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Kursis Charter

40. Vraidercalt

Date: 269-993 Imperial.
Location: abandoned freighter Vraidercalt, Kleister Beta (uninhabited far binary companion white dwarf), 069-526 System (0721).

"For a place with artificial 'gravity', it sure is hard to stay on the ground." Maelcum enjoyed a rare opportunity to bitch instead of acting unperturbed in front of the troops.

Vraidercalt's contragravity system, which was meant to nullify the 4.7g external pull of the gas giant below, was fluctuating between 4.4g and 4.7g every 20 seconds. Meanwhile the ship's deckplate box, which should set 1g internally and compensate for pull from manoeuvres, was dead altogether. So the Avaricious were moving around in the fluctuating 0-0.3g from the planet that made it through contragrav. And the whole ship was bumping around in time with the turbulent atmosphere, with no deckplates to cancel the motion.

"I never liked gravity" said Fish. "I usually wish somebody would uninvent it. But an extra half gee would be quite handy right now."

"I shouldn't have made chili" said Sir David.

They were on the upper deck of three, which appeared to hold crew quarters and ship systems plus a galley and canteen. Junk lay around like a hurricane had recently been through, though there was thankfully no hurricane – not on this deck, at least. The red emergency lighting was still working, augmented by their torches and helmet beams which jolted around in time with the motion. The lights mixed eerily in the blue gas.

The plan was to take a look round the ship, identify priority salvage, and then return to Avarice Rewarded for trolleys etc. They'd also evaluate the possibility of salvaging the whole ship at a later date.

"First, the bridge" Sir David declared. "Let's see if we can get a log, or a cargo manifest, or a deck plan." He pointed to his left. "It should be that way."

They passed the canteen. "Oh man, that's weird" said Maelcum, as a fore-aft lurch synched with a contragrav peak and a set of loose knives and forks flew past his faceplate.

The team moved on, and didn't see the cutlery fly back the other way a minute later.

"OK, you're the spacers. So tell me why there's a big hole with wavy edges in that door." Maelcum spoke first as the trio faced the armoured, anti-hijack door to Vraidercalt's bridge.

Fish got down on his knees to peer at it. "And why does it show smooth edges, no impact deformation, and no surrounding paint bubbles from conducted heat?"

"Any claw or teeth marks?" asked Sir David.

"No, of course there aren't any claw or..."

"Well, it's not giant space hamsters then. Can you squeeze through it and get the door opened from the other side, instead of spending twenty minutes overriding security?"

Fish opened the bridge door from inside and waved the others in. "Now this place is really creepy" he said.

Vraidercalt's bridge was capacious, with six consoles plus a conference table, fresher and drinks machine. The fittings looked soft, almost ghostly in the red lighting and blue mist. They jumped out hard and sharp as the team played their white lights around.

It only took a few seconds to find the first body parts. A minute later, they'd spotted quite a few, mostly wedged in corners or under chairs. They added up to about one person, but they came from three or four original owners. Fish did a lot of hard swallowing and said, "This is not good."

Maelcum looked things over. The remains were down to bones and scraps of flesh, ligament or clothing. "I think they died before they were cut up. Their hearts must have stopped, there's not much blood around. Or maybe it evaporated at this pressure..."

"Am I imagining it, or is that hand holding an electric carving knife?" Sir David put in.

"Yes," said Maelcum, and the blade has sort of melted. Look at this, Fish."

Fish gave Maelcum an evil look and came over to get a better look at the severed arm. "That's an acid or solvent splash. Something sprayed a powerful solvent around here." He stood up, and turned to face the other two.

"We've got critters here, haven't we."

There was a general readying of weapons.

Fish had a go at the computer and control systems, and found insufficient power to do anything. Sir David went looking for visible clues and found a set of neatly framed deckplans for Vraidercalt decorating one wall. Maelcum watched the hole in the door.

Sir David studied his deckplan. "There's a secure area off the main cargo hold on the lower deck, at the aft end, beside the engineering space. I think that's us."

Fish came and looked. "Yeah. The cargo bay could be jammed with cargo, and it might have shifted. Also there was that big hole we saw from outside. Why don't we drop a level and walk aft along the passenger deck, so we'll get a look at that, then drop again and we should be at the rear end of the hold."

"Let's do it."

Another deck, another corridor. This one was a relatively empty, long corridor between long rows of passenger staterooms. They winched a few doors open and found the staterooms empty, with no signs of passengers. Apparently Vraidercalt had not found many passengers on its last voyage. At the aft end they found opposing large doors with signs reading "Low Passage" and "Gymnasium".

There was nothing of note in the gym.

"I suppose we ought to check." Fish hooked a thumb at the low passage area and they went in. It was filled with rows of low berths, the vertically oriented type. Most of them were empty but there was a cluster of six that contained humans... or parts of them. Four looked like they'd been eaten away, eroded, or as Fish put it "as if they were made of chocolate and somebody poured a vat of boiling water on them." It was pretty much like the damage on the bridge.

The other two looked intact, and their indicators said they were functional and contained live sophonts.

"Uh oh," said Maelcum, "I thought that log said they got everybody who was alive into the launch. Looks like somebody lied."

Sir David asked "Fish, can we power those back on the ship?"

Fish played his torch over a few power connectors, throwing bizarre shadows. "Yeah, no problem. I can get the tools to uncouple them when we go back for the cargo sled."

"I'll warn Luan they're coming then. We'll take them back later."

They came to the bulkhead door that isolated the stairs and lift shaft. Fish eyed it carefully. "It looks sealed. With the breach on the lower hull, we might start a gale when I open this. I'm going to pop the needle valve first." He opened a small valve by the door, which was there to check for smoke or unequal pressure on the other side. He shone his torch across the valve, looking for turbulence. "No gas flow. Opening her up." The door dilated.

"Right, let's have a look at that secure cargo store". Sir David rubbed his hands together and stepped through the hatch onto a steel mesh spiral staircase, where a cross between a giant jellyfish and a cloud darted down from above and tried to swallow his head. It whipped tendrils down to lash at him, incidentally clipping the doorframe and leaving a smoking gouge about 1cm deep. Fortunately, his Cr 140,000 hostile environment suit was made of sterner stuff. The tendrils only left surface abrasions.

Maelcum was first to react, raising his shotgun and pumping a couple of rounds over Sir David's head. He calmly reported the contact back to Avarice Rewarded between shots.

Sir David started to move, then saw Fish pointing a gun over his head and stood very still. Fish got one useful shot off. Like Maelcum's, it punched a tight hole through the cloud creature and tore the covering off the wall behind it. The effect on their new enemy was about the same – not much. Diaphanous flesh (for want of a better term) closed over the holes in its midriff, while the creature's business end finished swallowing Sir David's head. A ring of very scary green liquid slid down his neck towards the seal, raising a wall of steam as it tried to cut through the suit.

A stray tendril whipped out and took the tip off Fish's shotgun barrel. Maelcum took two paces backwards. "Everybody stand still" he said over comm, in a voice that brooked no argument.

There were three darker green nodes in the mass of cloud over Sir David. Each was about the size of a fist. None were stationary. Maelcum took slow aimed shots, leaning into his shotgun as the gravity waned on its 20 second cycle. The first and fourth hit nodes, and when the second node went the cloud suddenly decided it wanted to be somewhere else. Maelcum barked "David, step out. Fish, close the bulkhead and then reload." He reloaded his own shotgun.

By the time Sir David was through the door Maelcum had a suit diagnostic and repair kit out. "Let's have a look at you" he said, plugging in a probe.

"Well, that'll be what the shock prods were for then" said Fish.

"Oh, that's it" groaned Sir David.

"We'll go back and get them once I'm sure you're not going to leak" said Maelcum. "Then we can finish this."

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