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 find an abadoned control centre on the vast ‘Transient Observation Report 563’.
We continue here with Part 4, chapter 6, in which Shaltok finds his Ghar are not alone on the city-ship.
The wreck’s just too big, thought Shaltok. He and his search teams had barely covered a dozen decks out of perhaps 500. Maybe more. Even now, Dobat was hiking back from the stern to return to the control centre and had a kiloyan or more to go. Shaltok had left the bridge crew to investigate the controls still further, leaving his Outcast technicians with them to lend ‘assistance’.
He had no choice but to focus on the area he knew was occupied before digging out any other potential dangers aboard the vast city-liner. Here, now, tectorists crept forward ahead of his exploration force, quietly-clicking skitters to either side. The faint sounds of both were drowned out by the background thrumm of the giant ship and the pings, clinks and cracking sounds of the journey through the new Antarean wormhole. Shaltok kept his flitters back, concerned about the buzzing of their wings and their invariable curiosity.
His crawler’s comm crackled to life. ‘AR7 Engineering reporting, sir.’
Comms is back! ‘Scratch the plan, Dobat; it no longer applies.’ He opened a secure wide channel. ‘All squads: the dampening effect lasts for only a hundred yan around the control centre. Locals may be aware of our presence from transmissions.’ He switched back to Dobat. ‘Force Leader Dobat, send an engineering crew to the control centre with an Outcast escort. The rest of your force is to cross the spinal canyon and advance up towards the prow on the larboard side, stick to a few levels below us if you can.’
‘Advance up the larboard side deep; ship engineers to core with escort. Yes, sir. Commander, we found a deck above the landing bay with higher ceilings and wide open spaces. There was wild flora, possibly farmland, and massive hydroponic bays, automated. In the farm areas, my bombers have clear firing lines.’
‘Excellent. Deploy them as appropriate.’ He quickly deployed the remaining bombers from his combined teams to higher floors. He reassigned forces on his crawler’s command console, detached a flitter shard to buzz ahead of the new bomber group. The views from the skitters were sharp, only occasionally lined with interference from the bulkheads or reactors.
A private command channel blinked, attracting Shaltok’s notice. Strange. What does Dobat want? He pulled up a quiet hood and opened the channel.
Dobat came on the line immediately. ‘Sir, we’ve also seen several types of drone or ‘bot.’
‘So has Tren,’ replied Shaltok. ‘Details?’
‘Transmitting.’ On Shaltok’s combat array appeared a recording: a pair of large, angular drones hovering around a ruined stanchion, cutting it out with what looked like plasma torches. A beam clanged to the deck and the drones lifted it, then disappeared off into the mists. A short while later a small opening appeared in the corridor walls and a smaller, domed drone slowly wheeled itself out and extruded manipulators. It cleaned up the mess of metal pieces and retreated back into the wall. The hatch closed and the corridor wall was seamless once more.
‘Did you send a skitter after it?’ asked Shaltok.
‘No, sir. We tried, but could not even find the opening. We tried a scourer burst, but it barely damaged the walls. We’ve only had a couple of other sightings, and those near the stern.’
‘We need to find how much automation is still active. Explore every sighting.’
‘Yes, sir. Out.’
Shaltok re-examined his deployment. Dobat’s forces would approach from the stern, though they were currently half a kiloyan away. The sweeping bomber forces would curve round onto the suspected inhabited decks whilst his own force approached from the bow. Maybe we can capture some humans to operate the ship or serve us whilst we’re trapped.
* * *
A skitter’s feed showed lights in numerous windows spanning a few decks – how many it was impossible to tell – and for about 200 yan in length. The lights were the only sign of any life on the otherwise dark spinal canyon. Five cubic kiloyan of starship, and all we can find is one small group of residents? Castaways, perhaps? Mists swirled beneath the flitter. Circulation currents? A hull leak? His command crawler could not offer no reply to his questions and Shaltok made a note to ask the engineering crew. He took one last look at the feeds from the rest of the scouts – they were quiescent, seeing nothing around them but Ghar: Dobat and the bombers were in position. As much as we can tell on this empty hulk, at least.
‘Strike group 9-5-Shaltok, advance at the double.’ His crawler shuddered into life and it rattled along the corridor. Ahead ran Outcasts and the released flitters, behind him a battle squad clattered, its weapons ready. On parallel corridors ran the rest of his Ghar. He checked round the small force visually, noticed some of the Outcasts panting heavily. Maybe I will need them to do more strenuous stamina training.
There was no reply from ahead. Flitters reported barricades of mangled metal across the main corridors – all of them. Human-height shapes appeared in openings, instantly attracting the attention of the flitters. Lens magnification showed them standing almost motionless, stupefied with shock at the Ghar running towards them.
Not for long. Shaltok’s array was soon filled with images. The humans raised weapons, fired, and the lines of ancient lasers flickered across the space, only visible as they caught dust motes in the air. The weapon fire downed a few flitters but made no mark on the heavy armour of the battlesuits. The red lines shifted, targeted the charging Outcasts. Several fell and were kicked aside by their fellows as they charged closer. Then the Ghar weapons came into range and before Shaltok could restrain his troops, scourers lashed out and disruptor cannon fired, enclosing the barricades and human fighters in waves of dark, roiling implosions.
The haze cleared, the residue of the disruptors’ destruction fading into dark flames, twisted shapes that disappeared as local reality reasserted itself. The corridors were still largely intact but holes had been punched through the bulkheads and barricades beyond. They are not strong enough to cope with disruptors. Interesting. ‘Ghar, attack!’ snarled Shaltok, needlessly, but the troops to either side began their high-pitched howling, anyway. More human shapes appeared from behind the collapsed bulkhead, began firing weapons, some the ineffectual, ancient lasers but mostly they bore rifles reminiscent of luggers and mag-guns.
‘Prioritise mag weapons,’ barked Shaltok. He was dimly aware of fights developing at the end of the other spans. Outcasts howled into the widening hole in the barricades, shot indiscriminately into the corridors beyond. There were screams. ‘Outcasts clear aside!’ Shaltok swiped his armoured troopers forward: to them belonged the true fight.
Then his crawler was behind the barricade in the enemy corridors. At such close range, in tight corridors, there was no escape from the scourers and gougers. One enemy group stood their ground and were sent cowering behind their collapsed fellows when an assault squad pushed through and tore them limb from limb.
Hush fell, broken only by distant screams of fleeing humans. A short fight.
Shaltok checked his array: he had suffered few losses, a suit damaged by concentrated mag gun fire, a few Outcasts dead and injured, but on the whole his Ghar had done extremely well. Except the enemy were not geared up to fight and were not particularly accurate. The human bodies closest to him seemed fit and healthy enough – though judging human fitness was always a problem. They were of both major sexes, as far as he could tell, and mixed in age. He turned away before the bile rose in his throat.
‘All squads, spread out and advance inwards. Terror protocol. Drive the humans into the oncoming claws. Capture slaves. Report immediately any weapons more advanced than those we have seen.’ Acknowledgements flashed on his overlay and his squads fanned out into side corridors; the sounds of scourers, plasma and disruptor grenades accompanied the screams of humans, the signs of terror being spread.
The corridors he passed through were greasy with blood and bodies. To either side, within the storage rooms and workshops of these inhabited levels, were piles of equipment, spools of cable, racks of disparate technological goods, cobbled-together workbenches and tools. The humans have been scavenging a long time. In one area a food processing plant had been erected; in cabin suites and large staterooms. cups and bowls had been scattered, chairs and tables overturned; a well-equipped hospital was off to one side, though was empty other than sparkling equipment; in the warehouses, huge hydroponic stacks stood next to massive slabs of bewilderingly complex, yet dust-bedecked, unused, machinery. This is a self-subsistent village, primitive, in a tiny portion of this giant, ancient starship. But, more importantly, they have food!
A call flashed in from Dobat. ‘Commander, we’ve spread to cover several of the higher level. Minor resistance. We’ve come across gardens, large open spaces set up with park and cropland, some have an artificial sun overhead. Locals are surprised to see us: they’re retreating.’
Shaltok acknowledged, opened the wide-band channel. ‘All 9-5-Shaltok halt. Expect locals coming from forward high. Demand surrender.’ If they can live here, so can we.
* * *
The humans had been corralled and guards appointed, mostly those Ghar on punishment detail. Shaltok looked out over one of the cropland areas Dobat had mentioned, both Dobat and Tren standing beside him and the Slavemaster-tech standing behind them both. The crops look well-tended. The humans were organised, at least. ‘Speak,’ Shaltok finally said. ‘You two are my most trusted aides. What news from the interrogation?’
‘Well, sir,’ said Dobat, ‘You are now Captain of a ship, it seems.’
‘Thank you. Are you sure their leaders are telling the truth?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Tren. ‘They are the only remaining inhabitants. PanHuman Senatex, they call themselves.’
‘Senatex or Concord?’
Tren shrugged. ‘They insist on both, even when they were told that the Isori are no longer part of the PanHuman alliance.’
‘It seems they have been here a long time,’ said Dobat, ‘And have defended themselves from all invaders.’
‘Hence the sealed doors. What happened to their wonder-toys, their subspace equipment and drones?’
Dobat scratched his head. ‘From what your Slavemaster and I understand, their ancestors were explorers, arky-yoglists or something’—Dobat glared at the Slavemaster—‘who disabled the ship’s control centre when they first came onboard. Then the ship attacked them. With Narno-fay-jees, they say.’
‘Nanophages, sir,’ corrected the Slavemaster. He saw Dobat’s thunderous look, briefly cowered. ‘Sorry, sir.’
‘What are they?’ asked Shaltok. He saw Dobat’s confusion. ‘Nanophages, I mean.’
‘Ah. Small combat things, apparently,’ said Dobat. ‘They attacked their narno-sphere, their shard.’
‘Can we believe them?’ asked Shaltok. Dobat nodded. ‘What about the drones we saw?’
‘They know only of the smaller, cleaning drones, sir. They have recently glimpsed the larger, angular scavengers but have little knowledge of the rest of the ship.’
‘Despite being here so long?’
‘Explorers were sent out early on, but when they found there was no advantage to moving from where they were, they stayed put.’
‘A decaying tribe of humans.’ Shaltok spat the words, could not help but feel a sense of superiority. Ghar would never sink so low. ‘What do they know about the ship’s defences and weapons?’
‘The humans disabled the controls once the ship destroyed their own weapons. We saw that on the control centre, sir.’
Tren interrupted. ‘The ship has intact weapons. The bridge crew say it could even use them if the control stations were rebuilt or if the limiter in the control centre was switched off.’
‘Interesting. Can the humans do that for us?’
‘I do not believe so. They have lived here for centuries, unable to get off the ship or control it. All the serviceable emergency craft or other ships and shuttles were used by the original crew.’
‘So why didn’t the humans do more? I know they lack the fundamentals, but even for them…’
The Slavemaster raised his hand. ‘Sirs, I think I know.’ Dobat frowned, but Shaltok waved at the Slavemaster to continue. ‘I think the humans used their subspace metacomm system to communicate and share data, especially within the Concord or Senatex. I think they were unable to learn without their metacomm. They may have been left with their own, internal, er, nanothingies, but had to rebuild their knowledge from the ground up.’ The Slavemaster stared round at the three officers. ‘They had been thrown back to being little more than apes.’
‘What’s the point of that?’ asked Dobat, puzzled. ‘If you don’t have anyone who knows their stuff, then…’ He trailed off, frustration obvious in his features. ‘I don’t understand how a species can survive like that.’
Shaltok could not suppress a shiver. How indeed? Perhaps the empire’s doctrine is correct, he thought. This is proof we truly are superior to the humans. We always have our specialists, always know what we need to know, straight from decanting.
‘They are human,’ said Tren. Dobat nodded at the statement.
Shaltok cleared his throat. ‘We know human approaches are inferior to our own, but I must assume the ship had its own narno-whatsits, what do you call it, Slavemaster: subspace metacomm?’
The Slavemaster nodded. ‘I think they died out in the battle between the ship and the villagers, or stowaways, sir. Mutual destruction, from what they told Force Leader Dobat.’
‘Did you use more persuasive interrogation techniques?’
‘No,’ said Dobat. ‘There was no need – the mere threat was enough. We can use intensive techniques later, if you wish, sir.’
‘No need for that, right now. Any reason we do not just recycle them?’ Tren and Dobat glanced at one another; the Slavemaster immediately bore an expression of innocence. ‘Fine,’ sighed Shaltok. ‘Show me the problem.’
Continued in Part V.