As always, comments/recommendations appreciated. This one is still being driven by the muse, so I have no idea where it is going… Sigh…
Danny groaned and raised his head enough to puke yet again, pulled a bottle of electrolyte to his lips and squeezed it, getting only a few drops. He flopped back on the couch and heard a rattling noise. Rolling his head to the side he saw Gronk, now an interesting shade of green, with all four arms trailing on the deck. Its chest rose, and the rattling noise happened again.
Hoping against hope, he said, “Estrella?” She didn’t answer and he continued, “AI, talk to me. Location?”
A dull male voice answered, “Unknown location.”
“Shit,” he mumbled to himself then rolled off the couch with a groan and staggered to the safe. Extracting the cube Mapper had given him, he staggered back to the couch and inserted it. “AI, plot location based on cube data.”
Moments later, the holo changed and rippled into the same presentation he’d seen the last time he was here. “Hold current position if safe.”
“Action initiated.” He felt the bumps of thrusters stopping the motion of the ship and winced.
He punched the PA on, cleared his throat and said, “All stations report.”
Efrot was the first to report. “Captain, power is nominal. Momentary loss of power at penetration. Lost AI connection at the same time. AI is not answering commands.”
Dammit! “AI, five, no, six crew aboard. Monitor vitals, respond to commands.” He keyed the PA again. “Understood Efrot, AI is… in a reduced status. It should respond to you now. Anyone else?” He saw status monitors pop in on a side panel, with only he and Efrot green. Zukie was a dark orange, Adrion was a yellowish green, as was Gronk, but Olafson was a pulsing red. “Efrot can you check on Zuckie, please? And I may need help with Olafson.” Getting up, he said, “AI, autonomous mode. Steer one-six-zero, plus zero-niner-three. Limit accel to three G. Pilot is off couch. Intercom if response is needed.”
“One-six-zero, positive zero-niner-three, three G acceleration. Start time and duration?”
Danny sighed, “Start immediately, end point ten thousand miles from anomalies.”
He swayed as the ship apparently went immediately to 3Gs of acceleration, and snapped to the new course, stressing the inertial grav plates. He limped slowly toward Olafson’s cabin, then said, “AI, status of medbox?”
The flat voice replied, “Nominal.”
Better safe than sorry, “Prep medbox for crewman Olafson.”
“No data on file,” was the flat reply.
Danny scowled angrily. “Prep for human male, five feet nine inches, one hundred sixty pounds. Age… forty-eight standard years. No known allergies. No implants.” Danny activated the hatch and stepped in, seeing Olafson strapped into the bunk, with blood stains on the pillow, his face, and his ear. He looked up at the ceiling. “AI, activate PA, grav sled to my location.”
The AI responded, “No grav sleds available. No inventory conducted.”
He heard a rusty sounding voice answer over the PA, “Where… are you, Captain?”
“On the way.” Danny finally realized that was Adrion’s voice and wondered how he’d come back to consciousness so quickly. Two segs later, Adrion pushed the grav sled through the cabin door, looked at Olafson and winced. “That ain’t good, Cap’n.”
Danny nodded. “Let’s get him on the grav sled and into the medbox, maybe it can sort him out.” They struggled to move Olafson’s dead weight onto the grav sled and finally got it done, then moved as quickly as they could to the medical area. Another struggle ensued getting him from the sled into the medbox, but Danny was finally able to close the medbox lid and punch the activation sequence.
It cycled through its various diagnostic routines, then the lid cleared again. Danny and Adrion saw that Olafson was now, for lack of a better term, wired for sound, with probes in his temple, and what looked like IVs running into both arms. Danny said, “Patent status?”
The AI replied, “Patient is comatose. Med is not capable of repair. Recommendation is stasis until superior medical treatment is available.”
Adrion looked at Danny in wonder. “What the hell? I thought this was a class one medbox?”
“It is… well, was under Estrella. Now, I… don’t know. Apparently it’s as dumb as the AI is.” He looked up at the camera. “Authorize stasis until patient can be returned to port. AI confirm.”
The lid went opaque again and the AI said, “Beginning stasis.”
“PA.” He waited and then said, “Efrot, status on Zuckie?”
Zuckie answered testily, “I’m alive. That shit was not fun. What’s going on with Olafson?”
Danny shrugged. “Not sure. Something… let go in his head? Maybe? He was bleeding out of his ears and nose.”
Adrion asked, “What do you want to do about Moose and Squirrel?”
“Fuck. Launch them. And drop a recorder with them. Static position on the recorder, stealth mode.”
“Did you decide on duration?”
Danny shook his head in frustration then winced. “Screw it. Sixty days. Spiral search.”
Adrion reared back. “Sixty? We’re not—”
“No, we’re not staying sixty days. I’ll come back and get them. Hell, I can’t afford to pay for them.”
Adrion chuckled. “No, you can’t. I’ll punch them now.” He left medical and headed for his station, as Danny took one last look at the medbox, then walked out shaking his head.
Four divs later, the remaining crew met in the mess. Gronk was, to put it mildly, extremely grumpy, and not yet back to its normal pinkish color. It’d rounded on Danny as soon as he came into the mess. “Gronk no like. AI is dead. What is running ship?”
Danny held up a hand. “Let me explain.”
“What is to explain? Ship dead.”
“No Gronk. The ship is not dead… there is… a basic AI running. It’s got a map of the galaxy here, at least as far as light sources and anomalies—”
“Not possible. Gronk knows only one AI can be installed.”
Danny said pleadingly, “Let me finish. This ship is… different. Essie, Estrella doesn’t work in this galaxy. This happened the last time I was here too. This… AI… is the ship for now. It works for basic functions, and I—”
Gronk interrupted, “How we get back? If AI no program.”
Danny finally lost his temper and snarled, “Because I programmed the fucking autopilot which is not connected to the fucking AI. It got me back, and somewhere in that clusterfuck, Estrella came back to life, okay? I told you this was not going to be fun. Now we are… about twelve divs out from a shit pile of dead ships. You wanted salvage, go do your damnest. And get dataplate or name info on anything you find. We owe it to those who never left here.” He turned and stomped out, headed aft, and broke out his two bots, checking them end to end and making sure they were fully charged. Once that was done, he went to the mess, dialed up a meal, ate it, and went to the bridge.
Settling in the couch, he said, “Captain is on the bridge.”
The AI’s flat voice replied, “Captain on the bridge. Captain has the helm.”
Danny stared at the holo, mentally discarding various approaches, and finally settled on one that parked Ghost roughly halfway between the ship he wanted and the pack of wrecked ships. It was way too tight, not even close to legal, with a questionable AI, but it kept his crew from doing something stupid, he hoped. Three divs later, he dropped into an exhausted sleep, only to awaken when the AI roughly stopped the Ghost at the specified location. Danny eased the ship into the parking location he’d decided on, carefully maneuvering to miss the extraneous bits of debris that floated out in an expanding cloud from the mass of ships.
He keyed the PA, “I’ve parked Ghost halfway between the ship I’m interested in and the stack. If you’re going to salvage, hard suits only. I don’t want to lose anyone to a puncture since I’m not sure we could rescue you in time, and the medbox is already in use. Standard protocols, if anybody had a malfunction and goes dutchman, activate your pinger immediately. If you have an emergency, call the emergency, then activate your pinger. I will remain aboard but operating a bot remotely.” He clicked the PA off, got up and said, “Captain is off the bridge. Maintain position.”
Danny went back to his cabin, hit the fresher, and climbed into his haptic suit with a groan. Carrying the gloves, he went aft to the bots, unplugged Mini-me, and walked it through the airlock hatch after he checked the functional connection to his haptics. He closed the hatch, cycled the airlock, and commanded the outer hatch open.
Going back to the bridge, he slumped back into the couch, put Mini-me’s camera on the vision plate, activated the haptics, and sent Mini-me on the way toward the Helios. Gotta get pictures for Mapper. Guess I can do a fly around and then go after whatever that rig was I saw on the bridge. He activated both the cameras on the bot, and did a slow fly in, then flew around the ship twice, once high, and once low. Satisfied that he’d gotten enough pictures for Mapper, he sent the bot through the hatch that he’d discovered before, then all the way back through the ship to the bridge. This time he located the body, trained the cameras on it, and got pictures for Mapper.
Then he turned the bot, maneuvered it to the nav table. Sure enough, there was another one of those rectangles drifting in the vacuum, tethered to a larger box shape on the nav table. He moved the bot around to get a different angle and saw that the larger box was also connected to some things with more cords. Danny started to shake his head in frustration, and stopped quickly, cursing under his breath.
Meticulously moving the manipulator arm, he tugged on first one cord, then the other. The second cord came loose, and Danny thought it was probably a power cord. Letting it go, he tugged on the first cord again, and it didn’t move. He reoriented the bot and saw that the cord went into a junction box, so he clipped it with the manipulator. He pulled then pushed the larger box and saw it move slightly, so he slipped the manipulator under it and pried up. The box came free of the table and started drifting off and he had to move the manipulator arm quickly to catch it by the cords. He reeled in the data cube as he thought of it, and stuffed it in the collection sack, but the larger box wouldn’t fit. He finally came up with a way to secure it with the manipulator arm itself against the body of the bot.
After almost a div of cautious maneuvering, and multiple corrections due to the increased weight, Mini-me was back in the airlock on the Ghost and he was exhausted. He shut down the haptics, and hobbled back to his cabin, stripped off the suit and stepped into the fresher. Ten segs later, he felt good enough to go retrieve the bot, the box, and the cube. He walked the bot over and plugged it in, noting that he’d used 75% of its battery during that evolution. He picked the box and cube up, then scooped up the cords and carried all of it back to his cabin.
He went to the mess and ate, then went back to the bridge and brought up the holo, plugging in the locator beacons for each crewman. Efrot and Zuckie were apparently on a ship near the back of the pack of wrecks, Adrion was up near the front of the pack, and Gronk’s locator was intermittent, in the middle of the ships, Wonder what they’re after? He yawned, stretched, and sat up slowly. Damn, I’m on here by myself with Olafson, who’s damn near dead. How long have they been gone? He looked up at the ship’s clock and was surprised to see that five divs had passed since he released everyone. They gotta be getting low on air and power.
Keying the comm to Zuckie’s discrete channel, he asked, “Status?”
A distracted voice came back, “Uh, twenty percent left. Are those big bays in the starboard hull open?”
“We’ve found two MK-Thirteen hyper drives over here that are in decent shape, and we can cut them loose without too much trouble.”
“MK-Thirteens? What ship?”
“Dunno. Front and mid-ship are pretty much crushed. Looks like it dumped through the gate and right into the pile with enough speed that they were hulled immediately. Efrot thinks both units went into auto shutdown before they failed, based on his examination. If he’s right, that’s forty-mil worth of credits right there!”
Danny whistled to himself, then asked, “Are you pulling the shielding?”
“Hang on.” The comm clicked, then clicked again a seg later. “Not unless we have to. Can we tractor them outside?”
Danny said, “Standby.” He punched up ship status, and said, “AI, status on tractor beam system.”
The AI replied, “Centerline tractor system operable. Nine-seven point six-eight percent capable.”
Danny switched back to the comm channel, “Centerline tractor is up. Don’t know how much weight it can stand, or if that stuff will stay tractored as we go through the various rifts.”
Zuckie sighed. “Roger. We’re on the way back, need a break and some more tools and cutters.”
Switching to the telescopic view screen, he tried to figure out where Adrion and Gronk were, then slewed the telescope back, centering on an odd looking protrusion sticking out of the mass, That looks like… a turret? Somebody lost a warship over here? Zooming in even further, he carefully maneuvered the scope, tracing the lines he could see. It’s old. Maybe a hundred years. I think… I think that’s a damn destroyer sized ship in there! He leaned back in the couch, zoomed out and continued panning, then focused on a ship near the back of the mass. The front half of the ship was compressed into the mass, but the aft appeared to be fairly undamaged and he looked at the lines, Huh, unless I miss my guess, that’s a Trader ship or at least a Trader design. I wonder how the hell they got here? If that is Traders, there is probably some gold onboard.
He went aft and fired up the second bot, checked the haptics, and walked it into the airlock, then headed back to the bridge. He activated the haptics, launching it toward that Trader ship. Thirty segs later, he found an open airlock and eased through it, checked that there was no pressure on the other side of the lock, and activated the emergency handle. It swung open and he eased the bot into the ship. Moving slowly forward, he saw a couple of desiccated human corpses, then saw a bigger corpse. Thinking of Gronk, he counted the arms, and it only had two. He touched it carefully, and almost recoiled when it spun and he realized was looking at dead Dragoon.
After he calmed down, he looked more closely at the area of the ship he was in, and determined it was cabins. There was one hatch open near the corpse, and he moved the bot gingerly through that hatch. It was a cabin, apparently for the Dragoon, as the bunk was oversized, along with everything else in the cabin. He saw a desk, and above it, a panel that was open. Easing over to it, he used the manipulator arm to pull the panel open. There were four bars of metal glinting dully in the bot’s lights, and he inhaled sharply, causing the bot to jump a bit, Gold, it’s fucking gold! That’s a million eight hundred thousand credits sitting there! He used the manipulator to pull the four bars out and slide them into the catch bag on the front of the bot, then maneuvered it out of the cabin, trying each of the hatches on either side of the passageway. Of the eight hatches, five opened, and two more had Dragoon corpses in them.
Once inside, he went confidently to the panel above the desk, but it was closed. The manipulator didn’t have the leverage and he couldn’t pry it open, frustrating him. Disgusted, he went to the second hatch, entered that cabin, and saw the panel was partially open. Trying not to rush, he moved the bot smoothly to the panel, opened it, and saw seven more bars gleaming in the lights. He started to pull them out, then stopped, Weight. I’ve already got four bars, a little over a hundred pounds. I can’t put much, if any more, on this bot. It can’t handle the weight. I… screw it, I’ll get the bot back, and go over myself.
Having made the decision, he backed the bot out of the cabin and maneuvered it carefully back to the airlock where it had entered. Getting it back to the Ghost was an exercise in frustration, as the extra weight kept throwing the trajectory off, and by the time he had the bot in the airlock, he was drenched in sweat, physically wrung out, and angry with himself. He shut down the haptics then headed aft again. Stepping into the mess, he saw Zuckie and Efrot, heads down over some kind of diagnostics or wiring diagram on Zuckie’s data comp. “What are you planning?”
Zuckie looked up in annoyance. “Trying to figure out how to get those drives loose and get them close enough to tractor them in. I was thinking of mass drivers, but there aren’t any aboard large enough to do the job. The two small ones might get the job done, but they’d have to be refurbed before we could use them again.”
He glanced at Efrot. “Are they worth the trouble?”
Efrot nodded solemnly and his GalTrans spit out, “They are not new, but in very good shape. The internals can be used on newer hyper drives, so worth lot of credits.”
Zuckie said, “Didn’t get the name off the ship, or a data plate, but we should be able to track it once we get the drives, as they are tracked items. You have any luck?”
Danny chuckled. “Oh yes. Good luck.” He punched the autochef for an electrolyte drink and continued, “I’ll be back in a few with some of that luck.” He picked up the bulb, took a deep drink, and continued aft leaving Zuckie and Efrot looking at each other. He got the bot through the airlock, walked it to the charging station and shut it down, then lifted the four bars out of the pouch. They felt almost greasy to his touch, and while he couldn’t read the stamping, he was confident these were the real deal, just based on their weight. After a couple of trys, he managed to get them all in his grip, and started back forward.
Adrion intercepted him in the passageway asking, “Is that what I think it is?”
“If you’re thinking gold, yes.”
Adrion’s eyes got big and he whistled. “That is a nice find! Bout two mil worth of credits that you can hold in your hand. Need me to carry a couple of them?”
Danny gratefully handed over two of them, then led the way to the mess. Zuckie and Efrot were still huddled over the data comp, and he slipped one of the bars next to the data comp without saying anything. Zuckie bit off what he was saying in mid-sentence, reverently rubbed the bar and said, “Yes, good luck!”
Efrot asked curiously, “Can it be handled? The little bit of gold we recover is so radioactive it cannot be touched.”
Danny stared at the overhead, then cussed, “Shit. We’ve got to go back through radiation to get home. I’m not sure… Dammit. Unless we can protect the gold, it’s not going to be worth shit.”
Adrion and Zuckie, almost simultaneously said, “We can figure something out.”
Gronk stomped into the mess interrupting them with a string of curses and confronted Danny. “I find bodies of my kind. Two so far. We must take them home.”
Danny held up his palms out. “Okay. We’ll do what we need to do to get them back to the Station. Did you—”
“Gronk put bodies in, what you call, bags. I store them in cabin.”
“Uh, Gronk, what are you looking for?” Danny noticed that it was in a soft suit, minus the helmet. “I thought I said hard suits! Did you go out in a soft suit?”
“Gronk too big in hard suit. Gronk much better in soft suit.” Gronk dropped a pouch on the table and various things spilled out including what appeared to be charts. “Gronk finding navigation data. All ships I will check. Gronk will know more than any other of my kind.”
“If you don’t kill yourself first,” Danny muttered softly, then said, “Okay, everybody is down for eight divs. We don’t have to get everything done today. Eat, hit the fresher, and eight divs down.” Adrion started to say something and Danny reiterated, “Eight divs down. Period. We will go on duty shift tomorrow at zero eight. Watchbill will be posted when you get up.” He glared around at everyone, then picked the bars up and headed for his cabin. Once there, he shoved them in the small safe, stripped off the haptic suit, sniffed and shoved it in the cleaning unit. After a half hour in the fresher, he dragged himself back to the mess, ate a quick meal, and collapsed on his rack.