Grinder’s Switch – Happy Halloween From the Far Rim
The following story was overheard in a tavern on Grinder's
Switch. Neither Jedediah Stuart nor the ComStar personnel involved could be
located for corroboration. But the PAO for the Explorer Corps states that the ComStar
vessel mentioned did lose several crewmen while boarding "a pirate jumpship"
in the Far Rim. The disappearance of the SLS Western Sun while on a
colonial supply run is also a matter of historical record. Readers may draw
what conclusions they will.
Klaxons sounded, lights flashed, and the crew of the Magellan-class jumpship, ComStar's Amerigo Vespucci, scrambled for their jump stations. Once everyone was reported in position, the ship jumped. One small step for the Explorer Corps...
...one giant step for Jebediah "Jeb" Stuart, the native Switcher on board. He was the local guide for this mission, a navigator from an old trading family that had been working the Far Rim for centuries. He was long used to the effects of jumps and zero-G, and was out of his seat as soon as the all clear sounded. His radio beeped, a summons from the bridge, and he moved quickly through the passages.
Waiting for him was the captain, Demi-Precentor Ellis. Jeb knew something was wrong the instant he entered the bridge, because even the good-natured captain's eyes were grim. Everyone was looking outside, and Jeb followed their gaze with his own.
What he saw sent a chill down his spine. Drifting near the jump point, silhouetted against the dim red of the system's ancient primary, was another jumpship, a Merchant by its lines. Its age was shown by the tattered sail that was still cast to the solar wind by its remaining lines, and the general wear and corrosion of its hull. Hatches were open in places, and other spots showed damage, from meteor strikes or other sources. One dropship ring was empty, the other still held an ancient spheroid vessel...a Mule, if he had to guess.
Jeb shuddered. He had seen such ships before, and had heard many stories of others like it, drifting derelicts scattered throughout the Far Rim's haunted reaches. Or perhaps, not drifting...
The captain looked at him. "How old do you think she is?"
Jeb hesitated a moment before answering. "Who knows, cap'n? This here system probably ain't been really explored since Star League days, if it ever was even then. It's on the map'n that's about it. We stops here sometimes ta recharge, but I ain't never heard no tell of a wreck here." Jeb tried not to let how much he was bothered show.
"Well, it can't be THAT old," the ComStar navigator interrupted, "because I'm still getting a K-F sig off her. The sail...or what's left of it...is still deployed, so maybe it's feeding power to the drive."
Jeb shuddered again. The captain looked at the nav. "Is that a problem?"
"Not until we try to jump out of here. Drive interference. It MIGHT be too close, it might not."
The captain considered. "Well, we'll have to board her and shut the drive down, then. Who knows, maybe she's salvageable..."
"NO!" Jeb burst out, then looked embarassed. "Sorry, cap'n. Just when we Switchers find these ships, we usually either wreck'em, or leave'em be if we can't. It's somethin' we larnt the hard way."
The captain looked at the Switcher. "What do you mean, the hard way?"
Jeb took a deep breath. "Sometimes these ships got...dangerous things on 'em. They don't wind up like this by themselves." Then he said in a lower voice, so low that it wasn't wholly caught, "They don't turn up in systems where they ain't no wrecks by themselves, either."
"What kind of dangerous things?"
Jeb bit his lip, then just shrugged. "Diseases. Radiation. Stuff gone wrong. Sometimes more wrong what we unnerstand." He took a deep breath, looking at the ancient wreck. "We Switchers been livin' out here longer than yer Star League was even thought about. This here's a bad part a'space to get lost in, to get wrecked in. Stuff goes wrong out here, stuff happens'n there ain't no one around ta know..."
The navigator chuckled. "Are you saying this ship is haunted?"
Jeb looked him right in the eyes. There was an emphasis to his statement that made even the confident ComStar officer's eyebrows raise. "More likely than not."
There was a pause, then a ripple of murmurs and chuckles among the bridge crew. The captain silenced it with a gesture, then spoke without taking his eyes off Jeb. "Prepare a boarding team. We'll send a shuttle over."
Jeb looked at the captain in momentary fright, then just sagged his shoulders. "Never mind," he said. "Guess y'all got ta see fer yerself."
The rest of the crew hustled to the captain's orders, a squad of marines and a few prize crew members suiting up. But the captain watched Jeb as he slowly took a seat on the bridge, watching the old ghost ship and quietly mumbling to himself. For a moment, he considered recalling his men. Then he shook himself, and simply started giving orders for the launch of the shuttle.
"Docking in five, four, three..."
There was a CLANK and a CRASH as the shuttle banged lightly against the old jumpship's hull near an open hatch. The marines led the way, exiting the shuttle in their vacc suits, laser rifles at the ready, helmet lights shining. They entered the old ship through the open hatch...an open airlock, blown open by the looks of it, almost like an explosion had actually gone off inside it.
"All clear," the MARDET leader radioed over. "Ship's power is out except for residual from the sail. No pressure, no life support. Looks like this thing got hammered and depressurized. Funny for the charging circuit to still be working." He looked to his men. "Spread out and look around. We need to shut the K-F drive down."
The other marines nodded, and one of them grabbed the handle of the hatch leading forward. It took several hard jerks and a shot from a laser rifle to break it loose. The first man stepped into the dark passage, raised his head, and screamed at what his helmet bumped against.
It was a man. Or rather, had been, before whatever had ravaged this vessel had its way. Dead eyes, mummified in the cold, dry vacuum, stared out of the drifting Star League era spacesuit.
"What was that?" The captain radioed over. He had heard the scream over the open channel."
"Nothing," the MARDET leader radioed back, his face taut. "We found one of the crew is all."
Gently, the marines pushed the corpse aside. "We'll probably find more of them," the sergeant told his men. "Just keep your heads on straight, and we'll get this done and out of here." They split into two groups, one heading forward, and the other aft.
Neither group, as they advanced into the darkness of the dead ship, noticed the drifting corpse behind them slowly turning, as if looking after them.
Aboard the Vespucci, Jeb was fidgeting nervously. The captain noticed his demeanor, and was concerned. He went over and sat next to him, keeping his tone of voice private. "What do you think happened?"
Jeb looked at him. "I don't know," he said, and cringed as he heard the marines talking on the open channel, finding more bodies, working their respective ways into the bridge and engineering section. "We find these ships wrecked all sortsa ways. Some seem just like new til ya get on board. Others're like this. Crews dead or missing, usually. That gets really odd when there ain't no lifeboats missing with'em." He shrugged, looked at the ship, and shivered. "It's ugly when a ship wrecks. The lucky ones die quick. Some guys survive a while, til they suffocate or starve or die of thirst. Some guys kill themselves before they get that far, shoot themselves or cut their suits open or depressurize the ship."
The captain nodded. A veteran space travler himself, he was well familiar with the horrors of a deep space shipwreck. There were no desert islands out here, and damned little chance for help. There was only you, and how long your air and supplies would last before someone found you. If you were ever found.
"But that ain't the worst." The captain looked at Jeb, who looked at him very seriously. "There's stories out here, stories older'n the Rim Worlds, 'bout ships like this," he gestured to the floating wreck," lost ships with dead crews, still wanderin' the space lanes."
"Vespucci, listen up." It was the MARDET sergeant. "I'm on the bridge, and this is really creeping me out. There's dead crewmen still in position, and at least some of the equipment still has power. I'm looking at the ship's log, Captain...this is...was...the SLS Western Sun. Merchantman bound outward for colonial support, according to the orders. That fits with what we know about there being old colonies out here."
Jeb nodded to the Captain. "Yep. Even before the Rim Worlds, people were movin' out here. And once the Star League fell..."
"Sir, I just found the entry for what happened. They were charging up when a meteor storm plastered them...that's weird. The system name given doesn't match up." The captain looked hard at Jeb, who was frozen in place. "Looks like most of the crew was killed, and the rest...the log keeps going until...until..."
Jeb started at the way the hardened marine's voice cracked. The captain jumped from his seat as the sergeant was shouting orders for his men to get off the ship. There was scrambling, screaming, the sounds of combat and panic fear coming over the radio. The captain looked at Jeb, who had sagged in his seat. The Switcher almost nonchalantly looked at his watch.
"It's after 1200," he said matter of factly. "The last log entry would have been today at noon."
The captain stared at Jeb in disbelief as the chaos on the radio continued. The look on the Switcher's haggard face was indescribably calm, the calm of a man who had seen everything. He smiled weakly. "Told ya so."
The captain looked at his gunners. "Target that vessel and fire at will."
The horrified bridge crew hesitated, mesmerized by the terrible sounds over the radio. There was a bang, and a scream of both human voice and depressurizing air. Then the Vespucci's guns thundered; to kill the men aboard the haunted vessel would be mercy. Lasers and missiles savaged the ancient hull, taking awful seconds to do their work. And as they finally, critically broke through, the broadband flickered for one brief instant...two words, in a voice from beyond the grave.
And then the SLS Western Sun was gone, blown apart in a silent fireball.