Part Three -- by Michael Lee
see disclaimer in part one
There wasn't much to see along the surface of the compartment. No portholes, or hatchways, or any markings, the last of which Captain Marshall said was very strange. The captain joined Major Wilde for a helmet-to-helmet conversation, while Litchfield concentrated on her breathing and tried to think about anything but the immense, endless space around her.
They had never prepared her for this back in Boot. There had been the mandatory one-week course in EVA suits and zero-g operations, but the drills concentrated on the technical aspects of working with the suit and moving around. No one had ever said anything about the tremendous emptiness, the yawning, eternal chasm that seemed to stretch away from her in every possible direction. Part of her mind tried to tell her she was falling, and she fought with all her will to keep from falling to her knees and grabbing onto the hull. She also knew that they had to find an airlock to get inside the ship, and that meant that they were going to have to move, to explore the derelict's hull, and she had no idea how she was going to manage that if she couldn't even stand still without having an anxiety attack.
Life was supposed to make sense. It made sense for everyone else. You were born, you went to school, you got a job and a therapist, and then maybe you met someone special and worked out a carefully worded pre-nuptial agreement. That was the plan, and it had worked for her parents and her parents' friends. They had their two-story condo in a well-protected, well-ordered neighborhood, commuted into the city to work and held wine-and-cheese parties on the weekend. They woke each morning knowing exactly what the day would bring, and could go to sleep knowing that the next day held no surprises. They were certain about everything, and Janet had spent most of her life waiting for the moment when her turn would come and her life would become predictable.
Suddenly her suit radio crackled. "All right, pair up. Marshall and Walters, Fleisher and Perry, Schaeffer and Connelly, and Sorensen with Litchfield. Captain Marshall has point, Sorensen is tail-end. We're going to move aft and look for the airlock. Keep your weapons secured. Stay close, and shout if you see anything."
Marshall moved away from the major, waving to someone that Litchfield assumed was Walters. The other Marines began to cluster together, occasionally twisting their bodies left or right to scan the area around them. Litchfield couldn't seem to make her legs move.
A figure moved towards her, moving at what Litchfield considered a reckless amount of speed. Sorensen's eyes were wide, her head craning around inside her helmet as if she could take in the whole of the star field at once. "Can you believe this view?" she said in a hushed voice. "I wish I'd brought a camera along."
All Litchfield could do was gasp out a hysterical kind of laugh. Sorensen suddenly stopped looking at the stars and pressed her helmet to Litchfield's. "Are you okay in there, Janet?"
"Now that you mention it, no." She couldn't stop laughing. Her whole body shivered as she tried to suppress it. "I'm not sure I can move. Why the hell couldn't the major have left me on the APC-"
"Because that would be too easy," Sorensen said, as though confiding one of the great truths of the universe. "You're going to be fine, Janet. You've been trained to do this. Just keep your eyes on the deck, like you were walking down the passageway of a ship. Put your hand on my shoulder if you need to."
Sorensen turned without another word and started walking after the rest of the unit. Litchfield moved without thinking, picking up her foot and reaching forward to clutch Emily's shoulder. Then she was walking, moving along at a slow, stately pace. Litchfield forgot all about the space around her, or the deck beneath her. All that mattered was the person in front of her, and her hand clutching Sorensen's small, strong shoulder. As long as Litchfield held on, she knew she could go anywhere.
The going got harder once they moved beyond the APC's landing lights. Marshall led the way carefully, one slow step at a time. Their suits' illumination did little more than throw long shadows across the crew compartment, showing a dark patina of carbon scoring and scuff marks accumulated over long years of travel. After twenty meters the compartment ended and the girderwork of the central spine stretched aft. The captain tried to wring details out of memories more than two decades old. They had done drills on the Galileo-class back at John Glenn. Where were the airlocks located?
The boot magnets did not grip well to the rounded surfaces of the girders, so Marshall moved hand-over-hand, pulling himself along and over the spine to the port side of the ship. The unit moved in silence behind him, even Fleisher saving his concentration for traversing the ship's treacherous surface.
Once on the port side of the spine, Marshall saw what looked like a docking port another fifteen meters aft. After a like number of minutes, the recon Marine set his boot firmly on the surface of the docking module. He stood next to a single white airlock door marked "01", and set with two small observation ports which gaped like sightless black eyes. A data/entry pad was recessed into the center of the door, the arrangement typical of ships during the 40's. It was familiar and haunting, all at the same time. "No lights inside," Marshall reported, kneeling slowly so he could reach across to the pad. "Let me see if this thing still works."
The pad came to life at his touch, the buttons lit from beneath by a dim, reddish light. A flashing readout gave information on atmospheric conditions on the other side of the door. "There's gravity, but no air. The ship appears to have been depressurized."
Major Wilde stepped close. "Maybe a hull breach, somewhere?"
"Maybe," Marshall said. "We won't know for sure until we get inside." The Marine reached back and unclipped his weapon, a Heckler and Koch MP-5 submachine gun. It was a weapon whose design was more than a hundred years old, but its accuracy and reliability were such that it was still popular among special forces as late as 2063. Set into the weapon's enlarged foregrip was what looked like a small flashlight. He flipped a switch next to the light, then pulled a set of compact goggles off his belt and clipped them to his faceplate. "All right, people, kill your lights and switch to IR," he ordered. "We're going to treat this just like a hostile boarding action. Stay in pairs and watch your fields of fire."
The unit's lights went out. Through the goggles, the ship and the Marines around Marshall were painted in hues of blood. The lamps on the ends of their weapons projected a beam of infrared light, invisible to human eyes. With their goggles on, the Marines could move through pitch darkness as easily as in a well-lit room. And what they could see they could shoot without hesitation.
Reaching down with his free hand, Marshall keyed the entry sequence. The door slid open easily, with a faint, glistening puff of crystalized oxygen. Stepping into the airlock was awkward, due to the gravity disparity- it was akin to walking across a room and then straight up a wall. Once inside, Marshall checked the inner door's data pad. "Still no air," he said. "I'm going to go ahead and open the inner door."
Walters took up position just inside the outer door, his weapon aiming just past Marshall's shoulder. The major's voice crackled over the radio. "Do it," she said tersely.
It felt good to have a sense of up and down again, even under such macabre circumstances, Marshall thought. The inner door slid open without protest and he moved confidently inside, surrendering himself to his training and sweeping his weapon along the short passageway beyond. "Perry and Fleisher, get up here," he murmured. "I want you two on point."
The passageway was only five meters long and held eight lockers, four to a side. As the two Marines worked their way past Marshall, the captain ran his light along the surface of the lockers to his right. There were no names stenciled on the doors. Back in the 40's the regulation was a suit for each crewman, and a locker for each suit with the crewman's name on it. "This doesn't make a damn bit of sense," he muttered. On impulse, he pulled the locker open. It was empty.
"Yo, Gunny," Walters whispered. "I got somethin' here."
The Marine was shining his light along the left row of lockers, at a dark smear just below knee level. It was dull black under the reddish light, and spread in a swath across two lockers. "Looks like blood," Walters said quietly.
"Could be," the captain said. There were no names on these lockers either. Marshall opened one, and was surprised to find an EVA suit.
"We've got a connecting passageway up here, Gunny," Perry said. "A long one running fore and aft, and a short one carrying on to starboard. Where are we going?"
"We're going forward to the bridge," Marshall said absently, checking out the suit. It was a high-performance civilian suit, outfitted with sensors and long-range comm systems equal to military-grade hardware. The name COLEMAN was stenciled across the helmet. Marshall reached out and pulled on the suit's sleeve. There was a patch on the shoulder. "Aerotech Exploratory Services Division," he read aloud. "Goddamn."
"This's an Aerotech ship?" Walters asked.
"Back in the 40's every ship belonged to Aerotech," Marshall said sourly. "But this suit here is only about five years old. What's it doing in the locker of a twenty-six-year-old ship?"
"Gunny!" Major Wilde's voice was sudden and sharp. "Get back here and take a look at this!"
The rest of the unit had made it inside, and was clustered around the closed inner door. Marshall shouldered his way through the knot. "Spread out, people," he warned. "This ain't time for show and tell-" the harangue dried up in his throat as he reached the major.
She was standing beside the airlock's inner door, shining her light across its surface. "Sorensen saw it when we shut the door," Wilde said. Her voice was edged with a mixture of apprehension and concern. "What do you make of this?"
There was another dark smear on the door, a dull reddish-black like the stain Walters had found. This time however, the smear had a shape. It spelled out letters, ragged and stark against the white surface.
Marshall read what was written there, and shook his head. "I don't know," he finally said.
The letters scrawled across the door formed a single word:
The sound of the moaning suddenly swelled, filling his ears with the insistent, angry cry of a disturbed spirit. Dieters sat bolt upright in the pilot's chair and tore off his headphones with a startled cry.
He could still hear the unearthly sound buzzing from the headphones as they bounced off the deck. Then moments later, there was silence.
The InVitro slumped back in his chair, feeling his heart bouncing around in his chest. Slowly, carefully, he reached down and picked the headphones up and placed the set back on his head. There was nothing but the muted surf of stellar noise.
Dieters frowned, his brow furrowing in concern. He stole a glance at the FLIR, and noticed with a start that the ship's reactors had dimmed, darkening to a dull red.
The Ghostriders moved silently down the connecting passage, heading deeper into the ship. After fifteen meters they came to another intersection, meeting with a passageway running fore and aft which Marshall identified as the central access passage. The unit turned left, heading towards the bow of the ship, where the crew quarters and bridge was supposed to be found. Wilde signaled to Sorensen and Litchfield to stay at the intersection and cover their rear. The two Marines huddled at the corner of the passageway from which they had come; Litchfield shone her light down the long passage aft, while Sorensen covered the connecting passage continuing to starboard. In moments, they were totally alone, surrounded in darkness and airless silence. The confines of the dead ship surrounded them like the walls of a tomb.
Litchfield tried to breathe evenly. Stay on top of things, she told herself. Stay in control. As if she were ever really in control of anything. She had always felt like a leaf in the wind, all her life, her course decided by outside forces almost too vast to understand.
Her parents had tried. They had everything planned out from the moment she was conceived. One of her earliest memories was playing on the veranda while her mother sat back and related to a friend each and every step her daughter would make until little Janet was a grandmother. When she was little the stories seemed magical. Now they mocked her. They were painstakingly rendered pictures of what might have been, what could have been, if only she'd been a little smarter, or a little more focused-
Something tapped loudly against her helmet, right by her left ear. Litchfield jumped, suppressing a startled cry. Sorensen's voice resonated through her helmet. "Anybody home?"
Litchfield managed a nervous laugh. "Not any more, Emily. If you look carefully, I think you'll see my heart hanging off the ceiling over there."
Sorensen laughed, the sound turned hollow by the helmet-to-helmet interchange, and then silence fell. Then suddenly she spoke again. "Janet, you've seemed really out of sorts lately. Is everything all right?"
Litchfield felt her stomach clench. Alpha and Omega- under the circumstances, Sorensen was both the first and the last person Litchfield wanted to ask that question. "You mean, is everything all right besides being in the middle of an interstellar war?"
"You know what I mean," Sorensen chided gently.
"Yes. I mean, no. I mean I don't know." Litchfield could feel the words struggling to get out, rising up from her heart. She tried to grab them all, but some slipped past. "Sometimes I wonder what the hell I'm doing here."
"Only sometimes?" Emily reached out and squeezed Janet's arm. "You're doing better than me."
"Oh, please," Litchfield said. "You joined the Corps. I remember you talking about it on the bus to Parris Island. They drafted me. I didn't have a choice. It's the story of my life."
"I don't think I understand," Sorensen said tentatively.
Janet smiled. "I don't expect you would. If I remember right, you told us back in AFT that you were an executive consultant before joining the Corps. And you're just twenty-four. That's incredible. I'm twenty-three and I couldn't even manage to go to college." Litchfield leaned wearily against Sorensen. "Did your parents have a plan for you when you were young?"
She thought she could feel Emily stiffen slightly, but when she spoke, her voice was calm. "I'm sure they did."
"My parents had planned out every single moment of my life. They knew who I was and what I was going to be before I could even walk," Litchfield said with a sigh. "They are both very successful people. Very meticulous. And I grew up knowing that all I had to do was follow the path my parents had laid out, and I would be just as happy as they were. Just as successful, just as safe. But then-" she shrugged- "I got lost."
"Lost?" Sorensen's voice was faint, almost a whisper, echoing in her helmet.
"They sent me to a prep school in upstate New York, where I would excel and become accepted at Harvard. That was the plan. It was the first time I had ever lived away from home. And I found that the longer I was away, the harder it was to stay focused on what my parents expected of me. I found that I really enjoyed art. And the more I drew, the less I enjoyed business classes. It scared me to death. I thought I was sick or something. That's when everything started to come apart."
She could feel her words beginning to pick up speed, her heart opening like a flower under the irresistible sun. Not again, not again! Her mind wailed faintly, but it was far too late. "My grades faltered. It was so strange. I never realized that my heart wasn't in my studies until I found it hiding somewhere else. My parents were-" she tried to search for the right word, and finally shrugged- "outraged. Confused. Terrified. I spent my Christmas vacation locked in a room with a therapist. And I tried, believe me I tried, to figure out what was wrong with me. If I could have fixed it and gone right along with what my parents wanted, I would have done it in a heartbeat. It felt like I had stumbled off the path and down a long, slippery slope. No matter how hard I fought, I only fell farther."
She felt Sorensen reach up with both hands and clasp her arms. She felt the strength in those long, delicate fingers, and thought she could curl up in their grasp forever. "I was losing my life. My parents acted like I was someone else, a stranger who just looked like their daughter. I was becoming a ghost."
Litchfield raised her hand. Her fingers were trembling. She laid the tips gently on Sorensen's chest, where the sweep of her collarbone was covered in layers of ballistic armor. "All I wanted was for someone to hold me and tell me it was going to be okay."
She felt Sorensen's hands tighten, until they gripped her like twin vises, and suddenly she was shoved back, her helmet bouncing off the passageway bulkhead. When her vision cleared, she saw Sorensen grabbing up her shotgun and springing to her feet.
Forward of the central junction was the crew's common area, where off-duty sailors could eat, read, or watch the vids. It was a hexagonal-shaped room, with two large tables set against the port and starboard bulkheads. Food-preparation units and refrigerators lined the forward bulkhead, while aft there were couches and low tables set with vid goggles.
Pieces of silverware were scattered across the deck, and the remains of a coffee cup gleamed like bleached bone under the Marine lamps. There were plates on the tables, still bearing half-eaten meals frozen by vacuum. Marshall shone his light around the compartment. "Whatever happened, it was quick and unexpected," he mused aloud. He counted four plates, which at least established the minimum number of crew that had been on board.
Perry and Fleisher disappeared through the forward hatch, but before Marshall could follow, Major Wilde called out. "Got some brass over here."
She was standing with Schaeffer and Connelly near the vid units. Marshall joined them, his eyes going to the pools of light cast by their lamps. There were spent pistol cartridges scattered across one of the couches and on the deck between couch and vid table. At a glance, the captain counted between ten and fifteen empty shells. "Looks like somebody had a mad minute," he observed.
Wilde looked curiously at Marshall. "Say again, Gunny?"
"It's an old recon term, from back during 'Nam," he replied. "If you had your back to the corner and there was no way out, you fired off everything you had and tried to shoot your way through. Do or die." He nudged one of the casings with his boot. "I guess we know how this one turned out."
Forward of the common area were the crew's quarters, six compartments to a side down the long passageway. "How many crew did a ship like this carry?" Wilde asked as they worked their way past the closed hatches.
"Twenty-two," Marshall replied. "Two single-occupancy staterooms for the captain and first officer, then ten double-occupancy staterooms. Sometimes there were added rooms for passengers, but this doesn't look like the case here."
The captain checked the hatch of each stateroom as he passed. None of them were marked with names.
Past the crew's quarters was the ship's operations area. Here, legends on hatchways to port and starboard read SIGNALS ROOM and LIDAR CONTROL, while still ahead the passageway ended in a hatch labeled BRIDGE. The hatchway to the bridge was ajar. Marshall watched Fleisher nudge the hatch open with his boot while Perry covered the widening entryway.
There was light inside, flickering, ethereal blue glows like will-o-wisps. The data screens on the bridge were still active, keeping silent vigil over the ship. A number of open viewports gave a wide view of the starlit blackness outside. The seats in the cramped compartment were empty.
Marshall nudged past the point team and stepped into the bridge. The computer panels, the seats, even the lettering on the boards were straight out of the 40's. The sight of the empty control stations was inescapably eerie to the former sergeant. The flickering screens told him that someone had once been there, and should have been there still, but something had happened. Something he was at a loss to explain.
The bridge consisted of a helm station, a LIDAR station, a comm station, an extensive engineering station, and a small chart table occupying the aft corner portside. The table was covered in stacks of large sheets of blue print. "Walters, get on the engineering console and see if you can get the life support online." Marshall said as Wilde entered the compartment.
Walters slid into the engineer's chair as the major inspected the papers on the table. "Galileo-class ISSTT- deck blueprints and electrical plan," she read. "There's a notation in the corner that says these plans were printed on March 7, 2057."
Readings flashed across the engineering board. "It looks like atmosphere and heat were switched off at some point," Walters said, bewildered. "There's no damage that I can determine, but the ship's deuterium levels are below one percent."
"Meaning?" Marshall asked.
"Meaning she's out of gas," Walters said. "The reactors combine helium-3 and deuterium to generate fusion, which powers the ship. Right now the needle is sitting on empty."
Wilde folded her arms. "What kind of duration would those engines have, Walters?"
The Marine thought it over. "Judging by the energy efficiency rates I'm seeing, I would guess about the same as the ones on the Lady Lex- about seven years."
Marshall cocked his head curiously. "Any ideas, ma'am?"
"Maybe," she said cautiously. "We've got blueprints dating from 2057, and two fusion reactors, technology which was invented right around that time-"
"You think this ship was a prototype?" Marshall asked.
Wilde nodded. "Think about it. We're talking about new and potentially unstable equipment. You wouldn't want to put it on a modern, expensive hull that might just get blown to pieces. You'd want to use a ship that you could afford to lose, if worse came to worst."
"And there wouldn't be any names on the lockers or the staterooms, because the ship wouldn't be intended to have a long-term crew, just occasional test pilots and engineers." The captain said. "Makes sense- except-"
"Except for the blood in the airlock passageway. And the mad minute. And Roswell."
Suddenly their radios screeched, and a tense, anxious voice filled their ears. "Major, this is Sorensen! I've got movement aft in the central access passage!"
There was no time for words. Marshall was through the hatch just ahead of Wilde, weapons at the ready.
They swept back through the common area like a dark wind, the barrels of their weapons leading the way. Passing through the main intersection, Marshall found Litchfield at the corner where he'd left her, covering the aft end of the passage. When her eyes met the captain's they were wide with shock and fear.
Five meters past the junction Sorensen was crouched like a cat, her shotgun trained on a partially-open hatch at the end of the passage. It, too, bore no name.
Marshall moved slowly up to Sorensen. "What have you got, Lieutenant?"
"About a minute ago I was…talking to Litchfield, and when I looked away from the starboard passage I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Somebody ducked into the aft passageway, moving fast."
"What did you see?" the captain asked.
Sorensen didn't answer immediately. "I…don't know for sure. It was just a glimpse. It looked man-size, though." She indicated the hatch before them. "Whoever it was must be in there."
Marshall nodded, his pulse beginning to race. He rose and waved the rest of the Ghostriders forward. They clustered to either side of the hatch, then on cue the captain put his boot against the hatch and shoved it open. When they felt the heavy door swing all the way back against the bulkhead they sprang into the room, crouched low and sweeping their weapons across the compartment.
There was no one there.
The compartment contained two curved tables facing one another, their surfaces inset with computer terminals and screens. There was an open space between them, and a tall screen attached to the aft bulkhead. It looked like nothing so much as a meeting room.
"But there's no way…" Sorensen stood in the hatchway, shaking her head in disbelief. He had to have come this way."
Marshall started to pace, his eyes restlessly searching the room. There was nowhere to hide- even the ventilation ducts were little better than narrow slits near the ceiling. "Sorensen, all of us are dog-tired. We've been in these suits for just over an hour, and I know how they can mess with your head sometimes. Are you sure you saw something?"
The captain looked hard at the small Marine, then his gaze went past her shoulder. "Litchfield, did you see anything?"
Sorensen turned, stepping out of the hatchway to reveal Litchfield. There was still something of a stunned look on her face. She stole the briefest glance at Sorensen, then shook her head. "No, Gunny. I didn't."
Marshall looked to Major Wilde, who was still staring contemplatively at the furnishings in the room. "Orders, ma'am?"
Wilde took a deep breath. "We finish sweeping the ship," she said simply, but her expression was troubled. "Gunny, get back to the bridge with Walters and see about getting us lights and some air. Sorensen and Litchfield, get back to the main junction and stand watch. Schaeffer and Connelly will search the portside accessway, while Perry and Fleisher will check to starboard. I'll inspect the compartments forward of the main junction. Do not split up, and do not let your guard down. I don't know what is going on here, but we are not going to rest until we find out."
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