Campaign of the Month: January 2011

Honour Among Thieves

Death Ship Session One

A new arrival and the promise of work lures the crew into dangerous territory.

The crew of Shenmue spent the better part of three weeks out in the Black making their way from Regina to Beaumonde, ostensibly to meet with Sai McKittrick’s representative, Wes Ferris, but also to take advantage of a docking bay that had been reserved for their former ship, Ironmonger. There were still a few days left on the reservation, and with some bluffing Johnson was able to make it past port control to land on platform 124. The accommodations were better than the crew was used to – the docking platform was an enclosed hangar with an on-site machine shop and front office.

Worth set about scrounging up the spare parts necessary to repair the shredded hover mule, which had taken an impressive beating back on Beylix at the hands of a Unified Reclamation anti-poaching patrol.

Doc Tulsa, acting as the ship’s purser, reluctantly doled out the money necessary to take care of the hover mule’s repair and to pay for two months of deferred maintenance on the Firefly. The crew was flush from their recent dealings with the Hornsilver Mining Company, but even so, Ying had to strenuously suggest that Tulsa authorize a topping-up of the fuel cells.

Ever the procurement specialist, Jonah ensured the ship was stocked with next month’s expected medical supplies and other sundries, in between trips to the nearest watering holes that the Atoll Plaza had to offer.

Johnson used the docking berth’s public terminal to advertise the fact that Shenmue was open for business, hoping to pick up new work and passengers, if possible.

It was that hope for new work that led the crew to the office of Wesley Ferris, Esquire. The accountant’s office was located on the second floor of a mixed-use block of flats, above a bustling noodle restaurant in the thick of Beaumonde’s Atoll Plaza, a multicultural hub of activity that ringed the dockyards. The smell of dumplings and the steam from pot after pot of boiling vermicelli noodles followed them as they mounted the threadbare, carpeted stairs to the second floor of the narrow row unit that matched the address given to them by McKittrick. The door to his office looked thin enough to push holes through with their fingertips. On the door was a faded piece of stencil artwork that looked like a stylized Chinese abacus. Beyond the threshold they could hear a muted, polyrhythmic clicking sound. Next to the door was a grimy intercom speaker choked with dust bunnies.

YJ pulled the cuff of his dress shirt over his hand and made as if to stab the dirty red intercom button, but was stopped by a disembodied voice echoing down the hallway.

“Who is there, please?” Looking up they could see a tiny, but very well maintained dome camera fixing them with a cycloptic gaze.

“Mr. Johnson and company, here to see you as requested by Mr. McKittrick.” YJ replied.

“Ah yes,” the voice responded. “As they say, any client of Sai McKittrick is a client of mine. Do come in.” There was a deep thudding sound of a bolt unlocking and the door swung slowly inward. Instantly the crew realized that they were mistaken about the door’s strength – it was in fact a good seven inches thick, crafted from solid steel.

As they entered what was obviously a vault of some kind, the clicking sound grew much louder. Instantly the source of the cacophony was apparent: the walls of the narrow, long room were covered in abacuses, from floor to ceiling. The clicking sound was coming from hundreds of knurled wooden beads as they moved up and down the grooved metal rails they were impaled upon, seemingly of their own volition.

The room was otherwise uncluttered save for a wooden desk at the far end atop which sat a lamp shrouded in jade glass. The light from the lamp illuminated a flatscreen desk blotter, active with the day’s news and financial figures. The only other light in the room was from the neon sign outside the window advertising the busy noodle joint below.

Behind the desk sat a man with a shock of permed hair wearing a blue silk shirt and a set of thick-rimmed eyeglasses. He was engrossed in a prosaic Chinese newspaper, his fingers dark with ink, ignoring the more content-rich display atop his desk. As the crew approached, he looked up inquisitively, rising from his chair.

“Ah yes, you must be Mr. Johnson,” he said, offering his ink-stained hand to YJ. “And Messrs Evans and Tulsa, I presume?” He gave Jonah an appraising glance. “And you are…?”

“Ace McGavin,” Jonah offered along with his hand.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Ferris said as he folded the newspaper and placed it on the table. Without looking down, he adjusted the position of the paper ever so slightly once, and then a second time with the long, nimble fingers of his right hand. Seemingly satisfied, he beamed. “I’m Wesley Ferris, at your service.”

Johnson coughed. “Yes, well, we’re here to make a payment on the ship we bought from your boss.”

“Ah yes,” Ferris said. “Mr. McKittrick has sold you a Firefly class, standard midbulk transport, yes?” He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his narrow nose and walked to a point about halfway down the room, his right index finger tracing an invisible pattern as he muttered to himself.

He suddenly stopped, pointing to one of the abaci mounted on the wall. Then he reached out to the abacus at about chest height nearest him, and pulled. An entire section of wall detached and rolled out on castors, revealing dozens, if not hundreds, more abacuses recessed behind. He idly flipped past several, as if searching for a new suit on a discount clothing rack, before finding one that he seemed to recognize, pulling it out.

“Here we are,” he said cheerfully. “Now, Mr. McKittrick waived the first month’s payment in lieu of some service you were able to provide, correct? I believe you are in possession of a set of co-ordinates he would like me to hold onto.”

“That’s right,” Johnson said, handing over the memory tab. He nodded to Doc Tulsa. “Pay the man.” Tulsa handed over 700 square to the accountant, who accepted it with a smile.

“Perfect,” Ferris said. “In that case, gentlemen, your outstanding balance is 15,600, payable in monthly installments.” He knocked one of the beads up towards the separator bar and then deposited the abacus back amongst its brethren. Business concluded, he slid the rack back into the wall.

“It has been a pleasure doing business with you. Do feel free to drop by and make your payments in person, however I will also accept electronic transfers on Mr. McKittrick’s behalf, which can be made from any Allied Postal Service hub, or trade station, or so on. Should Mr. McKittrick require your services in the future in lieu of payment, I will of course be in touch.”

The heavy vault-like door swung open again behind them as Mr. Ferris returned to his newspaper. “I guess we’ve been dismissed,” Johnson muttered under his breath as the crew returned to the humidity of the hallway.

They made their way through the crowded city streets, mindful of the multitude of slick operators working the pedestrian masses to separate people from their hard-earned coin. “Time for us to earn some money of our own,” Johnson said. “Anyone got any ideas?”

Worth thought about suggesting a return to Beylix in order to exact revenge on those that done him wrong, but didn’t raise the point. Jonah, eyeing a nearby nightclub, said “Yeah I’ve got a couple of leads I’ve been working on. I’ll be back in a few.” Then he proceeded to the nearest drinking establishment and promptly got sozzled, his mind anywhere but on work.

The rest of the crew proceeded in the general direction of their docking bay, hands on their wallets the whole time.

Elsewhere in the Atoll Plaza, a young woman named Akane Arai was itching to leave Beaumonde behind. Industrialized worlds like this one were magnets for the kinds of trouble that a freelance weapons and security system designer could do without, to say nothing of what the dirtiness of the big city was doing to the laces of her expensive designer boots. Akane made her living on the move, and it was time to get a move on before one of her many competitors tried to put her out of business, permanently.

From her booth in a trendy karaoke bar she perused a list of the ships registered as currently in port. Accepting an iced coffee dismissively from a hopeful-looking waiter, her eyes narrowed as she saw the name Shenmue pop up on the booth’s terminal screen. She punched the ship’s stats up on screen and sighed. She disliked Firefly transports – they were usually crewed by boors, pirates or worse – bored idle rich types looking to slum it out on the Rim. She was about to pass it by in favour of a more reputable form of transport, then stopped, refreshing the page.

An old phrase from one of the great writers of 20th Century Earth-That-Was literature popped into her head, from wherever her brain had stashed it with the rest of her useless Core-world education: “if they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.” She smiled to herself, memorizing the docking bay number. And I am a very technical girl.

Around the time that Jonah stumbled back to the docking bay from the bar, minus a few platinum coins and with no job prospects to show for it, the crew was alerted to the presence of a visitor. The visitor proved to be a diminutive Japanese woman, clad in a flower-print jacket and prairie skirt with high black patent boots that matched the patent holster buckled around her waist.

“So,” Akane said. “Which one of you is the captain?”

Before Jonah or Worth could make a grab for the title, Johnson stepped forward. “You can deal with me.”

“I suppose I’ll have to,” Akane sighed. “I may have need of your services. I have to ship two hundred kilograms worth of cargo, along with one passenger, to the Silverhold Colonies, post-haste. Is your, er, ship up to the task?”

Worth bristled at the shot. “Hey, she’s spaceworthy.”

YJ ignored him. “Is your cargo legal?”

“Let me put it this way,” Akane said. “There are probably only two or three people in the Verse who would recognize what the payload is. The Alliance won’t give you any trouble.”

“Lovely,” YJ said.

They agreed on a price, and Akane disappeared for a few hours, returning to the docking bay with two large black crates along with her personal effects.

After stowing her gear, Akane decided to take a tour of the Firefly to see what the tramp freighter could tell her. She quickly deduced that the port shuttle assembly was wrecked, which explained why there was a faux shuttle – a shaped piece of steel that vaguely resembled a spaceworthy craft – covering up the mess. She could also tell from the way the deckplates were vibrating that ship’s grav converter had recently shattered, which was going to make takeoff quite interesting.

“Which one of you is pretending to be the ship’s engineer?” She called out. Worth stuck his head out of the engine room. “That’d be me!” he said suspiciously.

Akane sniffed. “You might want to check on the status of the grav converter before your pilot takes her up.”

Worth scratched his head. “The converter’s fine, what are you talking about?” But she was already on her way upstairs. As soon as she was out of earshot, Worth immediately checked on the part. Sure enough, it was cracked all to hell.

On the bridge, the control stick started shaking as YJ eased some power through the ship’s engines. “Worth, what’s going on down there?” he said on his internal comlink.

He heard a loud hammering sound through the speaker, and then the shaking subsided. “Uh, everything checks out.” Worth said, altogether too confidently.

Jonah checked to make sure nobody was in the cargo bay, then set up a motion detector near the aft corridor hatch and got out his electronic lockpicking tools. He eyed the first of the two crates Akane had brought on board. It appeared to be made of a seamless shroud of black plastic, and even under close examination he could only find the barest hint where the two halves of casing were joined together. He also fingered a depression on the left side of the box that could have been a biometric scanner.

He scratched his head and jammed an unlit cigarette behind his ear. This could be trickier than I thought, he thought.

Elsewhere on the ship, Doc Tulsa was stowing medical supplies in alphabetical order, slipping a few painkiller derms into his pocket, when Akane strolled in.

“Doctor, could I speak with you for a moment?” she asked.

“It’s a free planet, last time I checked,” the Doctor replied.

“So tell me, how long have you been addicted?” Akane asked like it was the most naturally following query in the Verse.

The Doctor shook his head, chuckling. “Since medical school, thanks for asking.”

“I like that you’re honest about it,” Akane said. “Now, I really have to know, what are you doing on this ship?”

“I was part of another crew on another ship along with Johnson and Evans, and I’ve spent the last few months trying to keep from getting myself shot.”

“Interesting.” Akane replied. “So who exactly is running things on this ship, anyway?”

The Doctor smiled. “Stick around long enough, and maybe you will be.”

A tiny amber light on Akane’s luxury multiband started to flicker, catching her attention. She smiled at the doctor. “Will you excuse me?” She said and started off towards the cargo bay.

In the cargo hold, Jonah was nonplussed. He couldn’t find any sort of plug or catch to connect his lock-picking device on the crate no matter how hard he tried. Suddenly the motion detector he had set up behind him pinged a warning. He jumped up and tried to act natural, smoothly hiding his tools inside his loose-fitting jacket.

Akane strode into the hold. “So, how long before you gave up?” she said to Jonah, who was making a show of smoking a cigarette, nowhere near her cargo.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jonah said defensively.

“Don’t let my appearance fool you,” Akane said. “I bring the very best Newtech to the game.”

“That’s good,” Jonah shot back smoothly. “Because when I look at you all I see is a hur bao duhn jien huo.”

Akane sighed dramatically. “Yappari matahajimata,” she muttered to herself. “Always with the Chinese. What makes you think you know anything about my heritage?” She smirked. “Tell you what, why don’t you try again? Go ahead, I’ll stand right here and watch.”

Jonah decided to call her bluff. He grabbed his plasma torch and fired it up, arching his eyebrow at her. He was about to start burning the casing when Akane said, “oh by the way, any damage done to my payload is going to come right out of your pay for this transport run.” The torch hissed as Jonah turned it off.

Akane rolled her eyes. “Where’s that doctor? I feel a tension headache coming on.” With that, she stalked off.

She popped her head back into Tulsa’s quarters. “Doctor, whatever you’re hopping yourself up on, I think I need about an eighth of a dose.”

Tulsa smiled and shook his head. “I don’t write prescriptions for newcomers, especially for free. You have to earn it.”

Akane snorted. “Terrific.”

The trip to Silverhold was uneventful, save for the varying amounts of tension accrued whenever Akane and Jonah were in close company. The rest of the crew struggled with the inevitable weirdness of a woman invading their formerly all-male environment.

Akane directed the ship to land at a deserted one-mule town on Silverhold. Jonah made a big show of helping her load the crates onto the hover-mule, and she took it out for a spin down the town’s main drag, braking at a run-down shack with a sagging front porch. Sitting in a rickety rocking chair was a disheveled man holding something that looked like the forced mating between a banjo and a shotgun.

“Howdy,” her contact said.

“I love what you’ve done with the place,” Akane replied.

“It’s all about blending in, honey.” The contact said from under the brim of his floppy cowboy hat.

With the crates unloaded, the contact set the banjo-shotgun down and tossed Akane a small bag of coins.

“I’ll be in touch,” she said. “Let’s try someplace a little less dusty sometime.”

“Will do. As always, I’ll be waiting by the Telefonix terminal with bated breath.” The contact said.

Akane drove back to where the crew was milling around on the edge of town.

“Well, you all settled up?” YJ said.

“Indeed.” Akane said. She considered for a moment. “Well, I must say, your crew is only mildly intolerable, which is better than I was expecting.”

“We’re all real flattered,” Jonah piped up.

Akane ignored him. “This was a test run of sorts. I’m in need of regular transport for delicate cargoes as well as passage for myself to points all over the Verse. In exchange I can offer you something special.”

“Oh, I like where this is going.” Worth said lecherously.

Akane grimaced, then pulled out her sidearm and flipped it, handing it butt-first to Johnson. Johnson admired the pistol. It was obviously a custom design, and there was no logo or identifying mark on it. It felt a little lighter than a pistol rightfully should, and somehow colder, too. He handed it back. “Very nice.”

“You have no idea.” Akane said. She spun about and snapped off a shot, sending a rock flying into the air and kicking up a plume of dust. The only sound was a tinny electronic zip and a tiny puff of nitrogen.

“Great, so you’ve got good aim.” Jonah said, unimpressed.

“That’s not all. Look.” Akane eased the magazine out and upended it. Instead of bullets, a stream of water dribbled out, forming a puddle in the dirt.

“Ta ma duh!” Worth and YJ said in unison.

“It gets better,” Akane said. “I took a look around that flying deathtrap you call a ship. Among its many problems is the fact that your security is nonexistent.”

“Hey now, don’t exaggerate,” Jonah said warily.

Akane continued. “Ask Mr. Rothsay over there how easy it was to break into my payload. I can provide you with upgrades – stronger locks, better surveillance systems, the works. All I need in return is some space to work on board.”

“I’ll think about it,” YJ said.

The conversation continued as the crew retired to the ship’s bridge. “Hell, we don’t need another set of hands mucking with Shenmue’s insides, especially a wildflower like this one,” Worth said angrily.

Akane took a look around, running her hand along a conduit on the low ceiling. She smiled as the vessel spoke to her yet again. “Who squared away this cabling?”

Worth grimaced. “I did.”

Akane curled an index finger. “Then could you come here a moment?” Worth ambled over to where Akane was standing.

“Why don’t you stand right here – no, right here,” she offered, giving Worth some space.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?” Worth ducked his head under the low-hanging pipe as the rest of the crew looked on. Akane took a step back.

“In about three seconds, a lightshow.” Akane said with a smile.

“What in the hell are you-” was all the time Worth had to say before the corroded wiring suddenly burst in a halo of blue lightning that wreathed his bald head. Cursing, he ducked out of the way.

“You know, you’re right, I’m just a little cherry blossom,” Akane said sarcastically. “I’ll just go back to my bunk and crawl under my futon.” She marched off, but not before turning to Worth and saying, “Next time don’t use such a shoddy set of cables – the insulation’s practically sloughing off in strips. Ships tend to work better when you treat them to quality components now and then.”

The rest of the crew watched her stalk away. “Now what was she doin’ messing with my wiring?” Worth said, itching his scalp.

The crew returned to Beaumonde from the Silverhold Colonies, where Akane said she had more gear to bring on board. She wasn’t lying – two full tool kits the size of a wardrobe, a set of matched luggage and a workshop module that measured about ten by fifteen feet.

“All I ask,” Akane said as they set up the unit in the secondary cargo hold, “is that none of you try to enter my workshop when I’m not around. You won’t like the reception you’ll receive.”

“Oh, so it’s a challenge then, is it?” Jonah said under his breath.

A day or so later, the crew had another visitor to the docking bay. Unlike previous visitors, he rolled, rather than walked into the bay’s front office. YJ could see that he was confined to a Newtech wheelchair, a rugged mobility system featuring two sets of powered wheels and a gyroscopically stabilized chassis. The sort of thing used by those who couldn’t be helped by the latest in cybernetics, nanotech or old-fashioned gene therapy.

The man took a long, hard look at Shenmue, then turned to Johnson.

“Excuse me, but this isn’t the Ironmonger, is it?” He held a datapad in his hand that showed the vital statistics for the crew’s former conveyance. “Is Captain Oxford Grant available? I didn’t have time to make an appointment.”

“Yeah, well unless you have a method of communicating with the dead, I’d say connecting with Ox Grant is out of the question,” YJ said.

“Ah I see. Well, that’s unfortunate; I was looking to hire a seasoned salvage crew for a rather delicate operation. I won’t bother you further.” His whisper-quiet chair turned as he headed out the door.

“Well, uh, delicate salvage operations are what we do,” Worth said.

“Some of us were members of Ox Grant’s salvage crew. I think we can help you out.” Johnson offered.

“Ah yes.” The stranger consulted his data display. “That would make you Ying Johnson, Ironmonger’s backup pilot, and over there stands Worth Evan, salvage operator, and Doctor Tulsa, medic, do I have that right? And who might you be?” He said to Jonah.

“Ace McGavin,” Jonah lied.

“Indeed, and you are…” he said to Akane.

“You can call me Wild Sky,” Akane said.

“Yes you are, aren’t you? At any rate, I was led to believe Mr. Grant’s operation was first-rate. You have a secondary pilot on staff?”

“You bet,” said Jonah.

“Are your salvage engineers competent?”

Worth considered. “Well, look at it this way, we do have the capacity to perform complicated salvage work.”

“Well, I’d hate to return to my employers empty-handed,” the man straightened up in his chair. “My name is Aiden Carver, and I’m looking to charter your boat and hire your crew for a critical salvage operation. We leave as soon as possible.”

“Yeah, well the last critical salvage operation we undertook cost us our ship and half our crew,” Johnson said.

“That’s quite a sales pitch. At any rate, I represent the insurers of a cargo that was being transported on the Breaker Morant, a freighter similar to your craft there. The transport lost contact and missed its scheduled ETA three days ago. The insurers are very interested in seeing her and her payload recovered intact.”

He picked up a sheaf of paper sitting on the armrest of his chair. “I have in my possession the standard Unified Reclamation salvage agreement. Aside from the charter fee and your daily wages you will receive 25% of the value of the ship and her cargo, that is, if you bring her back in one piece.”

“Go on,” YJ said.

“Now as for the charter. Taking into account your ship’s cargo and passenger space, what do you say to 1900 credits for the duration of this operation, which should take two weeks, maximum? As for daily wages, I will pay you 25 credits each. Your expenses are your own.”

“Sounds interesting,” YJ said.

“Were we to enter into this agreement, I must make a few things clear. Firstly, though I am chartering your boat I will of course defer to you in all areas of shipboard duties and decisions save for the overarching goal of completing the operation. However, for eight hours in the daycycle, your asses would belong to me.”

Akane eyed Carver skeptically. “So, if I refuse to take your money, does that mean I can skip out on the grunt work? I’ve got better things to do than haul crates around.”

“This isn’t about crate busting, young miss,” Carver said smoothly. “I’m talking about training for what could be a very difficult and delicate operation.”

Doc Tulsa coughed. “Your asking price is a little too low for the kind of loyalty you’re looking to inspire in us, with all due respect.”

Carver smiled. “Fine. I’ll pay you 50 credits a day, but you’d better be prepared to earn every penny. Do we have a deal?” Carver’s wheelchair suddenly changed its configuration with an electrical humming sound, servos locking to allow him to ‘stand up’ and extend a hand.

“Deal,” Johnson shook on it, as the rest of the crew nodded. Akane hung back, her arms folded.

Two hours later, a team of surly stevedores arrived with crate after crate of salvage gear. The crew recognized a portable fusion generator – strap a chair and a thruster pod to it and you could have your own spaceship – coils of electrical cabling and winches for rapid deployment, several sheets of steel plating, a set of high-quality hydraulic rescue tools with their own backpack-sized pumps, standard salvage tackle in the event that a literal towing operation is necessary, grav sleds – the usual deep space salvage accoutrements.

Then things got a little more exotic, a little more Newtech – including a complete fold-out surgical infirmary, a remote piloting console, a chemical oxygen emitter and a sphere-shaped multimedia command pod, the kind of equipment used to direct complex military or rescue operations from a safe location.

Jonah showed Carver to his quarters as condescendingly as possible, talking up the ship’s ‘wheelchair accessibility’ even though Carver’s Newtech chair was obviously capable enough to take the stairs. As he squared the Spartan quarters away, Jonah surreptitiously placed a micro-listening device under the wafer-thin mattress.

Meanwhile, the wheels were turning in Akane’s head. That much Newtech, especially military-grade Newtech, in one place was making her nervous. Could be that one of her competitors was angling for a very hostile takeover. She went back to her quarters, booted up her sourcebox and connected to the Cortex, starting a search operation for any info on Mr. Aiden Carver. It wasn’t long before the search came back without a single hit to anything relevant. Interesting… Akane thought.

Later on, Akane knocked on the doors to Carver’s room. He answered with a smile. “May I help you?”

“May I come in?” Akane asked in her most diplomatic tone.

“Certainly, though my chosen form of conveyance makes things a little cramped in here.” Carver replied.

Once inside, Akane shut the door and turned to the wheelchair-bound man. “So who are you really working for?”

“You’re direct, I like that.” Carver said, his chair scooting back a few inches. “I represent a corporation called Titan Operations Limited. Our investors have hit on a most profitable business model – rather than retain a large staff, Titan waits until they have secured a job, then directs me to gather a team of first-rate freelancers to do the work in the most flexible fashion allowable. Rather than spend money constantly on overhead, we invest in top of the line equipment and then cherry pick when it comes to manpower.”

“Fascinating,” Akane replied. “You and I may have interests that align beyond this salvage job. I’ve taken a look at your equipment – it’s good – but with a few modifications it can be made much better.”

“Go on,” Carver said.

“I’m freelance, but I’m not a member of this crew. I’m just along for the ride.” Akane went on. “However, my stock and trade might be to your liking.” She handed Carver a memory stick. “This is a special access code to my company’s Cortex site. Wild Sky Productions. You won’t find it on the regular Cortex’s listing, hence the code. But take a look, and let me know if anything you find interests you.”

Carver accepted the memory stick and smiled. “I will certainly do so. Thank you for your interest.”

In his quarters, Jonah smiled as he listened to the conversation.

As the trip commenced, Carver proved himself every inch the taskmaster. He called a “staff meeting” early the first morning before they were to ship out, and the crew grudgingly gathered in the galley.

“I am in possession of the ship’s posted route and its last known position according to its nav-sats three days ago.” He passed the information to YJ, who noted that while the ship had filed a flight path, its final destination had been redacted.

“So what’s the cargo?” Jonah asked.

“That’s on a need to know basis, and the investors told me I didn’t need to know specifics. However, they did tell me the cargo was made up of vital medical supplies that were both very valuable and very perishable. I do have a crew manifest that you may find useful.” He passed the file to the Doctor. “It will be your job to make identification and attend to their needs as soon as their status has been determined.” Carver said.

“Now,” Carver said. “I have hired you to perform a difficult job, and you are being well-paid. In return I need you to put your complete trust in my methods. They may be a little different than you’re used to. If this is going to work you must consider me your boss in all things non-ship related.”

Taking the crew to the cargo bay, Carver opened one of his crates, revealing a rack of EVA worksuits. “Now obviously I can’t enter the derelict with you, so I’ll need you to be my eyes and ears. That’s why I’ve installed vidcam broadcast units in these safety suits. They’re all wired back into the command centre so I can monitor all the live feeds. I’ll see what you see, hear what you hear, and be able to monitor your vital signs.”

Carver moved on to another crate of supplies. “Each of you will be carrying a rescue belt, with the doctor carrying two spares. The belt contains bottled water, high-energy chocolate bars, first aid supplies, and so on. It also contains a vital signs transmitter. Clip it to the survivors, when you find them, and I will have immediate access to their vitals at my console. It will no doubt help with triage. Do not under any circumstances eat the chocolate yourselves or you won’t be able to sleep for a week – they’re designed to get the half-dead moving long enough for us to take care of their immediate medical needs back on board.”

Giving the crew some time to familiarize themselves with their gear, he then started drilling them relentlessly on Zero-G activities and ship survival techniques. He lived up to his self-professed reputation as a taskmaster, but the crewmembers were better for it – their proficiency in zero gravity activity increased substantially as did their knowledge of the hydraulic tools and other Newtech equipment.

Following the Breaker Morant’s route had taken the Firefly well off the beaten path, out of range of the system’s communications network. It was nearly a week of tweaking Shenmue’s sensor systems and slavishly following the route to nowhere provided by Carver before YJ got the faintest notion that there was something else out there in the Black.

Sure enough, the faintest sensor hit at long range soon turned into a more substantial ping at medium range, and before long YJ could make out the ship of a large transport floating serenely in space. He called up Carver and the rest of the crew to the ship’s bridge.

It definitely matched the configuration by Carver – a Dragonfly-class transport. It was also definitely on the drift, without power, and most disconcertingly, it was trailing debris from its bridge section. There were no rescue beacons being broadcast, and nobody answered YJ’s hails.

“Do a flyby.” Carver instructed YJ, who brought Shenmue into a close orbit of the stricken craft. “Looks like the bridge has been damaged by an explosion, or an impact with a foreign object.”

As the ship ventured closer, it became clear that the culprit was an internal explosion of some kind. The bridge’s viewports were blown outwards, and in the tangle of wreckage that extruded from the rents in the command section, Worth’s sharp eyes could make out two bodies, locked in a final embrace.

“Wonderful,” Carver said grimly. “Let’s move to the galley.”

On the dining room table was laid out a layout of the Breaker Morant. Carver rolled up to the display.

“Okay gentlemen and lady, here’s how it is. The ship’s without power, her hull’s been breached, and you’ll note that no lifeboats or the shuttle have been deployed. Whether that’s a good sign or bad is anybody’s guess.”

“We don’t know the status of the ship’s atmofeed or grav field, and with a hull breach, that means emergency hatches will have sealed the bulkheads all over the ship, which will make it slow going.”

“The question is, do we reconnoiter the ship to determine the status of its crew, or get to work sealing up the damage on the bridge so that when we restart her all the atmo isn’t sucked into the void? That will require some EVA work. I’ll take suggestions at this juncture.”

YJ spoke up. “With the bridge knocked out we’re going to need to install that remote piloting module you brought on board. It’ll need power.”

“Very true. You can patch it in at Engineering – most of the ship’s control systems either start or terminate there.” Carver said. “Priority one should be to get the ship’s man power back online. That’s what the generator’s for.”

The Doc coughed. “Let’s not forget about the crew. Or what’s left of them.”

Carver smiled. “Of course. Right after you secure the cargo, of course.”

“Now,” Carver leaned forward out of his chair. “I suppose the time has come to answer the question that’s been on your minds since I hired you. I’m talking about how I ended up in this chair.” He coughed. “Battle of Sturges. Ever hear of it?”

The crew looked at one another.

“We were doing Research and Rescue operations, trying to get to the trapped, the wounded, before they sealed the battlefield perimeter.” He paused, collecting himself. “Imagine hundreds of survivors, caught on board dying ships, gasping out the rest of their lives as the atmo bled out.” He shook his head.

“We cut our way into a mangled ordnance vessel that was still broadcasting a rescue beacon, but we did it before verifying the state of the ship’s grav field. Our rescue gear shifted while we were inside, pinned me against a bulkhead, and that was that. So you’ll understand why I’ve been such a stickler about safety. I’ll do my best to look after your spines from the command module, but you’ll all have to watch your backs when you get over there. Good luck.”

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