"Don't catch your suit on anything sharp." Danforth was waiting in the lock with his armor on, wristlights lit, and as always he was spouting useless advice to the rookie. It was just his way of dealing with tension, so everybody ignored him. They always did before a dive. Shela was checking her tools, made fast to her bandolier; Monnon was tapping his boot toes on the deckplates. Pariah was edging towards the hulk, making small incremental burns as the grapplock rotated greasily, servos whining, to track some weak point the cameras had located on the hulk's hull. Strath, the rookie, was watching the 'lock turn back and forth a nervous look on his face behind the synthetic sapphire of his visor.

"Don't smack your faceplate, Strath, it's hard but you don't wanna scratch it up and screw your visibility."

"Okay, Dan."

"Leave off him, Dan, huh?" Shela tapped the last device with practiced fingers and looked up. "He checked out in drill. He'll be fine."

"Yeah, in drill. This is..."

"He knows what this is. C'mon, don't ride the kid just to make your own nerves easy." She shot Strath a grin to let him know this wasn't about him, which he returned gratefully.

"Sorry." Danforth shrugged at him apologetically.

"No, it's okay, I need all the tips I can get. I've never been on a live dive, after all."

"Aw, Christ, kid, don't tell him that, we'll be listening to him all damn day." Monnon's drawl was laced with mock horror, the tap-tap-tap of his boots traversing his suit fabric to underly his voice transmission. Pariah shuddered to a hard braking burn. The hulk was close. A tone in their suit phones heralded the ship's Monitor.

"Attention. Grapple in ten seconds. Prepare for impact."

They all took hold, Strath looking apprehensive, the rest suddenly relaxed. Seconds ticked, then-


"That's it, we're locked." Danforth's voice was noticeably calmer, relieved. "Okay, recorder. Salvage and investigation team Seven Seven Alpha, timestamp. Crewmembers Danforth Abizaid, Monnon Coyle, Shela Arakel, Strath Leukis. Monitor of record FSS Pariah. Attached to target; effecting entry through grapplock as per standard procedure, no information as to target condition. Going to automatic suit recording now." He motioned them all into the lock; when they were all within its confines, Shela palmed the red glowing plate and the inner door cycled with the floor-shaker and atmospheric buzzer.

There was a brief delay while the atmosphere was pumped out, then the lights cycled to orange as the grapplock's systems worked on the target. Finally the Monitor spoke again. "Target lock engaged. Systems functional. Opening outer door. Soft seal. Open. Opening lock for transfer. Good luck."

"Thanks, Pariah. See you on the flipside." Danforth swung the lockbar and the outer door slowly rotated outward into darkness. As it passed forty-five degrees, the lightbars mounted on the outside flickered to life to show the strait confines of the sealtube; at the other end, a scarred and pitted standard outer lockdoor waited.

They moved out of the lock one at a time, Danforth huge in his armor moving all the way to the far door. Shela moved up behind him in case her tools were needed. Monnon remained midway, weapons active; Strath, his various access modules quiescent until jacked in, hung just outside the door they left. Danforth waved an arm, and Strath reached back to palm the green plate outside the lock, watching as Pariah sealed itself again, the plate flipping to red. "Good seal, Commander."

"Thanks, Strath. Okay, here we go." He punched the matching plate on the other lock door. Nothing happened for a moment, then with a groaning noise the other door swung slowly outward. "Hey, that's promising."

The foreign lock remained dark, however. Danforth waited until the door had stopped, then angled his bulk inside. His wristlights illuminated a perfectly standard looking airlock, with FNS Vaicoeur stencilled along two surfaces in Navy-standard blue. "Looks like our pigeon. Pariah, call it in."

"Affirmative, Commander. Commander, sensors have detected extensive battle damage to the exterior hull ofVaicoeur as well as outgassing in several sectors. No EM-range signals have been detected. Gamma and warp radiation are also manifesting in sporadic bursts, indicating both primary and secondary core damage. Caution is advised."

"Acknowledged, Pariah. Thanks. What sort of outgassing?"

"Atmospheric and various system components, along with unidentified organics, possibly from hydroponics."

"Understood." Danforth waved the others in. Strath, last up, squeezed into the darkened lock with trepidation as Shela unclipped a panel and shined a hand torch into it, muttering to herself. After a few moments, a wan light came up in within the walls, and the outer door began to rotate shut.

"There's emergency power, Commander. Cycling the lock now." She closed the panel.

"Right." Danforth positioned himself before the inner door, poised to grab it with his gauntlets if it looked to hesitate. Strath watched the outer door cycling shut and tried not to gulp. Monnon, seeing this, clapped his shoulder.

"Don't worry, kid. If Shela's magic tricks can't get us out of here, Dan's armor can probably rip the doors off. If it can't, I can cut through the outer door in about five minutes without draining my ready reserve power."

Strath tried to grin at him, but it was hard. The outer door seated with a thud felt through the gauntlet he had braced against the wall. There was the normal five-second delay, then the inner door began to open. It made it halfway, then ground to a halt; Danforth grabbed the edge and levered. It swung slowly to the stop, and they filed in.

The suit foyer was lit dimly. There was a chaos of disorganized bits of suit armor lying around, but it didn't look like the foyer had taken battle damage; rather, it looked like there had been an attempted evacuation, interrupted in the middle, but there were no survivors or corpses anywhere. Greaves, gauntlets and breastplates lay scattered about, with softsuit unders lying on the floor and racked in lockers. It was impossible to tell if any were missing.

"Okay. Stick together. Head for main Engineering, we need to see what kind of shape the cores are in before we get any ideas." Danforth waved towards the bounce tube at the rear of the foyer. "Before we go, though, let Strath try his magic."

Immediately outside the armored door to the gravity shaft, Strath unhitched his access probe from his belt and tried to connect to the ship's Monitor through the hardport in the panel. There was no response, not even a heartbeat or network acknowledgement. He shrugged at Danforth, who nodded. "Okay, people, shaft time."

They forced the door open. The bounce tube was pitch black, but unblocked for as far as their lights could reach. While they were leaning into the shaft, Strath unhooked his probe and reattached it to his belt. As he did so, a slight movement at the side of his faceplate startled him, and he spun around; his wrist smacked into Shela's back. She in turn jumped and cracked her arm against the doorframe. "What--"

Strath was peering frantically into the darkness back towards the airlock, still gaping open where they'd left the door. Nothing was moving that he could see. Light flooded the area as Shela and Danforth, seeing where he was looking, directed their suit lights in that direction. "Strath, what?"

"Nothing." He hoped they couldn't see his blush through his faceplate. "Sorry. I thought I saw movement. It's nothing."

"You probably did." Shela said, patting his shoulder. "We probably kicked a suit component; standby grav isn't much at all in here, and it probably tumbled."

"Yeah..." Strath wasn't sure about that, but held his tongue. One at a time, they moved into the tube; Danforth first, Shela, then Strath, then Monnon in the rear, moving sternwards towards the engineering spaces.

Their radcounters started spiking as they traversed the heavy damage areas, indicating ordnance residue still embedded in the hull. Strath checked at three more access points, but either Vaicoeur's Monitor was truly dead or the network was breached in too many places to get a link through to it. Given the lack of power in ship's systems, he wasn't willing to place bets either way. Thoughts of the massive salvage bonus that Fleet was willing to pay if the Monitor's network could be reactivated were starting to look like forlorn hopes, though.

They emerged from the bounce tube, guided by Danforth's inertial guide and detailed schematics of the Fleur de Lys class assault carrier. Instead of the armored portal into Engineering Alpha, though, they found themselves in a vehicle bay, reflecting the number of 'minor' differences that every military construction contract since time began had accrued between design and commissioning. Cursing, Danforth and Shela scouted to starboard while Strath and Monnon went to port, looking for Engineering.

Strath was only three or four meters from Monnon, trying to determine whether the hatchway he was looking at opened to a passageway or a closet, when there was a sudden burst of light. He turned to find a smoking area of decking where Monnon had been, and nothing else.


There was no answer. He looked up, convulsively, turning his flash on the confusion of liftcranes and manipulators that rested over the cradle in which a large armored vehicle slept. Nothing. Shining the light on the deck revealed a burned patch, no longer bubbling, where Monnon's armor had apparently discharged its weaponry. Strath shivered and chinned his commo. "Commander?"

The voice was clear. "Strath? What is it?"

"Monnon...he's...he's gone."

"What?" Sharp. "What happened?"

"I don't know. I wasn't looking at him. There was a light, I think he fired, and now there's no sign of him."

"Stay where you are. We're coming to you."

"Roger." Strath slowly backed up to put the wall against his shoulder blades and reached down to his belt with his right hand. The gyp was there, still attached; he drew it and held it in both hands, aiming the chunky weapon at the deck in front of him as he swept his eyes back and forth. Nothing moved.

"Strath?" Danforth's voice was slightly labored. "Strath, you still there? We're coming up on you now. Don't shoot us."

"I'm here, Commander." Strath made sure his finger was off the trigger. A patch of wobbly light was approaching from starboard; it resolved into Danforth's armor, moving carefully around the various equipment in the bay. Strath took one hand off the pistol and waved. Danforth's figure waved back; Strath frowned. There was only one shape. "Commander, where's Shela?"

"She's with me."

"Sir, she's not." He watched Danforth stop and rotate clumsily, looking.

"Shit!" Danforth turned back, loped towards him, drawing his own weapon. "She was right behind me when we started. What-" He saw the burned decking. "Is this where Monnon was?"

"Yeah. He didn't even say anything. We were looking for hatchways, so I wasn't looking at him."

"Okay. Don't turn away from me. Keep your eyes on me, okay?" Danforth glared at him, intense in his concentration. When Strath nodded, sweating now, Danforth looked from side to side. They stood there for a moment, rocket pistols clutched between them, held slightly out the the side, talismans of fear. Danforth looked back at Strath, spoke again. "Monitor?"

"Receiving, Commander."

"Monitor, we've lost contact with Shela and Monnon. Do you have their locators on scan?"

"I do, Commander. They are colocated in Sickbay."

"Sickbay?" Danforth looked puzzled, then grim again. "Right. We're on it. Strath, with me?"

Strath gulped. "Yessir. Right with you."

"Good man. Okay, stay to my left."

They moved out of the bay and made their way forward along a companionway, Danforth checking his inertial guide frequently. The emergency lights were on, but spaced fairly far apart. Twice Strath spun, seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, but found nothing there; both times, Danforth spun with him, looking, then nodded and motioned him on.

Ten minutes and a single detour around a mangled area, open to dark space, brought them to a white blast door with a caduceus painted on it. Without speaking, Strath moved to the other side of it as Danforth put his back to the wall alongside, and at Danforth's nod, plugged his access probe into the port there.

There was a response. Weak, automatic, but a response. He nodded furiously at Danforth, then returned his attention to the jack. The Sickbay systems were online in emergency mode; he entered the override command Fleet's salvage division had given him and waited. There was a grinding through the wall behind him that spoke of damaged mechanisms, and the blast door rose into the overhead. Yanking his probe out, he followed Danforth into the bay.

The blast door rolled down behind them automatically. The sickbay was covered in blood and debris; gauze pads, offal and surgical tools strewn throughout telling of frantic battles fought by medical staffers against their traditional enemy with no hints as to the handicapping. Danforth was checking the beds along the back of the bay, but they were empty. "Monitor, locator check please."

"Crew locators intermittent; apparent signal interference on all locators due to core radiation. Last known location of Lieutenants Coyle and Arakel, Main Engineering."

"Damn it!" Danforth swore. "What the fuck-"

"Commander?" Strath ventured.

"What?" Danforth swung to face him.

"Where are the crew?"


"No, Vaicoeur's crew."

"They're-" Danforth stopped. "Good question. We haven't seen any bodies. They might be in the shelters if they had rad leaks and atmosphere loss."

"Maybe, but there's atmosphere in most sections we've been through, other than the breached areas."

"Look, I don't know. It's possible they abandoned. I have more urgent problems right now, damn it."

"Yessir." Strath looked away.

"Okay, Monitor, we're heading back to Engineering. Let us know ASAP if our locators drop off."

"Affirmative, Commander."

Danforth opened the main door. As he did so, Strath saw something scuttle past his feet. Shouting, he spun about, bringing up the gyp; without waiting to see if Danforth had turned, he moved towards the back of the sickbay, positive he'd seen movement. His helmet lights shone on the detritus lying about the deckplates as he cast about for whatever had passed him, the nose of the rocket pistol questing. He had just lifted his gaze from the floor to the back of the bay when the shape resolved from the darkness, all sticks and bands, scrabbling, and his hand squeezed reflexively but the shell burst PAM against the back wall and then it was on him and he felt himself bowled over on his back, borne down to the deck against the feeble gravity, watching as the twiglike shapes fluttered towards his faceplate and there was a giant HHHSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHH and everything went out



"Strath?" The voice was familiar in his ears, if hoarse and painful. "Strath, damn it, wake up."

He opened a gummed eye. There was weak light, and indistinct shapes. He felt awful; hot, ill, swollen. His joints ached. He couldn't move. Something was holding his wrists in an implacable grip. He closed his eyes again and squeezed them shut, trying to work whatever was gumming them closed out of his orbits, and then opened them again. Both opened this time. "Shela?"

"You're awake." The relief was palpable. "Can you see?"

"I...think so." He blinked. It helped, somewhat. "Wait, where's my suit?"

"They took them."


"The bots." He peered around. He was standing against a metal wall, in what had to be engineering; huge machines lurked everywhere. He looked left, towards the voice. Shela was standing there, her suit gone as well. She looked florid and just as rumpled as he felt. Looking down, he saw ther their wrists were locked to the wall by crude restraints. He tested them; metal clinked against metal, wrongly, but they didn't move.

"What bots? What the hell..."

"There are some kind of bots wandering around here. I think they're ship's manuatics, but I don't know."

"Ship's - damage control?"


Strath thought about that for a second. "Any sign of Danforth and Monnon?"

"They're to my left, down a few yards. They're still out."

"What the hell's going on?"

"I don't know." She laughed, short and hard. "But look to your right." He did, sucked in breath. Clustered around a rough-looking cylinder were four figures, clothed in the dark blue of Fleet. They were shriveled, almost mummified; milky eyes looked out of faces screaming silently in gape-mouthed fear.

"Oh, Jesus."


"What happened to them?"

"I have no idea. But I can't help thinking it's gonna happen to us."


"Look at their hands."

He did. The four figures were restrained at the wrists, but that wasn't all, there was something strange about the way they were chained in. He couldn't quite make it out. Before he could angle his neck further, though, movement to his left snapped his head back around. A jumble of metal rods, which was now identifiable as a standard damage control bot in the light, shambled forward and faced him, lenses clicking as they rotated.

"Bot, release me." He snapped the command out. It was worth a try. It ignored him.

"I tried that." Shela said absently. "They're not listening."

"Bot, override Sigma Seven Niner Three Desiderata Five, acknowledge." Strath recited the Fleet override, hoping. Nothing. The bot reached for his wrists and gripped them securely, undoing the shackles with its secondary manipulators. "Shit."

"Strath, if you get a chance, there's a gun in my boot, okay?"

He kept his voice calm. "Which boot?"

Shela laughed. "Both of 'em."

Surprising himself, he laughed too. "Remind me not to hit on you in a downside bar." The bot pulled him away from the wall, towards the cylinder. He looked down, and almost fainted; his wrists were scarred, with metal bands embedded in the flesh on their inner surfaces. That was what had produced the clinking when he'd struggled. "What the hell is that?"


"There's some kind of metal on my wrists-" The bot pulled one of the corpses off the cylinder and sat him forcibly on the small ledge it had occupied, then placed his wrists beneath the restraints. He struggled, but was no match for electromagnetic servos. He felt a sickening click as the metal sockets on his wrists mated with the mechanism on the cylinder, then the restraints locked down over the joints and he was unable to move them a millimeter as they were pressed painfully into their places.

"Strath, what's it doing?"

"I don't-" he grunted, struggling as the bot moved to his right towards an access port and inserted a probe. "It's got my wrists locked to this damn cylinder and AIIIIIIIGH!" The scream was pure pain, as molten lava flooded into his arms. His fingers curled instantly into claws. He felt himself urinate into his utilities, but it was far away and unimportant; there was a whining sound and a module that looked strangely familiar lowered itself from the ceiling to surround his upper body. Somewhere, someone was shouting his name, urgently, but it didn't matter, through the pain that was moving up his forearms and into his thorax. Blessed cold seeped through him, needles of ice from the module as it tried to caress him and fight off the fire.

The fire and the ice fought, and in between, Strath screamed.

Danforth came to, muzzily, at the screaming. "Whuzzat?"

"Danforth? Christ, Danforth-" It was Shela's voice, and she sounded like she was crying.

"Shela? What the hell is going on?" He snapped awake, struggled against the restraints, looked around. "Oh, Christ, what are they doing to the kid?"

"I don't know, D, I don't know. He said something about there being metal in his wrists, and then they plugged him into that thing, and then he started screaming and that thing came down over him."

"He screamed, and then that thing came down?"

"Yeah, why?"

"That's a hospital support module."

"So what? Jesus, they're killing him!"

"No, wait. If he screamed first, then that thing's not what's doing it."


"So something else is, and the module's keeping him alive. So there's a purpose to whatever's hurting him. Who did this?"

"It's the repair bots, Dan, the ship's bots."


The voice was faint, but legible, repeated through the implanted conductor in his mastoid. "Yes, Commander."

"Monitor, status!"

"All crew locators in main Engineering. Slight increase in outgassing. Lowering of external blackbody radiation from engineering module of target."

"Wait, what? Lowering temp?"

"Yes, commander."

"Son of a bitch." Danforth was breathing hard, his eyes narrowed. Strath was still screaming. A repair bot approached Shela; she began to kick at it.

"Danforth, what the fuck is going on?"

"Oh, hell. Oh, no." His face had gone white. He craned his neck, looking hard at Strath, still screaming on the other side of Shela's struggles.

"WHAT?" She was kicking at the bot, now. It was bouncing away from her, but patiently returning with mechanical implacability. "What is it? What are they doing?"

"They're saving their ship. Christ, I didn't see it. Battle damage - they lost coolant on the reactor, Shela. The fucking coolant loop broke. There's no liquid stores anywhere on the ship. There's no power to pump coolant. The reactor's at standby, but it still needs to move coolant just that little bit, enough to keep the core low."

"What the fuck does that have to do with us?"

Danforth felt the bot unhook his left wrist. He kicked at it ineffectually; it was a larger model, hull maintenance, and didn't react. "We're the radiators, Shel. Us. It's using blood for coolant. Organic outgassing, fuck, I should have known." He was being carried to the cylinder, arms held firmly to his sides. "I hope you can get to those damn guns, honey, or we're screwed. Strath's already toast; it's not just heating his blood, it's irradiating it, but it's gonna lose it, too. Monitor, mark and send message buoy recorder NOW. Christ, outgassing, my ass. This ship is fucking bleeding."

There was a click as his left wrist locked against the cylinder. He smiled dreamily, waiting for the reactor core to drink of him in its burning. "Imagine that. It's bleeding."

It's the season for Graves Cracking: The 2006 Quest for Fear