“You two ready?” I ask.
“Yes, ma’am,” Gert says with forced brightness, and Rally nods quickly, a shake of motion behind her helmet’s faceplate. She’s nervous, but she always seems to be a little nervous, so I’m not too worried.
We wait in Iris’s airlock for the air to hiss out around us. It’s a dangerous, thrilling sensation. I can almost feel air rushing over the fabric of my suit, hear a bit of wind through the helmet, until I can’t hear anything. Then comes the eerie moment when we open the door to the unknown.
I know the captain isn’t supposed to take part in these operations. I’m supposed to stay on the bridge, safe and sound, and not expose myself to unnecessary risk. Stick around to take the blame if something goes horribly wrong. But if I think that much risk is involved in boarding the Radigund, I wouldn’t send any of my people aboard. We’d do an automated sensor sweep, mark the site for salvage and let someone with more personnel and big guns do the work. Radigund is dead in space. No life signs, no energy readings, nothing. We have no reason to believe anything is there.
So we board, to better investigate and make a full report. Recover bodies, if any are there to recover. Radigund is—was—a small survey ship, like us, plying the edges of known spaceways, tracking routes and charting what we find. Trade Guild diverted our mission to look for her. It took us a month to find her, she’d drifted so far off course.
Using the mechanical override, we force open Radigund’s hatch into the opposite airlock. I enter first, Gert and Rally follow, slipping soundlessly behind me. It’s dark. My lamp panning across the space before me disorients rather than illuminates. I have to piece together a flash of wall, the viewport on the opposite hatch, a warning label above a control panel.
Gert closes the hatch behind us.
Sealed in the other airlock now, we have to pull off an access panel and open the interior hatch manually. Radigund has no power. No air, either, which gives a clue as to what happened. The door grinds open, gears stiff. I can’t wait to get my hands on the log and the black box, to learn what happened. Assuming we can get enough power to the computer to download anything. No power also means no artificial gravity. We float through, pushing ourselves along the corridor walls.
“God, I hate this,” Rally says, her voice thin over the comm. “I feel like something’s going to jump out at us.”
Gert chuckles. “You’ve been watching too many films.”
We continue on to the bridge. Nothing unusual so far, besides the lack of power. The lack of life.
A second channel on my comm clicks on. It’s Matthews, from Iris’s bridge. “Captain, I’ve finished the second hull survey. Not so much as a pinhole.”
Hull breach could have shut down the ship in a hurry. That had been my first thought. Matthews closes that possibility.
“Thank you,” I say. Voices murmur in the background. The whole crew is on the Iris bridge, watching our progress on our suit cameras and monitors. Like it’s one of Rally’s films.
“What was that!” Rally says suddenly, and we all swing around, bumping against the walls and each other.
Her light shines on a blanket floating halfway through the hatchway leading to crew quarters.
“You really are losing it,” Gert says, unkindly.
“Focus, you two,” I say. I’m beginning to regret my decision to bring these two in particular. But Rally knows the computers; Gert knows the power system. And they mix like oil and water.
They’re good people. Good crew. But sometimes, I’m tempted to lock them in a room together and watch the fireworks.
Our progress is slow, slower than I like. Because of the shadows, I think. Rally’s monsters hiding in them. Venting, tubing, ladders, open hatches, all of them are shadows, foreshortened and flickering in our helmet lamps. We’re hesitating, holding back. Expecting an unnamable thing that we don’t want to find. My breathing grows loud, sealed with it against my ears as I am. A ship shouldn’t be so quiet.
Gert’s hand clutches my shoulder, hard enough to feel through my suit’s padding, but I’ve seen what he’s seen in the same moment. Breath and heart both stop, no doubt prompting spikes in biometric readouts on Iris that stop hearts among the crew there. Rally stifles a whimper.
It’s a face glaring out from a doorway, all teeth and eyes, arms reaching.
We freeze, and all three helmet lamps focus on it.
It’s a photograph, printed large and hung on the door. A person in a blue Trade Guild uniform. Male. He’s grinning, throwing his hands up to guard against the camera, to prevent this picture from even happening. But it’s all in good fun. Someone has drawn a party hat on the man’s head and garland of flowers around his neck, and written in large, enthusiastic letters, Happy Birthday, Captain. I could guess the joke behind it: the Captain had declared he didn’t want a party for his birthday. No celebration, just another day. And someone on the crew had taken revenge. Radigund must have been that kind of ship, where the crew could play a small joke on the captain, and he wouldn’t mind.
Frost curls the edges of the paper.
“Geez,” Gert breathes.
We climb the ladder to the bridge, following the circles of our flashlights. We find bodies there. Navigator, pilot, comm officer. Captain. Even frozen and dead, rimed with frost, I recognize my counterpart from the picture. There ought to be six more, somewhere on the ship. Crew cabins, engineering, and medical are where I expect to find them.
Captain and pilot are strapped to their seats, stiff arms raised a few inches above armrests. Weightlessness had set in before the freezing cold. The other two are curled up near the floor. All are wearing oxygen masks. They knew this was coming, that something was wrong. An open plate on the deck, cabling exposed, shows an attempt at repairs.
Ice crystals frost hair and skin, open eyes. They’re all in their twenties and thirties, our age. Far too young to be so still. I don’t know them. Didn’t go to the Academy with any of them. But I might have. Close to home.
But there are bodies. I’m almost relieved. How much stranger, to come aboard and find nothing. To wonder if they all stepped out of the airlock twenty light years back, with no explanation. Sweat trickles down the back of my neck. My heart rate still feels too fast, but Iris hasn’t said anything about it yet. The air inside my suit smells too much like me.
“Matthews,” I say to my own comm officer. “Is this coming through?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says softly.
“Gert, start on the power. See if we can get the computers up. I want to see the log.”
Rally’s bulky glove touches Gert’s padded shoulder. He can’t possibly feel the contact. “Can I help?”
He glances at her awkwardly, sideways, through the helmet plate. “Yeah. We’re going to take those panels off.”
I work on retrieving the black box. The battery-driven recorder is stored in a protected safe in the back of the bridge. Iris has one just like it. I find it, pull it out, send it back through the airlock to Iris so Matthews and Clancy can look at it. Gert and Rally are still working. Over the comm, I can hear them arguing the whole time.
“We shouldn’t let the captain wander off by herself,” Rally says. As if I can’t hear.
“She’s fine. What do you expect is going to happen?”
“That’s just it, I don’t know. But this is weird. What happened here?”
Four frozen sets of eyes are staring at her. She has every right to be uncomfortable. Gert hides his own discomfort by mocking hers.
“It’s always the captain who dies first in these stories. Know why? Because it leaves everyone else feeling directionless, guilty, grief-stricken—”
“Rally! Please! Are you going to help me with this or not?”
A few moments of quiet, then, “There’s nothing wrong with these circuits. I think the problem’s in engineering.”
A long pause, then Gert’s gruff admission. “Okay. We’ll check there. Captain?”
“I’ll meet you,” I say.
We find the engineer floating before his station, bundled in a suit. He’d survived the freeze, but asphyxiated when his suit oxygen ran out. He’d been working on the engine right up to the end.
I touch both Gert and Rally, patting the fabric of their suits. “You two work. I’m going to check for the rest of them.”
I find them in crew quarters like I thought I would. We’ll have to make recordings. ID, photos. Then we’ll jettison them into the next star. Traditional burial in space. There’d never be a question about what happened to them.
I’m almost back to engineering when Gert and Rally start in again. But it’s different this time.
“Rally, don’t start. Not in your suit. Do you know what a pain in the ass—”
Rally sniffs. Tears thicken her voice. “I can’t help it. I keep thinking—what if it was us? It could have been us.”
“No, it couldn’t. Iris is a good ship, this wouldn’t happen. Captain wouldn’t let it happen.”
His earnestness surprises me. I’d have expected more mocking. I approach quietly—as quietly as I can, in a suit, bouncing against walls to control my momentum.
Rally and Gert are helmet to helmet, faces pressed as close together as they can, holding each other’s arms. I can see their profiles in the halo of their helmet lamps. Gert is talking, Rally nods.
“You going to be okay?” Gert says.
“Yeah. Sorry. I just let it get to me. I’m okay now. I’m okay.”
“Good. I need your help. I need you.”
They gaze at each other. I back away and leave them alone. Head to the airlock, where Horace comes aboard to help me with the bodies.
• • •
We’ve been here two days, working in shifts, when Gert reports.
“I can’t get power online, Captain. Not with what we have here. She’s cooked.”
That was always a possibility, and we have a plan for this. We mark the Radigund’s position, place a beacon tagging Trade Guild property, though I doubt any other ship looking for salvage will find it. A cruiser with the power to tow the ship will have to retrieve it. Unless Trade Guild decides to junk her and let her float out here, a dead shell, forever.
We undock and leave, taking a course to the nearest star system for the burial. Radigund is a dark hulk in space. Her stories, the thousand little mundane events that happen every day aboard any ship, are her own. Gone, now.
Matthews heads the briefing around the galley table. Scenes like this play out thousands of times, on hundreds of ships. A thousand little events. Gert and Rally are sitting next to each other, and I can’t remember that ever happening before. They’re side by side, shoulders brushing, on the bench attached to the wall.
“Engine failure due to a corruption in the fuel cell line,” he said. “There was a cascading failure in all systems after that. They were working on getting the engine back online when power to life support cut off. It was the compression system. Air pressure went fast.” Air pressure went, temperature dropped, and the portable oxygen only lasted so long.
“Clancy, take a look at our fuel lines. Just in case,” I say. “Thank you, all of you. Your professionalism has helped make a difficult situation go smoothly and is noted.” Commendations go into the log, into personnel files, and they all know it. Maybe it’ll help.
I start to walk out, to give them the space to vent or complain or laugh or cry without their captain looking on. Rally reaches out when I walk past her and takes my hand. A quick warm squeeze and a smile of comfort. It’s enough to make my own eyes sting.
I squeeze her hand back and continue out of the galley.
Spread the word!