‘The Watchers’ is the latest in a line of Shallow Space stories, exploring the worlds and people of this upcoming computer game. For more information on Shallow Space, visit our website.
2: The Investigation
They latched onto a for ‘ad airlock, up near the bridge. Bones wanted to dock near the Armstrong’s engineering section, but Rock, Paper, Scissors had settled the argument in Digger’s favour. Now they stood on either side of the airlock door, waiting for the red right to flick green. Digger heard the door flex under the equalising pressure, then the light went green. He put his hand over the open button then glanced at Bones. Two Garrard .5s were holstered at his hips. Two spare clips protruded from his pockets. Another pair were velcroed to his gravity boots.
“Ready?” There was a 99.9% chance the ship was empty, but that didn’t necessarily mean there weren’t any threats.
“Go,” Bones said, nodding. Digger palmed the switch and the door ratcheted upward.
They leapt forward together into the chute, the flexible conduit that sealed against the Constitution’s hull. They floated to the far door on the Constitution. There must have been pressure behind it, as it opened when Digger pulled and they stepped into a second airlock. Their grav-boots touched down to the steel floor and locked on. They closed the door behind them, opened the one in front and then they were in the Constitution.
Digger paused mid step as he stared at what could only have come straight out of a history vid. Weak yellow light panels overhead. Bare metal walls and ceiling. The corridors were narrow and short rectangle. The floor was grating only. There were voids between the structural members below, dark little cavities were anything could get lost. It looked so rushed, so incomplete, a design only 80% complete. General Blenheim’s fleet had been rushed into combat before it was ready. It was amazing this one had survived.
A drip echoed from the corridor to the left. Digger sniffed. The air was ok, maybe a little damp, certainly not dry, but not stale either. It didn’t smell like twenty years of inactivity.
There had been people here recently, though that could have meant a week or a year. It was hard to tell with recycled air.
Bones turned toward Digger, palms on his Garrards. His sign of nerves. “I’m going down below. Holler if you find any zombies.”
“As if. I ain’t sharing them with you. Now get lost.” Digger went left, forward, to the bridge. He’d had hours to prepare a shopping list. First the sensor logs. They were good value for money but could take time to download, so they were always first. Then he’d check the various officer stations. From the bridge he could salvage processors, super conducting wire, tactical displays, any of which he was sure would fit just fine into the Asteria, but what he really wanted was a full schematic of the Armstrong. INC had aptly named it ‘The first of many’, and being a living, breathing prototype he’d heard that there were some unknown technologies built into her. For testing, for fun, or whatever reason INC had decided to put them in.
Not the negative space they were chasing these days, but the conflicting rumours sounded positively exciting. If at least one of them was true. . .well bringing one of them home would be mighty impressive.
The corridors lost their shape as he moved forward, some bowing into triangles, some trying to emulate an inverse pentagon. More light panels were dead or missing. There had been some big blows to the ships armour once upon a time, distorting the walls, buckling the doors and breaking the brittle light panels. One corridor looked like a parallelogram. Some doors had seized half open or cracked under some intense compressive stress.
He had to double back several times to bypass blocked corridors. He’d open a door and hear bangs elsewhere as stress worked itself out.
The next corridor was pitch black. He found another way around.
He grew accustomed to the ships noises. No hush of air vents, (how much air did they have left then?), but there was a distant clatter of hull flexion, a persistent drip which seemed to be following him, and the gentle hum of electronics. The sub-audible thrum of a fusion generator was absent. The ship was probably running on batteries. The ship wasn’t all dead. Mostly dead perhaps.
He was beginning to worry there might not actually be a bridge when the corridor widened and ended at a pair of thick doors. They were smooth and thick and curved backward like the armour plating of a ground tank. Which was perhaps what they were. Protection for the bridge from internal attack.
The doors weren’t locked. He palmed the switch and they parted. He stepped back as they opened outward then eased to a stop against the walls.
The bridge was ancient.
He fought back the rising disappointment. It was minimalist: Short, steel seats. Small control panels with tiny displays. A main display smaller than the viewport on the Asteria. The walls were crumpled from superstructure failure. He saw rivet heads, loose bolts and welds a first year apprentice would be ashamed of.
Built on the cheap. And in a hurry. There wouldn’t be any surprises here.
Although. . . He slinked to the centre of the bridge, feeling uneasy.
Where were the crew? The ship got here somehow. If an accident had befallen them, where were they? The ship wasn’t missing any escape pods, so no one left that way.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Something was wrong.
He inhaled long and slow and ran a hand through his hair. A dead ship wasn’t going to hurt him. Just breathe, and get the sensor logs.
He stepped up to the navigation control station. It was blank but came to life with a touch of his hand. There was no crystal port on the console, probably to stop people illegally downloading military information, but Digger knew a few tricks. He bent down, pulled the casing away from the console stand and found the backup wires. The computer core recorded all information from every console and the sensor logs would travel down these five twisted pairs. Digger pulled a fresh junction from his belt, worked the wires in, plugged his own crystal port into it then inserted a data crystal.
Five minutes, give or take. Absolute child’s play. Not that he was a professional thief or anything, but he still took pride in his extra-curricular skills.
He stood, put his hands to his back and stretched. The bridge was silent around him, the crystal darkening as its nodes filled with data.
The prickle in the nape of his neck returned. If the crew had suddenly abandoned ship they wouldn’t have taken the time to turn everything off. They would have run like hell. Sensing no pilot input, the autopilot would have achieved null velocity or stable orbit and waited patiently for input until the power ran out.
Unless someone had been here after the crew evacuated. Someone who went around and turned all the controls off, along with. . .
He caught a red flash in his peripheral vision. From the Commander’s chair. It was set near the back on a little mezzanine overlooking what would have probably been a dozen officer stations.
Digger climbed the ten steps to the chair, watching for the red light to flash again.
The chair was bigger than the others, with a sturdy looking backrest. A palm computer had been fused to the armrest. A hasty addition perhaps, overlooked in the original design.
The red light flashed again, from the frame of the palm computer.
The hair follicles on his neck nearly burst from his skin. A shiver came over him as he reached out his index finger and touched the screen.
It lit up, a bright white backlight. The screen was empty.
Digger felt a nervous smile, then turned and sat down in the chair.
Then his chest went cold.
The display was monochrome. Digits flashed past on the scrolling screen, number letter combinations, so long Digger didn’t know where one finished and the other started. Then they shortened until each was shorter than a line on the screen. They kept shrinking until the last was down to one digit.
Then three words flashed up, all in capital letters.
LOCATOR BEACON ACTIVE