Henry Saito leads Wei Parker and Tomas Ek down the long corridor from her workstation, through the atrium, and around the right turn leading the docks 9 - 16. Wei and Ek jockey for position immediately behind Henry, like a pair of dogs on a track.
Henry has his laser drawn, and rolls his hand around the stock nervously.
“Losing an entire ship that has come in and docked is a good way to lose one’s job,” Ek jabs.
“If it’s at the dock, Mr. Ek,” Wei protests. “It’s not really lost is it. Must have been a malfunction in the station’s tracking equipment.”
“A poor carpenter blames her tools, Miss Parker,” Ek says.
Their voices and their footsteps echo and bounce along the corridor, just ahead of them, and just on their heels. For the first time in a long time, Hyperion station feels crowded, like one of the stations on Io or the hub outposts in the Kuiper belt, or even an Earth city.
When Henry gets to the dock 10 door, he stops, points to the dead-eyed viewscreen mounted to its right, and looks at Wei.
She stands before the viewscreen, inspecting the edges of the panel, where the glass attaches to the surrounding metal wall. Wei swipes at the screen, hoping to bring up the maintenance menu, but the viewscreen does not respond. Wei steps back, in plain sight of the device’s two way camera, and waves her arms.
“Come on,” she whispers. “Wake up.”
She steps closer again, her mouth just inches from the panel.
“Username: Wei Parker, passkey: Applesauce.”
The viewscreen doesn’t respond.
“Disappointing to know that the station is in such poor condition under your,” Ek pauses. “Care, Miss Parker.”
“I did a full functionality test at the beginning of the month--like every month--and this screen worked fine. I don’t understand it,” Wei says.
“Perhaps you aren’t as skilled at evaluation as you are at insubordination,” Ek says, touching the dry blood at the corner of his mouth.
“Mr. Ek, I arrived the other night, and this screen was working then,” Henry says. “I mean, I think it was. I remember each one in the hall being lit.”
“Oh good, then we have nothing to worry about,” Ek says. “So pleased with your expertise.”
Henry Saito pouts briefly, then holds up his laser pistol, elbow bent upward, aimed at the ceiling.
“The viewscreen clearly isn’t working now,” he says. “So what’s say we look at the ship with your own eyes?”
Tomas Ek peers down at his tablet again. He scrolls through a list of messages, from what Wei can see, upside down and tipped away. With pleasure, Ek, presses his index finger at one line of text on the screen.
“Yes, Mr. Saito, as it says here, UST regulations insist upon the present executive,” Ek points at himself. “That’s me, performing the initial assessment on any lost or mysterious property on station premises.”
Pride swells in Ek’s voice.
“See here,” he begins reading. “‘Should an executive be present on any station or outpost during an event or emergency, that executive shall be deemed responsible leadership, and shall supercede the authority of any staff concurrently occupying the location.’”
Ek looks up from the tablet.
“That means,” he continues. “That although you seem to believe yourself some kind of expert on Hyperion station, Miss Parker, it is in fact, I, who is in charge in here.”
Wei crosses her arms.
“I know what it means, Mr. Ek,” she says.
“Oh you do?” Ek continues. “Then you’re a whole tick more intelligent than I gave you credit.”
“Open the door, Hank,” she says.
“Ah ah ah, Mr. Saito,” Ek interrupts. “Open the door on my order.”
“Now. Open the door.”
Henry swipes at the entry pad. The door inches open, more slowly than usual.
“Must be a wiring issue,” Henry says.
He reaches into the slowly growing gap between the door and the jamb, and with all his strength, Henry Saito pulls the door toward its hidden pocket in the corridor wall. A gentle mechanical groan, the forced motion of gears, underlines Henry’s effortful grunts.
The door now open, Wei nods to Henry and pushes past both men, nudging Ek with her shoulder on her way into dock 10.
“You’re not doing much for your cause, Miss Parker,” Ek barks.
Turning back over her shoulder, Wei says, “It’s not my cause. You’re in charge, Mr. Ek.”
Henry follows Wei inside, aiming his pistol over her shoulders and all around the empty room. Ek, clutching his tablet to his chest, creeps in after them.
Dock 10 is completely quiet. There’s none of the usual engine noise, loading ramp hydraulic hisses, rolling robot tracks. Nothing. Even the vending robot in the room is powered down, it’s usually glowing eyes and ordering screen as black as pupils. Hovering there in the silence, all its lights off, its machines quiet, with its docking arm extended and locked into the station’s node, is the Aurelius. It’s one of the larger model Polo-class cargo freighters, outfitted with two defensive cannons--one on the top and one on the belly. The round cockpit comprises mostly glass with a web of metal ribs, like the Hyperion’s atrium. A short corridor reaches back to the cargo hold, crew quarters and engine room; all arranged carefully into the shape of a pyramid. At the feet of the pyramid, four tritium fusion engines give off neither light nor heat.
“It’s been here a while,” Wei says, touching the nearest engine cowl. “These things take a while to cool, even once they’ve docked.”
“Two or three days at least,” he says. “It’s the paint job that confuses me.”
“It looks clean and new, unlike most of this station,” Ek says. “What’s confusing about it?”
Wei taps at the engine cowl. She holds up her hand.
“This is what’s confusing,” she says.
Wei’s hand is shimmering silver, like the ship’s paint.
“It’s still tacky,” Henry says.
“Like it had been painted after it got here.”
Ek fiddles with his tablet.
“I see what’s going on here,” Ek says. “This is a prank you’re playing. Some abandoned space junk washes up here and you think, ‘Let’s screw with Mr. Ek,’ so you paint it to look like the Aurelius, assuming that I’m too stupid to know the difference.”
“What would we possible have to gain from that?” Wei says. “We didn’t even know you were coming.”
Ek gazes past her at the ship.
“You’re sick. It’s space madness. Makes juvenalia seem professional,” he says.
“Mr. Ek, I don’t think Wei had anything to do with this,” Henry says. “And rather than arguing it’s probably a good time to check out the inside of the ship. There could be people hurt in there.”
“No,” Ek says holding up his tablet. “I don’t see any human lifesigns on here.”
“Then maybe there’s a mess of dead bodies,” Wei quips.
“That’s not funny,” he replies.
“Who said it was?” Wei asks.
“What matters, Mr. Saito and Miss Parker, is the condition of the ship’s cargo, assuming it really is the Aurelius at all.”
Wei bites her lip again.
“Well, there’s only one way to find out for sure,” she says.
Wei marches from the ship’s rear, to its bow. She waves her arm in front of the loading ramp activator. Nothing happens. She waves again, more energetically. Still nothing. Wei slips her fingertips into a small channel on the left side of the activator, slides them together until there’s a quiet click, and then pulls open the activator revealing a manual release underneath. With silver tinted fingers, Wei grips the release lever and wrestles it from LOCKED to OPEN.
Beneath the ship’s dome-like cockpit, a ramp hisses and lowers to the dock floor. Emergency lights line the ramp, and pop on inside the ship, illuminating the empty cockpit, and casting eerie shadows deep inside the quarters, engine room, and cargo hold.
“There,” Wei says. “Now, who’s first?”
“You seem to know your way around this ship, Miss Parker, despite having never seen it before,” Ek needles.
“I know my way around each and every model of ship that passes through this station,” Wei responds. “Polos all have a manual release in the same place. If you spent more time on the other side of a desk, you might know that too.”
“I have hundreds of hours in the field,” Ek says.
“Then please,” Wei says, ushering him toward the loading ramp. “Do the honors.”
Ek steps back and scrolls down his tablet.
“UST regulations stipulate that an armed security officer should precede any company executives into a questionable situation.”
“Of course they do,” Wei says.
“Fair enough,” Henry says. “That is why I’m here.”
Henry holds his pistol at arm’s length and steps onto the base of the ramp.
“Hello Aurelius,” he says. “This is Sol Security Officer Henry Saito. I am boarding this vessel. If there is anyone alive, please make whatever sounds you are capable of making.”
The ship, and whatever it contains, does not reply.
Henry takes another step onto the ramp, peering into the ill-lit mix of shadows inside. He takes another step, heel-to-toe, careful and slow. Heel-to-toe. Heel-to-toe. The only sound inside the ship is the reflected sound of his boots contacting the ramp.
“Hello Aurelius,” Henry repeats. “This is Sol Security Officer Henry Saito. Please call out if you are in here.”
Nothing. Henry proceeds up the ramp. Wei draws one of her laser pistols and follows him up the ramp, taking none of the paced care Henry employed. Henry turns around at the top of the ramp.
“I don’t see or hear anything,” he says. “I’m going to check the cockpit.”
Wei nods, and follows him to the top of the ramp.
Henry sits down in the pilot seat, and scans the ship’s elaborate console of inactive viewscreens, unlit indicators, and unflipped switches. Wei stands over his shoulders as Henry scans the console. Everything looks normal. No obvious damage. Nothing but normal wear and tear for a ship in this kind of service.
Wei turns back toward the empty ship. She tromps to the top of the ramp and pokes her head down toward the dock.
“You coming up, Mr. Ek?” she asks. “We’d hate for you to think we’re up to no good up here.”
Ek smiles at her, caught in his hypocrisy, and then marches up the ramp.
“Take a look at this,” Henry says. “It’s definitely the Aurelius. Look at the FIN, here atop the console.”
Henry points to a tiny LED readout displaying a sequence of numbers: FIN-345-2129-AURELIUS.
“That is the proper identification,” Ek interjects. “This is the Aurelius.”
“Didn’t I just say that?” Henry asks Wei.
Wei nods, and then she points to front-center of the console, at a three by two slot.
“The flight record’s been removed,” Wei says. “Or it was never there in the first place?”
“Records are standard procedure,” Ek says. “It must have been forcibly removed.”
Henry taps at the edges of the slot.
“I don’t think so, Mr. Ek,” he says. “There isn’t a single scratch around the port. And trust me, there’s no way to tear out one of those records without leaving a mark.”
“I suppose it’s possible that it’s somewhere else in the ship,” Ek says. “That it was stowed by the captain before he abandoned ship… or whatever happened.”
“Sure, that sounds possible, if not probable,” Henry answers.
“Then we’re searching the ship,” Wei says. “I’ll check the engine room. Henry, you check the quarters, and Ek can take a look at his precious cargo hold.”
Ek balks. “Are you sure we should split up?”
“It would be the most efficient way,” Henry replies.
“And you said yourself that there’s no one alive on the ship,” Wei adds.
“Yes,” Ek croaks. “No one alive. Fine. I will inspect the cargo hold. If any of you find anything questionable, I order you by the authority of UST to neither touch, nor move anything before I’ve seen it.”
Wei offers Ek a sarcastic salute.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Ek, sir.”
Ek smirks, his beady eyes pulsing with unspoken insults.
“There’s no point to poking around in the dark,” Henry says. He traces the console, finding the interior power control and activates it. A low a hum fills the ship. Overhead lights switch on, glowing with artificial solar light. The ship’s back corridor changes immediately from dark, foreboding cave to boring, sanitary hallway. Faint music drizzles from the ship’s speakers.
“What is that?” Henry asks.
“Hovergirl by Mina Stellar,” Wei says.
“Weird choice for a freighter, pop music,” Henry replies.
“Everyone has their guilty pleasures,” Wei replies. “Let’s see what ghosts we can find in this ghost ship, shall we?”
She slaps Ek on the shoulder, holds her pistol up, and strolls down the hallway toward the engine room.
Henry pops out of the pilot seat, smiles at Ek, and passes the suited man. Midway down the corridor, Henry waves at the viewscreen next to the crew quarters, waits for the door to slide open, and then walks in.
Ek tucks his tablet under his arm, takes a nervous breath, and pads slowly down the corridor toward its end, and the cargo hold.
In the engine room, Wei scans the room from the doorway, holding her weapon out in one hand while the other hovers over the second, holstered pistol. The layout is as simple as an engine room gets. The front of the room is open, save for a two-person console in the center that curves into a quarter-circle. The sidewalls of the room are lined with compartments, tools boxes, and lockers. And on the back wall, about five by five cubed, is the fusion engine, covered with heatsinks, tubes carrying coolant, and an array of dead indicator lights.
Wei circles the control station, and pokes around the outside of the engine. She finds nothing, and no one. It’s a clean engine room, devoid of even a scattered tool or unwashed boot mark. She inspects the lockers, jiggling each of the handles, and finding them all open and empty, save for one door, adjacent to a compartment labeled TOOLS, that is locked tight.
She shakes the handle, waves her hand in front of the passkey pane, but nothing happens. Wei walks back to the console, looking for a locker release, or at least, a release for the tool compartment, wherein she might find something to pry with. The console lacks such features, however, and Wei gets momentarily lost in the dozens of touchpads, buttons, and switches that when activated in their numbered order, ignites the tritium fusion reactor behind her and gives the ship the power to traverse light years in weeks, maybe days.
She finds the ship’s neural cap, hanging from a hook behind the engineering station. She lifts it and places it on her head. Like the rest of the ship, it is inactive, dead, and empty.
Frustrated, Wei re-hangs the neural cap, walks back to the sealed locker, aims her laser pistol and pulls the trigger.
A bolt of red fires from the weapon’s barrel and vaporizes the lock.
Wei blows on the superheated mechanism and smirks, waiting for it to cool.
Suddenly an alarm tears through the cabin of the ship. The overhead lights switch
from cool, soft yellow-white to bright red. Wei rolls her eyes and darts back to the engineering console. She finds the flashing red emergency indicator and thumbs the key below it, just as Henry arrives in the doorway to the engine room.
“Are you alright?” he says gasping.
The alarm falls silent. The lights revert to normal.
“I’m fine. Just had to get a locker open, so I used the tool I had available.”
“What if it was ray shielded, Wei?” Henry asks with concern. “You could have been
caught in a mess of ricochet.”
“And I wasn’t, Hank, so don’t worry so much,” she says, approaching the locker.
Wei opens it, and the only thing inside is a green jumpsuit with a patch on the chest that says: Corvi. The suit hangs from its hanger, on a hook. Wei nudges it aside and scans the rest of the locker, finding not even a speck of dust or crumb of food.
“Weird,” she says. “Somebody was in this ship, but it’s been carefully cleared out to appear the opposite.”
“Yeah, the crew quarters look like a budget hotel on some tourist colony,” Henry adds. “The beds are all made, sheets pressed and everything. The vending robots are in pristine condition, but switched off. And the showers look like they’ve never been used. Plus, the personnel lockers are all empty, unlocked, and clean as heavy water.
“I don’t think anyone has been in this ship for a while, Wei,” Henry concludes.
“This ship couldn’t look newer if it had just launched from the yard,” Wei says. “Something definitely isn’t right.”
She walks over to the engine and taps at the coolant tubes.
“These should have a smear of residue if the engine was used,” she says. “And the engine would have to have been used for it to get here.
“I don’t know, Hank,” Wei continues. “Say, where’s our friend?”
Henry turns around and peers down the corridor.
“I haven’t seen him since we split up. You’d think a guy that jumpy would have come running when the siren went off.”
“Yeah,” Wei says, nodding. “You would think.”
Wei walks past Henry though the engine room door. She turns and follows the corridor another ten paces to the cargo hold. The cargo hold door is open, the inside is cavernous, but well-lit, bright whites and silvers, with only a few bands of yellow-and-black striped warning tape along the top edge to remind stevedores to watch their heads. Wei enters the room slowly, eyeing the first bank of open compartments and storage units, looking for misplaced shadows, listening for disembodied noises.
“Mr. Ek,” she calls.
Ek does not answer.
Wei turns and looks down the center of the cargo hold, and sees a pattern of large black containers laid out in rows amid the white room, like a piano keyboard. Each of the black containers is open, like those at the entrance, and each container is pristine inside. As Wei walks down the row, she calls again for Ek:
“Hello, Mr. Ek,” she says. “Come on out, so I don’t accidentally shoot you.”
She creeps deeper into the cargo hold, passing more open black containers. She turns and sees Henry behind her, covering her back, smiling.
Then, she hears a soft, wet, mumbling just up ahead.
Wei recognizes the sound immediately. Crying needs no language or translation.
“Hello,” she calls again, sprinting toward the sound that seems to be coming from the back of the bay.
And then she finds the source, curled up seated on the floor, tablet at his side, Tomas Ek whimpers like a child.
“It’s all gone. There’s nothing,” he says.
“What’s all gone?” Wei asks.
“Valuable UST… research,” Ek answers. “And artifacts for study. It’s all gone.”
Wei scowls down at the man in the seersucker suit as he wipes his tears.
“The crew, if you care about living people, is gone too. Without leaving a trace.”
“Of course I care,” Ek cries, slowly rising to his feet. “Without them I have nothing. No cargo, and no one to explain what happened.”
“Plus they could be dead, which will be news to their families,” Wei jabs.
“I have to call the home office,” Ek says, picking up his tablet.
The Aurelius lurches forward suddenly. A few of the black containers rock and tip over, crashing noisily against the floor. The floor and wall vibrate slightly, and ship lurches back. Wei and Ek sway with the motion, stumbling, but holding their stances. Ek hugs his tablet to his chest and stares wide-eyed at her.
“The engine,” Wei says. “It’s alive.”
Wei sprints out of the cargo bay toward the engine room. The tritium fusion engine whirrs and churns with rushes of coolant. The engineering console glows brightly, each of the viewscreens lit and presenting information on the condition of the system. Normal. All normal. Optimal even. Wei doesn’t touch anything on the console, but looks on in awe as the engine seems to operate itself.
Ek enters the engine room behind her, and then runs over to the opened locker, and the grasps at the dangling jumpsuit.
“Corvi? Where is he?” he asks Wei.
“Don’t look at me,” she says. “You’re holding the only evidence that humans were ever in this ship.”
Ek traces the embroidered name badge. “I knew Paulo Corvi. We started in the infocenter together.”
Wei gazes wide-eyed at Tomas Ek’s sudden display of human emotion.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she says.
Ek releases the jumpsuit and collects himself. “It happens. We all know the risks of working at UST. Paulo certainly did.”
“Yeah. Lots of stuff happens.”
“I will report it so that the home office can contact his family.”
Wei nods and heads for the doorway. She barrels down the corridor toward the cockpit. Ek touches the jumpsuit one last time and follows her.
In the cockpit, Henry Saito sits in the captain’s chair and stares at the console, mouth agape. He turns toward Wei as she arrives behind him.
“The auto-pilot is on, and set, and there’s no way to turn it off,” Henry says to her.
“Did you try to the override?” Wei asks.
“Of course, Wei of the Dragon,” Henry quips. “I tried the off-button too.”
“I think we should get off this ship,” she says.
“Yeah,” Henry replies. “I think you’re right.”
The ship lurches again. Then the console flashes with brilliant lights and colors. And an alarm sounds.
Outside the ship, the docking arm detaches from Hyperion Station and retracts toward the Aurelius. Another shift. The ship rocks and sways as the arm locks back into place against the ship.
“Go,” Wei yells.
Before they can move, the loading ramp begins to retract too.
“Hank, turn it off.”
Henry pecks at the controls.
“What is going on?” Ek says, standing just outside the cockpit.
“We seem to be taking off,” Wei says.
“For where?” Ek demands.
“The auto-pilot doesn’t say,” Henry says. “See, all we know is it’s a preset destination.”
“We have to get out,” Ek says, as the loading ramp meets the beveled edges of the ship’s hull, hissing and then locking into place.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Wei says. “At least we might find out what happened to the original crew.”
“I’m calling the home office,” Ek exclaims, walking toward the crew quarters. “They’ll have something to say about this.”
“I think we all will,” Henry says, watching helplessly as the ship backs away from dock 10.
The Aurelius floats backward until it is clear of the dock, and the hull of Hyperion Station. Under its own control, the ship turns, and its engines burn bright blue-white. Wei Parker stands over Henry Saito’s shoulder and stares out through the ship’s windshield. She watches Hyperion Station rotate slowly before them, shrinking at the ship drifts out. The desolate, sponge-like moon that she has called home for three years doesn’t look so bad from this distance. It almost looks like it would be soft, welcoming. The cross of smooth, metal tubes that cross its surface look so large, like they could have been a thriving city along some other version of history.
The ship turns quickly now, its directional thrusters whipping it around, facing away from the station. Wei’s hand falls onto Henry’s shoulder. She grips tight as their kidnapper spins. Henry reaches up and takes her hand in his.
Outside, the fusion engines fire, a brilliant burst of light, and waves of hot radiation kick away from the rear of the Aurelius. In seconds the ship is clear of the moon. Then clear of Iapetus. Then Phoebe.
There’s no turning back now.