10 Jun Salvage
“Salvage”Written by Heath Pfaff Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 16 minutes
“Atlas, scan Paradise Station and give me a radio lock. Prepare for broadcast.” The ship’s computer acknowledged my command with a couple blinks of light and then chirped when the com opened up.
“Paradise, this is the captain of the heavy cruiser, Atlas. We currently have your station listed as Dead in Space. As per Intergalactic Regulations, you have two hours to offer evidence of either a functional navigation system or an active and certified crew. In the meantime, we will be docking along your main tug lines and preparing to start salvage procedures. Atlas-over.” I read the blip from a screen on one of the terminals. It was a standard notice of intent for salvage. I couldn’t claim the station until I was sure it was dead. What I found most surprising was that the company who had built the craft hadn’t sent out their own team. The cost of a station like Paradise was so outrageous that the government contract I’d taken didn’t bother to list an asset value.
“What do you think happened?” Teltol, my second in command, asked, looking at the approach screen as we drew nearer. At that point, the station was all you could see on our view.
“Pirates, if I had to guess. They probably pulled the station into a blind spot in the system and stripped it of valuables, killing the crew.” That was my best theory at the moment, and it was the one that most people seemed to be tossing around.
“Atlas, begin docking procedures with Paradise Station at access T1.” I gave my ship the command and saw the nav beacons light up on the console before I felt the maneuvering jets kick in to bring us in closer to the station. At 500 meters long, the Atlas was a large ship, but it was still a flea next to the Paradise, which was a 250,000-meter sprawl, one of the largest human-crafted objects in space.
For the next few minutes, Teltol and I watched the diagnostics to make sure the docking was successful. Once we’d latched, I let out a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s that. Now we just have to patch into the station computer and get the thrust controls ported over so we can move it into a hyperspace lane. Easy money.”
Teltol shook his head. “Never heard of easy money. I’ll start counting credits when they’re in my account.”
I ignored the superstitious paranoia of my second mate and addressed the ship again. “Atlas, patch us into Paradise Station controls and start setting up the tandem to our bridge controls.” I turned to ask Teltol if he’d gone over the contract for the job, but then a red light flashed on my control panel, and I turned my attention back that way.
Tandem Failure – Server Has Rejected Connection
I gave the message my most disappointed frown. We were connected to the Paradise tracking beacon because we’d docked with the station, so our channel was right, and the codes were straight from the manufactures of the station. They were top-level overrides. Paradise should be listening.
“Atlas, retry connection to Paradise Station using the Paradise Command Codes.” The AI was smart enough that I shouldn’t have to specify which codes to use, but I made myself as clear as possible this time. I waited a second, and then the message popped back up on the terminal.
Tandem Failure – Server Has Rejected Connection
“Shit,” I muttered quietly to myself.
“Is that a problem I hear?” Teltol’s voice held just a tinge of “I told you so.”
I laughed it off and shrugged. “We’re not getting a connection to the Paradise control systems. The server is rejecting our attempts,” I told him, hoping he might have some insight.
He came over and looked down at my terminal. “That’s a generic message. All it’s really telling us is that their server is not responding to our requests to talk. It doesn’t mean there is actually a rejection. It might be as simple as a damaged relay module or offline antenna. We have no idea what happened on that ship.”
I sighed. This meant we were going to have to go over there and check out the systems ourselves. “Alright, call the crew together. Looks like we get to visit Paradise. You’re right; it’s probably a software hiccup or pulled cable.” If we couldn’t fix the problem, we could always try a manual pull. The Atlas was a strong ship, and it might be able to get Paradise Station moving.
Teltol nodded. “Off to Paradise, it is. I’ll go get everyone around. Meet you at the airlock in twenty minutes.”
Twenty minutes later, we were all suited up and ready to go. There was Teltol and myself, of course, as well as Derra Keen, Nolan Stephans, Sanzo, and Orwell Bazzit. Derra and Nolan were well-trained and experienced ship mechanics. Sanzo was a computer system specialist. Last, but not least, Orwell was an appraisal expert who also happened to be very good with a plasma blaster. His official title on the roster was “Head of Negotiation,” but I considered him an asset with a great many beneficial skills.
“Kick the tires and light the fires,” Orwell quipped, and then he hit the release on our side of the lock. There was a beep, and then a second beep as compression across the full airlock was made. Our door slid open, and then the one across the way slid open as well. We got our first look into Paradise.
It was unsurprisingly quite bland. This wasn’t a guest entrance. This was the doorway that the control crew would use to board and deboard during major shift changes. The hall we walked into was long and bare, a few doors on either side. Orwell had a plasma repeater rifle around his neck, and I had my hand blaster at my side. We weren’t expecting trouble, but we also weren’t going to enter the ship unprepared. As Teltol had pointed out, we had no idea what had happened on this ship.
“Command is up this way.” Sanzo gestured one way down the hall, and we fell in behind him. There was no point in spending extra time on the ship. We just wanted to get control transferred and get back aboard Atlas. It was only a couple of minutes’ walk to the bridge. The door opened as we approached, and we walked onto an empty control deck. It was massive, made for some fifty or sixty to man at one time. Paradise was big, and it needed an active crew. It was uncanny seeing it empty. Unnerving.
Sanzo led us directly to the main control panel and sat down. His fingers flew over the console as he attempted to use our security codes to take control.
“I know I’m not the only one who thinks this place is creepy, right?” Nolan commented. “It’s like a ghost ship.”
“Ghost ships are just ships that have been hit by pirates and abandoned,” I told him calmly. “If this is anything, it’s a ghost station, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one of those. There might be civilians around somewhere on board who just can’t access the crew sections to send for help.” There had been 10,000 wealthy inhabitants aboard when Paradise launched.
“I don’t know, Captain. There are no active transponders onboard.” Teltol was over at another terminal.
“Really?” I crossed over to him, curious to see what he’d found. When I reached him, I looked over his shoulder to see that he was looking at the ship’s crew monitoring system. It was reporting five non-crew life signals aboard the ship (us) and zero crew or passengers.
Teltol tapped the screen as though it were an analog gauge that was broken. “Yeah, looks like we’re empty.”
“Just makes things easier,” I said, trying not to think of all those lost lives. “We just need to have command transferred to Atlas, and then we tow the station out of here.” I kept my voice calm. This situation was strange, but it had been from the outset. I shrugged off the chill that caused gooseflesh to rise on my arms.
“We’ve got another problem. Paradise is refusing to release command controls.” Sanzo looked over at me, and I could see a trace of concern in his expression.
“You used the command keys?” It was a gut reaction thing to ask, but Sanzo was a professional, and I could see his agitation at the question.
“Yes, sir, I used the command keys,” he replied, doing a fair job at hiding his exasperation.
“Is there any reason the ship would reject the factory command keys?” I asked what I hoped was a better question.
“Those keys are built into the hardware control center of the ship.” Sanzo was nodding to himself as he spoke. “Bypassing them would be like lobotomizing the station. You break the security, you break everything that relies on it to work. You could do it, but not without ruining just about everything, and then afterwards you’d have a useless, unprogrammed ship. You’d either need to hook to a dry dock to upload new control data, or you’d have to build it from scratch. That would take six or seven years at best, assuming your programming crew was top notch.”
“Clearly that can’t have happened. The station is still working,” Teltol pointed out. “What else might be wrong here?”
“Well, the most obvious guess is that the company sent us the wrong codes for some reason. They either made a mistake, or they don’t want us to have access to the ship.” Sanzo reasoned, and it made sense, though if they didn’t want us to access the ship, they could have not asked the government for help to begin with. They didn’t normally bother with private losses like this.
“Can’t trust the corpos. They will fuck you every chance they get. This whole deal stinks of their shit.” Orwell added his opinion as he leaned against a work station. I noticed that he’d moved his hands to the rifle he was carrying.
I shook my head. “Forget this. We’ve got Atlas latched on to the main tug. We’ll just drag the station with her, and once we get moving, we’ll calculate a trajectory that gives us a nice long deceleration on the other end of the hyperjump.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Derra sat up where she’d been eyeing a terminal. “Captain, that’s a bad idea. Atlas is a great hauler, but this station is at least ten times larger than we should accelerate on our own, and then decelerating is going to be even harder. You’re going to blow cooling rods if you’re lucky, and if you’re not lucky you’re going to melt our propulsion engines through the hull.”
“I second that!” the other mechanic, Nolan, quickly agreed. “You just hired us on, and our job is to look after the ship. This is a bad idea. I’m not as good with engines as Derra is, and even I know that you’d be looking at a disaster.”
I looked between the two of them and sighed softly. They were my experts. I paid them to know things like this, and if I didn’t listen to them, I’d be stupid. Still, this was awful news. “Okay. In that case, we’ll just return to Atlas and contact the people who sent us out here as soon as we can. Maybe the command codes are just a mistake, and we can get this fixed quickly.”
I could see the collective relief of the others. As a newly assembled crew, they didn’t know what to expect from me, but I wasn’t planning on being a captain who didn’t listen to what the trained professionals he’d hired had to say.
We got up together and headed back for the airlock. When we arrived, Sanzo went to the panel and cycled the lock. We waited for the beep of the airlock establishing the connection back to the ship.
“Umm,” Sanzo was frowning. “Captain, Paradise is refusing to negotiate a connection with Atlas.”
I raised an eyebrow. “It connected to let us over here. It has to connect to let us back.”
“I tried remoting into Atlas too, but I can’t get a connection out.” Sanzo didn’t sound happy, and I was becoming concerned myself. “Paradise is blocking coms.”
“That doesn’t make sense. There isn’t anyone on board to block coms.” Orwell walked over to the terminal and hit it with a fist which earned him a glare from Sanzo. “What? That normally fixes things.”
I pointedly ignored him.
“Alright, so the computer has locked us out. Why don’t we engage the manual override and open the airlock that way?” I looked at my two mechanics, who looked at each other, then back at me.
“I can do that,” Nolan answered. “There are a few difficulties. The manual override is behind a sealed panel. I’ll have to cut into that. I have the tools, but it will take a little while, and when I open the door here, it’s going to let out our atmosphere into the unsealed gangway until we can reactivate the seal from the Atlas control panel. Then we’ll have to repressurize to open that door.”
“How long will it take to get us going?” I asked, not seeing a way around this course of action.
“Derra and I should be able to do this in about half an hour. Of course, I’ll let you know before we’re ready to decompress.” Nolan’s confidence was a welcome change of pace.
“Anyone have anything else they want to add or suggest before we go this route?” I asked, looking at each of my small crew. No one seemed to have a better idea. “Alright, Derra, Nolan, get started. Orwell, stay here with them in case they need something. Call me when things are ready. Teltol, Sanzo, let’s go back to the bridge and see what we can figure out.”
As it turned out, that was almost nothing. The computers on the bridge of the Paradise were almost useless. Most of the data was locked under administrative keys we didn’t have. I turned off my monitor and sat back in my chair. A strange dark spot on the floor nearby caught my eye, and I took a single step in that direction.
“Hey, I found something,” Sanzo said, and my attention shifted that way. I hurried over. Teltol was on my shoulder a moment later.
“Most of the systems are locked and I can’t access them, but this was put into one of the public logs.” Sanzo brought up an announcement.
“Yacht voyages will be temporarily unavailable while the launch bay is used to ascertain the nature of the recovered beacon. All services are expected to resume within 24 hours.” The date was the same day as the last report from Paradise Station before it went dark.
“They recovered a beacon? Out here?” Teltol’s confusion was equal to my own. “Who would put a beacon out here? This sector is almost entirely uncharted. It’s not even pegged for expansion yet.”
“Well, we definitely should not go and check it out,” Sanzo said with a laugh, looking between us. “I mean, it has to be tied to why this place is empty, right?”
My curiosity told me I wanted to know, but Sanzo was right. There was no good reason for us to look further into this.
“Agreed. We’ll add the beacon to our report, but let’s not do anything too dumb.” I stepped away from the console. This whole trip was a bust, and it was definitely not going to look good as one of my company’s first jobs. If we managed to get those codes back from the company, we might still come out ahead, but I had an increasingly bad feeling about all of this.
Nolan’s voice came onto coms. He sounded a bit winded but otherwise fine. “We are ready to open the airlock here, Captain. I suggest you all come to the hallway and clip into an anchor as we vent atmosphere. We can’t be sure what sort of security Paradise has for a decompression.”
“Alright, we’re on our way,” I answered, looking over to Teltol and Sanzo. We filed out of the bridge area and into the hall in quick order. I remembered that stain and took one last look in that direction. Then I turned and followed the others.
I found myself thinking of Teltol calling this place a “ghost ship” and again had to ignore that rising feeling of fear. Paradise had that feel to it. A place so big and so new shouldn’t be empty. It was hard to imagine what could make thousands of people just vanish. It was almost enough to make me as superstitious as Teltol was. Almost.
Orwell waved as we came in range. Derra was doing something inside a hole cut in the wall. Nolan was working on a second opening. The three of them were clipped onto safety rungs in the hall. As the rest of us approached we did the same, hooking up our suits with the safety lines built into them.
“Seal up your suits and we’re ready to go,” Derra said, pulling her arm out of the manual override system. Her visor was already down, so her voice came in over the suit’s communication system.
Nolan locked his visor into place and the rest of us followed.
“Alright everyone, take a firm hold where you can. It’s going to get windy in here.” I announced, grabbing the bar I’d locked myself onto. Decompression was always rough. Once everyone was in place, there were some nods back and forth between us, and then Nolan and Derra both reached into the manual override on either side of the door. Together they pulled the mechanical unlocking system, and then released the pressure seals on the door.
The atmospheric shift was powerful, dragging me off my feet in seconds as all of the pressure within the hall went rushing out to try and fill in the endless void of space. The lights went red and began to strobe. It was another twenty or thirty seconds before we could magnetically lock back to the floor and move again. Derra and Nolan crossed the distance to the Atlas door and were already working on patching into the computer there. Orwell was at their back. I watched them work for a moment, and then I looked down the hall to see what Teltol and Sanzo were doing.
Teltol was standing to the opposite side of the hall from the rest of us, his eyes also focused on Derra and Nolan. Because of that, he didn’t see the other person coming down the hall towards us. In fact, I was the only one looking that way, and I froze up in that moment, sure that I was suffering some form of asphyxia or hallucinating from something in my air supply. What I saw was a tall man with long hair floating in scraggly strands around his face, a face that looked like a reflection that had been shattered. Pieces of it were broken and mismatched. The eyes were two circular black pits that looked like they had been punched mechanically into the skull by a machine of some sort.
The man’s bottom jaw hung by metal struts from his upper skull, curls of wire breaking from points in his flesh to run back into it in different places. He was naked, and his body looked as though it had been roughly fused to parts of a synthetic monster. Where skin and metal met, the skin was gray and dead looking, though blood, or possibly oil, still wetted the torn ends.
I opened my mouth to say something, offer some kind of warning, but before I could speak, a coil of dark silver cabling that looked almost like the tentacle of some kind of sea monster poured out of the thing’s mouth, bulging its neck so far that it looked like it might burst, and shot out towards Teltol. He didn’t even get to turn around. The thing that hit him ripped directly through the helmet of his suit and crushed the back of his head. I could hear the sound of blood and bone bouncing against the microphone, and something else as well. There was a terrible grinding, meaty noise that I couldn’t escape as it was broadcast into my helmet.
Others were turning now, and I heard Nolan let out a scream. I reached for my plasma pistol but just managed to drop it to the floor.
Sanzo backed up until his safety line caught and stopped him in place. “What the fuck is that?!” He scrambled to release himself.
“Nolan, is the door open? Where’s our atmosphere?!” I called in a voice that betrayed my own fear. The thing with dark eyes was still consumed with whatever it was doing to Teltol, but I knew that at any moment it would cast him away and come after the rest of us.
Blinding light ripped across the space between us and the monster that had killed Teltol. At first I didn’t realize what was happening, but then I saw Orwell standing with his rifle against his shoulder. He fired again, flesh and metal melting as the plasma burned through it. Only one black eye remained on the monster.
I turned to look behind me.
Nolan was at the panel, his fingers working quickly, bashing a button over and over again. The rest of us were backing towards him. Suddenly there was a loud hiss, and my suit registered positive pressure flow. The airlock was being refilled with atmosphere.
The thing with Teltol didn’t seem to notice as it was burned apart, but that tube from its awful throat continued to thrust and churn, moving inside of my second in command like it was eating him, or hollowing out his body. I didn’t know which was happening, and neither did I want to. Orwell fired again, and the metal tentacle was burned from the rest of the thing’s head, but it was still thrashing as it and Teltol hit the ground.
Atlas’ hatch opened and we all piled through, Orwell last with his gun still at the ready. As soon as the hatch closed behind Orwell, I turned and slammed my hand on the lock. I was shaking. I had to gather myself.
“Stations,” I said, my words far more steady than I thought they would be. “We’re leaving now. Sanzo is with me. Orwell, watch the door here. Everyone else, get ready for hyperspace jump asap. We are disconnecting from Paradise and getting out of here.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that.” Orwell’s normal dark humor was quelled.
“What was it?” Derra asked.
“I don’t know, but I think we can guess why Paradise Station is empty. Now everyone to stations. Come on.” I took a last look at the crew before starting for the bridge. Derra looked distant, clearly upset, but that was to be expected. Nolan wouldn’t meet my eyes. He kept looking at the door. I might have questioned him some other time, but not then. Orwell was still staring at the hatch. I could see the tension in Sanzo as he followed me back towards the bridge, and I had to guess he could see the same in me.
We took the lift to the bridge in silence. The ride – which was only thirty seconds – felt interminable. When the doors slid open, we practically ran to the ship’s controls.
“I don’t know all of the bridge procedures,” Sanzo told me as he took his place where Teltol would normally be. It wasn’t his fault. We were going to train him eventually, but I’d had Teltol for the work, and we hadn’t been planning for an emergency like this.
“You know systems well enough. I just need you to run checks with me. I’ll bring them up here, and then they’ll pop up on your screen for verification. When they’re done, we initiate airlock break from the station, and then we’re gone. No problem.” I had a terrible sinking feeling in my gut. This situation, this nightmare, it was the kind of thing you didn’t get away from. Some part of me was sure of that, even as I started the preflight checklist.
I flashed through the checks quickly, not skipping anything, but also not being as careful as I usually was. Atlas was a brand new ship, and it was unlikely she had any major issues. I reached the end of the list and looked over at Sanzo. He nodded back at me.
“Atlas, undock from Paradise Station,” I gave the voice command.
It was rejected immediately. The screen flashed angry red words at me.
Undocking command not authorized.
I cleared my throat and said it again. “Atlas, undock from Paradise Station.”
Undocking command not authorized.
I looked over at Sanzo, he was quickly typing on a screen in front of him. “The system says you don’t have command authority.”
“What?!” That lurching feeling deepened. “I am the only person who can have command authority here. This is my ship.”
Sanzo was typing still, and then I saw his console go red and he cursed, putting his hands up and shaking his head. “Well, you’re not the commander anymore.”
“Then who is?!” I snapped, my voice darker than I meant it to be.
“Paradise Station,” Sanzo answered. “According to the last thing I was reading before I was locked out, Nolan released control of the door computer to Paradise Station to get the airlock open. After that…” He shrugged. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s rewriting the ship’s basic functions. It just turned off environmental systems!”
“Captain,” Orwell’s voice came over the com. “Teltol is at the airlock.”
I didn’t need this. “Teltol is dead,” I replied calmly.
“I know that, sir, but his suit is right there, just outside the airlock, and it’s moving.” Orwell gasped, and then I heard cussing.
“Orwell, what’s going on?!” I asked, cold sweat running down my brow.
“It’s opening. The airlock is…” His voice fell away. “Oh no, there are more…oh shit…” Plasma rifle fire erupted over the com line. More cursing. “Teltol, no!” Horrible sounds followed, then screams, and finally, it settled into that awful grinding sound I’d heard when Teltol died. We could all hear it.
“Captain, what do…” Derra’s voice started, and then the channel went dead. There was no sound at all. Dead silence. Why?
I tried to breathe in and found the air thick and heavy, and then I realized that one of the sounds that were missing was the sound of the oxygen pump in my suit. I scrambled for the release on my helmet and saw Sanzo was doing the same. I scrambled for the lock, panic racing asphyxia, but to what end? Environmental controls were off. My hands were shaking, my vision going black, and then the latch popped on my helmet and I felt a coldness so deep that I knew it had to be the hand of death.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A