Everything lights up red, flashes. A ship rises out of the darkness, out of the void. Gray-green hull, the open maws of cannons– and it's all bearing down on you. Power signatures on the vessel rise. Your mind screams at the controls, forces your own ship into a wild knotwork of maneuvers. Any second, and you expect the larger ship to fire, to incinerate your hull or spear you like a fish with rail-weapons or mass drivers.
But death never comes. The ship never fires, only hangs there, not even coasting, just drifting.
Momentarily confused, you blink, study the hulk of rust and alloy hanging in the void before you. No power signatures– nothing. It's totally dead, has been for a long time.
But then, you think, don't finish the thought. Your ship's integrated intelligence is already one step ahead of you. A detailed schematic of the ship opens behind your eyes, lays itself out in your mind. A box, something rigged together from spare parts, hooked into the ship's comms console. False readings coupled with some kind of simple hack script designed to throw your ship's automated systems off for a couple of seconds. It all makes sense now. It was an illusion, a trap you set off by popping out of between-space close enough for the other ship's barely functional sensor suite to feel the shockwave. Irritated, you send a quick script of your own back across the frequency, melt the box into slag.
In the silence and calm that follows, you move along the side of the ship, study it, take in the details. It's old, has probably been floating for over a hundred years. It's a freighter, carries standard armaments for a ship of its make and size, for the period it's from– a period when spacelane pirates were more common and more feared. The damage to it doesn't look like damage from a run-in with pirates– the ship itself is virtually intact on the outside, shows extensive damage only to the systems on the inside. No sign of the crew–
And then you see it. All the airlocks on the ship are open to the void. There's no atmosphere inside, and all the little shards of debris floating around the vessel. . .
Bodies. You realize. They're bodies.
You recoil a little in your seat as your ship's integrated intelligence picks over the frozen corpses, kicks back readings. The entire crew, vented into space. Men, women, children. The readings are strange, bizarre. The corpses– they're human, but they're also something else. They've been changed somehow, mutated, their faces stretching into horrifying screams of spreading teeth and lashing, barbed tongues.
At some point, you click off the data coming through, let the integrated intelligence transcribe it right to the network. The empty husk of the ship hangs silent in the void, light glancing off the words stenciled in white on the gray-green hull. Lucentio. IKV Lucentio.
You dispatch a mote-probe with a whim, a quick thought. At first, you hesitate to dive into the sensor feed from the probe, but then slowly, so slowly, you start to take in data at the edges of your mind, wade into the flow. The little speck of hardware slips into the ship, starts to explore the gutted interior, moves as your thoughts guide it through butchered halls, through coiling landscapes of hanging optic cable.
The damage is extensive. Most of the ship's insides look like they were blown apart with mining charges. The central computer core is a burned-out cinder, a fuse of ash and charcoal obliterated by explosives and fire. There are no logs in the database, no files at all, almost as if everything's been intentionally erased. Curious, you query the ship's compliment of escape vehicles, get a weak ping back. They're all there, all accounted for.
Except they're not all accounted for. Visual inspection of the exterior by your ship's integrated intelligence shows that one of them is missing, and that piques your curiosity anew. The mote-probe traces a route back outside, finds the opening to the missing vehicle's bay, pauses just at the edge as you squint at a sudden, unexpected flash of chrome.
You blink, hesitate, then realize what you're looking at. The work is cunning, impressive. Explosive bolts designed to fling the missing escape vehicle loose from the ship have been cut and reconnected, bound together with a net of fine conductive filament. The result is a virtually undetectable trap designed to hide the fact that someone left. You feel lucky to live in a time when mote-probes are ubiquitous. Anything larger than a half-meter or so in diameter would be big enough to trigger the bolts, and anything small enough to get that close to the net would be crippled by the explosion.
Slow, careful, you slide the probe between the weaves in the net, use subtle sweeps of sensors to explore the dark, hexagonal bay where the missing vehicle should be moored. No lights, all just weathered steel–
And then something at the far end catches your eye.
A blink, a flash. You home in on it, query it without thinking. The response is weak, low power. It's a nav-computer, you realize, torched and barely functional. Working quickly, you use the mote-probe like a battery, try to get the nav-computer working again. After a few minutes, you get a couple of keystrokes worth of life out of it before it dies again, fuses utterly.
It isn't much, but now you know where the escape ship was bound. Psi Iambartiana, or rather, somewhere in Psi Iambartiana. It's impossible to tell exactly where.
Drawing back, you recall the mote-probe, watch the Lucentio for a moment longer, try not to think about the crew spread out in space around it. Once the probe is secure, you breathe, spin up the phasedrive, then turn the nose of your ship away from the husk of the freighter. Other worlds wait. Other mysteries. Other secrets.
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