With the coming of the supplement, The Dronescourge Returns, Tim Bancroft has given us a serialised story to fill in the background. Previously, we saw Ghar Commander Shaltok board a vast ship, a ‘Transient Observation Report’, #563 – that on which the supplement is set. We continue with Part 2, chapters 3 and 4 and follow Shaltok on his exploration of the mysterious city-ship…
The scouts returned and reported the all-clear; having found nothing to interest them, the probes sank into rest mode to conserve power. Beyond the landing bay were what resembled lift shafts, all locked shut, and bulkhead iris accesses – also locked shut. In each case an attempt had been made to burn and destroy the locking mechanism, just as in the hangar. There were no signs of life, no lights, and apparently no power but something had been maintaining a breathable atmosphere and the artificial gravity. Armoured Ghar forced open the human-sized doors.
‘It’s just workshops, as far as we can tell,’ reported Wolf-1. ‘Repair facilities, and a few storage bays – empty – and offices with desks and screens.’
‘Display screens? Not three dimensional displays?’
‘Projection terminals, sir, I mean. Groups of lenses that project things onto a wall or piece of glass.’ Shaltok opened his mouth to ask a question, but the scout continued. ‘None worked – no power.’
‘None we could find, sir. Nor any weapon control stations.’
‘Have you checked out any maintenance or air conduits?’
‘There may be some but we haven’t found any. The air might just be flowing through the ceiling. And if there are any maintenance corridors, they’re well hidden.’
Perhaps it was automated. Miniature robots or something. The tectorist was standing before him expectantly. ‘Well done. Thank you, ah, Wolf-1. Dismissed.’ The tectorist saluted, barely touching its knuckles to its forehead, and sauntered back to where his squad were divvying up their supplies.
Shaltok poured the additional data into his crawler’s analysis unit and created a map of the deck that they had explored. The area was still only a tiny fraction of the length of the ship, never mind about the other decks above and below theirs and compared it with scans and images taken from the Ghar transport. Whilst some parts of the wreck’s hull had been damaged, whether by weapons fire or collision, it seemed that the damage did not penetrate too far into the hull, other than towards the stern. The ship is still intact. And we’re going to have to break through or fix every bulkhead door to go anywhere. But why were they sealed in the first place?
For now, it meant only one thing: assume the ship was recoverable and slip onto an alternate plan-path. He checked the schematic again and opened the link to the Bearer. ‘Shaltok to Captain Dramak.’
Dramak answered immediately, must have been waiting. ‘Captain speaking. Status?’
‘Switching to alternate plan, AR-5.’
‘You believe the ship is recoverable?’
‘Confirmed. Requesting bridge and engineering crew.’
‘And locate a bridge and engineering section. Of course, Captain. Planned activities AR-6 through AR-8.’ He’s making me into a Project Manager, not a Force Commander!
‘Be aware we’ll have to detach once the ship crew are aboard, Commander. The plasma flows are rising fiercely and creating some dangerous eddies and heat sinks. We are at risk of collision.’
‘Understand. To success.’
‘To success, Commander.’ The line went dead.
Shaltok switched to a broadcast frequency. ‘Force 9-5, we are having to separate from the transport. We are taking ship crew members aboard, will lay claim to this vessel and pilot her to the closest Ghar system. As of now this is a Ghar vessel. Plan AR is now in effect.’ He allocated routes and paths to the squad assignments. ‘Three search teams will be formed. Two, with tectorists and crew specialists are to hunt for the ship’s bridge and engineering – Dobat and Tren 7-32-19 will lead. Those looking for a secure operations centre are with me. To success.’ He reassigned armoured squads and cannon to the search parties, kept most of the Outcasts with his crawler and assigned one of Fartok’s Outcast techs to each team.
He was on his own again, in command: the thought was deeply satisfying. How can the Rebels argue against such proof of our purpose? Once more, he found his philosophical reflection interfering with his work. He focused on the disbursement of his force. Let’s see what we can find.
Shaltok stared down at clouds in the abyss below, looked up and saw mist. He was standing on a platform at the edge of a central canyon that ran through the wreck. By the condition of the walls that he could see it was part of the construction, its purpose unknown. Did they just like the view? Above and below, his team’s spotlights showed it extending for a giddying hundred yan or more – up and down – before disappearing into the mist and clouds. Across from him was a sheer wall, though 200 yan away in the mist, and spanning the divide were bridges in styles varying from slender to solid, open and enclosed. At intermittent spacing, clear paths around what looked like rails ran along the sides of the canyon. A mass transit system? To the stern, the spinal canyon fading into the distance; to the bow, on the opposite wall, were distant lights shining from windows. Or are they reflections of the light of Antares off platforms like ours?
He looked around him: there were no handrails or protection on the platform, as if those constructing it were careless of heights. Or considered such excessive safety a waste of time. Like Ghar. There was another option, that the bridge and platform edges were originally protected by other devices, the invisible fields of force – or whatever it was – on which the humans raised their vehicles and drones. On closer look he could see ridges along the edge of the nearest spans. Projectors? There was no way to know.
Shaltok peered into the gloom of the spinal canyon. It’s too big. How are we going to discover what we need? He mounted his crawler and allowed the driver to snap in his neural connectors. An image appeared from a flitter he had sent forward to the limit of its range: dim lights from a bank of windows and balconies overlooking the canyon, similarly subdued lighting on the intermittently-spaced platforms. He opened channels to the Force Leaders and shared the images. ‘Bridge team: caution, we have seen lights ahead overlooking a spinal canyon.’ The bridge or control centre may not be forward but it seemed most likely on a vessel that could fit lengthways into an Antarean wormhole, with engineering in the middle or towards the back. Assuming that front is where we think it is. ‘Engineering team: Report.’
‘Still searching rearwards, sir,’ responded Force Leader Dobat. ‘Outside the immediate vicinity of the landing bay, the door controls are operable. Ship deserted; mostly storerooms and administrative centres on this level as far as we can determine. In places partitioning has been stripped away, but it’s random.’
In the hour they had been exploring his was the only team who had strayed to upper levels, as planned. ‘Very well. Bridge team, report.’
‘Noth…’—a hiss—‘…eport.’ The transmission from Tren broke up completely, crackles and hisses interfering with reception.
Shaltok frowned. ‘Tech, tidy that up.’
‘I have, sir. That’s the best I can do.’
‘Umm, possibly, sir. Or heavy-duty shielding. Even a large power source between us and them.’
‘Why are their status indicators still showing green?’
‘Lower bandwidth and, err, simpler messages, sir. It’s more likely to get through.’ Status lights flickered into amber, then back to green. ‘Like that, sir.’ The tech sounded relieved.
Shaltok felt the absence of information and the possible threat as a nagging pain in one arm, no doubt a neural response induced by his connection to the command crawler. Neither force has reported the spinal canyon. Which means both have found easy fore-and-aft access corridors. ‘We move forward,’ he said. ‘As close to the spinal canyon as we can.’ His force clattered into motion – with one exception.
‘Where’s the Slavemaster?’ asked Shaltok. He ran a hand over his grid, pulled up the location of the Outcast Slavemaster, his head technician. The tech was playing with an iris door’s control panel, jumping through the door, closing it behind him, opening it again and jumping back. A skitter was trying to follow him, clambering over the combing and back again, almost getting a leg cut off.
Shaltok halted his crawler beside the Slavemaster, turned off the amplification. ‘What are you doing?’
The Slavemaster looked up, surprised. ‘Checking the doors. I noticed something odd, sir.’
The Slavemaster took out a screwspanner, took apart the door controls and left the wires and controls dangling haphazardly. He pointed with the tool. ‘Notice how it resembles the destroyed control plate we saw in the hangar.’ He stepped through, pressed the panel on the other side. The iris doors spiralled together, locked with a clunk. Seconds later the iris spiralled opened and the Slavemaster tech stepped through. He held apart the wires, pointed to various interfaces. ‘Notice how they can be wired to ignore whatever has happened to the panel on the other side.’
Shaltok looked where the tech pointed and realised he could make neither head nor tail of what he was being shown. Not my job, of course. ‘Are you implying the controls in the hangar bay were destroyed to stop someone coming in?’
The Slavemaster thought for a moment. ‘Hadn’t thought of that, but yes.’ He shrugged. ‘I just noticed that the wiring on the hangar bay area doors was different to those we encountered subsequently.’ He looked up at Shaltok. ‘The technology here is human, but it is closer to our own. I can find no evidence of their reintegration-and-transmission pads, for example.’
‘No human technology can be close to ours,’ snapped Shaltok. He surprised himself. Careful. Is that an ingrained response?
The tech bowed his head. ‘Sorry, sir. I misspoke. I’m just a tech.’ Shaltok glared at the Outcast who turned red. ‘Ah, I mean, I’m just an interested Slavemaster, sir.’
No one can acknowledge they were Fartok’s techs. ‘Very good… Slavemaster. Now join your squad.’ The Outcast saluted, picked up his maglash and trotted away. Shaltok pulled up earlier images of the dismantled door control pads in the landing bay: there was almost no dust on the damaged controls. No reintegration devices. So they rely on the doors. And this is a recent vandalism: there is almost certainly someone – or something – aboard.
Genetically-fixed instincts stepped in and he switched to a priority local broadcast. ‘All squads. Double to support the Bridge team. Expect hostiles.’ His fingers danced over the control array in time with his neural linkages: flitters far forward, tectorists opening doors, assault suits leading the way and flanked by battle suits, Outcasts to either side and inspecting smaller spaces for potential ambushes. A warning was flashed to the Engineering team. ‘Hostiles suspected forward, Dobat. Imperative you find engineering controls.’ Dramak’s plan doesn’t quite cope with this, thought Shaltok, and was startled to find himself rather satisfied by the realisation.
The bridge or a command centre was now a secondary priority. It was more important to protect his troops, deal with the residents and control the ship’s power supply.