Warren woke to the klaxon's wail and the recirculated smell of his own body in his small compartment. He waltzed his hand around, finding the stop button. Then the briefing began.
The deep space vessel Majesty had been located. Originally a well-timed gambit of design by a space cruise company, offering first- and second-class luxury passage, the ship had been captured by the Proxima Rebels and outfitted as a troop and vehicle carrier. The Rebels had drydocked Majesty, adding a large spacebay amidships and extensively improving the engines and onboard intelligence. But they had not replaced her commanding officer. He had been impressed, by hook or by crook...
Warren raised an eyebrow. The Rebels had taken this risky step due to the subtleties and uniqueness of Majesty's design and modifications. For the Majesty was at that time the oldest and most complex spacecraft in active duty.
She had supposedly gone down with all hands under chaotic circumstances during the Battle of DS Midway Point in 3124...
Now, the readout chattered with lines and lines of anecdotes, she was a ghost ship...
Warren clung to his armrests. "Good catch, ensign." The last three near-misses, the pilot had dodged easily, even lazily. But the evasion of a star-shaped missile of rock and ice looming up from below had made him grit his teeth, and proven beyond a doubt that crack pilot Ensign Dunfield was a professional.
"Thank you, sir. It's a pleasure to have a true spacer aboard." Dunfield's head twitched to the left, then almost right around to glance back at Coelus. The Raumarine attached to them for support was inscrutable behind his mirrored helm; Warren saw him clinging to his armrests and turned back, smiling.
The tiny Sirtis cleared the asteroid field and docked with the Majesty. The old ship was completely dark, and the connexion had to be accomplished by instrument...
Gripping his shotgun, Sally, Warren stepped out into the ghost ship's moldering spacebay. Past his nasal rebreather he smelled the unluckiest smells in space: stale air, and burnt insulation.
Behind him the Raumarine padded down the connexion ramp, cradling his fusion gun. "Target vessel appears deserted," grated from his vox grille...
Their headlights cast tiny beams on the cavernous darkness. In a high corner, an electric shipseye marked their intrusion, stimulating ancient circuitries.
"I wouldn't bet on it," replied Warren after a moment. "She's got atmosphere in the middle of an asteroid field that's renowned as a deathtrap. There's something's weird here." He sidled up to the big for'ard lockdoor and examined the panel, which had power. "Obviously her reactors are optimal. This door is jammed though."
"I will pursue a workaround through engineering," asserted Coelus.
"Wait. Just wait, will you??" Warren felt a rant coming on. "Coelus, I've read your record. You earned distinctions fighting in spaceports, on runways. Do you know... what goes on in engineering? In deep space?"
"Engineering," said Coelus haughtily. "Science's attempts at control of primeval power."
"Scientists are people, Raumarine. They are brilliant people. But they live and die by superstition..." Warren looked aft, where the grey floor pads receded into silent, doubtful shadows.
"Come on, let's go," he said, taking the lead aft.
Silently they moved beneath the archway, further into the gloom. Warren paused. The passageway split off to left and right. He threw up the hand signal for Coelus to take the right, saw him nod and turn. No spacer, at least he did seem like a proper soldier. Warren crept off to the left, his light probing ahead of him...
Far behind Warren, Coelus grunted in alarm, then they were all around them both. Spectres, claggy grey flesh and wisps of ectoplasm shrieking out of the darkness! Warren jammed Sally under a chin, but the gun was deflected away. Splintery teeth fixed on each of his arms at the bicep. He roared, whipping out his knife and slashing out one of their throats, but the creature didn't fall. He wrestled himself free and destroyed one of the things with a shotgun round to the face.
The sound echoed through the ship. Down the hallway, Coelus was trading blows with two more of the things. Warren kicked and stabbed, getting bitten in the leg and torso. He wasted a shotgun round as the creature dodged with unseemly cunning. But the next round found its target, blasting dusty entrails up the wall. Warren gut-checked the last of his assailants and then crushed its moldy pelvis.
He turned and saw that the things attacking Coelus had for a moment gotten tangled together. The Raumarine took a step back and fired a fusion bolt, incinerating one of them. Then he executed the other with a burst of smaller bolts.
The two of them grouped up halfway without a word. Then Coelus said, "I saw debris toward the end of the passageway. Is your side any clearer?"
"My side seems undamaged."
They padded down the hallway together. The ship was making strange little noises now, sizzling circuits, the crinking of warming and cooling metal. Warren saw tiny red specks of light play across his view as they rounded the corner...
A ghoul screamed out of the darkness. Warren stood his ground and fired, dropping it in a bloody mess. As it fell their lights picked out two more standing behind it. Sally dispatched another one of the creatures as Coelus fired pulses wildly. Outnumbered, the last ghoul fell beneath a volley of blows from the two soldiers. They stood, breathing heavily.
"Thanks for not letting me waltz in here," grated the Raumarine. Was that an edge of humour? Warren smiled grimly...
"I can see the main engineering terminal just beyond."
With the area cleared, Coelus engaged the terminal to pursue his door-hack. Warren cast around the dim compartment, spotting a damaged supply closet, which he wrenched open to find an emergency rebreather... and an antique plasma rifle.
"Well hello there, pretty," he said, hefting it and checking the fuses. The magazine was full. "Stroke of luck..."
They heard a smeesh from the spacebay: the huge door had opened.
One more ghoul had attacked them, in desultory fashion. Warren erased it from existence with a plasma blast.
"Hoo hoo hoo," he laughed darkly as the smoke cleared. "Whoop!"
"Nice shot," said Coelus, wiping blood from his visor.
In the spacebay they could see the bright path of light from the interior of the Sirtis. "Dunfield, you dead??" called Warren with traditional spacer bravado.
"Sir, no sir," echoed peppily from the docked ship.
"Good man," muttered Warren as they moved for'ard to examine the dark hole of the big bulkhead door. "Brrr..." His breath fogged the air as they moved closer.
"Environment heat is off," said Coelus quietly. "And there is a crust of material..."
Where the door had receded was a mottled flat surface of frozen matter that had leaned against it. It was frosted with prickly ice crystals. They began to climb it, their boots crunching...
At the same moment they realized: they were climbing the heaped corpses of Majesty's crew.
"Don't puke." Warren's every nerve was straining, his terrified human brain had been sent far, far away. The floor of the connecting compartment was buried deep in red-jacketed crewmen, frozen into a treacherous lumpy aggregate. Up ahead were two more huge doors. "Let's check these out." They clambered over, each to a door.
"This is a lock, and it's working. But the compartment beyond has been spaced," declared Coelus.
Warren looked at his own door panel. The panel was shattered, a spacer's multitool jammed around back and into the workings. "This one is jammed." He frowned. "From this side."
Warren took a step back, trying to ignore stepping on limbs, hands and icy torsos. His spacer's mind was racing. "This wall..." he gestured at the wall with the two doors, "... is part of the old ship. The Majesty was a state-of-the-art space liner. She was the first to have a parallel structure which was a selling point, the redundancy in case of an accident." He frowned again. "When the rebels retrofitted her and added the spacebay, they destroyed that redundancy at midships by adapting the two locks into the single big one behind us."
Warren gestured around him. "If I was going to hijack this ship, this transition compartment from old to new makes a perfect trap." He pointed at the jammed door. "Someone, or something, herded the crew out of the redundant for'ard crew compartment after the first one was spaced, probably because of battle damage. Then they turned off the environment controls and froze them all to death." Warren shook his head and was silent.
Coelus grunted. "We should proceed in stages. I will navigate the spaced compartment and override the jammed door from the for'ard junction, giving you safe access."
"I love it." Warren shivered.
"If you are correct... be prepared for when that door opens."
To be continued...