Somehow, Xander wasn't surprised at the sight that met his eyes. The screens of every console were dead, or at least powered down, and the bridge was deserted. Stepping forward slowly he looked left and right, but saw nothing but empty chairs, blank computers and luminescent lights. His eyes were drawn to the one curious sight that the room offered, however. The broad bridge window at the far side of the chamber was covered by the vessel's retracting impact plates.
"Looks clear," he said over his shoulder. A slight scuffling sound followed before Cassie appeared beside him, her eyes wide as she took in her surroundings. Isla and Redge followed a few seconds later.
"Okay," Redge grunted, scratching his short mass of dark hair. "Why are the impact plates closed? We're next to a gas giant not in an asteroid field."
"Another good question," Xander muttered. "And I'll bet all the answers are in these computers." He moved over to the closest console and pressed one of the keys. The screen flickered into life but revealed only static. "Check the rest of them." He ordered. The rest of the group dispersed around the room, checking each console in turn until a dozen grey screens sat crackling away innocently.
"Why does nothing on this bloody ship work?" Cassie banged her fist down against one of the monitors. "According to all our readings the power output on this thing is perfectly normal and all the systems are working fine. But we get here and there's nothing doing what it should be."
"Well we managed the elevator," Xander pointed out.
"Not without incident!"
"Xander, check it out." Isla had moved away from the computers and was now examining the impact plates.
"There's no glass." She tapped her knuckle against one, extracting a faint metallic clack. "If these plates weren't closed we'd be breathing vacuum right now."
"Uh-huh, that's what I'm saying!"
"Okay, hell with it." He shrugged, turning to Redge and Cassie. "Let's tear this place apart and figure out just what is going on here. This ship has logs, they make them by law just like us, so we'll physically pull the memory units and if we have to we'll take them back to the Lunchbox. Get down, rip off the panels and let's find some answers."
The group burst into action at his words, taking screwdrivers, drills and crowbars to each of the consoles in turn. Prying the spotless white plates free they revealed the twinkling inner workings of the machines, a myriad of tiny LED lights, wires and circuits arranged in incredibly complex patterns. After his initial brutish approach, Xander took painstaking care in moving the components aside to get at the grey cuboid of the memory storage drive. One by one the computers of the Gehanon had their secrets pried free.
"How many have we got?" Isla asked holding a pair of the block-like memory units in her hands.
"All of them," Redge replied with a grin. She gave him a withering look. "We've got what we need, and these computers are screwed for whatever reason," Xander said. "We'll shift the memory units back to the Lunchbox and go over the data on our computers. Okay?" The group nodded their understanding. Carefully he placed his three memory units into his backpack, packing them snugly between the mass of tools and parts in the bag. Just as they left the bridge, however, his earpiece crackled with an incoming message. He paused in the corridor and opened the channel.
"It's Brodie. I'm done with the engines."
"I found one thing I can't explain." A pause followed by the clank of equipment sounded over the com. "I'm not sure what to make of it, but the heat buffers of every furnace have been cranked up to their maximum and locked that way. In this state the engines would barely run. Thing is, this was definitely not an accident. Whoever did it knew exactly what they were doing."
Xander frowned. "No sign of an overload?"
"Can you fix it?"
"Okay, sort it and get up here. I don't want to have to tow this hulk; if we can get her going on her own power it'd save us a lot of time."
"Be there soon." The channel closed, and Xander let out a sigh of exasperation. Yet another little titbit of information that only served to confuse the situation further. He rubbed his face with one hand, hitching his pack higher onto his shoulders. Again, why? Why make the ship's engines inoperable? The heat buffers absorbed and grounded huge amounts of energy from the furnace engines when they engaged, and the lower the buffer level, the more power could be used. In essence, the buffers were a slightly wasteful way of changing gears. The only time he'd ever seen them turned up to maximum was either when as ship was docked, or when an engine arrangement threatened to overload.
Turning, he leaned on the wall of the corridor, looking past his crewmates and back into the bridge. The thick blast plates of the window caught his eyes again and he frowned.
"Isla, is there any way to tell if anyone was in here when those plates closed?" he asked.
She gave a hesitant shrug. "Well…maybe. They'll have security recordings, but those'll be locked up in the computers like everything else." She moved over to the bridge door and poked her head inside. "We could give the place a residue check, see if anything shows up?"
"Let's do it." He followed her into the bridge.
"What do we check for?" Cassie asked.
"Any foreign matter; pretty much anything not made of metal and plastic." Xander placed his pack on the floor and pulled a bulky scanner free. The machine was around four inches long, shaped more like a pistol than anything else, with a broad rectangular muzzle. It would bombard a given area with tiny particles, and any specified substance they collided with would be instantly recorded on the monitor.
"Alright, Redge, Cassie, give me a sweep of the consoles. Isla, you and I'll do the blast plates and the forward section." The group nodded their understanding and spread out.
"Check for carbon compounds," Isla said as they readied themselves. "Ideally we should pick up dead skin cells if anyone was here."
"On my three. One…two…three!"
The semi-transparent rays of white light beamed out through the bridge, sweeping out over the consoles and plates like searchlights. Xander narrowed his eyes, directing the beam over the blast plates and across the room towards the command chair of the Gehanon's bridge. He swallowed hard at what the scanners showed. One clear trail of twinkling blue dots marked out the specified particle collisions, leading straight from the command chair to the blast plates themselves.
"Wh-what does that mean?" Cassie stammered after a moment, letting her scanner drop.
"Someone got blown out into space," Redge grunted. "Best guess."
"Jesus," Xander murmured, shaking his head. He stepped over into the line of particles, looking from the chair to the blast plates. The specks of microscopic blue light floated in his vision. "That's a pretty twist on things." Stepping over to the blast plates, he dropped down onto his haunches, examining the area of the deck below the window frame. He ran his fingers lightly over the plating and frowned. "No glass residue."
"None at all?"
"An inside break?" Cassie ventured. Xander stood and nodded to her. Blowing out his cheeks with a sigh, he turned his eyes to the ceiling, as if seeking inspiration. The crackling of his radio broke the uneasy silence on the bridge.
"Xander, you there?" Jonas' voice through come over the earpiece. He sounded strangely unsettled.
"I read you, Jonas," he replied. "What's up?"
"Err…well I'm not one hundred percent sure, Cap, but I just got a message from Naval Corp Central command over the subspace band."
Xander blinked in surprise. "What does it say?"
"That's the weird part," Jonas said. "It says that under no circumstances are we to approach the Gehanon. The factory ship is, as of now apparently, under quarantine. They've dispatched a Colonial Navy flotilla to take charge of the situation."
Xander's eyebrows shot up. "Are you serious?"
"That I am, sorry, Cap."
"Fine time for them to tell us!" Cassie exclaimed.
"You're not kidding," Xander muttered. "Jonas, have you authenticated that message?"
"I triple checked it just in case. Full M-Corp authorisation. It's got a pretty weird security signature too, never seen one like it before."
"Err…I'll get back to you on that I think, I'll need to run some decryption programs but I can crack it."
"Hang on, Jonas," Xander said. "Things like that are secure for a reason. It's not a competition; we know you're better than they are." He winked at his companions. "Just sit tight."
"Fine then," the pilot returned, sounding slightly put out. "Jonas out."
"Well I guess that's that," he grunted. Shrugging his shoulders he turned to the rest of the group, gesturing to the room around him with both hands. "Alright everyone, this is officially no longer our problem. We'll take the memory units back to the Lunchbox, hand them over to our friends in the navy then go home. Any questions?"
"Why is the ship under quarantine?" Cassie piped up.
"I've been with you the entire time." He gave her an impatient look. "Why do you think I've got any more idea than you?" She lapsed into a moody silence, staring at the floor. No-one else spoke. He gave a nod of satisfaction before speaking into the earpiece again. "Brodie, did you get all that?"
"Brodie, are you there?" he repeated. He waited a moment longer until, without warning a shrieking crackle filled the earpiece at a painful volume. Wincing he tried to listen past the noise, but it died away almost as quickly as it had come.
"I read you, Captain," Brodie's voice said over the com.
"Yes, sir. I hear you loud and clear."
"Then you know we're clearing out of this hulk?"
There was a short pause before Brodie replied. "Yes, Captain. I'm finished my work here, nothing to report. I will meet you at the airlock." Then his channel closed, leaving Xander frowning in confusion.
"That sound a bit weird to anyone?" Redge ventured.
"He never calls me ‘Captain,'" Xander murmured with a nod of agreement.
"Xander," Isla interjected nervously. "That weird feedback, that was the same thing we heard just before Nordstrom contacted us."
Xander rounded on her. "You're sure?"
"Jonas," he barked into the earpiece. "Scan for life signs, now!"
"Doing it." They waited for a moment while the pilot complied. "Uh-oh."
"Xander, I'm missing Brodie's life sign. He's just gone."
"We're heading back to the airlock now," he snapped. "I want you to lock it from our side until we get there. Then do a full photographic mass scan of this ship. I want to know the location of every object that's inside the hull. Understand?"
"Yeah I got it," Jonas replied. "Just out of curiosity-,"
"Don't ask questions, just do it!" Xander closed the channel then addressed the others. "Right, let's get back to the airlock as fast as we can. I've got a bad feeling."
"But what about Brodie?" Cassie exclaimed.
"I don't know, alright?" he snarled back. "I don't have any damned answers so stop asking!" Again Cassie fell into a brooding silence. A hurt expression flashed across her youthful features and her jaw tightened.
"Xander, take it easy," Redge interjected, stepping between the two.
"Look, we're heading back to the Lunchbox right now. As far as the life signs scanner can determine there is no Brodie!" Xander turned and stepped out of the bridge. "Now stop talking and start moving."