Dak Travenis hefted his flechette gun over his armoured shoulder and inspected the feeder socket. It was clear; he’d checked it twice in the past five minutes. What he was really inspecting was the rest of his squad.

Not that they needed it either. They were all ready, and, like him, checking their equipment almost as a ritual, or in case it had spontaneously decided to break in the last five minutes, while they assured themselves of the readiness of their squadmates. Everyone was, if not exactly at ease, as close to it as could be expected when they were about to deploy.

The front hatch hissed open, and Lieutenant Joraquin entered, in full battle armour but with his faceplate up. Within the space of three breaths all eyes were on him; everyone sat a little straighter in the racks, expectant.

“All right, people,” the squirrel began, grabbing a handhold and staying firmly planted in front of them. “Here’s the situation: In ten minutes we’ll be docking with the IMV Safe Venture, apparently one of the most ironic names to grace the merchant registry in the past three years. It’s a passenger-rated fast transport – the hull used to serve as a luxury liner before its most recent commission as a business-grade liner and mail boat. It was last seen eighty-three days ago, departing fully loaded on a three-day route from Fyren to the Danthis system, which, for those of you who don’t know your astrography, puts it some thirteen days off course under standard military power. For a civvie, call it twenty days.

“The ship has given no response to any of our attempts to communicate. Emissions suggest it still has a backup power plant running, and if there’s nothing else active, that could feed indefinite life support for up to two hundred people. The liner was only rated for a passenger load of one-twenty with a crew of fourteen, so they could all still be alive.

“The fact that they haven’t communicated, despite no signs of damage to the hull at all, much less the communications gear, rather makes us doubt this.”

The lieutenant took a breath, and shook his head. “I’ll be honest with you: we have no idea what’s going on with that ship. Which is why we’re all going in with weapons hot. Keep your safeties on – especially you people with the big guns,” he turned a wry grin toward Dak and the other three fire-support ratings, “but keep those weapons in hand, and if something shoots at you, do not hesitate to unsafe and return fire. The ship was spinning pretty badly before the Tenfold Dawn’s salvage teams got it under control, and we don’t think it likely anyone is still alive there or they’d have put a stop to it, but take no chances. Watch each other’s backs in there.

“Your primary orders are to secure the Safe Venture and to recover any available evidence about her fate. The tech crew will be hanging back on the shuttle along with Fallon’s squad, to help with the second part when the first is done, but if you see anything that could explain what in all the hells is happening here, report it.”

Joraquin fell silent, looking around at them, watching for reactions. Sergeant Narek tapped the side of her helmet; when Joraquin acknowledged her, the cougar asked, “Do we have a deck plan of the ship, Sir?”

“We’re waiting on the results of a deep scan to see if that’s consistent with the layout on record,” Joraquin replied. “That should be done within two minutes, and you’ll all get a map upload at that point.”

Silence prevailed, safe for the soft rumble of the engines through the hull as the shuttle matched velocity with its helpless target. Presently, a beep in Dak’s ear and a flurry of text over his eyepiece announced that the promised map data was arriving.

“All right,” Joraquin said once the transfer was done. “Dervey and Alpha Squad will insert at the aft starboard hatch, here,” one of the surface hatches lit up on the schematic being projected before Dak’s eyes. “You will then proceed to the Engineering section, ideally along this direct route, and secure main power, auxilliary power alpha, and the primary life-support plant. In the event that anyone is still alive on board, we’ll need to be sure those stay secure and don’t suffer any unfortunate malfunctions later on, if you catch my meaning.” The weasel with the Sergeant’s pips and the technician’s insignia nodded gravely.

“Narek will take Bravo on an EVA to the aft port hatch; we’ll drop you as we pass the ship. You will coordinate your insertion to be simultaneous with Alpha’s. If Alpha runs into difficulty, you will move to assist; otherwise, your assignment is to secure the aft area, including the cargo holds. Take it slow and easy down there, people, you can expect a lot of nooks and crannies.” The cougar clapped the barrel of her coilgun up against her shoulder in a gesture vaguely reminiscent of presenting arms; it’d do for a salute while she was buckled in.

“I will be accompanying Travenis and Charlie Squad,” the wolverine tightened his focus on what the lieutenant was saying, “going in by way of the forward hatch after Alpha and Bravo have been dropped off. We’ll pass through the crew quarters here and secure the bridge, here. From there, our course will vary depending on what we’ve learned up to that point. If all’s quiet, our likely course will be to continue searching through the passenger section while Delta comes in behind us to tap into their logs and flight recorder.


There were none.

Joraquin glanced at something on his visor. “Beta, move to the airlock and prepare to deploy.”

The insertions went smoothly. Beta jetted over to the airlock and were in position to crack its lock by the time the shuttle’s docking collar made a seal on the opposite side. Both teams went into a vacuum; both cycled the airlocks at the same time; both entered and, in turn, pronounced the corridors clear.

Despite his training and experience, Dak was fidgeting by the time the shuttle docked at the liner’s forward hatch. Waiting was never easy, and the vast amounts of nothing being reported by the other two teams just made him more anxious. Being able to disengage his clamps and get moving was a relief.

Joraquin held command of their platoon, but it was the wolverine who held squad command, and Joraquin knew better than to stamp all over it. His team of four advanced in pairs, covering each other, and only when they’d pronounced the corridor clear did Dak follow.

There was no actual gravity on the Safe Venture; the grav plates were off, stability provided by each squaddie’s magnetic boots, while the lieutenant drifted along in freefall behind them. The first two rooms they passed through were clear.

The mess hall was just as safe, but made Dak very, very glad that he was breathing his suit’s air.

“Mother of God, this was a massacre,” Private Morrisey breathed. As she was communicating on the local, low-priority channels, Dak let the lapse in comm discipline pass; the fox was only saying what they were all thinking.

Blood, long since dried and turned an unhealthy brown, had spattered all over every flat surface. Probably worse fluids, too. Corporal Arange, on point, had the misfortune of finding the first body, wedged by the ship’s long spin into one of the open galley cabinets. It’d take a medical examiner to determine sex and species, and probably DNA records for identification.

Others were in worse shape.

The bridge itself was empty, save for what must have been the captain, a wolf, lifeless in her command chair, with a neat hole on the right side of her skull and a horrendous mess where the left side should have been; she still clutched a pistol in her dead right hand.

“Logs aren’t even sealed, Sir,” Morrisey reported. “Last entries are about the fighting. Before that… looks like some bandits lured them in with a distress call. Poor people invited them right aboard to help them with a malfunctioning air scrubber.”

“What a mess,” Joraquin sighed. “Well, dupe the records, then we’ll…”

His words were cut off by the blare of a priority alert. “Bingo, bingo, bingo! UXB on the main reactor housing!”

Everyone froze. Joraquin didn’t ask for an assessment; in those moments, he could only get in the way. Like everyone else, he waited.

Finally, Dervey came on the comm. “Bingo clear. Looks like they were trying to vape the ship. Primer fizzled, but it sent the core into auto-shutdown, and then there wasn’t much this thing could do even if it did detonate.” The weasel sounded almost offended that what should have been a simple demolition job had failed so badly.

Joraquin sighed. “Good work, Alpha. All right, all teams extract. We’re not even getting a good body count without some specialists anyway.”

Dak shuddered in his armoured carapace. He was no man’s coward, but he couldn’t wait to get away from this hell.

Nobody deserved what had happened to these people. Maybe not even the ones who’d done it.