Part Three -- by Becky Ratliff
See disclaimers and copyright information in Part One.
Ross hadn't let too many people in on the discovery yet. When Ellison got to the debriefing, besides Ross the only ones there were the XO, Captain Loretta Harris ... TC ... a few Intell people ... and the lowly young communications tech who'd first found the radio transmission!
Pfieffer looked like he'd walked into a museum ... or church ... or something. Well, he ought to. Glen and TC had already made their marks in the AI war before anyone had ever heard of chigs. Loretta had been all set to retire from a long distinguished career as captain of the Nevada when the war had broken out. Rather than deprive the Earth forces of her years of experience in a time of crisis, she'd put her retirement plans aside for the duration to serve as XO of the Saratoga. But Judy would definitely have to have a little talk with the kid for looking at her like that.
Ellison had her moment in the sun describing her discovery. Then the Intelligence people reported what they'd found out so far from the data she'd brought back. They agreed with her initial assessment that the wreck was probably an abandoned hulk, with apparently no power in use. There was no indication who had built it. But computer enhancement of a series of shots take along the underside of the craft showed a number of open bays. It looked like the crew had abandoned ship before the calamity. Ross' orders from the high command were to secure the wreck so that the science teams could move in.
(_USS Saratoga_, January 24, 2065)
Vansen checked her EVA gear carefully, you could get dead just as fast from a suit malfunction as from anything else out here. The rest of the squadron followed her lead. The Wild Cards had drawn this assignment because they had more experience than anyone else aboard the Sara with alien ships, but that didn't make her the least bit overconfident. What they knew about chig craft would be pretty much useless where the invention of some other race was involved.
She looked up as she heard McQueen's familiar step on the transport ramp. "We're good for go," she said.
His eyes scanned the banks of indicators above her head, a habit of many years that no experienced spacer ever got out of his system. You looked for caution lights, dials that were showing an off reading, anything that hinted of a situation that should be nipped in the bud. "I've got a bad feeling about this. There doesn't seem to be any reason from Judy's recon photos why they abandoned ship. But that reason has to be there."
Vansen searched his eyes. She knew that expression. He was going over the puzzle, and he'd discovered there were pieces missing. She assured him, "Until I know what I'm dealing with, I'm not assuming anything. Nobody's going out there to be a hero today."
McQueen nodded. Vansen knew what she was doing. In a quieter tone that wouldn't carry to the rest of the squadron, he asked her, "If you did meet these people out there, what would you say to them?"
Vansen looked up at him and thought about it for a long time. "I hope to God I'd know when the time came," she replied finally. "After the way I screwed up on Anvil--"
"Shane. You made the wrong call, militarily -- but on a lot of other levels it was the right thing to do. I can't stand here and say that, in your place, I definitely wouldn't have done the same thing you did. I just don't know. I wasn't there, I didn't make the call. But that's beside the point now. This is an entirely different situation. If you were to meet someone out there, the same instincts that led you to make the decision you did then would lead you to make all the right calls now. Whoever these people are, we're not at war with them, and we cannot afford to be."
She nodded, once, slowly. "I don't think we're going to meet them today...."
McQueen agreed. "They were running from something when they abandoned ship," he replied. "Whatever that something was...."
"Could still be a problem," she finished, thinking aloud. Then a quiet little smile pulled up the corners of her mouth as something totally unrelated to the mission occurred to her.
"What?" McQueen asked.
She finished her check of the suit's temperature controls. "It's just that I remember my parents doing that," she explained. "One of them would start to say something, and stop in the middle of the sentence, and the other would just pick it up and finish. Then they'd go right on like nothing happened."
He realized she was right ... it hadn't even occurred to him that there was anything out of the ordinary about what had just happened, until she pointed it out. "Watch your six out there."
Up close, the wreck towered as high as a twenty-story building and stretched nearly a mile along the starlit dust barrens. They got in through one of the lifeboat bays, walked up a long launch tube. Damphousse knelt to get a closer look. "Major, these are magnetic rails, just like on the Sara."
Vansen said, "Yeah. Look. Light bulbs. Could've come from Supply." She indicated a translucent panel that had shattered on impact, Damphousse moved in a little closer to see. Inside, the function of the transparent tubes was obvious. She was right, if you saw a box of those things on the shelf you wouldn't give them a second glance....
At the far end of the tunnel was a lift large enough to bring any of their fighters down into launch position, and a hatch with a transparent view port. Lucas indicated his light, Vansen nodded for everyone else to cover him and nodded. Inside was an empty air lock.
Damphousse and Avery went to work on the hatch. They were both startled, to say the least, when the lights came on in the air lock and the hatch flew open.
Damphousse lowered her rifle, feeling nervous and a little foolish. She commented, "I guess it wasn't locked after all."
Avery said, "I'm more curious about where that power's coming from. Recon should have detected some kind of emissions from a reactor, nothing's that clean!"
"Sewell fuel is," Damphousse replied. "You just get heat traces, and in a ship this size, that might not be detectable from outside."
Vansen snapped, "Keep your mind on your business, people, you can hang over the techies' shoulders later! I'm more interested in who flipped the light switch than where the juice is coming from, right this minute. The damn thing could be full of AIs for all we know!"
Damphousse put a sensor unit inside the airlock and cycled it through. Her readouts showed that there was atmosphere in there, but it wasn't breathable. It was heavy with carbon monoxide as well as several decomposition-related gasses. The air pressure was close to standard. Their life support would be able to extract plenty of oxygen from that.
She warned, "Watch out. There's a good level of methane in this ... I think the chigs could have come as close to breathing this as we could. Or at least they wouldn't choke any faster."
Vansen took the time for one deep breath before she stepped into the airlock. They took positions on either side of the inner hatch, no one wanted to be in a direct line of fire when it opened. Its viewport was covered with a thick layer of ice, she hoped the hatch was not frozen shut.
They waited in a tense silence while the lock cycled through. Avery hit a touch-plate by the hatch and it slid open. Lights flickered on up the corridor, revealing a scene of carnage that immediately brought eight rifles to the ready.
There were corpses scattered all along the corridor, most of them near enough the hatch that they would have to step over the dead to continue. All of them were frozen solid, Damphousse reported that the temperature in here was well below freezing.
The corpses were humanoid, to Vansen they looked human enough. They were hairless, wearing coveralls or flight suits of some sort under heavy battle armor -- that had been useless against whatever had killed them. They were armed, their weapons eerily similar to hers -- a rifle with a longer barrel than the M-590's they were carrying and a fighting knife.
All of the bodies bore puncture wounds of some sort, and what looked to Vansen like rope burns. But no one here had been standing still to be tied up. Most of them had died with their knives in their hands, and she doubted she would find a single round left in any of those rifles. It looked to Vansen like this squad had gone to the wall and made their last stand here, holding this hatch. She could almost see that -- some escape craft docked to the other side of that air lock, these people sacrificing their lives to assure the escape of the others.
West observed, "The other guys must have taken their casualties with them."
Vansen said, "Yeah...."
Moore said, "They didn't take everything...."
"What have you got?" Vansen joined her. Moore indicated some bloody footprints, they identified the body of the individual who had made them. In the same area were some other odd marks, as though something heavy had been dragged through the pool of blood and left a trail as wide as a man's body down the hallway for several meters.
Moore said, "It wasn't human ... unless someone was crawling on his stomach ... looks more like something a snake would have made?"
"One hell of a snake," Lucas commented.
"We had 'em that big on Halleston," she replied grimly. "They'd come down the shafts overnight, and God help you if one got behind you in the tunnel you were working the next morning. They were big enough to swallow a person."
Vansen felt a chill go all the way down her back at that thought. "Save that kind of stories till we've got a campfire and some goddamn marshmallows, Nita."
There was laughter at that crack, but a lot of it was nervous laughter.
West pointed out, "If there are any snakes in here, they're frozen stiff."
They photographed the corpses without disturbing them, then continued up the corridor. It continued straight into the ship, past areas they easily recognized as hangar decks and various support areas. Everywhere was evidence that the exodus from the ship had taken place in a hurry, people's work was lying around where they had left it as they fled. It appeared that the evacuation had been successful for the most part, though. They found no more bodies or evidence of violence, it looked like in this area at least the fighting had confined itself to the area of the air lock.
They came to a long section where there were hatches all along the bow side of the corridor, but just a blank bulkhead astern. On impulse, the next time they came to a gangway, Vansen ordered them up. This was a big place, and they had no idea of the layout. There was no sense confining their explorations to what was obviously a flight deck.
The level above that was housing, but instead of the large barracks they expected, they found row after row of tiny cabins. West picked up a framed picture that had fallen to the floor, it was obviously of a family with three small children. Cautiously, Vansen opened a locker and found corresponding sizes of clothing inside. "She was a passenger liner? Was that why we didn't see more of a resistance?"
West said, "Maybe she didn't have a large security force ... those guys downstairs may have been it."
"Maybe." Shane was looking at the clothes, they were faded and threadbare and they had been patched extensively. She took the picture from West. It had been taken outdoors, but it didn't look like a vacation photo. The parents had the serious look on their faces she'd seen in photographs of the pioneers ... and the children just looked haunted. She wasn't sure how she could tell that from the faces of aliens, until she looked into their eyes and shuddered. She'd seen that look in her sisters' eyes after their parents had been killed. "Nathan ... I don't think these folks were on any luxury cruise ... I think they were refugees."
He looked at the picture again, then back to her. "Could be. Refugees from what?"
"Maybe the techies will figure that out," Vansen replied.
There hadn't been room for everyone in the cramped cabin, the others had carefully spread out through the surrounding area. Yamauchi called, "Hey, everyone, come take a look at this! We found something new!"
They followed her voice down a short side corridor. A hatch stood open into a vast chamber. Once it had been filled with water, like the world's biggest swimming pool. Steps led down into the ice from a small landing inside the door.
Lisa asked, "What in the world ... "
Vansen said, "I don't know, Lisa."
Damphousse said, "This was home."
"I didn't get a 'home' feeling in the cabins. It's here. I'll bet they spent most of their time in here. That's why so much of the ship's resources were devoted to it."
Avery peered out into the distant recesses of the ice. "Maybe their language has a similar form to the sounds that dolphins make because it has a similar function -- to carry underwater. Maybe they live mostly in the water."
Moore said, "If the galley's full of fish, that'll confirm your guess."
Vansen laughed. "We're just like the first archaeologists, stumbling around the pyramids making all kinds of wild-ass guesses about what the ancient Egyptians were like."
Avery grinned, "Don't discount the WAG method, Major, it gets a lot done."
She checked her watch. "We got just about ten more mikes time over target. Let's record as much more as we can before we have to go back."
They finished their exploration and headed back to the transport. Vansen took the time for a last, long look at the bodies of the ship's defenders. Then she turned and joined the others on the long walk down the launch tube, back to the ISSAPC.
When they got back to the Saratoga they barely had time to shower and change uniforms before they were sequestered in a long debriefing session. On the strength of the data they had brought back, several units of heavily-armed Marines were sent to the derelict to secure it so that the scientists could begin to work.
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