Detachment 2551 : A Star Frontiers Adventure

Chapter 15: Ghost Ship

Bridge of the Vercingetorix
1300 hours - stardate fy1111014

The stars outside the main viewport finally settle into a lazy drifting motion. The Vercingetorix ceases its pitching motion and comes to a stop as she returns to normal space, mere moments after leaping to void space.

"Long enough to disappear from their scopes, I'll bet", Groo breathes into the intercom. His form sags slightly as he forces himself to calm down. The smoked jump was a risk, but well worth it now that they were in Gomra's Eye, secret hiding place along the upper pole of the star system of Scree Fron.

Ty chuckles nervously from the pilot's seat. "Well wadda ya know? Those yahoos are returning planetside - must be giving up on us." He turns from the long range sensor display to train a critical eye on his partner. "NOT that I'm agreeing with what you just did!"

"I have to agree", Marcus offers from his position at the rear of the bridge. "You could have consulted us about that little move - if you'd taxed the engines we'd be sitting on a lump of fused metal now, or hurtling away at unheard of speeds to who-knows-where."

Groo's smile fades. His ears twitch as his Yazirian pride is wounded. "There wasn't any time to consult you. I did what needed doing. You can thank me later." With a low snarl he mashes a console button with much more force than it is rated for.

"The past is the most unreachable of problems, yet it seems the most vexing if we don't try", Cymon offers as he stands from his seat. The words from the Den Qritsa bubble up within him after days of study, but their words seem a dim comfort to the mood here. "Let us take stock of the second chance our honorable friend Groo has bought us. Let us now to the problems at hand." Cymon gestures to the dull chrome object drifting into view on the main bridge screen.

The doors open to reveal Mrylinax and Freya with Ruby in tow. The entire crew was here at last. Ruby hops into his seat at the comm station and begins fiddling with the controls.

Cymon watches the Dralasite with a critical eye of a doctor. It had been more than a week since Ruby had been implanted with the monitoring device Dr. Kodeus suggested would track the activity of ids virus. Cymon had been loathe to share his findings during that week. Everything pointed to Ruby's body fully assimilating the viral clusters into ids own nervous system. Not unlike the transformation of the Hooris fanatics into Doghan cyborgs. But not totally like it either. He still couldn't be sure of the prognosis or the cure. Perhaps Merma Gayam's notes, somewhere in the Calas facility, could tell for sure. That, and inspection of the viral strains that were rampant on the planet's surface. Cymon likens himself to jumping into a volcano to investigate the properties of fire.

"What is that?", Mrylinax asks warily, indicating the silvery object ahead.

Ty punches up a tactical profile. "She's coming up as the Lacien - the ship of the long lost detachment that went out before you guys under PGC orders. She looks pretty beat up. The energy sensors pick up only a residual amount of power. No life signs." All eyes stare silently at the monitor.

"So this was her final resting place...", Cymon mumbles as if to someone in particular.

Marcus whirls into action. "We need a robot on that ship right now. Hullbot, this is the bridge, prep for EVA upon docking."

A metallic voice answers after some minutes. "Affirmative."

"Okay, you guys are the company men. You wanna sight-see the company property, I'll bring her in." Ty begins punching up the sublight engines, bringing the ship into a slow roll to match the motion of the derelict. Long, tense seconds pass as he adjusts the directional jets every which way until the hull of the Lacien is so close its surface imperfections are discernible onscreen.

(Star Pilot 1 lvl 4: Docking - level +X: 97; 30)

After seven minutes of easing the ship around, the soft thud of metal on metal rings through the ship followed by the sharp report of clamps locking down.

"There you go, fellas. All in a day's work."

Groo pats him on the shoulder as he rises to leave. "Yeah, yeah, we're all real impressed. C'mon, you can tell me all about it while we suit up for the overhaul of the engines."

Groo turns to Cymon and the other crew members that are near by: "Ty and I need to get started on the overhaul of the engines just in case we need to make another jump in the near future. The stress we put on them was extreme and I would not risk another jump until we overhaul them. It's going to take a minimum of two days to get both engines overhauled. Since we were completely loaded at Charon Tavis, we still have enough atomic pellets for one more jump. But where ever we jump we're going to need to get a re-supply of pellets."

Marcus interrupts him before he goes. "Groogash, do a visual inspection of the Lacien's hull with the V'torix's cameras to look for signs of hull damage.

"I will do as you asked. Be careful over there and if you here 3 quick successive beeps on your chronocoms or my telling you to get back here ASAP, do it. I will be keeping my other eye on the ship's sensors for anything coming this way."

Before he goes, Groo makes sure that the passive sensors are set their maximum capacity. "I'll be sure to monitor the long-range while you boys are aboard the other ship." Groo and Ty turn and leave.

On one viewer the image flickers and reveals the hullbot's vidcam images. The crew watches breathlessly as it hovers over to the Vercingetorix' starboard airlock and passes through to the friendly collar of the Lacien's fore section.

"No discernible movement. No operational systems." The hullbot intones without emotion over the intercom. Even a graveyard such as this was nothing more than a project to be examined to the robot's mind. The fuzzy images are hard to make out given the crude lighting of the powerlight mounted to the hullbot's chassis. It keys the door and passes through.

"Artificial gravity inactive. Temperature unlivable. Atmosphere at zero - hull breach assumed. Tolerable radiation levels."

The light shifts and begins crawling across recognizable features of the bridge: consoles, chairs, monitors hanging from the ceiling. On the first pass across the room, the light beam freezes as the macabre figure of a Yazirian corpse leaps into view. He is sitting at the main pilot's chair, body floating under the straps that keep him in the seat, arms adrift at his sides. He wears a pressure suit, but visible damage to the material precludes any notions of his being alive.

"Unidentified organic detected. No motion."

Marcus keys the mike. "Come in closer, hullbot. Was immediate cause of death from depressurization?"

"This unit is not programmed for such analysis."

Marcus looks at Cymon as if to ask what he can glean from the images. Cymon shakes his head. Marcus sighs. "Okay, finish your sweep and move aft."

Hullbot moves to the rear door of the bride. His arm can be seen keying the c.a.s. panel. The door slides open revealing a long dark hallway. The powerlight plays down one wall then the next, crossing the darkness as he moves aft. Halfway down the hall, the light crosses the hallway again and another figure seems to leap at the camera mere centimeters from the lens. It is a human hand.

"Second unidentified organic detected. No motion."

A collective shudder goes up from the crew.

"Damn" Mrylinax says grimly. "Looks like our predecessors bought the farm. Friggin' shame."

The hullbot's armature pivots to prod the floating figure out of the way, discarding the Human as if a troublesome piece of space flotsam.

"Continuing aft" he drones.

Ty keys the radio. "Check out that residual energy source in engineering, hullbot. I don't want a leaking reactor conduit blowing us to kingdom come."

"Affirmative."

The image on the viewscreen shows the pressure door leading to life support. The same lifeless decor is found here as well. A stalk of something extends from behind one of the oxygen mixing tanks.

Marcus literally jumps out of his seat. "Hullbot, pan thirty degrees to your right, zoom in on oblong object."

The light swings to the right to show a Vrusk leg jutting out from a corner. Globules of freeze- dried blood hover around the body like a swarm of bees frozen in time.

"Third organic. Proceeding."

The hullbot keys the door leading to the engineering section and the door slides open. The powerlight lands on the far wall, showing a bank of burnt relays and power conduits.

"No discernible operational systems.... preparing for tie-in with local sys.ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ"

A flash of light erupts in the viewscreen and the video feed is dead.

"WHAT IN BLAZES??!!?" Marcus exclaims.

Freya, Marcus, and Ruby launch into a flurry of activity. Every sensor on the ship is trained in on the ghost ship, information being dissected about the residual energy from engineering.

"All right - any suggestions?" Marcus asks.

Freya speaks up, "The abrupt nature of LOS with Alpha suggests dynamic activity onboard the Lacien. A 'static' disruption would likely have had a more gradual onset with indicators such as distortion, deviation, noisy signal waveform, etc. This onset was sudden and suggests either a sporadic discharge of some type or active intervention from an entity onboard the vessel."

Marcus frowns. "It went dead the moment it moved into engineering. Maybe there's a radiation leak or something, but all the same, I don't want to take any chances either."

Freya shakes his head "A radiation leak would produce a different failure signature. The most energetic particles would travel farther from the source, causing sporadic interference before complete system failure. In addition, the toxy-rad gauge would have detected any environmental condition harsh enough to render a droid inoperable...hullbots are designed to withstand moderately high radiation while working outside a ships protective hull. Your caution is prudent."

Without pausing, the engineer continues "I would suggest a joint "mechanical" and "organic" boarding party consisting of another hullbot, on point, and two of the crew following. Further, the Engineering bay should be avoided until the remainder of the ship has been explored. I will loan my SpyEye to a crew member if you deem it necessary."

"We were going to check engineering last, since we're going in from bow to stern. I don't see that another hullbot is going to be helpful or turn up any useful information at this point. Besides, I'm confident enough with Myrlinax here at our side. We might as well go in there and see what's up. Let's go ahead with the plan."

Marcus, Freya, and Mrylinax don their pressure suits as V'Sndyk and Ruby busy themselves with additional scans of the Lacien and analyzing the results. Cymon stands ready at the comm, coordinating the away team, the overhaul team, and the bridge analysis team. Freya summons the hullbot dubbed Beta and fixes it with a grapple gun and microchord line.

"Beta. Exit the Vercingetorix and inspect the Lacien's hull. Be sure to affix the grapple head to the external hatch of this ship before travelling further. If there are any complications, we want to be able to pull you back in. Do you comprehend?"

"Affirmative." The hullbot turns and leaves for the ship's external airlock forward of the bridge.

"Ready?" Marcus asks as he checks his equipment. There is a collective nod. He presses the starboard airlock cycle button. Cymon, there to see them off, locks eyes with the human.

"Come back soon - don't try to discover everything on the first trip out."

Marcus bows his head slightly, a sign of respect to a fellow Yazirian-in-spirit.

The c.a.s. panel goes green as the airlock cycles up. Within minutes the three are inside the bridge of the Lacien, the ghostly visage of her pilot there to greet them. It is even more eery close-up than on camera. Freya moves to a console and begins inspecting it for any working battery power sources, insulated data registers, or isolated systems. Mrylinax moves to the door and readies his rifle. Marcus inspects the pilot's body.

"Tag reads ‘Freela'. This must be Detachment 2490 alright. Kit Freela, pilot. That must be Li in the hallway, and Dukane in life support."

Mrylinax seems surprised. "That's a good memory you got there, Ty. How do you remember all those names?"

"It's a habit left over from my ranger days," Marcus says grimly as he lowers the Yazirian's arms into a ceremonial resting position. "You pick it up after burying two or three dozen of your buddies on a single campaign."

Without another word he crouches next to Freya, who is busy at work.

"Anything?"

"I've found the black box recorder as well as some memory chips linked to a separate power source. There could be a wealth of information inside."

"Okay, and Mrylinax?"

Mrylinax stands before the open weapons locker, the pilot's security card in hand, going through its contents. "I'm counting 2 laser rifles, 2 dozen SEU clips, an albedo screen, two gauss screens, two power beltpacks, one power backpack, three of every standard grenade, two autopistols, an autorifle, 200 bullet rounds, 3 kg. of TD-19, a skein suit, an albedo suit, two vibroknives, a stunstick, a force axe, and some shock gloves."

"Excellent - let's get that onto our ship along with whatever's in the equipment locker. What about the bridge? Salvageable?"

Freya rises and scans the room with his eyes. "I'll have to run a structural test using the ship's diagnostic program. The hull has probably been compromised in several places given their failure to contain the leaks and the overall look of the ship's exterior. If the computer can't be brought online it will require Mr. Grogan's skills to inspect the hull."

Marcus nods. "Okay then, we stay suited up and check out the rest of the ship. We'll do a room-by-room and save engineering until last. Let's be sure to check the c.a.s. panels before opening any doors - could be a pocket of air with survivors in it that the sensors didn't pick up. Cymon, you getting all this?" he asks as he taps his suits comm link.

"Affirmative, Marcus. Ruby tells me there are no changes in the frequency profile of the Lacien, and V'Sndyk gives a negative on any changes in the spectral bands."

"Dead in the water, eh? Well I don't buy it. Something's playing possum onboard." Mrylinax mutters as he shuffles near the door.

Marcus INT 55; 87
Mrylinax INT 50; 07

Mrylinax paces back and forth while the other two talk. After a minute he pauses at a circular hatch on the starboard side of the room.

"Hey, anyone notice that one of the escape pods is missing?"

"Somebody might have made it from the 2490," Marcus ponders hopefully. "Okay, let's clear this tub and get our butts to moon ‘G'." Marcus stabs at the door's controls, opening the way to the computer room. All three stare into the dark room as if waiting for something to happen. "Okay, Freya - you get the computer online. Mrylinax and me, we'll take the rooms."

Freya settles in before the cold face of the onboard computer that occupies the same spot as OTTO's on the Vercingetorix.

Bridge of the Vercingetorix - stardate fy1111014 - two hours later

The cumbersome forms of Ty and Groo in their pressure suits cast a light shadow over V'Sndyk's workspace in the computer berth. He turns to see them, helmets off, quaffing large containers of brownish liquid.

"How was the overhaul?"

Ty grimaces. "It'll take a day and a half to get it all done, even with Groo and the hullbot helping. We've only just begun. I figure we set this bird down somewhere for a good stretch and I'll knock it out. Right now we need to stay mobile. Any word from the Lacien?"

"Freya managed to get the computer running, but it was badly damaged. I'm coordinating the download of its surviving memory. Very tedious."

Cymon enters from the bridge. He carries a file computer, a pocket-sized datapad that serves as his medical journal. He is surprised to see Ty and Groo back from their EVA.

"Ah, you're back. Good. Marcus and Mrylinax have completed their sweep of the ship, except for engineering. They were able to retrieve the bodies of all the crew except the Ifshnit explorer, the Yazirian enforcer, and the Human technician. I've just finished a brief autopsy and concluded they all died from trauma brought on by rapid decompression. Secondary injuries resulting from electrical fires, energy burns, and explosions likely came from ship-to-ship combat but were not fatal."

Everyone present is silent upon hearing his account. A team of people almost exactly like their own, on the same mission and in the same employ, turning up dead is unsettling. Like finding a long-lost twin only after his passing, there is an odd sense of loss over these strangers. How easily it could be them lying on a lab table right now.

Cymon is quick to return the mood to business. "They also found some personal effects we'll go through when they return, but the most important find was this."

Cymon holds the file computer up to show a frozen image from one of their helmet cams. It appears to be a piece of machinery composed of metal arms folded up into a 2 meter tall bundle. Ruby, following on Cymon's heels, nearly jumps out of ids skin.

"Hey! That's the thingamajiggy I saw on Exib in that run-down shop!!! The thing with the Det2490 tag on it!!"

Cymon casts a surprised look at the Dralasite. "THIS was the object you mentioned before?"

"Yeah! I remember thinking that it looked a lot like the underwater survey equipment we used to haul around in my days in the Lossend navy."

Groo peers closely at the image. "What would these guys be doing with a piece of hardware like that?"

"That is beyond the scope of our knowledge so far," Cymon concedes. "We are headed for a desert planet, almost devoid of moisture. Perhaps their team learned of mission objectives that lead elsewhere."

"Got it!" V'Sndyk yells from his computer terminal. He turns and connects Cymon's file computer with a data link. "One of the files from the Lacien's computer was intact enough to retrieve this flora/fauna profile. Thought you'd be interested."

Cymon stares at the data curiously. "This is very interesting. I must study this further. I'll be in my lab." Cymon turns and leaves without another word.

Ty leans close as if to see if he had any surprises coming. "Anything else?"

"Actually, yes. One of the chips from the bridge computer had a partial itinerary record for the Lacien." A terrain map of moon G appears on OTTO's screen. A large red dot flashes near the number three site of Denai Temple ruins. "At one point the Lacien visited this spot on moon ‘G' before ending up here."

"We might want to start our expedition there, before moving on to the Calas compound." Groo suggests.

"First let us secure the Lacien," says Ty, "The others are still onboard. Ruby, patch us through to them. Marcus, what's the word?"

A burst of static signals the connection. "We've just shut the computer down and removed its memory core in case anyone else comes this way. We were able to access the ship's onboard generator, but not much else. We are now ready to check out the engineering compartment."

Freya's voice interrupts. "Toxy-rad guage shows a sharp drop in e-field potentials on the other side of the door. Black marks along the doors edges indicative of scorching, but from what it is uncertain. No sign of the Alpha unit."

"We sure could use the atomic fuel they keep in engineering," Ty remarks. "If there's any left, that is."

A beeping sound emanates from the bridge next door. Groo goes to check on it. It is the long- range sensor alarm he enabled before his EVA. Struggling with his pressure suit, he rushes over to the tactical screen. Three new blips are appearing in-system out of nowhere and converging on moon G. No sooner do they make formation than another set of blips appears from the far side of Histran on an intercept course.

Groo rushes back to the computer berth where everyone awaits his news.

"It's Gardus' convoy! They're finally here! And they've got company!"


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