
“No hope of getting that thing open,” Hatha said, sounding disgusted.
She was right. The hatch opened inward. There was normal atmospheric pressure inside. As big as the hatch was, he’d be trying to push against several tons.
“There has to be an equalizing valve somewhere,” Pan said.
The Navigator nodded, and they set to looking.
It only took a moment to find. It was mounted unobtrusively up in the overhead above the hatch, a small centimeter and a half valve and pipe. From the shape, a ball valve, with a long hand actuator. But when Pan turned the valve, nothing happened.
“The bulkhead stop inside must be closed,” Pan muttered. And of course it would be. It would be insane to just leave it open, because if you were a living crew fighting the ship, someone could do what Pan just tried to do, and depressurize the space on you without you knowing until perhaps too late.
“There should be another entrance up forward,” Hatha offered. “Maybe that one is open.” She didn’t sound hopeful.
Pan shook his head. “No, they wouldn’t be that careless.” He sighed. “We’re going to have to cut our way in there.”
Which would take a lot of time, effort, and manpower. But it would be worth it, for the salvaged gear as much as for access to the logs.
Then again, that wouldn’t be the only place one could access the log.
“To the bridge then?” Hatha asked, as though reading his thoughts.
“Not yet,” Pan said. “Let’s check out the Captain’s cabin first. His terminal would have access to the logs, for review if nothing else.”
He turned aft, to the airtight hatch leading into Officers Country, and found the differential pressure gage mounted next to it read zero. The wardroom area was in vacuum, like the rest of the ship.
A small amount of effort later, they had the hatch open, and he stepped through.
The decor in Officers Country was markedly different. The white-painted walls and blue tiles were replaced by deep red-brown paneling that looked very much like real wood and floor tiles that could have been marble if he didn’t know better.
The overhead was the usual mass of cable runs, lighting fixtures, and ventilation ducting, though. And as he swept his flashlight around he could see a portable fire extinguisher mounted near to a pair of doors—not hatches—on the right hand side of the passageway looking aft.
As he drew near, he saw that the first of those doors was labeled “Commanding Officer” by letters carved into the door and inlaid with brass. Below them was engraved the circled star that the Icaran Confederation Navy used to designate a man (or woman for their female ships) as the CO.
He was just reaching out to the door knob, a simple twist device, when Kimbe came back over the comm. The static was worse this time, but Pan could still hear him well enough.
“Good news and bad, skipper. Got one of the fuel cells generators online. Should have lights in a minute or so.”
“Outstanding. What’s the bad news?”
“I think I was wrong about the reactor. Looks like the injectors have been fused open. I could start it up, but – “
Pan finished for him, “But it would just overload and trip the emergency shutdown if we did.” He sighed. “Do we have any injectors on JOSEPHINE that we could install?”
Kimbe made a clicking sound, like he was flicking his teeth with his tongue. Then a couple seconds later, Pan could hear the head shake in his voice. “Don’t think so, Skipper. Military models are made to different tolerances than ours. It might work. But more likely it would destroy the injectors from the different flow rate. Also I’m not sure how their reactor safety interlocks and injectors are interrelated. If we screw with it and mess up the interlocks, we might not get a shutdown when we need one, and then…”
He left the rest unsaid, but Pan didn’t need him to say it. If that happened, the ICN’s official story would end up being true. Except that his crew would be the one blown up by it.
Pan wouldn’t risk that.
“Ok, leave it. Just get the lights on, and we’ll proceed with the salvage as planned.” He thought for a second, then added, “Will there be enough juice for grav plates?”
“Not for long. They burned through most of the H2 and O2 reserves. Probably survivors trying to keep at least some power after the incident. Just lights alone, we’re talking a day tops.”
And they would likely need much longer than that to get the best and most valuable stuff off the ship. Pan didn’t bother asking about the hydraulics for the hangar bay door. If grav plates were going to be too much, with their relatively low current draw, the power needed to warm up the hydraulic fluid, get the accumulators recharged and the pumps running, and then open the hatch would be far too much.
“Ok, lights only.”
Pan muttered under his breath, but really there was no reason to be disappointed. He hadn’t planned for any lighting or gravity at all. Still…
He shifted frequencies on his comm, then transmitted, “JOSEPHINE, this is the Captain.”
Carl’s voice, crackling with interference from JENKINS’ hull, came through a moment later. “Aye, Cap.”
“Carl, get the off-shift personnel suited up and prepared to come over. We’ve got lights coming up, but we won’t have them for long. Want to get as much off while we have the light as we can. Also, send over a couple cutting torches. It’s going to be a bit more difficult getting access to some spaces than we thought.”
“Aye, Cap. We’re on it.”
Pan shifted back to his team’s frequency, then glanced over at Hatha and shrugged. “We do it the hard way, looks like.”
“Yeah.” He turned back to the CO’s door.
As he was pushing the door open, lights began flickering to life. The corridor’s lights settled into a steady illumination, but inside the stateroom…
The lights flickered and kept on flickering, making a scene that would have been gruesome already into something out of a nightmare.
There was a man pinned to the forward bulkhead. From his apparent age before he died and the circled star on the left breast of his uniform, above the golden sunburst and crossed sabers that the ICN used to designate fully qualified officers, he was the Captain.
His arms were outstretched, and something metallic had been driven into the palms of each of his hands, pinning them to the wall. Frozen blood left a red crystalline line from those hands to the deck below him, and from his neck where his throat had been slashed down the front of his uniform.
Someone had tacked—stapled?—a piece of printer paper onto his torso below his nametag and warfare device. It was stained red from the blood, but Pan could still make out the word printed there.
“Oh my God,” Pan said.
* * * * *
Pan leaned back in his couch, and the gimbals squeaked. He’d forgotten to ask Kimbe about it with all that was going on, but the squeaking didn’t get to him this time.
His attention was fully focused on the rectangular object he had cradled in his hands. It was plastic and metal, black, and had input/output ports on one side. A memory core from JENKINS’ network equipment space; from the server that held the ships’ logs.
He raised the memory core up to his face and stared at it, as though willing it to give up its secrets would make it happen.
No such luck.
Pan sighed and righted himself, then placed the core down atop his desk.
Five days of round the clock work had stripped the JENKINS of just about everything of value, and filled JOSEPHINE’s holds with enough to earn himself and his crew a crap ton of money. And yet…
The memory core seemed to mock him as it lay there, so close, yet impenetrable through its defense of military grade encryption that Pan could never hope to break on his own. It was enough to drive a man nuts.
The electronic beep of his office call button pierced the air, and he looked back up toward his door. “Come,” he called.
The door opened and Hatha stepped into his office, ducking her head to avoid cracking it on the hatch coaming. She didn’t waste any time, but made her report before fully settling into place before his desk.
“All set to go, Skipper. Salvage is all stowed and everyone’s accounted for. Course is computed. Just waiting on your word.”
“Thanks, Nav,” he said, nodding at her. His eyes then fell back to the memory core, and he realized he was frowning.
Hatha cleared her throat slightly. Then she said, “I guess we know why the Icaran Confederation never let the real story get out about what happened.”
No argument there. “Yeah. Fighting on one of their warships.” Pan shook his head. “It had to be a mutiny.”
“Quite embarrassing if word got out,” Hatha agreed.
“But what I still can’t figure out is why they never sent a recovery ship,” Pan said. “And what caused the hull breaches? Not small arms. And anyway why would either faction in the fighting do that to their own ship?” He shook his head. “It makes no sense.”
Reaching out, he poked at the memory core, and it rotated a quarter of the way around atop his desk.
“The answer’s there,” Pan said. “I know it is. If only we could get to it.” He didn’t even try to keep the frustration out of his voice.
Hatha shrugged. “Maybe the Navy Department will tell you once they decode it. You’re the one who found it, after all.”
Pan looked from the memory core up to her round face. It was a kind thing to say, but also dumb. He wasn’t cleared for anything; none of them were except maybe Carl depending on when his last clearance review had been conducted before he left the service. The Navy Department wouldn’t tell him jack.
Hatha saw something in his face, and an eyebrow rose on her forehead. “You are planning to give that to them, aren’t you?”
Pan shrugged. “I should. It would certainly give the government a nice lever to use in the trade talks with the Confederation next May.”
“But you don’t want to.”
Pan didn’t answer for a while. He chewed on his lip, going over everything they had found, and learned. Then he shrugged. “No, I don’t want to. I want to learn what the hell really happened. It’s been…” He let out a rueful chuckle. “It’s been my obsession, you know?”
He could see that Hatha didn’t approve, but she had the grace to not say anything. She merely drew herself upright and said, “Ready to break contact with the derelict, Captain.”
Silently thankful she had chosen not to press the matter, Pan nodded and stood. “Very well, Nav. Let’s get going.”
Hatha nodded, then turned to leave his office.
Pan slipped around his desk to follow her to the bridge, but paused when he was halfway through the hatch. He looked back at the memory core sitting there, beckoning to him.
It would be take three weeks to get back to Coppernaum Station, in orbit around Melrose, the system’s lone habitable world. He’d have that long to decide what to do about it. He wasn’t sure that was enough time.
He took a breath and forced his eyes away from the thing. He’d figure it out. But for now, he had a ship to get moving.
The hatch to his office swung shut behind him, but even through it he could feel the memory core calling out to him as he strode toward the bridge.
The truth, calling to him.
If only he could reach it.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here:
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