Jonah, Worth, Tulsa and Akane busied themselves with their load-outs for the salvage operation as YJ brought Shenmue into docking range with the stricken vessel. Linking up airlocks was going to require some tricky maneuvering, but Johnson was more than up to the task.
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew suited up in the special rescue suits provided by Carver, who inspected each one of them. He noticed that the crew had armed themselves, and told them to be cautious, as the chemical oxygen emitter was basically a large tank of unstable lithium perchlorate, to say nothing of the compressed hydrogen fuel in the mobile reserve tank he had brought along in case the Breaker Morant had simply run out of gas.
Docking belly to belly with the larger Dragonfly transport mean that everything going into Shenmue’s airlock was going to have to be rotated vertically before exiting Breaker Morant’s airlock and entering the bulk freighter’s cargo bay – a tricky proposition considering the bulky dimensions of much of the salvage gear. However that’s what Carver’s brutal training regimen had been preparing the crew for, so there were few complaints.
From his position in the command pod, Carver performed a series of checks of the audio-video units mounted on the crew’s helmets. Satisfied, he gave the crew his blessing to begin their work. They marched into the airlock, and the heavy doors sealed behind them. Johnson, perched on Shenmue’s bridge, manipulated the airlock’s artificial gravity and soon the crew were lazily somersaulting from floor to ceiling. Then he triggered the lock’s opening mechanism.
The hatch opened into darkness. Their suits’ built-in temperature sensors told them that the cargo bay was as cold as a walk-in deep freezer. Their headlamps illuminated a level fog of carbon dioxide at knee-level. Escaping atmo from Shenmue’s airlock carved eddies through the mist. The suits’ chem-analyzers detected barely breathable amounts of oxygen, but dangerous levels of both carbon dioxide and halon.
Carver’s voice was static in the crew’s ears. “The firefighting systems must be malfunctioning, so you’d better watch your step. A direct hit from the fire suppression emitters will freeze you to the core, or suck all the breathable air out of your lungs if your suit loses integrity. Keep your suits on until we can get the power back up.”
“No kidding,” Jonah said as he moved into the dark cavern that was Breaker Morant’s cargo bay. The rest of the crew followed behind him.
“I don’t know why we don’t just pull the Oh-Two and make sure there ain’t anyone waiting to bushwhack us,” Worth grumbled.
“Right,” Akane said. “That’s a great way to make sure there are survivors on board.”
“I’m just sayin,” Worth countered as he flicked on his headlamp.
“Okay, fan out everyone. Let’s secure Mr. Carver’s cargo and then see what’s got this ship so messed up.” Jonah said.
Jonah and the Doc started to search the cavernous cargo bay while Worth and Akane took the nearest stairs to the upper deck to check on the status of the ship’s engines.
The cargo bay was much larger than Shenmue’s, though it followed roughly the same floor plan. Elevated cargo platforms were linked by catwalks and stairs to the upper deck, and here and there were stacked innocuous pallets of crates, partially obscured by the knee-high fog.
The Doc shouted in surprise as he tripped over something in the darkness.
Akane and Worth climbed to the second deck, which was just as blacked out as the first. According to the ship’s layout the engine compartments were aft of their position, but they would have to cut through the ship’s galley and common area to get there. Their passage was blocked by a sealed emergency hatch. Akane studied the lock on the hatch, then motioned for Worth to cover her as she went to work on it.
She forced the hatch open and got a metallic shriek for her trouble. She steadied her headlamp and let its light cut through the gloom of the common area. Everywhere she shone her lamp she could see signs of humanity interrupted. Plates of food on the galley tables, a spilled bottle of wine, a chair lying on its back on the deck. A snatch of an old poem drifted through her head:
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table spread
For dinner, meat, and cheese and bread;
But, all untouched; and no-one there,
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come, and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat,
For at the table head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.
Then both she and Worth heard a quiet clicking sound coming from somewhere inside the room.
Picking himself up off the deck, the Doc turned to shine his light on whatever it was that he tripped over.
“Let me guess,” Jonah said, swinging his helmet lamp around. “Dead guy?”
“Dead guy,” Doc Tulsa confirmed. He was standing astride the prone corpse of a man in his early 40s or so, wearing a worn greatcoat of the kind favoured by Alliance officers, though all rank insignias had been removed. The dark blue of the coat was stained almost maroon with dried blood, the source of which was a ragged gash in the man’s neck. The doctor’s keen eyes told him that the carotid artery had been severed, and that death by exsanguination had quickly followed. He checked the corpse’s face against the crew manifest provided by Carver and surmised that the body belonged to that of the captain of the Breaker Morant.
“Are you seeing this, Carver?” he said as he checked the body for other wounds.
“Yes. Please take a closer look at the wound for a moment, would you?” Carver asked.
“Well, it looks like this guy didn’t die of natural causes,” Jonah said to no one in particular. “How long’s he been lying there?"
“Difficult to say,” murmured the doctor. “This cargo hold’s colder than a refrigerator, but I’d guess he’s been in this state for several days.”
“Terrific.” Jonah said. “So what, was he cut on, or stabbed?”
The Doc studied the large wound on the man’s neck. Something didn’t seem right about it.
One deck above the impromptu autopsy, Worth and Akane stopped in their tracks as they heard the clicking sound from somewhere inside the galley. “You hear that?” Akane whispered.
“Yep,” Worth said.
The two swept their helmet lamps from side to side, illuminating various slices of the darkened common area before their beams hit on the same point. They saw a woman seated at one of the galley tables, her back to them. The woman’s long dark hair was a constrast to the white skin of her bare back.
Akane and Worth traded a glance and then as silently as they could began to flank the seated stranger, coming up on either side. In the uneven light from their headlamps they could see that the woman was playing a solitary game of Go, and the clicking sound was coming from her long fingernails as they listlessly moved black and white beads around one another on the board. Next to the game board, partially obscured by a pile of playing pieces, was a long-bladed kitchen knife that reflected the light from the pair’s lamps.
Akane flipped on the external helmet speaker. “Miss, are you okay? We’re here to help.”
The woman stopped moving the game and turned to look at Akane through a veil of matted black hair. Then she screamed, long and loud.
In the cargo hold, the sudden scream echoed and the Doc dropped the body bag he was busy unfurling. “The hell?” Jonah said as he took off towards the nearest staircase.
In the galley, the screaming continued as the woman leapt to her feet. Akane took a step back involuntarily. “Please, ma’am, calm down, we’re here to help.” The wild-eyed woman shied away from the bright light, still screaming hysterically, then in an instant launched herself at Akane, hands flailing against her helmet’s faceplate.
“Whoa, catfight!” Worth said.
Akane tried to get a read on her assailant – was she screaming in fear or rage? Her question was answered when the woman balled up her fest and punched Akane with enough force to knock the wind from her lungs. Then Akane’s training took over and she grappled with the crazed woman, trying to wrestle her to the floor.
Worth grinned, but then recognized the animal ferocity of the woman’s attacks. He struck at her with the butt of his pistol, but she didn’t even flinch. Then she and Akane were tangled on the floor, and she was still screaming, clawing at Akane’s helmet faceplate.
“Gorram it, calm down!” Akane pleaded as she got the girl into a half-nelson, trying to subdue her. The woman was incredibly strong, however, and wriggled out of Akane’s clutches.
Jonah and the Doc breathlessly entered the common area to find Akane wrestling with an obviously crazy person while Worth stood flat-footed, mouth agape. Jonah wasted no time, tackling the woman at the knees while yelling, “Doc, dope her for god’s sake!”
Jonah tried to pin the hysterical woman to the deck while the Doc rummaged through his kit for some tranquilizers. “Please tell me you haven’t used them all up!” he shouted through gritted teeth as he began to lose his grip on the sinuous stranger. Then the doc was straddling them both, jabbing a hypo-derm into the woman’s shoulder. “That ought to do it,” the Doc said as the woman snarled at him.
Incredibly, Jonah felt the woman fighting back, and in an instant he was shoved off, landing next to Akane, who was backing up while cursing in Japanese.
“You’d better up the dose, doc!” as he grappled with the woman, who showed no sign of slowing down. As the doc found another trank and stabbed it home, the woman screamed again and threw Jonah aside, leaping on top of the galley table, scattering the Go gameboard and dozens of black and white pieces aside. As she got to her feet, the crew saw the kitchen knife clasped in her hands.
“Hell with this!” Worth shouted, and aimed his pistol at the table leg, hoping to throw the woman off balance. The shot knocked the leg loose, but the woman, lithe like a dancer, jumped to the deck and slashed her knife at the Doc, cutting his rescue suit and opening a gash on his shoulder.
“Ta ma duh!” Worth raised his pistol and shot at the woman’s leg. The bullet struck home with a wet thud, but didn’t faze the knife-wielder, who continued to slash at the retreating doctor.
Akane’s pistol was now up and tracking, and she fired a shot at the woman’s other leg in an attempt to slow her down. It too found its mark, punching a ragged exit hole out of the back of the woman’s thigh, but again, she didn’t flinch, even as bright-red blood cascaded down to pool on the deck plates.
“The drugs should have kicked in by now!” shouted the Doc as he staunched the flow of blood from his arm as best he could.
As the woman raised the knife to stab at the Doc yet again, Akane fired another round, this time at the attacker’s chest. The sound of the round striking was louder than the report of Akane’s pistol. The woman staggered back, dropping the knife. Her screams took on a wet, gargling tone as her legs finally gave out and she collapsed into a bloody heap on the floor.
Silence descended as the four would-be rescuers stood there trying to process what had just happened. Then Carver’s static-laden voice cut through the gloom.
“Um, did you guys just kill a member of the crew I hired you to rescue?”
Carver’s comment galvanized the Doc into action. Ignoring his own knife wound, which he figured was going to require several stitches, he immediately grabbed his first aid kit and rushed to the prone woman’s side in an attempt to stabilize her.
Taking the hint, Jonah ran back to the cargo bay to retrieve the stretcher. “Look at it this way doc, you only have to remove one bullet instead of three,” he said, referencing Akane’s unique choice of ammo.
Akane found the crew manifest in a pocket of the Doc’s medical kit and pulled it out, shining the headlamp into the unconscious woman’s face as the Tulsa dealt with the sucking chest wound. “She’s not a crew member or a registered passenger,” Akane said. “Her image capture’s not on the list.”
“Say again?” Carver asked.
“Whoever this crazy is, she’s not part of the ship’s crew. She’s not supposed to be here at all!” Akane said.
Jonah helped the Doc lift the woman, who now looked a lot less threatening, onto the stretcher. “I need to get her to the infimary if she’s going to have a shot at living,” the Doc said.
“Just get her lucid long enough to answer some questions,” Jonah said.
“I told you, we should have pulled the atmo just to be on the safe side!” Worth said.
“Shut up,” Jonah said as he helped the Doc wheel the stretcher out of the galley, wrestling it onto the catwalks and stairs down into the cargo bay.
As they were pushing the stretcher across the fog-laden deckplates, Jonah thought he heard a hissing sound at his boots. He shouted a warning and dove to the side as a sudden explosion of fire suppression gas erupted from below, knocking the stretcher aside.
“Watch your step,” Akane said as the two picked themselves up off the deck and righted the stretcher.
“Thanks,” Jonah said sarcastically.