Part Two -- by Michael Lee
see disclaimer in part one
The plain gray hatch was unremarkable, save for the freshly-stenciled numbers 513 on its face, and an unobtrusive fingerprint scanner. Marshall pointed at the small, dark square. "Security should have updated the access prints this morning. Give it a try."
Dieters raised his left thumb and carefully pressed it against the scanner. He seemed hesitant, almost fearful, as though he were visiting a tomb. After a moment, there was a series of heavy thuds as the electronic locks disengaged, and Marshall swung the hatch open.
The squadron armory was a small compartment lined with locked cabinets containing the recon team's many special weapons, from pistols to sniper rifles. Ther was a small desk just inside the hatch, acting partially as a barricade to restrict traffic in and out of the compartment. "Morganstern did a good job with the requisitions," Marshall said, working his way past the desk. "He had a pretty good little system of filing. When we have time I'll sit down with you and we'll sort the thing out. Each cabinet in here is locked by individual electronic keys." The captain dug out a large ring of keys from his pocket. "When a key gets used, a microchip in the key logs the time and identity of the key's owner with security. When you get your set, never let them out of your sight. Now, for this mission, I want everyone outfitted for close-in work. Pistols for everyone, with three clips and IR lights each. Six MP-5's, with five clips and IR lights, and three tactical shotguns, with thirty rounds and IR. Got that?"
When Marshall looked back, the InVitro was staring at one of the clipboards hanging beside the desk. Dieters' eyes were troubled, and he shook himself slightly, as if from a trance. "Sorry, sir. What was that again?"
The former gunnery sergeant folded his arms. "What's eating at you, lieutenant?"
Dieters shook his head quickly, and opened his mouth to reply, a reflexive denial on his face. But then he caught himself, and after a moment, said "I've just… I mean, I've been thinking about Morganstern. It's hard to believe he's gone. I feel like I let him down, you know?"
Marshall nodded thoughtfully. It was hard to believe that this was the same hostile, distrustful man who had joined the unit only a month ago. The nightmarish ordeal on Medea, then pilot training and the battle at Carter's World had turned the young InVitro into a fine soldier. "Son, you weren't even in the building when David was shot," Marshall said gently. "You were outside doing a vital job, and you did it well. No one could have prevented what happened to him. It could just as easily have been me or Litchfield that got hit. And he died protecting a brother Marine. When my time comes, I hope I face it as bravely as he did."
"But it just isn't fair!" Dieters said helplessly. "But he was part of the Team. We're supposed to take care of each other." The young man began to pace in small circles, his arms tightly crossed over his chest. "That's supposed to mean something, Gunny. It means a lot to me, at least." He glanced at Marshall, his eyes haunted. "Have you ever been to an asteroid mine?"
Marshall shook his head. "No, I can't say as I have."
Dieters nodded slowly. "It's the loneliest place you can imagine," he said hollowly. "I spent five years in the fields at Delta Pavonis, sleeping with two hundred other tanks in a cold, pressurized cave. Every waking minute was spent in an atmosphere suit, carving through rock with an ultrasonic pressure drill. That's no joke, Gunny. They worked us every minute they could. They wanted to get their money's worth. Most tanks didn't last more than six months down in the tunnels."
Dieters began to pace again. "The suits didn't have radios, and only two small lights fitted on the helmet. There were men working five feet to either side of you, but you couldn't see them. You only had the sounds of your own breathing for company.
"People died every day. Every day. Someone's rebreather would fail, or somebody would get tired and careless with their drill. Sometimes a guy would be stone cold and alert, but his drill would hit a gas pocket. The foremen were supposed to take soundings to check for gas bubbles, but it was cheaper to just replace the dead men." The InVitro took a deep breath. "And there was no end to it. Every day was the same as the one before. A lot of guys couldn't take it. And no one, especially the old-timers, gave a shit for anyone else. It was every man for himself, because it took everything you had just to stay alive from one minute to the next. You could sit in a cave crowded from wall-to-wall, and still know you were totally alone.
"Here, it's different." Dieters stopped and leaned forwards, looking Marshall in the eye. "I joined the Marines when the mines didn't want me any more. I didn't expect anything from the Corps but a chance to do the things I had been made to do. But what I got was a Team. You know, like a family."
Marshall smiled. "Yeah. I know."
Dieters paused, feeling for the right words. "So I've been thinking about Morganstern. I didn't really know much about him, but I know that the only thing that really mattered to him was taking care of his wife and their baby. The baby's got some kind of condition-"
"He's autistic," Marshall said. "It's a kind of perceptual disorder."
"Right. Autistic. Well, Morganstern was doing his best to make sure that his baby could afford the help he needed. But now he's gone, and what's that little kid going to do now?"
Marshall sighed. "I don't know. They were having some trouble getting the treatment covered under David's Marine benefits. It was pretty expensive."
"Yeah, that's what he said," Dieters replied. The InVitro looked at his shoes. "So I've been trying to think of a way to send them some money. To help out."
Marshall looked at Dieters' earnest expression, feeling a sudden surge of pride. "I think you and I could work it out, Marc, if you wanted to do something like that. We could send them something every month out of your pay. How much do you want to send?"
Dieters shrugged. "All of it. I've never had money in my life. I wouldn't know what to do with it if I had it."
The captain found himself shaking his head in amazement. "I think that's a fine thing for you to do, son. But how about we get together after the mission and decide on a portion of your monthly pay that would do David's family some good. Then we'll get with the payroll people at Groombridge and get you set up with some investment plans. You may not see any need for money right now, but you just might change your mind one of these days."
The InVitro thought it over. "Okay," he said at length, and it seemed as though a burden lifted from the young Marine's shoulders. "Okay, Gunny. Thanks. Thanks for the help. I guess we'd better get busy with the weapons, then."
"Okay, Marine," Marshall said with a grin. "Let's start with the MP-5's" He directed Dieters to a cabinet and watched as the Lieutenant began to draw out the necessary weapons and ammo. With the InVitro's back to him, the former gunnery sergeant could safely beam with pride. Dieters had been the last of the unit to approach him. At the rate they were going Christopher Morganstern would get the treatment he needed and have enough left over for college.
ISSAPC Tango Alpha Nine
October 31, 2063
Lieutenant Eric Walters suddenly straightened in his seat, his dark eyes widening. He pressed a hand to one of the earphones he wore and quickly checked the frequency on the ISSAPC's comm unit. "Major," he called out. "I think I've got something."
Wilde rose from her place further aft in the APC's cramped squad bay and worked forward to the comm station. "What is it?" she asked quietly, reaching for a spare set of earphones.
The Marine shook his head slowly. "I'll be damned if I know."
Wilde keyed open her link. Her ears filled with the ebb and flow of stellar noise, a distant, surflike whisper of static. But there was something else, very faint, rising over the static and then slipping beneath it again. A single note, rising and falling, like a long, drawn-out moan. In spite of herself, Wilde shivered.
"God, that's eerie," she whispered. "Is this what the Duncan has been getting?"
"Apparently so, ma'am."
"No wonder they got spooked." Wilde reached over and switched channels on her headset. "USS Duncan, this is Tango Alpha Niner on secure laser. Do you copy?"
"Tango Alpha Niner, copy," came the immediate reply.
Wilde checked the comm readout. "Duncan, we're picking up the signal at bearing three-four-three relative. Can you triangulate against our position, over?"
"Tango Alpha Niner, wait one." A moment later, the voice was back on the line. "Tango Alpha Niner, contact is on bearing three-four-three relative at 90 klicks. Suggest you come to course two-six-one for a flyby."
"Copy, Duncan. Stand by." Wilde pulled off the headset and did some quick calculations. "Right at 4000 klicks from the carrier," she said, impressed. "Those guys are good." She turned and stepped through the connector to the ISSAPC's pilot module. Lieutenant Dieters had the controls, while Captain Marshall watched intently from the co-pilot's seat.
"Dieters, come to course two-six-two. That will put the bogie to starboard at about 90 klicks. We ought to pass close enough to get a good look."
"Roger that. Changing course to two-six-two."
Wilde stuck her head back into the squad bay. "Listen up! We're starting our flyby. Connelly, Schaeffer, Perry, and Fleisher man the gun positions. Walters, ready the ECM gear. If we get lit up by so much as a flashlight, you let me know."
"Aye, aye, ma'am."
The major returned to the pilot's compartment and peered intently into the starlit night. "Anybody see anything?"
"Not yet," Marshall said quietly, peering intently into the night. "It's funny how people picture space as lots and lots of bright stars; no one thinks about how much darkness there is between them."
"If this thing isn't running any lights, we're never going to eyeball it," Dieters said tensely.
Wilde stared intently at the sector of space where she knew the contact to be, but there was nothing but blackness. She couldn't see it, but she could hear its eerie cry. "Try the FLIR," she said to Marshall. "The bogie's transmitting, so it must have some kind of heat signature."
"Aye, aye," Marshall replied, changing the mode on the multiview display before him. The Forward Looking Infra-Red system was a highly sensitive camera that "saw" heat emissions. Coupled with advanced digital imaging software, it could produce highly detailed pictures as an aid to low-visibility piloting or targeting.
The view of space captured by the camera was black and cold, pinpointed by small, fuzzy circles of nearby stars. Marshall adjusted the imager, and the fuzzy dots were filtered down to tiny pinpoints. The Marine tensed. "There it is."
There was a small, rectangular shape, its irregular outline a composite of shades of yellow, orange, and red. It seemed to hang at an angle, its bow pointing askew of its drifting course.
Wilde leaned in closer. "How far away is it?"
Marshall checked the readout. "50 klicks, passing to starboard."
"Center the image and zoom in."
The captain moved a small crosshair onto the shape and clicked it. The screen jumped, the image seeming to leap at them-
"What the hell..?" Wilde whispered.
The screen showed a long, roughly rectangular silhouette 250 meters long, painted in dull colors like a glowing ember. It had a blocky, irregular outline, hotter at the near end than the fore, with the deepest orange in two irregular blobs at the stern. It looked very much like a ship from Earth.
"Tandem reactors," Marshall grunted, pointing at the two orange blobs. "And they look like fusion engines to me."
Wilde squinted at the display. "Doesn't look like any military ship I've ever seen." Fusion reactors, more powerful and energy-efficient than fission, were cutting-edge technology only six years old, and were still too sophisticated and expensive for civilian use.
"We could query their IFF system," Marshall offered. All Earth spacecraft carried an Identification, Friend or Foe transponder which broadcast a ship's identity and registry when queried. "If the ship is still able to transmit something, then the IFF should work."
"It would also tell them that we're out here. The AI's grabbed some fusion-powered ships at the end of the war, didn't they?"
Marshall grimaced. "The Navy doesn't like to admit it, but yes. They got a few. But this-" he nodded at the screen. "Doesn't much look like any of them."
Wilde looked thoughtfully at the silhouette. "Walters," she called over her shoulder, "anything on the ECM board?"
"No, ma'am," came the immediate reply. "Just the radio signal. It's a lot clearer now. Want to hear it?"
A chill tingled across the back of her neck. "I've heard enough of that for one day." She folded her arms. "Send an IFF query."
"Aye, aye," he said. Then, a moment later, "Nothing. No reply."
"This is getting a little spooky," Dieters muttered.
"What are we going to do?" Marshall asked, looking back at his commander.
The major thought it over. They'd learned all they could from here. "Okay, Dieters, bring us around," she said tensely. "Slow us down and take us within thirty meters of the ship."
"Aye, aye," the InVitro replied nervously.
Watching the FLIR carefully, Dieters quickly closed the distance with the ship, braking slightly the whole way to present minimum emissions. As they drew within 100 meters, Wilde leaned over and pointed at the screen. "Take us along its length, passing above it from fore to aft. Nice and slow."
The closer they got, the more refined the image on the screen became. Out beyond the canopy, the darkness was absolute, but their cameras showed a long, skeletal structure underneath them, lit with hellish hues. It was clearly an Earth vessel, half as long as the Lexington, but with a long central spine of girder-work supporting mission and cargo modules in a triangular cross-section. Mission modules were attached along the spine running down the dorsal section of the spine, while cargo modules sat side-by-side along the ventral, or underside, of the spine. Clustered in a ring around the engine section were large, spherical fuel tanks. There were no lights anywhere. As she watched, Wilde became aware of the silence that surrounded the small compartment. It was like drifting in the lightless depths of the sea, hovering over the haunting hulk of a sunken ship.
"That's not a warship," Wilde said softly.
"Nope," Marshall agreed, but his eyes were troubled. "It's a museum piece. Galileo-class, if I remember right." The grizzled marine shook his head. "No one's made a hull like that in twenty-six years."
"Then what's it doing all the way out here?"
"Maybe it's a ghost ship," Dieters whispered, "like the Avalon or the Mary Celeste." He looked at the screen like a boy peering into a moonlit graveyard.
"Settle down, Marine," Wilde cautioned. "When in doubt, send it up the chain of command. I'm going to call the Lexington and see what they want to do about this."
Wilde turned back to the communications station with a lingering look at the glowing hull on the scope. Somehow she knew what the reply from the carrier was going to be, and the idea left a cold knot in the pit of her stomach.
USS Lexington (SCVN-2806)
October 31, 2063
"The problem is the damn conduits and ductwork," Commander Blevins said, placing a burned hand flat on the piled blueprints. "Right about the time we think we've got the fire under control, it gets around us and spreads into another area."
Commodore Bennett studied the plans carefully, noting the shaded areas highlighted by damage control. The fire had spread to eight decks, and smoke had spread throughout the rest, making repair operations not only difficult but dangerous. For a time, the arrival of extra personnel had seemed to be turning the tide against the fire, but at the time no one had a complete picture of how large the blaze actually was. Every moment it continued, casualties mounted among the firefighting parties, and vital components were damaged, possibly beyond repair. Bennett sighed heavily and looked to his executive officer. "Have we completed evacuating those sections?"
Swinburne looked at the deck. "We've gotten everyone we could. There's still a hundred thirty-three sailors unaccounted for." She looked up at him, her eyes full of false hope. "But this is a big ship. They could have made it out and be in other sections, and we just haven't located them yet."
Bennett said gravely. "Or they could be trapped, cut off by the fire. In which case they would suffer a hideous death if I ordered those sections depressurized."
"If the fire reaches the main fuel tanks, we could lose a great deal more," Blevins replied.
The commodore pulled off his spectacles and tried to rub the weariness from his eyes. The hundred thirty-three were only a small part of the more than four thousand soldiers under his command. He had to make the best decision for all of them. "All right, Commander," he said to Blevins. "Pull your people out and depressurize the decks."
Swinburne watched her captain carefully as Blevins left the bridge. "Sir, we have a report concerning the unidentified contact," she said.
The commodore blinked, torn from a dark reverie. "Eh? I'm sorry, Commander. What did you say?"
"The contact, sir. The radio source. The Five-Thirteen reports that it is an Earth ship. Galileo-class, though the name doesn't ring a bell."
"Not suprising, Commander. The last of them were decommissioned while you were still in grade school." Bennett shook his head dismissively. "The patrol must be mistaken, but it is an odd sort of mistake to make, I'll grant you that. Any signs of life?"
"Negative, sir, but the ship's reactors are active. They tried an IFF query, but got no response."
The commodore's brow furrowed thoughtfully. "Yet it is sending a low-power radio transmission…" he muttered. "That's very odd. It might be a castoff from a pirate attack, though I've never known criminals, human or AI, that would abandon something as valuable as a starship once they'd caught it."
Bennett's thoughts were again interrupted when an enlisted seaman approached, holding out a small sheet of laser print. "Signal from Groombridge sir."
"Thank you, Mister Hughes," the Commodore replied absently, taking the sheet while he replaced his spectacles. As he read, his expression darkened into a scowl. "Regret no ships available to assist at this time." he said softly, and wadded the paper in his fist. "I suppose they expect us to get this carrier back to port on wishful thinking," he muttered. "Commander, send another signal to high command. Tell them that our fires are out, but unless we receive repair teams and replacement parts for our reactor coolant systems this ship is unable to move or fight. I will be left with no other choice but to abandon the Lexington and scuttle her."
"Yes sir," Swinburne said, feeling the hairs on the back of her neck go up. He had only said the part about destroying the ship because he knew it would get high command's attention. At least, she hoped that was the case. Bennett looked entirely serious. "What about the derelict, sir?"
Bennett considered the question, turning back to the blueprints of his crippled ship. "As long as you are signaling Groombridge, check and see if any Galileo-class ships have been logged as missing," he said. "And order the patrol to board the ship and search for further information." The commodore sighed heavily, knowing he had to plan for the worst. "No sense bringing them back now when we might just have to evacuate them later."
ISSAPC Tango Alpha Nine
October 31, 2063
Lieutenant Fleisher stood in the open outer hatchway of the spacecraft and stared resolutely into the emptiness. "Why me?" he said into his suit radio.
"Remember when I warned you that if you didn't quit telling those dirty jokes I'd drag you behind the APC on a rope?" Lieutenant Sarah Connelly's voice answered. "You just had to push your luck, didn't you?"
The Ghostriders were clustered together in the squad bay, their APC having matched speeds with the derelict thirty meters underneath. The Galileo-class, as Captain Marshall explained, didn't have docking collars they could mate with, so the boarding would naturally have to be done the hard way. Someone would have to go first, essentially leaping into space with a safety line hooked to his belt. After "falling" onto the derelict, the line could be anchored and used to move the rest of the unit across. Once across, they would try to make it through one of the ship's two airlocks. Just in case the doors wouldn't respond, Marshall and Walters carried breaching charges to make an opening of their own.
Beside Fleisher, Wilde leaned out and peered down into the darkness. "Okay, Dieters, hit the lights."
White light flared from the underside of the ISSAPC's stubby wings as Dieters switched on the landing lights. Below, the Marines could see part of one of the ship's crew modules, secured by a web of black girders. The light reflected dully off the gray compartment's outer surface, it skin showing dark scars and scuffing from years of use. Elsewhere the white glare was lost in the dark hedge of the support beams, making a maze of light and shadow that confounded the eye. There were no markings anywhere.
While exhaled softly. "Okay, Fleisher, get ready. Dieters, shut off the gravity generator."
The transition to zero gravity was sudden and disorienting, causing everyone to sway on their feet from vertigo as their inner ears rebelled against the sudden lack of bearings. After a moment, the feeling passed, and Wilde gripped Fleisher's arm. "Lieutenant, the ship is 250 meters long and about 40 meters across. It's like hitting the side of a barn. And even if something goes wrong, we can reel you can in."
Another hand patted Fleisher on the shoulder. "We can, but that doesn't necessarily mean we will," Captain Robert Perry said cheerfully. "It would be hard to turn down that kind of peace and quiet."
"Ha, ha, ha. How many fingers am I holding up, doc?" Fleisher said, presenting his right middle finger. With that, the Marine stepped carefully into emptiness, holding onto the hatchway with his left hand and turning himself end-for-end. Spiderlike, he moved hand over hand down past the lip of the hatch and disappeared from sight. A long, thin steel cable snaked after him. Perry reached down and gently pushed the coil of cable out through the hatch, so no friction against the hatchway would complicate Fleisher's descent.
"Geronimo!" Fleisher suddenly yelled, and the Marines crowded to the hatch as the coil was yanked out of sight. The young Marine propelled himself headfirst, crossing the thirty-meter interval in moments. At the last second, he flipped end-for-end and landed feet-first, absorbing the shock with his knees. Magnets in the soles of his boots locked him to the deck and kept him from rebounding back into space. "Hoo yah!" he cried exultantly. "What a rush!"
"Very nice, Lieutenant," Wilde said patronizingly. "Now find an anchor ring down there so we can get to work."
The young Marine only had to look about for a few moments before he found one, an anchor point for maintenance crews doing work on the outer hull. He clipped the cable securely to the recessed steel ring and then began to explore the surface of the compartment, moving in a slow, exaggerated heel-toe step.
Wilde watched Fleisher's progress and nodded to herself. "Okay, people. We've only got two hours of air, so we aren't going to waste any time. If the ship has breathable atmosphere, we can revise our schedule, but otherwise we are now on the clock. Everybody stay in pairs. Dieters, you're the odd man out. You're staying here."
The InVitro, who had just emerged from the pilot's compartment, looked from Marshall to Wilde, his surprise evident under the helmet lights. "But, ma'am-"
"Let's go!" Wilde said, pointing at Perry. The medic shuffled forward, clipped to the line, and started his descent.
Dieters made his way to Marshall and pressed his helmet against the captain's, so they could communicate without using their radios. "What's up with this, Gunny?" the InVitro said, the vibrations transmitting through his helmet into Marshall's. "I'm the best man in a suit you've got!"
"That's exactly why you're staying here," Marshall answered. "If something goes wrong down there I need someone back here who can make the right decisions to pull our fat out of the fire. Clear?"
"Clear, sir," Dieters replied, clearly unhappy. Moments later, Marshall was moving down the safety line, leaving only Major Wilde. She waved back to Dieters. "Why don't you repressurize the pilot's compartment and monitor radio traffic from there. I doubt this is going to take very long, but you might as well make yourself comfortable." Then she disappeared from sight.
The InVitro moved to the hatchway with an ease and agility born of years of hard experience, his suit encumbered with tools and weapons that suddenly he didn't need. He watched the rest of his unit, his family, moving cautiously across the surface of the derelict. They looked clumsy and awkward, and it frustrated him to think that for once he could actually be the one in a position to teach the natural borns something, but instead he had to stay behind. At that moment, getting comfortable was the furthest thing from his mind.
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