Characters: Tomás Darquin, Terry Hale, Kim Matsumoto, Dylan Shaver
The ice is thin Come on, dive in Underneath my lucid skin The cold, it's lost, forgotten – Sarah MacLachlan, "Ice"
“Well, you know your duties. Any questions?”
“Sir?” Darquin chimed in. “Any idea what happened…signs of battle damage or something?”
“No idea, except it would appear they got the full force of what clipped my ship,” A shadow fell over her face, “No external damage. It just… shut down.”
Darquin caught a glimpse of Kim shifting uncomfortably, then lowered his eyes, crossing his arms against his chest.
“Anything else?” the Captain said. “No? Very well. I realize this is going to be tedious with the shuttles, but since it’s a possible quarantine situation, we can’t bring the ships together. Not yet anyway.”
“Our eggs won’t be in one basket,” Darquin added, offering agreement. He shrugged again, at a loss for words.
Hale nodded in acknowledgment. It was the same reason she didn’t go over herself, as much as she wanted to see for her own eyes. But the Captain’s duty was to the crew and her ship first. “Keep the bridge briefed of anything and be careful.” The Captain took a step backward as if leading by example. “Move out.”
As both teams immediately began suiting up, pulling EVA gear and specialized equipment for each team, Captain Hale left for the bridge, her work there in the shuttle bay done for now.
Darquin hit his link amidst the unraveling of EVA suits. “Darquin to Security, five to Shuttlebay One for EVA duty. Maximum armaments.” Not waiting for a reply, he started pulling on his suit. He took some comfort in the fact that it took less than a minute for his team to arrive. Jogging, Commander Shaver was the first to reach Shuttle One, Kim following soon after, clipping her face mask to her belt as she walked. Darquin moved the opposite direction, toward his arriving team.
“Good, I didn’t put in the overtime for nothing.” He smirked as two Minbari in the group turned to each other in mixed expressions of confusion and amusement. “White Star 24 is nonfunctional, reason unknown, no life signs. We’re going aboard in hopes of finding someone. Suit up and board the shuttle. We’ll go over the White Star schematics on the way over.” He borrowed one of their datapads and tapped it for emphasis before returning it and passing around the EVA gear. As they quickly followed his example, he attached his PPG pistol to his suited ankle. As soon as they were all suited up, he led them aboard the shuttle.
As Darquin let the others slip past him into the rest of the shuttle, Kim turned toward him from her place at the co-pilot’s seat. “Ready?” she said quietly.
“Ready or close enough to it.” Darquin gave her a nod before he moved quickly to his place in the passenger compartment.
Shaver tapped the com button on his control panel, “Bridge, this is transport shuttle Slayer — am I cleared for departure?”
With a few confirmations, elongated bleeps, buzzers, and other assorted noises which could easily be set to the 1812 Overture, the bay slowly depressurized and the large, circular bay doors creaked open.
At that, Shaver entered the launch sequence, and the Slayer glided silently into space. Skillfully, his hands slid over the controls, adjusting, readjusting, and defining.
Beyond the Phoenix, Storm One lit the way to White Star 24. Roland DeVries leveled his Thunderbolt, twisting it over and around the Phoenix, leading the wave of fighters toward the drifting White Star. Like racing starfish, the three-pronged Zen’Thas fighters from Dessel Squadron shot across the darkness of Vorlon space, throwing spotlights over their silent brethren, waiting for a sign of life or some hint of violence.
It never came. The White Star continued to drift, oblivious to its larger cousin as it inched closer, not the slightest reaction even as it lay under its nose, fighter craft swimming across all its flanks and lighting the way like candle-laden pallbearers.
The sight as the White Star 24 came in view for those in shuttle earned a gasp from many. None of them, even the ones able to keep their fears unspoken, has ever seen a White Star so lifeless. It didn’t have that ethereal glow, like a subliminal halo, that even a heavy damaged vessel of its kind would hold against the darkness. It was dull and dark, almost as if eager to lose itself in the surrounding nothingness.
Shaver found the White Star’s hangar open, its doors apparently frozen in place, and began plotting an approach vector. “What in the…,” he mumbled, glancing over the sensor panels.
Darquin watched the reactions through the compartment, trying not to join them as White Star 24 rolled across the viewports like a dead shark floating past. He let his eyes turn aside as his mind went back to Kim’s expression when he first went into the shuttle bay. Dead, the captain had said. Had Kim sensed something more? Unstrapping himself, Darquin left his seat and stepped methodically toward the pilots’ stations.
He could feel the ship slide to one side as he entered the next compartment, finding Kim, as she was before the launch, was at Dylan Shaver’s side in the co-pilot’s chair, watching the monitors.
“Kim?” When he was certain she’d heard, Darquin continued in Japanese: “When you have a moment?”
Kim twitched in response, startled to hear him speak the language of her childhood. Then she composed herself and glanced back at him from the corner of her eye with a slow nod.
He smiled back before leaving, doing his best to play it off as a pep talk of some kind, and returned to the passenger compartment, nodding at Shaver who turned briefly to acknowledge him.
The Slayer locked itself down into the hangar of White Star 24 with a clang and a shudder. Everyone inside could hear occasional thumpings against the hull even as the ship settled. Kim threw off her flight harness, letting it dangle over her, and started the line of people in front of the doors.
Darquin unhooked his plasma rifle off his suit and moved toward the door. “It’s showtime, kids. Weapons ready.” He added quickly in Adronato, “We will shield the way.”
His team nodded, drawing their firearms, securing undrawn fighting pikes at their suit belts, as they took their places behind him. Waiting for them, he slid his helmet in place with a heavy snap as the hermetic seals clamped shut. Making sure everyone was ready for the EVA, he announced a final warning checking their life support and mag-boots. With a nod to one of the suited Minbari acolytes to move toward the airlock controls, Darquin threw one last look at everyone and paused.
Darquin didn’t wait for the shuttle doors to completely open. He ducked and bolted into the airlock, then down onto the hangar deck as the loading ramp extended. All around them as the teams jumped out with him.
Crates hovered and rolled in the darkness, the desolation revealed with infrared and ultraviolet to the suited Phoenix team. As Darquin signalled orders to fan out, Commander Shaver was the first to break from the main group, dashing across the deck and stopping at key points throughout the area, methodically pursuing his private objectives.
“Come on,” Shaver mumbled to himself. “This didn’t happen all by itself, where did you make a mistake?” A box floated past his head, nearly striking him. He glanced at it, as if to say hello, and then briskly turned his head back to his original attention point.
Kim was the last to leave the shuttle, her fingers near the PPG at her waist.
The aggressive advance was unnecessary. Nothing but dust and the boxes floated like clouds in a surreal night sky, clinging or bouncing against empty shuttlecraft. The silence they did their best to dismiss, trying to convince themselves that they weren’t supposed to hear anything in space anyway.
Over his comlink, Darquin gave the security team his instructions as he walked around the shuttle, inspecting the area. “Secure the area and report in. Anything unusual, link in right away.”
He watched them race across the deck and dodge the crates doing pirouettes in the air, noting all of their positions before turning around to follow everyone else. As he kept an eye out for Kim, reports came over his helmet comlink.
“All docked shuttlecraft, secure.”
“Control booth secured…offline.”
“Hangar doors closed, confirmed.”
“Okay, sounds good.” He turned back to the Shuttle where Kim stood frowning toward the rest of the ship. Even obscured by distorted sight, there was an odd expression he was coming to recognize. She was scanning. “Let’s check all the exits. Airlocks, too. Even hull breach shelters.”
Tapping control pads at his suit wrist, he sent a private comlink to Kim, verbal reports running under the com-feed as background chatter in his helmet. “Kim, you okay?”
She said nothing at first, then stirred to say dryly, “Not really.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
In the background, he could say his team report in:
“Emergency Airlock B secure.”
“All airlock shelters empty….”
It all boiled down to the same thing. No people, alive or dead. He sent his team out into the corridors to guard the doorways and make sure it was safe for the others.
Commander Shaver opened one of the emergency airlocks connecting with the rest of the ship, earning a gentle hiss from the escaping air, then stepped inside. He wasn’t really aware of what everybody else was doing, security matters were not his concern. Ship matters were; he knew that there was nothing to worry about in the cargo bay, if there was — it would have killed them already.
“Whoever did that, I hope you didn’t find anything interesting,” Darquin said.
He followed the sound and turned in time to watch Kim going into the airlock, behind the Commander. Sighing, he went in after them. Kim closed the airlock behind him just before the Commander opened the hatch on the other side.
Shaver listened dryly to Darquin. “Be careful what you wish for…” He peered into the ship, and his eyes widened. “Sorry to disappoint you…but we’ve got something.”
As their faceplates cycled through the spectrum for a view with optimal visibility, their vision went from pitch black to green, revealing corridors and…a humanoid body. Expecting it didn’t help. For a moment three sets of eyes watched the corpse wander idly against the top of one wall, limbs extended as if to fly.
The three Rangers approached it quickly despite themselves, and found it was a human, like themselves, but its face twisted into a mask of terror, coated with frost, jaws pulled open and taut, eyes like marbles of frozen wax.
Crossing him like a dutiful Christian, Darquin heard someone swear under her breath over the comlink. “I’ll second that.”
He and Shaver climbed up onto the nearby wall to check the body. “No signs of violence,” Shaver said quietly, staring over the body coldly. He jumped back down to the floor and ventured out on his own, further into the ship, as Kim and Darquin moved away from the body.
As Kim stepped beside him, Darquin looked up one more time at the body. “Jeez….” She glanced at him and shook her head helplessly. What else was there to say? Nothing that could help, at any rate.
Darquin hit his link. “White Star 24, anyone, do you copy?” There was no response, just the background chatter from the other teams. He shrugged at Kim. “I would’ve felt lousy if I didn’t try.”
Kim checked her comlink, making sure that she was still on a private channel. “I can’t sense anyone but us, Tom. Captain though maybe there’d be someone hidden — the organic matter of the ship can sometimes distort readings — but… I can scan right through the ship like it wasn’t there. It could be common steel for all I sense. Or don’t sense.”
Shaver stared down a long corridor, people frozen in what appeared to be, mid-action. No chance to run, no place to hide. Whatever this was, it worked fast. The control deck, he thought…but decided against going so soon, because he knew what was there anyway, but just wanted to confirm it. This was a horrible idea…, he thought, not wanting to disturb the silence in the ship.
A burst of static interrupted Darquin. “Chief, it’s Villiers.”
“Go ahead, Toni.”
“We can’t find any signs of boarding or violence. I swear, it looks like they all died of fright.”
“Great… then we’d better assume that’s exactly what happened. At least for now. We’re now in hostile waters.”
Kim moved to the opposite wall, doing her best to ignore her surroundings and the inevitable conclusions they’d led her to — that something could cause all this from a distance.
“Darquin to Phoenix, do you copy.”
Captain Hale’s voice cut in instantly. “This is Phoenix. Report.”
“No survivors yet, Cap. And no signs of battle or accidents. As far as we can tell, everything on board was literally scared to death. Maybe even the ship organics.”
Captain Hale’s reply took a few seconds, a little longer than he would preferred. “We hear you, Darquin. All right, do your sweep, check every deck. Maybe Team Two can learn what happened to them… and the ship. Phoenix out.”
After the ship-to-ship link went down, Darquin muttered half to himself, “Here comes another sleepless night, folks.”
Kim straightened herself, summoning courage, and turned to Darquin. “Let’s move.”
Every team checked and cleared each level, moving systemically upward to rendezvous on the control deck of the White Star. The lifts were dead along with the rest of the ship, which forced everyone to scale up inside the lift tubes themselves by magnetic boots or emergency rungs lining the shafts, then into the main bridge.
Kim led the way, still trying to ignore what they found as they went on, holding onto her emotions and mental shields with what felt like little more than gossamer threads. When she reached the final rungs at the top of the lift tubes, she waited for Darquin. Ahead of her, Commander Shaver pulled the doors open and marched in. Taking her patience as an unspoken cue, Darquin pushed himself out out of the tube and into the bridge.
“Damn.” His voice broke, bitter.
Kim stepped onto the bridge, staring at the floating dead all around. Humans and Minbari, their Ranger robes fluttering lazily about them, gently spun in the darkness. In the middle of them, Commander Shaver walked slowly, the first new visitor in the garden of the dead. He, Kim, and Darquin turned on their floodlights to ward off the darkness.
“I…think you’d better stay close,” Darquin said to her.
They dared a few steps forward, braved looking into the dead faces, feeling almost fortunate none of them were familiar until looking toward the command chair. Shaver walked straight to it, carefully examining it and then at the two crouched bodies rolling in the air overhead. He looked in their eyes like a man defiant in the face of an execution squad.
Slowly, a shadow of discontent and disarray crept over Dylan Shaver’s face, and for a moment it looked like he was going to kill everyone within five meters. Yet, almost as quickly as it happened, Shaver’s expression returned to as it was before, taut and nearly emotionless. And in a weak, dead voice, Shaver said, “My best friend….”
Kim choked out a half-formed moan. Darquin slowly approached as a fold of dark fabric swam aside to reveal the Isil’zha pin on their uniforms. The icy faces of Tylo Narsh and Anakin Solo rolled into the floodlight beams.
Darquin said nothing. His mind went back to Minbar, when they stood on the same frosted ground and held it despite the many blows and the cold. Now the cold had claimed then both.
After a long silence, he whispered, “Entil’zha veni,” unable to turn away.
Copyright (c) 1998 Joe R. Medina and Alida Saxon. All rights reserved.