Starflare – Ghosts (Rest of the story)

This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning

* * *

Joe grimaced as the Panther dropped out of hyperspace.  The transition wasn’t exactly painful, but it was always unpleasant.  For several seconds his body felt as if things weren’t quite in the right place.  Then the universe snapped back into existence around them, distant stars and galaxies once more visible.  And something much closer which the scanners were already identifying.

“A ship!” Janine shouted.  “She did it!”

“Of course she did,” Joe answered.  “Did you doubt her?  Dave, what have we got?”

Dave was hunched over the scanners, studying the information being revealed.

“A freighter.  Quite a big one.  If the cargo hold is full we’ll struggle to take everything.”

“Even if it’s not there should be plenty we can strip off the ship.  What sort of state is it in?”

“It’s… it’s still powered.”

“What?”

“It’s powered.  Engines, life support, everything.  There’s no sign of damage.”

“Then what’s it doing out here?  I don’t like this.”  He opened a comms channel.  “Doug, get four birds out.  Two to recon the area, two on close defence.  Get the others ready to launch too.”

“On it,” Doug replied.  “I’ll lead the close defence.  Trouble?”

“Maybe.  Our target is powered and undamaged.  That makes it being here damn suspicious.”

“Got it.  On our way.”

Joe saw the first pair of fighters appear on the sensors, swiftly followed by the second.  The first moved in close to the Panther, ready to provide defence if needed.  The other pair started to sweep the surrounding area, alert for any hint of danger. 

“Dave, are their weapons active?  What about their shields?”

“All energy weapons are powered down.  Shields are at baseline.”

Joe pondered that.  Baseline was a level somewhere between fifteen and twenty percent of full shield strength and was what ships would normally run with.  Increasing the strength took exponentially more power, so every step up in defence took far more power than the last.  Shields weren’t normally raised above baseline unless there was a risk of a fight or a dangerous environment with a lot of debris flying around.  The ship having its shields at baseline suggested it wasn’t preparing for a battle.

The energy weapons were powered down, another sign of a ship that wasn’t preparing to fight, though missiles and solid matter weapons could still be ready to fire in moments.  By contrast the Panther had its shields at ready level, roughly forty percent, and its beam weapons were charged and ready.  So far their target didn’t seem dangerous… yet something definitely felt off.

Joe spoke into the comm again.

“Blaze, were you listening in?”

“Of course, Captain.  My men are getting kitted up for hostile action now.”

“Good.  Make sure to remind them we don’t know what the situation is.  This might be a civilian ship with a real problem that needs our help.”

“I will.  Any response from them so far?”

Joe looked over at Dave who shook his head.  “Nothing except the identity beacon, Captain.  The ship’s called the Sundrenched, the stars alone know why.”

“Nothing so far,” Joe told Blaze.  “We should have lit up their sensors like a Christmas tree and Dave’s been hailing them too.  If there’s anyone home they’re not aware we’re here, they’re ignoring us, or they’re laying a trap for us.”

“Oh great,” Blaze replied.  “My three favourite scenarios.  Whatever happens we’ll probably get shot at, the only question will be whether shooting back makes us heroes or villains.”

“Well, you’ve got a few minutes yet.  No one is going anywhere till we’re sure there’s no nasty surprises lurking nearby.  Speaking of which… Doug, they’ve had long enough to reply now.  I don’t care about spooking them anymore, they’re doing enough of that to me.  I want the rest of the fighters up.  Two on intermediate defence, the other three on recon.  If this is a trap I want us to have as much warning as possible.”

“Sure Captain, but how could this be a trap?  How could anyone know we’d be coming here, unless… unless… Captain!  Our new friend might have led us straight into a trap.”

Sasha was sitting at a station several feet from Joe.  He saw her stiffen, then turn to him with a face like thunder.

“Captain!” she shouted.  “I would never do that!  You must believe me, I didn’t…”

“Enough!” roared Joe.  “Doug, I think that’s a damn unlikely scenario.  She didn’t even decide which bit of space to scan through, I did.  Even if you were right it wouldn’t change what we need to do now.  Just focus on your job and make sure we don’t get jumped by anyone.”

“Aye, Captain,” Doug growled, killing the connection.

Joe hit a button to broadcast ship-wide.

“All crew to combat stations.  All crew to combat stations.”

Most of the crew would be there anyway, not that it was a particularly big crew once the fighter pilots and troopers were taken out of the equation, but he wanted everyone to be ready.  The ship’s turret weapons were already charged, now the crews in them would know they needed to be ready for action at a moment’s notice.

“Dave, I need to know what you’ve got.”

“I’m not picking up any transmissions at all.  There’s nothing moving on the outside of the ship and no sign of anyone trying to signal us in any other way.  No lights flashing, nothing.”

“Alright, keep checking.  Doug, is there anything out there?”

“If there is then it’s running so dark it’d take minutes to become a danger.”

“Alright.  Keep two birds on recon.  We’re going to send two shuttles over.  I want you covering them all the way in.”

“On it.”

“Blaze, from the scans there’s an emergency airlock near the flight deck and a standard one near the engines.  I want both areas secured, then start a sweep.”

“Kicking in the door by the flight deck might seem a tad hostile,” Blaze replied.  “You sure?”

“I’m sure.  I want you leading that team.”

“Alright.  I’ll send four to the engine room, they can secure it.  The rest of us will take the bridge then sweep from there.  Do I get to fly?”

“No.  The flyboys are all out, though.  The doc and his intern can fly.  As long as they keep the shuttles buttoned up once you leave they’ll be safe, and that way they’re on hand if they’re needed.”

“Sounds good.  We’ll be ready to launch in two minutes.”

* * *

Blaze checked the time as the shuttles lifted from the deck, smiling as he saw they’d lifted three seconds under the two minute estimate.  He was in the lead shuttle, sitting in the co-pilot’s chair with Doc at the controls.

“You got your bag of tricks?” Blaze asked.

“Of course,” Doc replied.  “But maybe you clumsy oafs could try to avoid needing my help, just for once.”

“We hate to think of you getting bored.”

“Ferrying you lot to a ship sitting in the middle of nowhere, then waiting around to see who tries to break in once you’ve left?  Yeah, sounds like I’ll be snoring in no time.  Now be quiet and let me concentrate on getting us attached.”

“Sure, Doc.”

Blaze watched carefully as they approached.  He knew he could handle the manoeuvre far better than Doc, but that was part of the reason he wasn’t flying.  The Panther’s crew was small enough that everyone had to be able to handle several roles and practice whenever they got a chance.  Doc didn’t have the experience to handle the shuttle in a hot fire zone.  Blaze or one of the pilots would be flying in that situation.  Chances to practice hostile docking in relative safety didn’t come along often.

Not that Blaze was completely relaxed.  If something unexpected happened, if the apparently quiet ship they were approaching became hostile, he’d grab control.  His instincts were already screaming at him, reminding him that nothing was ever this easy.

The approach stayed quiet, though.  Doc brought the shuttle in slower than Blaze would have, but still at a reasonable speed, spinning it around during the final approach so the landing gear would make first contact.

Blaze fought to keep his hands off the controls as the distance to the target vanished.  The last thing Doc needed was to be distracted or to feel like Blaze was breathing down his neck.  Doc hit the thrusters at the last minute so they crunched down rather than smashing into the ship.

The hostile docking measures were already primed.  The moment the landing gear touched down powerful electromagnets activated and several harpoons blasted into the large ship’s surface.  Claws on the landing gear bit down into the target ship’s surface.  The devices worked perfectly, letting the shuttle cling on rather than bouncing back off.

“Nice landing, Doc,” Blaze said.  “We’re heading out.  Remember not to open the door to strangers!”

“You think there’ll be anyone there that’s stranger than you lot?” Doc shot back.  Blaze chuckled and shook his head.

* * *

Joe waited tensely, listening as the troopers headed out of the airlock and onto the Sundrenched.

“Exiting emergency airlock.  Area clear.  Moving towards the bridge.”

“Exiting main airlock.  Area clear.  Moving towards engineering.”

“Approaching bridge.  Still no contacts.  Bridge door is closed.”

“Bridge is not secured.  Should we open it up?”

“Wait one,” Blaze’s voice cut in.  “Captain, we good to go in?”

“Yes, but try to avoid shooting anyone unless you really have to.”

“Roger that.  Fumbles, Rat — you two are on point.  Captain says if you shoot anyone you shouldn’t then you can damn well walk home.  Got it?”

Joe grinned at that.  Other than Blaze the troopers weren’t in the comm circuit he’d spoken on.  He was listening in to theirs and could interrupt if he chose to but most of the time he stayed out and let Blaze coordinate everything.

All was quiet for a few moments, then he heard the sound of a door hissing open followed by running feet.

“Don’t panic.  We’re here to help.  We… area’s clear, Blaze.  No contacts on the bridge.”

“Alright, lets secure the bridge, then I want two teams of three sweeping the ship.  There must be someone somewhere.  Sparks, how’re you doing?”

“Just entered the engine room, Sarge.  No contacts.  Everything looks in good shape.  No signs of any problems down here.”

“Good.  Keep it secured.  We’ll sweep through the rest of the ship.”

Joe listened in as the troopers explored the ship over the next few minutes, not finding anything particularly useful other than the fact there had definitely been a crew at some point.

“Sarge, we’ve got… something.”

“Well Fumbles, don’t keep us all in suspense.  What’s up?”

“Food.  A meal.  Well, it was a meal once.  Must have been out here for a couple of weeks at least judging by the look of it.  Seems like a group of the crew were eating and they all decided to get up and leave halfway through.”

“Any sign of a fight?”

“No.  Other than the food being off I could imagine them coming back at any moment to finish the meal.”

“Alright.  Keep your eyes open.  Something must have happened.  We need to know what.”

* * *

“That’s it, Captain,” Blaze said over the comm channel.  “We’ve finished sweeping the ship.  There’s no one here.  No bodies and no sign of a fight, either.  I guess this is a salvage mission again.”

“Maybe,” replied Joe.  “I want to understand what happened there first, though.  How’s Sparks getting on with breaking into their systems?”

“He’s nearly done.  We should have access within a few minutes.”

“Good. Start cataloguing the cargo.  I want to grab what we need and get out of here.  Something about that ship feels off.”

“What do you think happened to them, Captain?”

“I don’t know.  Every scenario I can think of involves them either being attacked or having a major systems failure, but both would leave signs of a fight or a rushed exit.  We haven’t seen any trace of that.”

“Hopefully we’ll get more of an idea once Sparks has got us into their systems.”

“Yeah.  Hopefully.”

* * *

“The ghosts… the ghosts… they’ve got into the generators!  I don’t know how they did it but the generators are ready to blow.  They’re running hot and every safety cut-out has failed.  We can’t risk entering hyperspace, even if we made it we couldn’t get anywhere before the generators blew.  We have to get off the ship.  We have to get away!  I think… I think we’ll have to take the shuttles.”

Joe stopped the playback there.  He’d watched the clip a dozen times already but it still sent chills through him.  The video showed the captain of the Sundrenched and was the last but one recording Sparks had been able to retrieve.

Ghosts.  Joe would have laughed if he couldn’t see the man’s eyes, the look of horror on his face.  The captain had been terrified, so scared he was talking about using a short range shuttle to leave the ship while in the middle of interstellar space, rather than try to fix whatever was wrong with the generators.

Even then Joe would have written it off as a breakdown on the captain’s part if it wasn’t for the videos of the rest of the crew.  He’d reviewed thirty or more now, all of them talking about ghosts.  The stories varied from easily-explainable system failures to strange occurrences such as objects moving with video evidence they really did.  Whatever happened on the ship, the ghosts got the blame. 

There was no doubt the crew believed the ship to be haunted.  Joe was starting to consider the fact they might be right.  Several of his troopers had already reported hearing strange noises or seeing odd lights.  Were they just submitting to the peculiar atmosphere and the tales of what had happened to the crew?

At least they were nearly finished with the deserted ship.  Most of the cargo had been transferred already.  Soon the salvage operation would enter the next phase — taking the high value items from the Sundrenched itself.  They should be completely finished within forty minutes, then they could leave the haunted ship far behind.

He brought up the final video Sparks had retrieved.  The Sundrenched’s captain was almost unrecognisable.  The stress was gone, as was the fear.  He looked calm, relieved.  His voice was much firmer as he spoke.

“We’re saved.  Thank the stars, we’re saved.  I don’t know what the odds are of another ship being anywhere near here, let alone picking up our distress beacon, and I don’t care.  The Dazanter is here and it’s taking my crew as fast as they can cycle through the airlock.  There’s one more group going now, then I’ll go through on my own.  The captain should be last off his ship, of course, but I’ll be more than happy to leave the Sundrenched to the ghosts… for as long as it lasts.”

The video cut off there, leaving more questions than answers.  One in particular was bugging Joe.  He opened a comm channel.

“Sparks,” he said.  “Have you finished yet?”

“I’d have told you if I did, Captain.”

“I know.  Sorry.  Something about this whole situation has me on edge.”

“Just one thing?  I can name five off the top of my head.  Ah… wait a second… here we go… make that six things.  I’ve finished searching the Sundrenched’s status logs.  There was no instability in the generators at any time.”

“You’re sure?  Not even a glitch in the systems which made it seem like the generators were in trouble?”

“No, nothing.  The logs record what’s going on in the system and which alerts are being generated.  I’m sorry Captain, there never was any problem with the generators.”

“How about the ship they transferred to… are there any records of that?”

“Yes.  It was definitely there and docked with the Sundrenched for twenty minutes or so.  The airlock was cycled a number of times then it undockedand left.”

“Alright.  Thanks.  Let me know if you come across anything else important.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Joe sat for several seconds, considering what he’d just learnt.  He really needed an hour or two to think this through, to work out just what was happening, but his instincts told him they didn’t have anywhere near that long.  He opened a different comm channel.

“Blaze, terminate the mission.  Execute a hostile withdrawal.”

“What… why Captain?  No one has been attacked have they?”

“No, not yet, but I’m getting a really bad feeling about the Sundrenched.  I want everyone off that ship within five minutes and I plan to be leaving the area in ten.”

“Alright, you’re the boss.  I just hope you know what you’re doing.  Leaving with a part-empty hold without grabbing some of the goods over here is going to take some explaining to the lads.”

“Blaze, I don’t give a shit.  You know me.  You know my hunches are right more often than they’re wrong.  Now get your men the hell out of there.”

“Aye, Captain.”

* * *

Joe sat at the dinner table which was now being used for a meeting.  Sitting with him were his core crew along with Doug to represent the pilots and Blaze the troopers.  Sparks was there too, at Joe’s request.

“Alright,” Joe said.  “Now we’re safely in hyperspace I want us to try and work out what the hell was going on with the Sundrenched.  Does anyone have any ideas other than it being haunted. We’ll get to that last, I don’t want to get hung up on that… possibility.”

“Some sort of setup,” said Janine.  “Maybe an insurance job.  I mean, what’re the odds of another ship just happening to be in the same area of space in the absolute middle of nowhere so they could detect the distress signal?  That’s a millions to one possibility.”

“Then why leave the ship intact?” Blaze asked.  “Why not destroy it so there’s no evidence to contradict your story?  Why leave the ship there waiting to be discovered?”

“The odds against anyone discovering it are huge,” Joe said.  “Even with Sasha’s abilities it was still damn lucky that we found it.”

“Unless that was a setup too,” Doug muttered.  “It seems awfully convenient.  It stinks of a setup and your new pet freak is neck deep in it.”

Sasha leapt to her feet.  Joe motioned for her to sit down, even as he replied to Doug.

“Cut it out Doug!” Joe said.  “We’ve been over this already.  I picked the area we would search, not her.  There’s no way she could have influenced that.”

“Maybe not, or maybe so.  She’s told us she’s psychic but maybe she lied about her powers.  What if her abilities let her influence you?  What if you picked this area because she wanted you to.”

“That’s enough!  Have you ever seen anyone that could do that, that could force someone else to their will?”

“No, but my cousin did!  Or was it my cousin’s cousin?  Anyway, what if she was on that ship to start with?  Maybe she made them all think the generator was going to blow, then she planned to come back and get the cargo…”

“Doug, just shut up,” snapped Joe.  “This is serious and your paranoia isn’t helping.”

“You’re calling me paranoid?  What do you expect when…”

“Enough!” Joe roared.  Silence fell, though Doug’s eyes narrowed.  “This won’t get us anywhere.  We’ll pick this up again in half an hour.  Doug, go find somewhere you can calm down.”

Doug stood up without acknowledging the order and stamped away.  The rest of the group broke up with quiet grumbling.  Joe leaned back in his chair, worrying about Doug.  The pilot had always been outspoken, but never so aggressive with it.  Was something about the situation getting under his skin?  Or was it something about Sasha, about her powers, that was the problem?

Joe shivered as a blast of ice cold air found its way down the back of his neck.  As if they didn’t have enough problems, now the environmental controls were playing up.  It wasn’t unknown for the Panther, or even unusual, but right then the last thing he needed was another problem.

* * *

Doug stamped off to the hangar, trying to bite down on the anger inside.  He needed to make the captain understand how dangerous Sasha was, and to do that he needed a cool head.  Otherwise his opinions would be dismissed.

He’d been suspicious of her from the moment she came aboard.  Her meeting the captain while he was out drinking was just too convenient, and the speed with which the captain had decided to take her on was suspicious too.  Doug wondered if she’d cast some sort of spell on the captain.  She’d admitted to being psychic, after all.  Or maybe she was using something more conventional, some form of drug.

Whatever it was, Doug was certain they hadn’t discovered the Sundrenched by accident.  Sasha had led them to the ship for a reason, one that had most probably been completed.  It didn’t seem to have been a trap, at least not an obvious one.  Had there been something on the ship she wanted recovered?  Something amongst the cargo maybe?  Maybe he should…

“Doug…”

Doug spun around but there was no one behind him.  He shivered as a cold draught blew down his neck.  What had he heard?  The voice had been quiet, little more than a whisper, but he could have sworn it called his name.  It had sounded familiar, somehow, a voice he recognised but couldn’t place.

He must have imagined it.  There was no one there.  Unless… could the witch have done it?  Could she be starting to mess with his head just like she’d messed with the captain’s?  He shivered at the thought, then headed off quickly, wanting to put as much distance between himself and her as he could.

* * *

Janine sat in the pilot’s chair, monitoring the ship.  It wasn’t strictly necessary while in hyperspace but something had her on edge.  She’d been flying the Panther long enough to learn the ship’s moods and something was definitely wrong with it.

There were no warnings or alerts, the ship was reporting that everything was fine, yet Janine was certain something was out of kilter.  She started the diagnostics running for the third time, determined to find what it was that she sensed.

Her screen flickered.  Fast moving symbols smeared their way across the screen, symbols she’d never encountered before.  Janine’s heart leapt into her throat.  Moments later everything returned to normal.  Everything except Janine’s nerves.  Now she was certain there was a problem and she intended to find out what it was.

She dived back into the ship’s systems, quickly finding there was no trace of the strange effect she had seen.  As far as the systems were concerned it hadn’t happened.  That could be very bad or very good.  If it indicated the issue was isolated to her display then it was a nuisance but nothing more.  If instead the effect was erasing evidence of its passing then that was a lot worse.  She needed to find out which explanation was correct, and quickly.

* * *

Victor sat at his terminal in the medbay, staring at it but not seeing it.  His thoughts were elsewhere, thinking about the crew of the Sundrenched and what could have caused a mass hallucination which wouldn’t have been detected by the ship.

Bad air was one possible cause but it should have triggered alarms, unless there was a fault with the detectors too.  Something in their food or drink was another possibility, probably the most likely cause, though that then raised the question of whether it was added deliberately or some form of food contamination.

There were other possibilities too, less likely but still possible, and probably some he didn’t know about and would need to research.  The one explanation he could definitely rule out was the simplest.  There were no such things as ghosts.  Whatever the crew of the Sundrenched saw it definitely wasn’t…

“Doc, am I gonna be OK?”

Victor spun around.  No one was there.  The medbay was just as empty as he’d expected.  And yet he’d heard…

“Doc, please!  You gotta save me!  Don’t let me die!”

The voice was stronger this time, and it was coming from one of the medbay beds.  Ice exploded within Victor’s chest.

“Scott…” he whispered.  “No… it can’t be…”

“Doc, why didn’t you save me?”

The voice was a more normal tone now, conversational rather than yelling in pain, but still coming from the bed.  Victor thought he could make something out too, a very faint but definitely human shape laying on the bed.

“I tried to save you!  I did everything I could.  I spent three hours keeping you alive, but you were too badly hurt.  I did everything I could but it wasn’t enough.  I felt your life slip away under my hands.”

“No Doc.  You could have saved me.  You were sloppy.  You know that.  If you’d just tried harder I’d still be alive today.”

“No!  That’s not true!  I did everything I could.  You were bleeding internally from several different wounds, pieces of shrapnel still lodged within you.  There was nothing more I could do!”

“You keep telling yourself that, Doc.”  The voice was mocking now.  “Maybe one day you’ll even believe it.  I doubt it, though.  You know what you did.  You know what you did to me!”

Before Victor could answer the voice let out a hideous howl which seemed to fill the room.  The temperature plunged.  At the same moment all the lights went out along with every display.  Victor stood in the darkness, shivering from cold and fear as the seconds dragged on.

The wail abruptly cut off.  Power surged back into the room’s lights and screens.

“Scott…” asked Victor tentatively.  “Are you there?”

He held his breath, waiting, but there was no response.  He didn’t really expect one.  The room felt different than before and there was no hint of a shape on the medbay bed anymore.

Victor waited nearly a minute to see if anything would happen, then he stumbled to one of the locked cupboards.  His trembling hands made him enter the code incorrectly first once, then twice.  On the third try he managed to get it right.  The door swung open, revealing a bottle of whisky.  Victor grabbed it, opened it, then took a deep swig direct from the bottle.

A slower second swig helped settle some of the trembling but his heart was still racing.  Had he really heard Scott?  If anyone else had claimed to have then Victor would have dismissed it as some form of delusion, but the experience had felt so real.  With a sigh he sealed the bottle and put it away, fighting the urge to drink more.  The captain was going to have enough trouble believing what Victor had experienced.  Turning up smashed and stinking of booze wasn’t going to help matters.

* * *

“Can anyone give me an explanation that doesn’t involve ghosts?” Joe asked, glancing at those around the table.  Some of his crew looked scared, some shifted uncomfortably, but no one offered any suggestions.

“God damn it,” he growled.  “It can’t be ghosts.  There must be another explanation.”

“If there is then I can’t think what it is,” Victor said.  “I’d swear Scott was right there in the room with me, talking to me… blaming me…”  He trailed off, eyes cast down.

“Something’s definitely up with the ship,” Janine said.  “Displays keep getting corrupted but afterwards it’s as if nothing happened.  I can’t find any trace of the problem.  It’s not just me.  At least half the crew have seen something similar.”

Nods from around the table confirmed what she was saying.  Before Joe could say anything else the lights suddenly went out, plunging the room into a darkness only slightly broken by the emergency lighting.  Dark shadows surrounded them.  The idea of ghosts suddenly seemed a lot less ridiculous to Joe.

“They don’t like us talking about them,” Janine said.

A few seconds later the lights flared into life again, banishing the shadows but not the ice that had settled into Joe’s veins.  He shook his head, not ready to give up on other answers yet.

“I’ve been reviewing the data we retrieved from the Sundrenched.  Her crew were reporting the same things we’re experiencing — hearing voices, corrupted displays, lighting faults and the like.  I refuse to believe it’s a coincidence we started to get the same events just after we spent time over there.  Doc, could it be a disease of some sort?  Could we all be having hallucinations.”

“I don’t see how.  I’ve checked several people’s blood, including mine, and there’s nothing there that shouldn’t be.  We’re not picking up any unusual chemicals either.  Even if any of that was the case, it wouldn’t explain us all hallucinating the same thing.”

“It could be aliens,” said Blaze, prompting groans and shaking of head.  Blaze’s response to anything unusual was to blame aliens.  Some of the tension in the group slipped away.

“Yeah,” Janine said, shaking her head.  “Because I’ve seen a lot of them running around the ship, haven’t you?”

“Maybe invisible aliens…”

“I know what the cause is,” Doug said, cutting across the conversation.  “None of this ever happened before the witch came aboard.  She’s messing with our heads somehow, maybe with the systems too.  We should never have taken her on board.  We should sedate her, or throw her… sedate her.  We need to sedate her now.”

Sasha was glaring at Doug, mouth a tight line and hands clenched together.  Joe could tell he needed to do something before things got out of hand… or more out of hand.  Before he could, Doug was speaking again.

“Don’t worry, Captain.  That’s all I had to say, but it needed saying.  Maybe you’ll all come to your senses soon.  If not, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

He sat back, arms crossed and pointedly not looking in Sasha’s direction.  Joe banged his hand on the table, hard.

“That’s enough, Doug!  I don’t want to hear anything more out of you on that subject.  Whatever is happening I’m certain it has nothing to do with Sasha.  We didn’t see a sign of it until we’d been in contact with the Sundrenched.  Whatever it is, that’s where it came from.”

“What do you think it is, Captain?” Janine asked.

Joe cursed.  He’d hoped they wouldn’t put him on the spot like this.  He should have known better.  The honest answer was he had no idea and the strange events had him worried, but right then the truth wasn’t what his crew needed to hear.

“I think… I think it may be…”

Joe’s words were interrupted by a deafening crash.  Moments later he smelt smoke and alarms started to blare out.  He yelled out orders.

“Janine, get to the bridge.  Doc, we might have casualties.  Granger, find out what the hell that was.  Take Sparks with you.  Doug, it just might be an attack, or we might have to evac.  I want four fighters ready to launch and the shuttles prepared for an urgent exit.  Sasha, find us somewhere safe that we can get help or repairs.  I don’t care if it’s just an automated repair station, find us somewhere… and somewhere close.  Blaze…”

The crew jumped into action.  Joe followed Janine and Sasha to the bridge.  For the moment there wasn’t much he could do other than wait for other people to give him information, but when it came he needed to be ready to make immediate decisions.

* * *

“Captain, we’ve got smoke in the hangar.”

Joe wanted to curse, that was the third location reporting smoke.  Instead he replied calmly.

“Roger that.  How bad is it Doug?”

“Getting pretty thick already, and hard to breathe.  We’re breaking out the pressure suits for everyone that isn’t in a bird.”

“Will it stop you launching?”

“Negative.  We’ll vent the atmosphere from the whole hangar once everyone is suited.”

“Good work.  Keep me informed.”

“Yes Captain.  Shadowhawk out.”

Things were bad.  The medbay, one cabin and now the hangar were filling with smoke.  Joe punched up a comm link to Granger, their engineer.

“Talk to me Granger, what’s wrong with the Panther?”

“I’m still trying to isolate it, Captain.  There’s definitely something defective in or near life support but I can’t work out exactly where.”

“Why not?”

“It’s like the system’s fighting back, making it hard to find out what’s going on.  The system or… well… you know… the ghosts.”

“Not you as well, Granger.  I thought my engineer would have his head screwed on straight!”

“I do, and part of that means being open minded.  Something has been messing with us since we left the Sundrenched.  I’m not saying I think it’s really ghosts but it doesn’t really matter at the moment.  Whatever it is seems to be working against my efforts to isolate the problem.  I’m pretty sure it’s behind the problem too.”

“Can you tell me anything?”

“Not from the systems.  I sent Sparks into the life support machinery with a couple of the other troopers.  Let me patch him in… Sparks, what have you found?”

“A whole lotta smoke chief, way too much to see through.  I can’t see my hand in front of my face.  Something’s burning down here, though, I can hear it even through the pressure suit.”

“The fire suppression system hasn’t fired then.  Can you activate the manual system?  There’s an override lever about five feet in from the door on the right.”

“I dunno chief, I’ve got no idea where we are right now.  We might have to backtrack to the door to get our bearings.  Wish we had our combat suits on, the mapping system would be damn useful.”

Joe cut in.  “Just try, Sparks.  We need that fire under control.  We’re seeing smoke spreading throughout the ship.”

“Aye Captain, we’ll do our best.”

“Good.  Granger, while they do that is there any way to stop the smoke reaching the rest of the ship?  Can we shut down the life support or stop it reaching sensitive areas?  We’ve got enough pressure suits and backup air to last us a few days if we bleed it off the shuttles and fighters.”

“There should be but something is blocking me, like I said.  There’s a backup system which should let me control the life support separately from the main systems, in case they were too badly damaged or corrupted, but that’s been compromised too.”

“There’s no manual system?”

“Yes, there’s manual controls to cut off sections of the ship if we’re dealing with massive damage.  It’s designed to ensure we don’t bleed all our atmosphere if the ship is badly torn up and both systems are down.”

“Then use them!”

“That’s the problem… they’re all located in the life support section.  The section where Sparks is right now.  I don’t give much for his chances to find them, let alone be able to work out which ones to throw.”

“The way things are going he can just throw all of them.  That smoke is spreading much too fast for my liking.”

“All right, Captain.  Sparks, did you hear that?”

“Yeah.  Just give us a second though.  I think we’re almost at the fire suppressant control.  If we can get that working then hopefully we can find everything else more easily.”

“Alright.  Are you there…”

Screams cut Granger off, screams coming over the comm link.

“Granger, Sparks, what happened?” Joe shouted, voice raised so he could be heard.  “Are you both alright?”

“I’m fine,” shouted Granger.  “There’s nothing happening here.  Sparks, what happened?”

“Rat’s hurt,” shouted Sparks.  “Something electrical got him as he got near the override.  We’re pulling him out now.  I don’t think it was a coincidence.  Something was trying to keep him away from those controls.”

“Damn it,” Joe shouted.  “Alright, Doc’s on his way to you now.  Granger, can we just vent the atmosphere from there?”

“Not easily,” Granger replied.  “We’d need to vent several more sections leading to an external lock.  Even if we do it might not put out the fire — if there’s oxygen leaking down there then the fire could keep going.”

“Maybe, but most of the smoke would be gone.  Sparks could see what he’s dealing with.”

“Yeah, that’s a point.  Everyone on the ship would need to get suited up.  The smoke is getting through the life support systems so it’s possible we’d lose all the ship’s atmosphere.”

Joe sighed.  “Nothing’s ever simple, is it?  Alright, I think we’re going to have to take that risk.  Let me…”

“Smoke on the bridge!” yelled Janine.

Joe turned towards her and cursed.  Thick black smoke was oozing its way out of several air vents.

“Masks on everyone,” he shouted.  “Get suited up as time allows.  Dave, I want everyone on the ship suited up.  Tell them we’re facing total depressurisation and make sure everyone has checked in.”

“Captain,” Janine shouted.  “If this smoke keeps getting worse I’m not going to be able to see the controls to fly us.  We need to drop into normal space and we need to do it soon.”

“Alright.  Sasha, have you found us anywhere that can help?”

“I think so, Captain.  There’s an exploration and mining vessel called the Grifter that should be operating in this area mining a large rogue asteroid.  We could be there in just under seven minutes.”

“That’ll have to do.  Send Janine the coordinates.  Janine, if all else fails drop us back into normal space early but I really think we need to make it to the Grifter.”

“No pressure then!” Janine replied.  “Changing course now.  I just hope they’re there.  Those type of ships aren’t known for their predictability.”

“They’ll be there,” Joe said confidently.  No one else heard him mutter “I hope” under his breath.

* * *

“Entire crew is now suited up with two exceptions, Captain,” Dave said.

“What exceptions?  Who’s ignoring my order?” Joe replied.

“Doc.  I’ll patch you through.”

“Doc,” Joe said, fighting to keep his temper.  “I gave an order to suit up.  We need the option to vent all atmosphere from the ship.  Get your arse in gear and get into a suit now.”

“Can’t do that, Captain.  I’m working on Rat right now.  He’s too badly hurt to stuff into a suit and I sure as hell can’t treat him while wearing one.  If the medbay wasn’t full of smoke I could seal it up tight, but it is and I’ve got no way to clear it.”

“Alright doc, we need to get you and Rat somewhere you can work without a suit.”

“Great idea.  Where?”

“I don’t know, I… wait… a shuttle!  Get Rat into a shuttle and lock it up.”

“Of course.  I hate to move Rat again but things are getting damn smoky down here already.  We’ll be there in two minutes.  Doc out.”

Joe sighed.  One problem solved.  That only left another thousand or so.  He peered towards Janine, the smoke making it hard to see her even though she was only a few steps away.

“Janine, how much longer?”

“Three minutes, Captain.”

“Can you get us there?”

“Damn right I can.  I might need someone to come over and start wafting the smoke away though.”

“Just ask and you’ve got it!”

“I was joking, Captain.”

“I wasn’t.  It might come to that.”

He opened a comm channel before she could answer.

“Doug, I want two ships launched the moment we reach the Grifter.  She may well be up to something dodgy sitting this far out from the authorities.”

“No problem, Captain.  I’ll lead.  We’re all already tucked up in our fighters anyway.”

“Will the smoke be a problem when you launch?”

“No Captain.  We’re in the Racks.  We’ve sealed each one and vented the atmosphere.”

Joe nodded to himself.  The Racks were four additional mini-hangars, each just big enough to hold one fighter.  They’d been made by remodelling a section of the cargo bay, giving the Panther the ability to carry more fighters and avoiding the problem of a hit on the hangar preventing any fighters launching.  Each was separate from the others which made them easy to seal off.  At last something was going their way.

“How do the fighters seem?” Joe asked.  “Are you seeing any… interference with their systems?”

“No.  They seem to be holding out.  Their systems are a lot more hardened than the Panther’s.  Whatever the effect is they seem to be immune so far.”

“Alright, launch as soon as we arrive.”

“Aye Captain.  Doug out.”

Joe frowned as a thought struck him.  Were the fighters really immune to the effects?  Or was whatever it was just laying low, biding its time?  He glanced at the clock.  In ninety seconds they’d know the answer.

* * *

Doug’s screen flashed up confirmation they’d left hyperspace and were near the Grifter.

“Alright Zero, time to check out the neighbours,” he said.

Doug punched the launch button, then was shoved back in the seat as his fighter blasted down the short launch tunnel and into the darkness of space.  Another fighter did the same a dozen meters to his right.

“Form on me, Zero,” he said.

“Roger that, Shadowhawk,” replied Zero.

Doug knew the order was redundant for Charlie.  Her call sign was Zero because the others joked that was how many mistakes she’d ever made.  It wasn’t true, of course.  No pilot got things right all the time, but she came a lot closer to it than anyone else — even Doug.

Confident Zero was with him Doug swung his fighter towards the Grifter’s position… and saw nothing.  He checked his sensors.  They showed nothing but the Panther, his fighter and Zero’s.  He opened a channel to the Panther.

“Captain, either Janine’s flying is even more off than usual or the information we had was wrong.  There’s no sign of the Grifter and no sign of any asteroid.”

Seconds ticked by without a response.  Doug frowned, then tried again.

Panther, this is Shadowhawk.  Do you read me?”

Again nothing for several seconds, then there was the crackle of a comm link opening.  Doug started to relax, until he heard the voice.

“Shadowhawk, I’m reading you loud and clear,” said Charlie.  “Your comms are fine.  I think there’s a problem on the Panther.  Another problem, I mean.”

“Damn it.  All right, they can’t hear us but they’ll know something is wrong.  Let’s…”

He was interrupted by another communication.

Panther, this is Shadowhawk,” said a voice.  “The Grifter is in position and appears to be non-hostile.  Moving in for a closer look.”

“Roger that, Shadowhawk,” came the captain’s reply.  “Keep us informed.”

Doug sat for several seconds, not believing what he’d just heard.  The voice hadn’t sounded quite like his, but the words were spot on.  In fact he was pretty sure he’d used most of them on previous missions.

“Shadowhawk… Doug… that wasn’t you, was it?” asked Charlie.

“No it damn well wasn’t!”

“It sounded just like you, the voice and what you said.  I got a lock on the signal at the end though… it was coming from the Panther, not from you.”

“What the hell are we dealing with here?  I’ve heard plenty of ghost stories down the years but never anything like this.  Alright, let’s get back aboard.  I’m guessing their sensors aren’t showing where we really are so we need to get on the ship and tell them what’s happening.”

“Roger.”

Doug swung his fighter back towards the Panther, his mind racing.  He’d been certain the problems were linked to the witch, everything had started since she came aboard, but this was starting to stretch that idea.  How could she be faking his voice and words?  Besides, he was sure she was manipulating the captain somehow, influencing his thoughts, so how did the fake message tie in with that?

The screech of beam weapons striking shields interrupted all other thoughts.  Doug had the fighter evading before he’d even fully registered the attack.  It took him longer to identify the source of the weapons fire, and when he did he couldn’t believe it.

“Doug, the Panther… it’s firing at us…”

Charlie’s voice shook as she spoke, disbelief carried in her words.

“I see it.  I don’t believe it, but I see it.  Keep evading.”

The weapons fire eased off as the two fighters moved away from the Panther but streaks of fast moving light still flashed past, false images generated by his fighter showing him where the invisible beams flew.

“Alright, let’s try and get closer again,” Doug said.

He swung his fighter over, heading in the direction of the Panther but keeping his fighter evading.  The weapons fire immediately intensified, many beams cutting through space around him and several striking home.  With a curse he pulled away again.

“Damn it.  We can get close without taking too much damage but the moment we slow down to dock we’ll be sitting ducks, and I’d put money on us being locked out if we tried.”

“What do we do, then?”

“I don’t know.  I doubt we could do enough damage to their shields with our beam weapons and I really don’t like the idea of hitting them with missiles.”

“Shoot at the Panther?  We can’t do that!”

“It might come to that, but not yet.  Maybe there’s another way we can let them know what’s happening.  If not… well, hitting the Panther with a few missiles might be better than whatever’s got control of the ship’s systems has planned.”

* * *

“Captain, the Grifter looks clean.  As far as I can tell there’s no threat.”

“Thanks Doug,” said Joe.  “We’ve told them what our situation is.  Let’s see what they come back with.”

“They’d better not take too long,” Janine said.  “If this smoke gets any thicker we won’t be able to find our way off the bridge!”

“I know,” Joe replied.  “But… hang on… we’re getting a reply…”

Panther, this is the Grifter.  We want to help but from the information you sent us this phenomenon poses a significant threat to our ship.  We can loan you a heavy shuttle.  It will have more than enough room for your crew and will give you a safe location to work from.  We’ll load it up with tools and supplies.  I’m sorry we can’t let you aboard the Grifter yet but it’s too great a risk.”

“Thank you Grifter.  I completely understand, and we intend to get control of our ship again.  The shuttle will be a great help.”

“It’s launching now.  It should be attached to your main airlock in a couple of minutes.”

“That’s great.  We’ll start shifting people onto it straight away.  Panther out.”

Joe let out a deep breath, hearing it echo around his helmet.

“Dave, I want everyone moving to the airlock.”

“What about the pilots and Doc?”

“The pilots too.  We’ve got Shadowhawk and Zero out there already.  If we launch any more we’ll spook the Grifter.  Tell one of the pilots to head out in Doc’s shuttle.  Doc is too busy patching up Rat to be able to fly.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Then get yourself down to the airlock.”

“Yes, Sir!”

* * *

“Dave, talk to me,” said Joe.  “Has the shuttle docked?”

Dave was hunched over the airlock controls.  Joe was only an arm’s-length away but he could hardly make Dave out for the smoke.

“I think… yes, the shuttle has docked,” said Dave.

“Great.  Blaze, take the first group through.”

“Yes, Sir,” Blaze replied.  “You heard the captain.  Time to earn our pay!”

The first group of eight to go over consisted of Blaze and seven of his troopers.  They wouldn’t have their weapons drawn, but neither would they be completely trusting.  Blaze had asked permission to suit up in armour but Joe had overridden it, partly to avoid seeming too aggressive but mostly because it would have taken too long.  He needed to get his people off the Panther.  Once that was done they could work out a strategy for reclaiming the ship, probably starting with venting the entire atmosphere.

“First group are in the airlock,” Dave said.  “Cycling now.”

Joe moved closer to the small airlock porthole but he couldn’t see anything.  The smoke had become so bad he couldn’t even see his hand in front of his helmet.

“Cycle complete,” Dave said.  “Blaze, how’s it look?”

“Well, I can see for a start,” replied Blaze.  “We brought some smoke with us but the shuttle’s systems are clearing it fast.  Everything seems to be as promised.  There’s tools and supplies.  The cockpit is empty and we’ve locked the shuttle into manual mode.  Come on over, the air’s much fresher here!”

“Thanks Blaze.  Right everyone, time to leave.  We should be able to get almost everyone over in two more cycles.  Dave, Sasha and I will stay and come over in the third cycle.  Dave, make sure everyone gets on there.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Joe took another deep breath as he heard rather than saw his crew find their way to the airlock and in.  Just three more cycles of the airlock then they could start to make plans.  They might have had to leave the Panther temporarily, but he sure as hell wasn’t abandoning the ship.

* * *

The airlock opened again and Sparks stumbled his way in.  He heard most of the remaining crew joining him, felt them jostling him at times, but he couldn’t make out a thing.  He’d never admit it to anyone else but he was scared, terrified even.  He felt blind in a way that he’d never be in his combat armour.

If he had his suit on then he’d be able to see people in the infrared and a variety of other wavelengths that would cut through the smoke.  He’d know exactly where the rest of his team were as their armour exchanged heavily coded information with his.  He’d be in charge, not blindly groping.

“Everyone’s in,” came Dave’s voice over a speaker.  “Closing the inner doors.  Alright, starting the cycle now.  You might feel a small shove, the shuttle’s air pressure is slightly higher to try and keep the worst of the smoke in the airlock.”

Sparks did feel a tug, though it was from the opposite direction to that he’d expected.  He must have got turned around in the smoke.  The tug turned into a shove.  Sparks frowned.  This didn’t feel right.  There shouldn’t be that much of a pressure difference.

The shove increased in force, threatening to push him off his feet.  Now he knew there was something wrong.  As well as the force he was feeling he could hear air rushing past.  If the pressure was that high then surely Blaze would have said something.

The force increased.  Sparks lost his footing and started to tumble.  As he did the air around him cleared… just in time to see the outer airlock doors flash past.  Then all the smoke was gone.  The inflation of his suit told him that the air had gone with it.  As Sparks tumbled out he wondered what had gone wrong.  Had the shuttle had to move away?  Had something happened to it?

First things first.  He used the small thrusters built into the suit to slow the tumble.  They weren’t precise enough to kill it completely, another way the suit was vastly inferior to his armour, but at least he was now tumbling slowly enough to take in his surroundings.  The first thing he noticed was more of the crew tumbling around him.  The second was the complete lack of a shuttle.  For that matter there seemed to be no sign of the Grifter or the asteroid it was mining.  Shouldn’t he be able to see it from here?

“This is Blaze.  No one panic.  Try to slow your tumble but do not attempt to reach the Panther, you’re moving much too fast in relation to it.  Our shuttle is circling to pick us up.  We can’t all fit inside but hanging on will stop us drifting too far apart.”

“Sarge,” said Sparks.  “What the hell’s happening?  Where’s the shuttle from the Grifter?  Where’s the Grifter for that matter?”

“Nowhere,” replied Blaze grimly.  “It looks like neither ever existed.  Shadowhawk spotted that as soon as he launched but the Panther wasn’t picking up his transmissions.  Something faked a report from him saying everything was fine.  It did the same for me, telling you to come on over.”

“We need to get back on the Panther, Sarge.  If Shadowhawk can give me a tow I’ll get on it.”

“It’s not that simple.  The Panther has been taking potshots at the fighters if they get too near.  The shuttle too.  That’s why it’s taking time to reach us.”

“We have to do something, Sarge.  There’s only the captain, Dave and Sasha still on board and they’re going to leave any moment now.”

The comm changed.  An indicator showed that Blaze had changed to a secure, one-to-one, channel.

“I know Sparks!  And when that happens I’ve got a feeling the Panther’s going to jump to hyperspace and leave us stranded here.”

“Tell Shadowhawk to come pick me up, Sarge.  I don’t care how dangerous it is.  If we wait for the Panther to leave then we’re all dead anyway.”

“Sorry, Sparks, you’ll have to get in the queue.  He’s already coming for me.  I just hope we’re not too late.”

* * *

“Dave, Sasha, into the airlock.  We’re leaving.”

Joe kept his words steady but his heart felt like a rock.  This felt too much like abandoning the Panther, even if he intended to be back aboard within a few minutes.  He needed to see his crew though, to make sure they were all safe and to decide who to bring back with him.

“Captain… something’s wrong,” said Sasha.

“What do you mean?  And can’t it wait till we get onto the shuttle?”

“That’s what’s wrong,” Sasha replied.  “With everything that’s happened, with all the smoke, I didn’t think to try sensing the shuttle or the Grifter.  I just tried it.  There’s nothing there.”

“What do you mean there’s nothing there?”

“There’s nothing out there.  I should be able to feel the Grifter, at this range it should be blazing at me, and I should be able to get a vague sense of the shuttle with it so close.  I can’t sense anything.”

“Maybe you’re disorientated by the smoke, or maybe the helmet is interfering with your abilities.  Doug and Blaze both confirmed everything is fine.  I’d trust both of them with my life without hesitation.  Hell, I have done more times than I can count.  If they say it’s safe then it’s safe.”

Arms grabbed his.  A helmet appeared out of the smoke, pressing against his.  Sasha’s face stared back at him, eyes wild and face clenched.  Joe shook his head.  The pressure had gotten to her.  He couldn’t say he was surprised, the ship filling with smoke and going out of control would be enough to scare anybody.

“Come on,” he said, moving her towards the airlock.  “Let’s get you to the shuttle.  A bit of clear air will make you feel a whole lot better.”

She fought back, trying to dig her feet in, but Joe was a lot stronger, and he had the benefit of many years of unarmed combat training.  Wrestling Sasha towards the airlock was no challenge.  Until they were almost at the door.  She surprised him by kicking her legs out, collapsing to the floor and half pulling him down with her.

“Dave,” he said.  “Help me get her into the airlock.  We need to be gone.”

“Captain, no!”  Sasha screamed.  “What if I’m right?  What if there’s nothing out there?  If I’m right then when we leave there’ll be no way back.  Can you really take that chance?  Think, for stars’ sake!  You know the ship isn’t behaving as it should.  Hasn’t everything that’s gone wrong driven you towards getting everyone off the ship?”

Joe froze as a sliver of doubt pierced his chest.  Sasha was clearly terrified and not herself, but what if she happened to be right?  Blaze and Doug had been certain but… well, strange things had been happening.  He took one hand off of Sasha, using it to open a comm channel.

“Blaze, it’s Joe.  How’s it looking over there?”

“All good, Captain,” replied Blaze.  “We just need you three and the party can get started.”

“As soon as we can find our way to the airlock we’ll be over.  It’s so thick here it reminds of that club where you got your nose broken for spilling someone’s drink.  Did you ever get the name of the girl that punched you?”

“Is that really important right now?”

“Humour me.  It’s keeping my mind off of abandoning the Panther.  I seem to remember you swapped a few words with her after she floored you, I always wondered if you found out her name.”

“No, Captain.  Like you said, we swapped a few words then she moved on.”

“Shame.  I’d have liked to sign her up for the crew.  Alright, we’ve found the airlock door.  See you in a minute.  Joe out.”

Joe reached down to pull Sasha up.  She struggled against his efforts.

“Cut it out,” he hissed.  “You were right.  That wasn’t Blaze.  After that girl smacked him she helped him up and he bought her another drink.  Then another.  Half hour later they stumbled out of the club together.”

“I knew something was wrong.  But… if that wasn’t Blaze then what’s happened to him?”

“I don’t know.  If you’re right and there’s no shuttle out there then they’re probably floating away from the ship right now.  At least they all had suits on.”

“Captain,” Dave cut in.  “The Sundrenched.  We wondered how they were lucky enough to be rescued.  Do you think the same thing happened to them?”

“Not quite,” Joe replied darkly.  “We all had suits on.  No one on the Sundrenched did.  If there was no ship on the other side when they entered the airlock then…”

Joe tailed off.  He knew the other two could picture the scene just as well as he could, people flushed from the airlock with no suits, people desperately struggling for a short while before the vacuum of space overwhelmed them.

“We have to stop this,” Sasha said.  “We have to find out what’s causing it.”

“Of course,” Dave said.  “But what could it be?”

“It started when we found the Sundrenched,” Sasha said.  “That must be the key.  The same thing happened there.  Maybe the Panther picked up something which infected its systems.”

“Maybe it really was ghosts,” said Dave.  “Nothing else seems to fit.”

“No,” Joe said.  “Sasha is right.  We picked something up but Sparks and Granger were sure nothing infected our systems.  They monitored all the connections we made to the Sundrenched.  Nothing came over.”

“Well something came over,” said Sasha.  “Something got on board the Panther.

“Wait… no.  No.  It couldn’t be that simple, could it?”

“What?  What couldn’t be that simple?”

“What if it wasn’t something that forced its way over from the Sundrenched?” Joe asked.  “What if it was something we brought over.  What if it was part of the cargo?”

“What?  Wait… yes.  Of course!  That would explain why we’re seeing the same problems they did.  If whatever it is embedded itself into the Sundrenched’s systems then that would explain why they thought the generator was going to blow but there’s no sign of it in the records.  We have to find what it is and disable it.  We have to…”

The thump of an explosion cut across Sasha’s words.  Joe wouldn’t have thought it was possible for the smoke to get any thicker, but it did.

“What was that?” asked Dave.

“That was something realising we’re onto it and trying to make life harder for us,” Joe replied.  “Come on, we need to deal with the cargo.”

“How?”

“I want you to head for the bridge.  Prepare to jettison the cargo.  Sasha and I are going to try finding exactly what it is and see if we can disable it.  If we can then it’ll be worth a fortune.”

“Really?” Sasha asked.  “You’re thinking about money now?”

“That’s why I’m captain.  I always think ahead.”

It was a lie.  Joe had no intention of keeping any of the cargo, but whatever was controlling the ship could hear their discussions.  He wanted it to think it had a way out for as long as possible.

* * *

Joe led Sasha upwards, towards the top deck of the ship.  She kept a hold on the belt of his suit, the only way she could follow him without getting lost.  He was relying on his years as captain of the Panther to find his way and it was still tough going.

“Why up?” she gasped.

“We’ll get a better view of the cargo from above.  I’m guessing that whatever this thing is it’ll be easier to spot from there.  Then we can work out what to do with it.”

“Alright.  I wish we could use the lifts.”

“You can, if you want.  Who knows where you’d end up.  Probably a long way from where you wanted to be.”

“Yeah… forget I mentioned it.  How much further?”

“Two more decks.”

“Oh good.  Just two more decks.”

Joe laughed.  “You need to get more exercise!”

“I’m always telling myself that,” she replied.  “I wasn’t planning on getting a whole week’s worth in one hit, though.”

“Captain, I’m on the bridge,” Dave said over the comm circuit.  “The smoke’s just as bad up here.  I can try to work out a way to override the cargo dump.”

Joe didn’t bother to answer.  He was pretty sure he knew what was going to happen.  Sure enough a few seconds later he heard his own voice replying to Dave.

“Hold fire, Dave.  I think we’ve isolated what’s causing this.  Let me see if I can lock it down.”

“Sure Captain.  I’m right here if you need me.”

Joe shook his head angrily.  He’d used Dave as a decoy, put him in danger, without being able to tell him why.  That didn’t sit well.  He knew it would sit a lot worse if Dave didn’t survive.  It was pretty unlikely Dave would be able to override the controls anyway, but while he stayed there he was a potential threat and that meant whatever was controlling the Panther might take steps to eliminate him.  Joe needed to deal with the situation before that happened.  If he could.

Joe and Sasha reached the top deck.  Joe led the way down several short corridors then through a door.  Sasha stepped forward then froze.

“Whoa…” she said.

“Yeah,” Joe replied.  “It gets a lot of people like that.”

It was the fact they were on a thin metal gantry looking down into the cargo area.  The drop under them was thirty metres or so, far more than enough to be fatal.  The smoke clogging the rest of the ship was absent here, giving them a clear view.

“I’ve never been keen on heights,” Sasha said.  “What are we doing here?”

“Trying to find where our friend is hiding.  There’s some cargo manipulation controls here.  They should let us figure out where the activities are coming from.  Here we go…”

Joe bent over the controls, entering a series of commands then proceeding to enter codes that only he knew.

“Captain, we have a problem,” Dave said over the comm channel.  “The hyperspace drive is powering up.  I don’t think we’re going to be staying put much longer.”

“Hang in there.  If necessary we’ll bring the ship back for the others.  I think we’re almost there.”

Once again Joe heard his voice being used, but this time it said pretty much what he’d have said anyway.  He ignored the conversation, focusing instead on getting the commands entered.  Finally the interface changed, replaced by a single red button in the middle of the screen.  Without hesitating Joe pushed on it.

A massive jolt shook the ship.  The blast wave from the explosion flew up from the cargo bay, smashing Joe and Sasha from their feet.  Then the atmosphere was rushing out of the cargo bay, pinning Joe and Sasha in place as it rushed past them.

“What the hell was that?” Sasha screamed.

“Look,” Joe answered, pointing downwards.

Sasha grabbed at a console and forced herself to look down.

“What… it’s gone!  Did Dave eject the cargo?”

“No.  I did.  Sorry, that was always the plan but I couldn’t let whatever was controlling our systems know.  If it was in the cargo then we should be clear of it now.”

“That’s… I don’t know if it’s brilliant or incredibly stupid!”

“Probably both, and we’re not done yet.”  He opened the comm channel again.  “David, power down the hyperspace drive.”

There was a pause, then David spoke.

“Captain, what was that explosion?  Are you alright?  The hyperspace engine is still powering up.  We’re going to be jumping soon and I don’t like the readings I’m seeing.  If they’re right then I’m not sure we’re going to survive the transition.”

“Damn,” Joe spat.  “Either it wasn’t in the cargo bay or it can still control the ship from outside.  It’ll probably lose that ability once the Panther is in hyperspace but by then it’ll be too late.  The ship will have been destroyed.”

“What do we do?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think there’s anything we can do.  If I could speak to Doug I’d order him to destroy the cargo, but there’s no way to do that.”

“Yes there is!  Thank you for taking me on, Captain.  Thank you for putting your faith in me.  Hopefully this is where I prove your trust was well placed.”

“What?  Wait, what are you…”

Sasha had already climbed over the gantry’s low wall and was now holding on precariously.  Joe dived forward, trying to catch her, but he was too late.  She shoved herself backwards then started to fall as the cargo bay’s gravity grabbed at her.

“No!”

Her suited figure accelerated away, dragged downwards by the ship’s gravity field, rapidly growing smaller before it vanished altogether.

* * *

“What the hell was that?” Doug yelled.  “Did something just explode on the Panther?”

“It didn’t look like an explosion,” Zero replied.  “Though there’s debris.”

“Wait… no, that’s not debris.  That’s the cargo.  Someone’s blown the cargo.”

“But why?”

“Maybe for us.  Joe’s still on the ship.  If he realised he couldn’t stop it jumping away then maybe he was trying to leave us as many supplies as he could till he managed to return.”

“So what do we do, Shadowhawk?”

“Nothing for now.  We can’t risk trying to pick anything up while the Panther is still shooting at us.  We wait till the ship leaves then we move in.”

“Roger that.”

They sat in silence for several more seconds, then a new signal came in.

“Doug!  Doug, can you hear me?  It’s Sasha.  Doug, please respond… before it’s too late.”

Doug cursed.  The Witch.  What did she want?

“What is it?” he sent back, wondering whether it really was the witch or just another false message.

“You have to destroy the cargo.  Whatever was controlling the ship came aboard in the cargo.  The Captain jettisoned it all but it still has a hold over the ship.  You need to destroy it now.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“Because I’m floating right towards it.  If you hurry up you’ll be able to get rid of me at the same time.  In fact you’d better hurry up because otherwise the Panther is going to go up in smoke.”

“The signal is definitely coming from outside the Panther,” said Charlie over the secured channel.  “Though that’s no guarantee she’s actually in that suit.  It could be another decoy.  Maybe whatever’s taken over the Panther wants you to destroy the cargo.”

“I know,” Doug sent back over the same channel.  “What a choice.”

He flicked back to the open channel.

“You know I sure as hell don’t like you, but I didn’t plan on being your executioner.  Are you sure about this?”

“Yeah.  What choice have I got?  At least this way it’ll be quick, and I get to know I’m dying for a good cause.”

Her voice cracked on the word dying.  Doug cursed again.  Time had run out.  He had to make a decision, and he had to make it now.  With no time for thought or logic he went with his gut feel.

“Zero, I’m going in.  Follow fifteen seconds behind me and use your missiles to take out anything I’ve missed.”

“Roger, Shadowhawk.  I’ll mop up anything you miss.”

Doug was already accelerating hard while keeping his fighter dodging.  Sure enough, the Panther opened up with all its beam weapons, targeting the area around him.  It held off using missiles, though, which he’d expected.  A missile could easily save him the bother of destroying the cargo.

All doubts were gone now.  He had his target locked and he was heading in.  He’d do what he had to do.  In the end that was all a pilot could ever do… do what they had to and live with the consequences later, no matter how bad they were.

* * *

Sasha struggled to pick out where the two fighters were.  She found she wanted to see her death coming.  She wanted to face it.  Her stomach clenched at the thought.  She wasn’t ready to die.  She really wasn’t.  It seemed what she wanted didn’t count, though.

She thought she caught glimpses of movement.  She tried to reach out with her talent, to sense the fighters, but either they were too small to pick up or she was too scared.  Then the Panther’s weapons opened up and the occasional strike illuminated the lead fighter.

It seemed a long way off for the first few seconds, then it seemed to be screaming towards her.  Despite her resolve she found herself screwing her eyes shut, curling into a ball in a ridiculous attempt to shield herself from the missile fire that was about to be unleashed.

Someone was shouting her name.  It took her a couple of seconds to realise, and the shock of what she was hearing nearly paralysed her… and cost her life.

“Sasha,” Doug shouted.  “Do you hear me?  I’m broadcasting over the short range emergency channel so only you can hear this.  You’ve got one chance to live.  Get the grapple on your suit ready.  I’m going to come to a crash stop right by you.  You’ll have about a second to get hooked on then I’m gone again — any longer and the Panther will get a firing solution and we’re both dead.  I’ll be there in three seconds… two…”

Adrenaline shot through Sasha’s system, spurring her into motion.  She grabbed for the grapple, fumbled, grabbed it again.  She looked up to see Doug’s fighter shooting backwards almost straight at her, engines burning.  Surely it was coming too fast!  Surely it was going to roast her with the engines!

And then it was there, stopped right beside her without overshooting, hitting or cooking her.

“Now!” Screamed Doug.

Her body seemed to move in slow motion.  She reached out, grabbing hold of a ladder rung with her left hand and trying to snap the grapple on with her right.  It bounced off.

“Lift it higher,” shouted Doug.

She did, shoving it against the rung and this time it snapped into place. Before she could say anything the fighter was surging forwards.  The grapple snapped taught and she was yanked forward, screaming as her shoulder dislocated.  The shields around the ship lit up as the Panther struck it time after time.  Even through the pain her heart sank.  She’d taken too long.  Doug had waited when he should have gone without her.  Now they were both going to die.

* * *

Doug let out a foul mouthed tirade.  His fighter was accelerating but much slower than it usually would to avoid killing Sasha.  For the same reason he couldn’t dodge like he usually could.  His shields were being rapidly battered down.  Once they were gone Sasha would be killed immediately, and he would follow soon after.

He could save himself.  If they were both going to die anyway then shouldn’t he save himself even if the manoeuvres killed her?  He looked out the window and found Sasha staring back at him.  She looked terrified.  It wasn’t surprising.  She hadn’t signed up to go on combat missions, to be hanging off the side of a fighter seconds away from death.  The emergency comm kicked in.

“Doug,” she said.  “You can’t save us both.  Thank you for trying.  Now save yourself.”

Her hand moved to the grapple.  Doug felt his stomach lurch as he realised she intended to cut free from the fighter.

“No!” he shouted, jerking the fighter enough to throw her hands away from the grapple.  “No!  I’m not letting you go.  We make it or we don’t, but we do it together.”

She tried again and he jerked the fighter once more.  An alarm sounded, warning him the shields were almost gone.  This was it.  The irony of the situation made him smile.  He was going to die trying to save a woman he strongly disliked.  Maybe the universe had a sense of humour after all.

Something smashed into the fighter, blasting at the shields and sending it careering sideways.  Doug was surprised to find himself at peace.  He’d done his best.  It hadn’t been enough, but he’d done it anyway.  It wasn’t such a bad way to die.

Moments later he was even more surprised to find himself still alive.  A quick check showed the shields were still holding on by a thread, but he wasn’t being hit by any more fire from the Panther.  He checked his scanners and then let out a chuckle before keying comms.

“Zero, I owe you a drink!  Hell, I owe you a whole pub crawl!  Nice work!”

The final blast had been Zero taking out the Panther’s cargo and, apparently, the malevolent entity which had taken control of the ship too.  He switched to the local channel.

“Hold on Sasha, I’m taking you home.”

* * *

The moment Joe saw the Panther’s cargo destroyed he opened a comm channel.

“Dave, cut the hyperspace drive now.  Everything else too.  We can put the Panther back together afterwards.  Just make sure there’s going to be a later.”

“I’m on it,” Dave replied.  “The system’s responding… I think… yes, hyperspace drive is powering down now.  All other systems are powering down too.  Life support… hang on… life support was set to generate the smoke.  Let me override that… done it… things should start to clear soon.”

Other voices started to flood the comm channel.  Joe felt a surge of relief at hearing them.  Deep down he’d worried some or most of them would have been killed by whatever had taken over the Panther.  He let himself enjoy the relief for a full ten seconds before he bellowed into the comm.

“Enough!  Dave, make sure the hangar doors are open then find out if anyone is in immediate danger.  I want the shuttles running pickup duty, Dave will prioritise who to get first, but I want Granger and Sparks here as soon as possible.  Doug… what happened to Sasha?”

“I’ve got her, Captain.  Things were a bit touch and go but we made it.  She’s a bit battered, though.  I’ll bring her into the main hangar.  Can you get Doc back on board to meet us?”

“Dave, you heard him.  Get the doc’s shuttle back here before it picks anyone else up.  Doug… bring her back safely.  If it wasn’t for her the Panther would be gone by now.”

“You know me Captain, I’ll fly as smooth as silk.”

* * *

Sasha gritted her teeth as the fighter touched down on the hangar floor.  She wouldn’t call the flight back smooth as silk, though that wasn’t down to Doug’s flying.  She’d only been anchored by the grapple and one hand, the other shoulder was still dislocated making that hand unusable.  No matter how gently Doug flew she was still pulled around by every change of direction or speed.

She sank to the deck in relief, hardly believing she was really back on the Panther.  Moments later Doc was there, pulling off her helmet and slapping a patch against the side of her neck.  A soothing warmth spread through her body, driving the pain before it and dragging coherent thought after it.  Welcome darkness engulfed her.

* * *

Sasha tried to blink her eyes against the bright light but something was holding them open.  Moments later the light disappeared and she was able to blink normally.

“Good,” said Doc.  “You’re awake and there’s no sign of a concussion.  You had us worried for a little while but you’re going to pull through.”

She tried to move.  Aches exploded throughout her body making her groan.

“Whoa, don’t try to move yet,” said Doc.  “Your body’s taken one hell of a battering.  Here, let me prop you up.”

She felt the bed she was on lifting her up.  Even that hurt, but she welcomed the pain.  Not so long ago she’d been sure she was going to die.  The pain was a reminder she hadn’t.

“Welcome back to the land of the waking,” said another voice.

“Captain,” she said.  “Is everyone safe?  Is the Panther fixed?”

“Mostly and mostly,” replied the captain with a smile.  “There’s a few people who are banged up, though you’re definitely the worst.  The ship’s getting back to normal but we’re still checking things over.  Another day and we’ll be ready to leave.”

“That’s good.  So no more ghosts?”

“No.  No more ghosts, not that there ever were any.  We’ve found some traces left by whatever it was we brought over with the Sundrenched’s cargo.  It went through our systems to learn about us and find the levers it could use.  Doc is a good example — it found the records of him trying to save Scott then played back a modified version with the sound pitched so it seemed to be coming from the medbay’s bed.”

“So you don’t know what it was?”

“No, and I don’t really want to.  We’ll make sure every trace of it is purged from the systems but I think we should be safe now.  We’re adding a few more physical fail-safes too, just in case.  I didn’t like the feeling of losing my ship and I certainly don’t want a repeat.

“And on that subject… thank you.  You saved us.  Twice.  If you hadn’t realised there was no Grifter, that there was no shuttle docked with us, then all of us would have headed out of the airlock and the Panther would’ve left without us.  We’d have had a few hours to live, a couple of days at most if we managed to ration the air.  Out here in the middle of nowhere we’d never have been rescued.  Just like the crew of the Sundrenched.”

“You think the same thing happened to them?”

“I’m sure of it.  The odds of anyone picking up their distress signal were astronomical.  It was quicker for them, though.  They didn’t have suits on.  Quicker, but probably not any more pleasant.

“Then you saved us again.  If you hadn’t leapt out the cargo bay the Panther would have blown, taking me with it, and the others would have been stuck dying slowly.  That was a damn brave thing to do.  Stupid, but brave.”

“Careful, Captain, I might ask for a pay rise!”

“I tell you what, you do something like that again and I’ll consider giving you one.”

She laughed.  It felt good even though it hurt.  Another reminder she was alive.

“I think you’re just jealous,” she said.  “I’m sure you’d have done the same thing soon after.  I figured I was more expendable.”

“Maybe,” replied the Captain, a slight smile pulling his mouth up.  “Now there’s someone who wants to speak to you.”

He stepped away, leaving through the medbay door.  A moment later Doug walked in.  Sasha’s stomach tumbled.  She knew Doug didn’t like her, he’d made that quite clear several times, but he’d risked his life to save her.  She risked a tentative smile.

“You’re awake,” he said abruptly.  “That’s good.  I’d hate to think I risked my life for no reason.”

Sasha let the smile fade, but forced herself to meet his eyes.

“You saved me, despite how you feel about me.  It might not mean much to you, but thank you.  I mean it.”

“Well, you’d gone and given us the chance to save the Panther.  That took a hell of a lot of guts.  Killing you felt… ungrateful, and I really didn’t want you to die with me owing you a debt.  I think we’re about even now.  Fair enough?”

She nodded.

“Good,” he continued.  “I’m… I’m glad you pulled through.  That doesn’t mean I like you, but… well… after what you did I think you’ve earned yourself a probation.  Keep pulling stunts like that and I might even think having a witch on board isn’t such a bad idea.  Deal?”

His words were harsh but something about his posture took the sting out of them.  He still didn’t like having her around, that was clear, but he was willing to give her a chance.  Of all the crazy things which had happened that seemed the most unlikely.  She stuck out her hand and grasped his, fighting to keep a smile off her face.

“Deal.  As long as you promise to come pick me up when I do.”

Just for a moment a smile quirked his lips.  He nodded then pulled away.

“I’ve got to go.  Not all of us get special treatment from the captain, sleeping the day away.  Don’t get used to it.”

He turned and stomped away.  Sasha settled back on the bed, smiling to herself.  Before they’d found the Sundrenched she’d been wondering whether joining the Panther had been a terrible mistake.  During the terrifying time after that she’d been certain it was.  Now… now she was starting to think she’d made the right choice after all.  It might be a choice that got her killed, but she certainly wouldn’t be bored!

She was still smiling as Doc adjusted several settings, sending her back into a much needed healing sleep.  She didn’t see him glance at the other medbay bed and shiver.  Her physical wounds would heal well enough, the mental wounds suffered by Doc would take a lot longer to fade.

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