“The scans are still coming back empty,” Reed says. “No sign of life. I am sure.”
The two Regulators, busy at their screens, confirm this curtly. I notice they don’t talk much and I kinda like that. I haven’t had time to explain their presence to the others on the Bridge but judging by the fact that they are at instrument consoles, they must have explained it themselves.
I see Reed doing something strange with his eyes and it dawns on me just how long he’s been deep in whatever machine code interface he goes into every time he plugs in. The eyes are the one part of us that get tired regardless. Like any hacker whose body has been instrumentalized Reed has developed personal strategies to help him get past fatigue and the lack of focus that comes with routine work. The eye exercises he is doing are energizing as well as a natural de-stresser for the eyes.
“Keep scanning for movement,” I say to the two Regulators. “Anything moves on that dead ship I want to know.”
They look a little surprised but they are professional. Once freed from the cell and their collars they don’t feel the need to challenge anyone’s authority. Plus, they know my command makes sense. There may be no overt signs of life on that Ghost Ship but the legends around them didn’t materialize out of thin air.
Space is awash with energies. Energy and matter are interchangeable. For most of us that is only of academic interest. The frequency boundaries that help us maintain our carbon-based cellular form are not quite so accommodating when ships jump in and out of near light speeds, next to deep gravity wells, awash with exotic energies. No one quite knows how Ghost Ships come about but one theory has it that the humans within are transformed; their matter turned into energy, their corporeal coherence ruptured for good.
The most famous Ghost Ship was the Saratoga. The jewel of the origin planet’s magnificent battle wagons. Large as a moon. Sleek as a space needle. Armed with enough weaponry to put a few black holes in your average galactic cluster. When it disappeared everyone thought it’d simply gone to ground, it was after all at the height of the Corporation Wars. It was decades before it came back, floating serenely through Terran space. All systems dark. When it was boarded nothing was found. The ship itself was intact. Meals in the gulley abandoned half-eaten like crew members had somehow dematerialized in mid-meal. No signs of battle or damage anywhere. But no sign of the crew either.
It’s not like an entire crew, almost 1,000 men and women, can go missing in the middle of a patrol. When the Saratoga’s records were examined they showed that the ship had set out on a routine patrol mission beyond Mars. Shortly after orbiting the Red Planet it had gone dark.
Scientists swarmed over it for months. Tests were carried out. Nothing.
And then the tales started to fly about. Told in hushed tones from outpost to outpost. Rumors of strange reflections in mirrors aboard the ship. Motion sensors picking up movement when there was nothing to see. Those who had been studying it started to have hallucinations. Some went mad and took their own lives. Others disappeared. Just got up and left one night, never to be seen again.
Energy is not always strictly compartmentalized. I know that well. Maybe all this is just the stories put out by minds strained by work exhaustion or boredom or fear. The brain latching onto likely explanations for unlikely events, however superstitious they may seem. The fact is Ghost Ships are given a wide berth. Everyone’s lives are tangled up enough without additional complications. Unless there is no other choice.
We were out of other choices.
“I have motion!” from Raynar.
“Me too!” Confirmed Sam, a second later.
Great! Their voices sent Reed scuttling out of his eye exercises and back on his scans.
“No heat signature,” he says. “Strange. And no life signs either.”
Yet something had moved. The Regulators’ scanners had picked up movement.
“Get the doctor up here,” I say to Sam, “she’s in sick bay.” I watch her move fast, with confidence, as she makes her way to get Tessa. “We need the fuel that ship is carrying,” I say to no one in particular and catch the tiny twitch from Raynar, before he controls it. He’s heard the Ghost Ship rumors too, then.
“You think it’s worth the risk?” He asks.
I shrug my answer. Then: “What choice do we have?”
It takes us a few hours to get to within visual of the Ghost Ship, put a plan of action together and decide exactly who is going to be involved in its execution. There is much talk and finally we settle on me, Tessa, Sam and Raynar to go in. Reed will stay with Ellie.
Regulator ships are not easy to board, nor do they readily give up their fuel. I know I need Sam and Raynar to help me locate viable fuel cells and extract them. I will need their expertise to dismantle whatever defenses the ship has in place. Tessa in the meantime will scour sick bay. Look for anything she can use to help her treat Ellie. There is guilt tagging at me deep inside here.
Ellie might be the way she is because of me. Maybe the concussion was way stronger than anything I’d anticipated in her case. Maybe the combination of my explosive charge and the incense were enough to damage her brain. Maybe. I wasn’t sure why I cared so much really. I barely knew the kid, yet here I was, worrying that I might be the reason she never wakes up from whatever coma she’s in, right now.
I wonder, at times, whether the past is catching up with me. Red dust colors my nightmares. I, more than most people, know that we have two lives. One we present to the outside world. That’s a normalized one. It’s where we, mostly, are what others expect us to be. Do what is expected of us. The other life, the one deep inside us however, we rarely acknowledge. It’s the one where we become our own masters. Do what we want. Disregard norms and protocols and pull the trigger turning those who cross our path into piles of red dust.
These two lives are always at war inside us. Which one eventually wins determines the person we become. I shake my head, suddenly conscious the others are looking at me.
“You’re not saying anything,” Tessa breaks the silence.
“Sorry, I was calculating the odds,”
“On the Ghost Ship?” from Raynar.
I nod. No one says anything else. We all know our roles.
Suited up and breathing bottled oxygen reminds me why I hate suiting up and breathing bottled oxygen. It’s not just the claustrophobia, the sense that everything is closing in on you. It is the fragility. Suddenly you realize that without special suits, pumps, atmosphere to take with you, your flesh and blood body is just so much useless, organic matter in space.
Reed, I am thinking, would sympathize. Hackers are notoriously intolerant to any weakness of the flesh.
“Sef, keep breathing. Your vitals are dropping.” Reed’s voice in my ear makes everything real. I take a deep breath and move on. I motion for the others to follow me.
“Once inside we’ll double-check the atmosphere,” I say, “if it’s OK we use the ship’s. Save on our own tanks.”
They all nod their agreement. The shuttle that took us across the two ships is tiny by comparison. The Ghost Ship is massive. An armed transporter by the looks of it. Regulator issue, Corps-backed.
“Once inside we split up.” I say. I catch Raynar’s snort in my ear. I know what he’s thinking. Every audiovisual entertainment disaster starts with our heroes splitting up.
“No choice, remember?” I look Raynar’s way as I say this for the benefit of everyone. “I want a quick in and out. We’re not staying here longer than we need to.”
With Reed’s help we are able to get past the airlock doors fast. Then, as they close in behind us and ship schematics load up on the display of our helmets, I urge everyone to move fast. We have less than an hour to get everything done.
We all cast one last look at each other. With helmets pushed back, breathing ship oxygen; in the light cast by the ship’s emergency lights we all look a little strange. Our irises are too dark and there are dark shadows beneath each eye. It makes us all look a little bit like the dead, already.
Sam and Raynar will look for the fuel cells we need. Tessa has to get to sick bay. I will scout around, see if there is anything else we can use.
“Go,” I say, “Go!”
The ship’s emergency lights don’t function everywhere. Parts of it are either dimly lit or dark. It’s cold inside. As I breathe out I can see the cold stream of my breath. While its atmosphere is holding the rest of it is far from hospitable. At the back of my mind I start to wonder just how long it’s been drifting like this and I have to forcibly quell the thought and shove what I know about Ghost Ships aside.
With my helmet off I don’t have ready access to the visual schematics Reed loaded for us but I remember the rough layout of the ship. I find a shaft and descend one deck.
The corridor I find myself in leads to an array of airlocks. Escape pods lie in wait. Unused. I can see why.
The corridor is littered with bodies. Or rather, body parts. In the ship’s low gravity and cold, blood has coagulated fast and frozen into globules. The spatter patterns tell me that something run through this way moving fast. It dismembered everything in its path. How? What? These are questions I need to answer but don’t just yet know how.
I examine a couple of bodies and they are in a terrible state. Their wounds are consistent with blunt force trauma. If they’d been run over by a fast truck I would have understood but here, in space. As a precaution I unclip my blaster, make sure it’s ready to discharge. There must be at least twenty bodies here. They were running, trying to make their way into the pods when whatever was chasing them caught up with them.
I wonder why they’re not armed. Why they have no suits on. I know the pods have their own life support but still, standard space protocol says you suit up in a life pod. An added precaution against the kind of glitches that leak your atmosphere out into space and end your timeline sooner than it should end.
They were caught by surprise is the natural assumption of course. Again, how? By what? Questions, questions. There is nothing in what I see to give me a clue. No claw marks. No energy burns.
“Sef, we’ve found the fuel cells,” Raynar’s voice interrupts me.
“I’ve found the crew,” I answer back. “What’s left of them. Stay sharp.”
“Affirmative.” The Regulator falls back into standard battle talk.
I remember the sick bay is a level below me still. I look for an airlock to take me there. My guess is where Tessa is and I need to round her up and get back to the Regulators. The first airlock I try is stuck fast. It won’t budge no matter what I try. I find a service tunnel and squeeze through the opening panel, I start to climb down.
The sick bay, when I get to it is empty. No sign of Tessa. There is more blood though. A lot of blood. Blood spatter just like in the corridor above. It spells bad news for whoever had been here when whatever happened had happened.
The place gives me the creeps and the creeps is something I listen to. The subconscious signals that read danger are processed by the mind at levels well beneath conscious awareness. Listening to them, when they surface, requires a special kind of awareness. My subconscious has kept me alive more times than my conscious. I am not about to start ignoring its warnings.
I have the blaster out now. I inch away from the empty sick bay. The corridor is dimly lit. There are dark patches ahead. When I squint I can see body parts. Worse than above. I move slowly forward all senses on the alert.
There are several chambers leading off it. Through their glass panels I can see equipment in some sort of disarray. Gurneys. It looks like medical labs. I recall nothing on the ship’s manifest about this. There is the low sound of metal scraping on metal from somewhere ahead and I feel my blood freeze.
My steps become silent as my body tenses for action. I am sure there is someone there with me. In one of the chambers ahead. I inch my way along the wall, eyes checking everything carefully. I dry swallow to clear the constriction on my throat. My pulse is attempting to race but I quickly bring it under control.
I edge up to the door of the next chamber. Peer inside through the panel. The panel is smeared with blood from the inside, making it hard to see everything. There is movement. There is the same sound of metal scraping on metal as someone tries to push a large metal cabinet away from a workstation where it has been crashed against.
Before I can think consciously I am inside the chamber. Blaster raised. Then:
She spins around in shock. Loses her balance as she does so, clearly startled, begins to fall. I am quick enough to catch her before she hits the floor.
“You scared me!” she gasps.
“Did you find medical supplies?” I look behind her at the complex array of medical equipment and medscan devices on the workstation. The cabinet she’d been trying to move was blocking access to most of them.
“Not in sick bay. There’s the equipment I need right there,” she points to the workstation.
I help her slide the heavy metal cabinet away from the workstation and she quickly picks out some of the equipment she needs and several unlabeled boxes of medicine.
“What is this place?” I ask her.
There’s no answer and I am not even sure she’s heard me. I look about the empty gurneys. They all have heavy, leather restraints and all of them are covered in blood. Whoever was in them clearly did not have a good time.
“It’s not even in the schematics,” I say, mostly to myself. I watch Tessa expertly navigate her way round the room, skirting the bloodied gurneys with ease, opening drawers from the wall behind them, taking out specific medicine boxes and specialized syringes and other equipment.
“Good to go,” she says at last.
Not a moment too soon.
“Sef? We need some muscle here,” from Raynar.
“We’re on our way,” I motion to Tessa and blaster in hand I bring up the rear as she unerringly picks her way back to where Raynar and Sam are struggling with a fuel cell.
My senses are still on alert. My gut feeling to danger has not gone away. Without a specific cause of danger to absorb my attention I am in real danger of overloading. My brain shutting down. It’s that bad. The task of extracting the fuel cell is a welcome distraction.
“Everything OK?” Raynar notices the blaster I am still holding. I nod as I holster it at my side.
“Let’s get to work,” I say.
Ununoctium is the heaviest element in the universe. To understand fuel cell technology you need to consider that Xelium, the substance that can be mined virtually everywhere, when mixed with Ununoctium, in a specialized reactor, generates force equivalent to several million times its volume while oxidizing at the same rapid reaction rate as the old aluminum-based, solid-fuel compounds of the old Terra technology.
For those who did not pay attention in their intergalactic history class this means that a mix of Ununoctium and Xelium are about as close as rocket fuel technology will ever get to a “free lunch”. A small amount goes a long way and part of the byproducts produced kick off a replenishing cycle now known as the Carbide Trade-Off, named after a defunct Terran Corporation, that reconstitutes a certain percentage of the original mass.
All that makes fuel cells very compact and very, very heavy. Raynar and I braced and lifted. The fuel cell was balanced on rods that made it easier to move but overcoming inertia was not easy. I could feel my muscles bulge and groan under my suit as I strained against the load. Raynar was breathing heavily and grunting.
“Let me help,” Sam pitted her own strength against the impossibly heavy metal.
For a long minute nothing moved. It appeared almost as if we wouldn’t be enough. At the very last moment, when I was about to swear loudly and stop pulling against the load of the fuel cell, something popped, deep somewhere in the machinery. The fuel cell moved. A tiny fraction.
“It’s moving!” Raynar said through gritted teeth.
I nodded and redoubled my efforts. Sam strained. Tessa, arms full of the equipment and supplies she’d salvaged, watched. Another give. Then another. With the groan of metal being moved after a long time, the fuel cell rose majestically from its berthing.
We now pushed instead of pulling as the heavy cylinder rose above us, its base still in its berth.
“You’ve got a transporter?” Raynar gasped at me, sweat sliding down his face from the effort.
I couldn’t answer back. My face was equally drenched with sweat. I pointed with my eyes. Just a step or two behind me was the circular, wheeled base designed to take the exact shape and weight of a fuel cell. Once locked in it a baby could push it around.
“Ok, then,” from Raynar.
“On my count,” I gasped, “One, two, three!” We all heaved. The fuel cell came out with a final wrench and we just managed to maneuver it to its transporter wheel base.
“Phew!” from Sam.
I began to smile when Tessa who had been watching us silently let out a warning cry: “Look out! It’s a Chimera!”
A shadow detached itself from the far end of the room and sprang off the floor with a mighty leap. It bounced off the wall, blunt face forward. Beady, dark eyes, designed to catch more of the light spectrum than human eyes ever could.
Chimeras were illegal. Artificially spliced organisms made from a concoction of human and animal DNA. They were used as bioweapons in the first Corporate war against the Apostates from Terra. Bred to kill they would wipe out entire divisions. Supernaturally fast, fearless. Resistant to pain, cold, heat, hunger and thirst, they’d been outlawed.
Its presence here explained a lot about what had happened on this Ghost Ship and its crew. However it had got aboard, the creature could take on any number of armed men and, given time, dismantle an entire ship. Engineered to survive deep space legend had it they were immortal. Capable of using solar radiation to maintain vital signs until they could get aboard a ship or find a planet.
And now we had to deal with one. This trip just kept getting better and better.
If Raynar immediately recognized the level of the threat or not is immaterial. On Tessa’s shouted warning he acted with Regulator-honed reaction. He flung himself away from the fuel cell, shoulder-rolled on the floor ducking what would have been a decapitating blow from the creature and springing to his feet, just behind it.
It was a clever move. Not enough. Chimera’s, for all their brute power, were intelligent. Human DNA made them adaptive and adaptable. The creature let out a blood-curdling scream of rage at having missed its target. Arresting its momentum it stopped and kicked back, where Raynar was springing to his feet. The move caught the Regulator by surprise. A half step forward on his part and his rib cage would have been splintered, his lungs collapsed. Heart probably destroyed.
He was lucky in springing up just out of reach. By the time the kick hit him, he’d reflexively crossed his arms in front of him absorbing some of the momentum and had began to backpedal. The kick pushed him with force so that he crashed against the metal bulkhead behind him but he was alive and relatively unhurt. His arms, numb from absorbing the power of the blow, were temporarily useless to him.
The Chimera turned and lunged for him. That was a mistake. I don’t know exactly what team spirit existed with the Regulators on the ship but here no one turned and ran when the others were in trouble. Focusing on killing Raynar the Chimera ignored me.
It takes less than a second for a blaster to be unholstered, aimed and fired and in that time the Chimera had crossed the space between it and Raynar, had grabbed him with a powerful hand from the front of his suit and was busy raising its fist, taking the time to aim at his head, intent on obliterating him completely.
The high-pitched voice of the blaster came in the instant between the creature raising its fist and launching its punch. It caught it with its fist less than a hand’s width from impact with Raynar’s unprotected head. The exotic energies of the blaster worked on it the same way they work on human flesh. They dissolved the molecular boundaries that keep an organic form together at a cellular level. They evaporated all liquids contained within its shape. They then found the heavier elements in its bones and dissolved the matrix that kept them together, releasing a small flash of energy. They then burned all minerals away in an exogenic reaction that turns an organism into a pile of red dust. They did all this in microseconds. The Chimera seemed to vanish in a puff of mist from evaporated liquids and light from burning minerals. A few grains of red dust danced in the air where it had been. A small pile of them was at Raynar’s feet.
“Thanks,” Raynar turned to me, rubbing feeling back into his arms.
“Let’s get the fuel cell back to the ship. This place is a graveyard for a reason.” I say and motion for everyone to get to work.