With the coming of the new supplement, ‘The Dronescourge Returns’, Tim Bancroft has given us a serialised story to fill in the background. Previously, we saw Ghar Commander Shaltok start exploring a peculiar ship, a vast ‘Transient Observation Report’, TOR #563. We continue here with Part 3, chapter 5, in which Shaltok discovers an uncomfortable truth about the abandoned city-ship!
Shaltok felt acutely uncomfortable, pins and needles all over his body. It was a translation by his neural plugs of a glitch in the crawler’s sensory input: status flags of his troops were alternating between ‘safe’, ‘active’, ‘destroyed’, ‘contact failed’ and other intermediate statuses he could barely remember from training exercises and Command Crawler operational manuals. The images sent back from the flitters were no help, either, being grainy and full of interference. He could scarcely make out what the images depicted: a globe close to 40 yan in diameter appeared to hover in the centre of a spherical space over twice its size. Closer inspection showed the globe was supported by gently arched spans and twisting strands of filigree that linked it to the walls of the sphere. Where the spans connected were the darkened entrances, suggesting corridors of widely varying sizes.
Shaltok summoned his Slavemaster-tech. ‘Any idea what that ornamental stuff is?’
The Outcast examined the grainy pictures intently. ‘Not too sure, sir, but my guess is they serve as control or power cables.’ It pointed to shafts coming from the sphere at angles almost vertical to the ship’s internal gravity alignment. ‘I’d guess these are lift shafts, too. Some of the spans are at angles of one third vertical which would make them difficult to climb, unless—’
‘One assumes they would not want to run those vertically into a control centre aligned with the ship. The bridge spans must have their own gravitic orientation. Very good, Slavemaster.’
Shaltok’s flitters darted to one side, attracted by movement. The images revealed a solitary tectorist jogging over one of the spans. More movement and the flitters shifted again, but this time it was his own tectorists escorting the scout to report personally to him. Tren may not have secured this end of the bridge, but at least he’s operating by the book when comms have failed.
The tectorist stumbled to attention in front of him, breathing heavily. Nonetheless, it saluted. ‘Gambit-4, sir. Force Leader Tren reports no contact but has found a control room. It’s not… well, he suggests you see for yourself, sir.’
‘Sort of,’ said the tectorist, toying with its tector rod. ‘Most of the controls are damaged.’
‘The useful ones. You need to see, sir. Really. Force Leader Tren also said it resolved the power supply issues.’
‘Fine. Lead us.’ Shaltok waved to the rest of his force, used his crawler’s speakers to issue the orders. ‘Converge on the control sphere. Squads Battle-9-5-1 and Assault-9-5-3 to cover this end of the bridge.’ He had the crawler lead the way forward and ignored the erratically flashing status lights on his console and combat array: he could actually see a third of his troupe after all.
The span was the same width as many of the corridors, about a yan, and like the other bridges had no rails or invisible barriers to prevent a fall. Scratches on its surface showed the passage of Tren’s suits and scutters but otherwise it was in excellent condition.
A thought occurred to Shaltok. ‘Gambit-4, have you encountered cleaning or maintenance robots, yet? Any automation like the humans’ drones?’
‘None, sir. But the place is fairly clean, even where material’s been scavenged.’
Scavenged? By who? We have seen no-one. He thought of the few lit windows and openings they had seen. It is sensible to hide from Ghar, of course. But the ship must still be able to maintain itself. Shaltok considered the now-quiescent projectors along the edge of the span, the lack of retaining force fields, the impression of immense age and decay exuded from the ship. But it is not in a ruinous state. That meant only one thing. ‘Gambit-4, keep a lookout for maintenance drones and technology.’ The tectorist acknowledged and signed off.
Tren was waiting for Shaltok where the bridge entered the central globe. ‘Sir, my team achieved conditional success.’
Shaltok winced. How formal we are, how much we have to associate with success. ‘If you have discovered a control centre, how come it is conditional?’
‘I have to show you, sir.’ Tren waved to a narrower corridor that ran around the inside wall of the globe: suits were resting, cracked open, but guarded by a pair of Assault Troopers and Outcast disruptor cannon. ‘The only access is through human-sized doorways in solid bulkheads.’ He gestured to an iris door in the wall. Around it, the black-rimmed signs of recent scourer blasts showed where he had tried to blast his way through. ‘There are circumference corridors like this one above and below us. All the bridges connect to one of these three.’
Tren clambered up to help Shaltok unfasten the neural interfaces as he barked out final orders. ‘Bombers, guard the bridge; crawler, keep monitoring; bodyguard, dismount, and with me.’ The tech-gunner and the driver looked at each other, then down at their dysfunctional instruments; they might have shrugged but Shaltok ignored them. ‘Force Leader Tren: show me.’ I’m starting to sound like every Force Commander I hated. Shaltok beckoned to the Slavemaster-tech. ‘Accompany me, Slavemaster.’ Tren led the way through the iris and the Slavemaster followed behind, looking intently at the walls and ceiling as if he could discern the technology behind their armoured surface.
Beyond the iris was a narrow passage that ran forward then turned sharply back on itself. It continued like a labyrinth, alternating straight lengths with sharp cut-backs. Tren pointed out lenses at each corner that were sighted to target down the straights. ‘Weapons, probably lasers or coherent energy,’ said Tren. ‘They are disabled. The whole area is designed for defence – even the walls are armoured. I thought it best not to try a disruptor bomb.’ They climbed steps – not a lift or shaft – and ended up in a small foyer in which two troopers stood guard in front of another, larger iris door. One saluted; the other pressed the door panel and the iris spiralled open to reveal a hollow globe over 10 yan in diameter.
Shaltok stopped, astonished by the space he now saw. Walkways spiralled round the edge up to the ceiling where they turned into gangways. There was a single span to a central platform on which sat an array of five command stations and one of the Outcast techs, currently examining a cylindrical object as tall as a Ghar: it looked out of place, of a smooth design different to the rest of the bridge. Around the walls were two-dimensional display screens and what appeared to be operations stations, human sized, many damaged, burnt or with their covers ripped off to reveal the interior. Ghar bridge crew walked from station to station, scratching their heads in puzzlement.
The Slavemaster ran across the narrow span to join his fellow Outcast tech. They jabbered excitedly, the tech pointing out a twisted cats-cradle of cabling that ran from the cylinder.
‘Who did this?’ asked Shaltok, gesturing to the damaged stations. ‘How come the ship still functions?’
‘‘They were like it when we arrived. The Slavemaster’s bodyguard seems to think that it is mostly control that is destroyed, not function.’ Tren pointed at a few stations. ‘Weapons and internal defences are disabled, for example, as is any station able to adversely affect life support. Someone has tried to access the thrust consoles, too, but apparently got nowhere.’
Shaltok nodded, then stared pointedly at the Outcast tech examining the out-of-place object on the central platform. ‘Why is the Outcast looking at that cylinder?’
‘That is the source of our problems.’ Tren led the way up the curving ramp to the platform. Close up, the cylinder could be seen to be twisted, studded with nodules, display lights and primitive switches. It had been fused to the deck and cables led from it to each of the five consoles surrounding a command chair. The twisted cylinder looked as if it had been shot by lugger guns, the marks suggesting the bullets had ricocheted off elsewhere into the bridge. Shaltok glanced from the marks to Tren, who shrugged off the attention. ‘We had to try.’
The Outcast tech patted the cylinder. ‘Commander Shaltok, sir. This is the cause of the comms problems. It’s blocking all transmissions for almost a 100 yan in every direction, probably intended to prevent anyone interfacing with the damaged bridge stations.’
‘You cannot disable it?’
‘Not yet, sir. It is booby-trapped, I think with an explosive fusion device.’ He grimaced. ‘It is … human, technology, sir, so operates on no sensible lines. It will take days, even weeks to understand and disable.’
‘Look.’ Tren gestured at a group of displays. Shaltok turned and jumped as the images on the distant surface appeared to leap towards him when he focused on them. Just by staring at the displays, they instantly enlarged to dominate his vision, though the perspective and colours were wrong. Built for inferior human eyes, no doubt. The image Tren had indicated showed an exterior view, their own troopship half-hidden by tendrils of twisting and streaming plasma flows. ‘Real time views. Cameras on the hull, no doubt.’
‘This is more interesting,’ said the Outcast tech, ignoring protocol. He pointed to another display, a set of simple bar charts. ‘We think this shows a summary of power reserves.’ As he watched, Shaltok could see the bars climb a notch. ‘It seems to be recharging its capacitors.’
‘Why? From where? We sensed no power source.’
‘I think it may be using the heat and light from the Antares Nexus itself.’ The Outcast pointed to another screen. ‘This shows that some recharging points are damaged – it keeps switching from red markers to locations where the hull has been blown away.’
‘You have achieved a lot in a short space of time. How certain are you of this?’
‘Ver—‘ began the tech. He stopped under Shaltok’s gaze. ‘Umm, it’s mostly informed extrapolation, sir, from known data. I’ve worked with abominable human tech before, as you know.’
The Outcast tech looked uncomfortable. ‘Well, yes, but knowledgeable guesswork.’
Tren turned to face another bank of mostly blank displays. ‘Commander Shaltok, you might want to see these.’
The displays zoomed into focus and Shaltok saw all the ramps on the exterior of the globe. He flicked from image to image, noticed the guards he had posted trying to watch every ramp in sight. ‘I see. This is why you did not post any guards.’
‘Until you arrived I had someone here at all times. The guards cannot see the opposite side of the command globe, and we can only get there by travelling round the circumferential corridor. We haven’t yet been able to map the layout of the internal security corridors.
‘What’s that?’ Motion caught Shaltok’s eye. The image focused to reveal steam in one corridor erupting from small nozzles protruding from near the floor of the bulkheads. ‘We didn’t see any of those.’
‘No, sir. Wait.’
The steam stopped, the nozzles retracted and the bulkhead faces were as flat as those Shaltok had already encountered. ‘A cleaning system?’ he asked, astonished.
‘Yes. They can also release some form of high-temperature plasma that fastens onto more adhesive detritus. And we’ve caught glimpses of different small drones picking material up – some blocky, like the ship, some angular, as if meant for a different purpose. We just don’t know, yet, though.’
‘You’ve done well, Tren,’ murmured Shaltok. ‘Everything’s automated, yes? There might be no-one here at all?’
‘I didn’t say that, sir.’ Tren adjusted his gaze slightly and Shaltok followed suit. ‘Surveillance cameras are down all over the vessel. Not only in the heavily damaged areas, as we expected, but also in huge numbers at the rear towards the keel, and others forward, on the larboard side.’ He gestured to other blank screens. ‘The bridge crew worked out some sort of logic to it. We’ve identified control systems for the lifts, lighting in some areas – though it only comes on when a living creature moves through it – and even a few of the rapid transit modules.’
Rapid transit? Excellent. Activate those and whatever else you can – other than internal defences, that is.’
‘Yes, sir. We’re on it. The Slavemaster’s bodyguard has been invaluable – I’ll have to find one of my own.’ The dryness in Tren’s tone suggested he was fully aware of the charade.
They’re mine! Shaltok hurriedly pointed to the blank screens. ‘We found a spinal canyon, saw lights on levels to the larboard and forward. I wondered if it was faulty maintenance.’
Tren looked alarmed. ‘I think not, sir. There must be others already on board.’ He gestured to an Outcast. ‘Runner, tell the suits to watch all gangways coming from the portside forward.’ The Outcast scurried away. Tren noticed Shaltok’s amusement. ‘With comms down I took a leaf from your book, sir, turned some of the brighter Outcasts into runners. They seem to like it.’
‘Sir?’ The Slavemaster pulled at Shaltok’s elbow, almost earning himself a backhanded slap.
‘Slavemaster!’ The Outcast tech jumped away, cowered down. Shaltok slipped his pistol back into its holster where he had instinctively half-drawn the weapon. ‘Go on.’
‘It’s the ship. Look!’ The Slavemaster pointed to a batch of screens that had suddenly come alight. Once more they wrapped around his vision as he stared. They showed an enhanced view of the outside, the plasma flows swirling and colliding together, jets of magnetised fire many kiloyan long…
‘Is that plasma forming into the shape of a funnel?’
‘Yes, sir. The ship was drifting, but has now been firing manoeuvring thrusters. It’s pushing us towards a new gate.’
‘Explain. Can the troopship follow us through?’
The Slavemaster gestured elsewhere. Shaltok glanced to one side, saw nothing but a confused display of numbers, charts, graphs and displays. The Slavemaster seemed awed. ‘It’s calculating the gate frequency. Look!’ He almost squeaked with alarm as, on the screen, the funnel expanded, solidified, then morphed into a dark-coloured tunnel leading into the heart of the giant star-machine. Thrusters shone bright blue against the orange of Antares as the ship turned to meet the gate bow-on, then its huge bulk gathered pace as it was pulled towards the tunnel mouth. Moments later the external monitors shifted to a kaleidoscope of twisting, writhing colour as the ship found itself wrapped by the winding interior of the Antarean gate.
Tren could not help himself. ‘The ship’s discovered a new gate!’
Shaltok’s heart raced. ‘Can the Bearer of Triumph follow us?’ he snapped.
‘Once it calculates the key, most likely,’ suggested the Slavemaster-tech. ‘But it cannot join us in the tunnel. It has its own bubble.’ It shrugged. ‘There’s no knowing how long the transition through the tunnel will take, either.’ It glanced at Tren, then to Shaltok and added, ‘Sir.’
Shaltok nodded in satisfaction. ‘Until then, we’re on our own.’ He felt a surge of elation. I am free, my own command! ‘We’ll exit ahead of it, on our own.’ Dramak’s plan has failed; I am cut off, free of orders. But with a ship I cannot control. ‘It’s time to explore, find who is on this ship with us.’
The story continues in Episode IV.
 About 50m. A sizeable command centre globe!