Chapter 1: The Marduk Incident

 

 

“HAIL THEM again, Mr. Ozawa.” Captain Drummond’s voice held a sharp edge, betraying the tension beneath the stone-faced calm.

Isaac’s fingers flew over his console as he repeated his hail on all the customary frequencies. “This is the C-courier Hermes to any personnel aboard the Marduk. Distress beacon intercepted. Please advise the nature of your emergency. This is the Hermes hailing the Judiciary Transport Marduk. Please respond.”

“Anything? Static? Ticks?”

“Nothing, ma’am. Just the autobeacon replaying the request for assist.”

“Mr. Wilde, readings would be appreciated any time now.” The Captain turned to her left where Rand Wilde matched Isaac’s frenetic movements at his boards.

“In range now, ma’am. Scanning. Just a sec,” Rand murmured. His forehead creased. “I’m not sure this is right….”

“You’re not here to edit, Mr. Wilde. Raw data will do. Life signs. Ship systems.”

Rand cleared his throat. “That’s just it, ma’am. No life signs. None. She’s drifting. Radiation leakage aft. Probable engine damage. Life support still shows online.”

“You think they ditched, Captain?” Isaac powered his chair around, one hand still hovering over the boards in case he picked up something on channels.

Captain Drummond stared at the vidscreen where the hulk of the Marduk occupied two-thirds of the view. Her silver eyebrows pulled together as she drummed her fingers on her chair arm. “Why leave the lights on when you’ve left the house?” She turned again. “Lifepods, Ms. Casalvez?”

Sylvia shook her head. “None sending anyway, ma’am. Too early to tell if any launched.”

“What the hell happened here?”

The Captain echoed Isaac’s thoughts. Judiciary ships ran heavily armed. Not too many things out there could take her down. To Isaac, the engine damage appeared minimal. She could have still been underway, limped into port at Kerron Station, at least. Not to mention that the crew would have to be in dire straits to leave the ship without proper shutdown procedures and a recovery buoy sending coordinates. Isaac shivered, superstitious thoughts creeping in where he needed objective, rational ones.

“Ma’am.” A sudden thought hit him. “It’s a transport.”

“The point, Mr. Ozawa?”

“There’ll be a holding deck amidships. Heavy shielding. Our scans wouldn’t get through.”

“True.” Captain Drummond drew in a long breath. “Survivors could be holed up.”

The bridge officers watched her, expectation drifting like heavy incense.

“Isaac.”

The use of his first name made him cringe. Something unpleasant would come next. “Captain?”

“Feel up to remote work?”

Isaac hesitated. The captain had asked rather than ordered and relied on him to say no if he had to. He lifted a hand to press the tiny nub behind his left ear that activated his implant. A couple of quick diagnostics only produced a minor twitch in his left eye.

“Should be able to do a run,” he said, hoping his voice sounded more confident outside his head. The implant picked the worst times to act up, but when it did, he would be in a world of hurt. “EV-bot?”

“If you’re up to it, Isaac.” Still the soft voice from the captain. The sympathy in her eyes made him cringe.

I’m not going to break, dammit. Yes, the tiny interstitial bot would be less of a strain, but the visuals would be too limited. They needed to know what waited inside that floating… coffin. He couldn’t shake the image.

He switched on, configured for the human-sized bot, and, through his implant, unhooked the grapples that kept it moored to the side of the Hermes. Visuals from the bot superimposed over his view of the bridge. An ache started behind his eyes from the split vision. In short bursts, he fired the bot’s aft thrusters to orient it for the Marduk’s airlock iris. He’d have to cut his way in, but any ship worth its polyceramics had redundant airlock closures. The damage would be minimal.

“Trav? Can you get us closer, maybe?” Isaac murmured. “So it’s not so long a retrieval flight?”

“Already working on it, Oz,” Travis answered, his gravel-in-a-polishing-drum voice drifting aft from the pilot’s chair. “Got your back.”

Got your back. The familiar phrase was both a comfort and a sad reminder. Like Isaac, like Travis Humboldt, many of the officers and crew were ex-military. Most were retired, though, on their second careers. Isaac was the only one forcibly discharged.

The implant behaved during the bot’s flight over and Isaac dared to hope. Maybe it’ll be all right this time. But as he concentrated on the fine work of guiding the laser saw, the twitch behind his left eye became a tic. By the time he had cut through and secured the airlock with the temporary emergency shield recessed over the iris, the tic had evolved into pulsing, intermittent pain.

Never mind, just get it done, quick and efficient. Isaac activated the bot’s audio and sensors as he eased it out into the ship’s corridor. Only the soft hiss of the ventilation system disturbed the silence.

“Quiet as a tomb,” Rand muttered on Isaac’s right.

“God, Rand, shut up,” Sylvia hissed.

“Visual on your two screen, Captain,” Isaac spoke over them.

“Put it up on main, Mr. Ozawa. We’re all in this together.”

Isaac guided the bot toward the ship’s central decks. No signs appeared that anyone had been on board recently until the lift doors opened onto the holding deck.

“Holy. Fucking. Hells,” Travis whispered.

At first, Isaac thought the dark splashes smeared on the walls and puddled on the floor were some sort of mechanical fluid, the dark rust the right color for dried joint lubricant or maybe…. His thoughts stuttered to a halt when he spotted half a hand lying in the center of the corridor. His focus pulled the bot’s camera back to a spot on the wall, plastered with pieces of intestine. Nausea gripped him. Someone on the bridge retched violently.

“Life signs, Mr. Ozawa. That’s why we’re here. Proceed to the holding block.”

The captain’s sharp command helped him focus, returned his attention to the readouts. The numbers and symbols flashing across his internal display didn’t keep him from seeing the gore strewn about the corridors, though, as if some gruesome human abattoir had suffered a catastrophic explosion. The bot’s mechanical foot landed on something with a sickening crunch of bone and another bridge officer lost it.

The pain behind Isaac’s left eye spread across his forehead, pounding against his skull. He had to hold it together, though. What if some poor sod’s alive in this hell? Gritting his teeth, he pushed the bot on through the doors into holding, where a hand still clutched the comm console, attached to half a forearm.

The autobeacon. Here’s the man who set the autobeacon before something ripped him to shreds. The rest of the comm officer was missing or unrecognizable amid the ruin of blood and shreds of flesh. Isaac stared, fixated by the wedding ring still gleaming from the dismembered hand. He swallowed hard, trying to banish thoughts of this man’s family.

Distracted, it took him a moment to realize what the numbers flashing on his right screen signified.

“Life signs! Captain, we’ve got a survivor!”

“Human?”

“Ninety-eight point six. Heartbeat’s slow, but has the right cardiac signature. Ma’am, if it’s not human, it’s close enough for me.”

“Pull back, Mr. Ozawa.” The captain rose from her chair, barking orders. “I need a retrieval team! Mr. Humboldt, your choice. Full exosuits and a medipod. No risks, no heroics! Anything feels off, you haul ass back here!”

Isaac concentrated on getting the EV-bot to haul ass as well. Travis would need some time to get the team assembled and run the exosuits through flight checks. He couldn’t say why, but he had a terrible need to be part of the retrieval team. Someone was alive in there, and somehow, even though he had only been on the ship remotely, he felt a connection and a responsibility to get him or her out, preferably whole.

The shakes had him in their teeth by the time he stowed the bot again, though. The minor headache had exploded into a full-bore migraine. Nausea and pain competed in equal measure and he couldn’t decide if he should reach for the vacuum bag under his console or lie down on the decking for a minute.

“Isaac?” Captain Drummond’s voice may as well have been light-years away.

He turned to answer her and realized his choices had been taken from him as his vision tunneled inward in black fuzz.

Someone was calling him. He searched for the voice through endless corridors… running… always running….

“Oz? You all right there, boy?” Travis’s deep voice rumbled against his ear.

He blinked his eyes open and looked up into the pilot’s face. A strong arm supported his back and he realized he was lying on the decking, held against Travis’s chest.

“Thanks, Trav, I didn’t know you cared,” Isaac croaked out with what he hoped was a convincing smile.

Travis snorted. “Yeah, you wish. Just trying to keep you from taking a header.” He helped Isaac sit up. “Where’re your meds, Oz?”

“I have them. I’m not an idiot.” Isaac’s hands shook too much to open the calf pocket, though.

Travis pushed his fingers aside and removed the packet for him. “Yeah, that’s why I asked, bud. To make you feel stupid. Shit, you’re so damn prickly sometimes.”

Isaac flushed, but he meant it this time when he muttered, “Thanks.”

With a little more help to undo his cuff, Isaac managed to rip open the packet with his teeth and slap the med patch onto the inside of his wrist. Relief would come quickly. He just had to keep swallowing against the rising nausea for a few more seconds.

“Trav?” He breathed in little sips, eyes on his deck boots as a point of focus.

“Answer’s no, you lunatic,” Travis said before he could ask the question. “You need to rest.”

He shot Travis an irritated look. “I’ll be in flight shape in a couple minutes.” Travis’s jaw clenched, his face set in stubborn lines, so Isaac changed tactics. “Respectfully requesting that Lt. Humboldt consider including me in his retrieval team. I have the ship schematics in my head. Mission would go faster with me on point.”

Travis rose, barking orders into his wrist comm, and for a moment Isaac thought his request would be ignored. Then the pilot glared down at him. “Dammit, Oz. If you pass out and I have to drag you back by your harness—”

“You can beat the hell out of me then. But I won’t.”

“Damn freak,” Travis grumbled. “You got five minutes to get your ass down to the launch bay, hear me?”

“Yessir.”

With the chair as an anchor, Isaac climbed back to his feet, testing his balance. He shook still, but the worst of the effects had receded. “Damn implants should be outlawed.”

“Less than 2 percent go bad, Mr. Ozawa.” The captain eyed him dubiously.

“Yes, ma’am, so I’ve been told. Always helps me feel special.”

“Sarcasm isn’t the most appropriate use of energy right now.”

Isaac chewed on his lower lip, trying to get the prickles of anger under control. He’d lived with this for five years now. Sometimes the bitterness still bubbled up. Stress reaction, probably. “Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“Accepted. Best get moving, or Humboldt’s leaving you behind.”

Taking care to keep his steps steady, Isaac left the bridge with the eyes of the remaining bridge staff boring into his back. He knew what they thought, but he wasn’t trying to prove anything. Not this time. The need to get over to the Marduk, to make certain for himself that the survivor would make it, was almost frantic. He couldn’t have explained it in any rational way if the captain had decided to call him on it.

In the launch bay, Travis gave him a quick look up and down but refrained from further comment. “Oz, you’re in number five. Lester ran the checks on it. You’re good to go.”

Lester Morris, from engineering, gave him a nod from across the bay. A good hundred-twenty kilos of solid muscle, Lester would be there for his strength as well as his mechanical expertise. Rand, already climbing into his suit, fumbling with the harness straps, would coax the Marduk’s systems into a data dump. Sylvia, the best shot on board, was along just in case, and Dr. Varga was there as well, since the survivor might not be in the best condition.

Isaac waved across the bay in thanks and pulled himself up into the suit’s compartment. He strapped in with quick, efficient movements and hit the control pad to close the panels around him. The visor came down last, encasing him in weapons-grade polys and a self-contained respiratory system. Audio and display check complete, Travis hit the lock on the bay doors, which rolled back to show the Marduk turning slowly against the star-dappled black void.

Empty silence enveloped them as the suits left the bay. Isaac’s own breaths had always sounded like a windstorm to him in the utter absence of other sounds. New recruits often passed out from lack of oxygen as they fought against breathing too loudly, panic and claustrophobia often weeding out the ones unsuited to deep-space work early in training. But for Isaac, planet-born dirtsucker that he was, the wonder of moving so freely through space, inimical to life, hostile and breathtakingly beautiful, had never worn thin.

Isaac reached the Marduk first to punch in the code he had left on the temporary airlock hatch. The six of them kept their face shields down as they slipped inside. Atmospheric levels might be all right, but the possibility of breathing in airborne blood particulates was not a pleasant thought.

A little whimper drifted through the audio.

“Hold together, people,” Travis growled. “Oz promised to get us out and back quick.”

“Sorry.” The whispered apology came from Rand, his suit’s helmet swiveling back and forth as he picked his way through the carnage.

“Rand, stop looking!” Sylvia snapped. “Focus on the suit in front of you.”

While Isaac couldn’t run in the heavy exosuit, he did pick up the pace. Unlike his first foray with the remote, now he knew exactly which cross-corridors and doorways to use. Within three minutes, he had them in the lift, headed toward the holding block. The heavy blast door slid aside to show the gruesome tableau at the comm console. A catch of breath in his pickup told Isaac that Rand had probably missed this the first time through. He couldn’t be sure, but their nervous scan tech had most likely been one of the bridge officers throwing up.

“Still only showing one heartbeat,” Isaac said to distract them all. “This way.”

He led them down a corridor marked “A-block” where they passed one empty cell after another, not empty because the occupants had been torn to pieces but entirely empty.

“What kind of Jud ship carries one prisoner?” Sylvia asked.

“Maybe they were trying to evacuate before….” Lester’s deep voice trailed off.

“Don’t waste time on speculating,” Travis cut in. “We’re close.”

The last cell held an occupant, its transparent electrified door still intact and locked tight. The man lay curled in a tight ball against his air pallet, dazed eyes half-open.

“Hey,” Travis shouted through the door. “Can you hear me?”

The man didn’t move, though he shivered violently, hard spasms running along massive arms and a broad back. Probably in shock.

Isaac found himself staring. Dark shadows marred the prisoner’s skin, but the strong jaw and even features spoke to a devastatingly handsome face when he was well. He could see the man was huge, even curled up so tightly, easily two meters tall, maybe more. Golden-blond stubble atop his head indicated a recent shaving, though Isaac had no idea if he wore it that way out of choice or if prisoners were routinely shorn. He wore only a sleeveless midthigh shift. Anger rose in Isaac’s chest. Bad enough they locked him up, but to take away a man’s pants? Such calculated humiliation seemed cruel.

“Get the damn door open,” Travis said, bringing Isaac back to the task at hand.

Rand plugged into the wall jack, and all his uneasy sounds ceased as he concentrated on hacking the door code. The door whispered open on Rand’s triumphant cry.

“Attaboy,” Travis said. “Now go back out to the console and download the logs.”

“Out there? Alone?” The audio picked up Rand’s hard swallow.

“Dammit, son, they’re just pieces of meat out there. Nothing’ll hurt you.”

“But—”

Travis sighed. “Sylvia, go with him so the ghosts don’t eat him.”

Distracted by Rand’s fears, Isaac had missed the moment their rescuee began to move. He had pushed up on trembling arms, hard muscles corded with the effort, and turned his head to face them, teeth bared in a snarl.

“Shchfteru scum,” he whispered in a cracked, ruined voice. “Damn you….”

He’s going to hurt himself. Or lunge at Travis, and then someone’s going to panic and shoot him…. “Humans.” Isaac held the hands of his exosuit wide. “We’re not some damn chuff, we’re humans.”

A low growl came from the man’s chest, a sound Isaac had never heard from a person before. The man was obviously too far gone and the suits looked too menacing. He reached up, undid his helmet latches, and lifted the whole assembly off his head. “See, human. We’re here to help you. Get you out of here.”

The man stared at him, something flickering in his eyes through the rage. During his moment’s distraction, Travis and Lester grabbed him and pinned him to the decking so Dr. Varga could get him sedated.

Isaac caught a whiff of the foul air and slammed the helmet back on his head, coughing fitfully as he got the latches secured. “Oh shit… that’s horrible… how was he still breathing?”

“Don’t know, bud.” The servos in Travis’s suit whirred as he stood back up for the return walk. “But the shchfteru, if they were here—it explains a hell of a lot.”

“Explains why the crew’s in shreds,” Lester rumbled. “Doesn’t explain why the ship’s whole and the boards are untouched. Or why this guy survived.”

Lester was right there.

“We need to get the Hermes away, Trav,” Isaac said softly. “The chuff don’t leave things half done. They’re bound to come back to finish.”