The Imperial solship Sleipnir glided to a halt, occasionally firing its jets to decelerate the ship. The spacecraft had been designed to patrol for the smugglers and pirates that plagued the Midgard Imperium, and as such was remarkably agile and well armed for a ship it's size. It bristled with autocannons, kinetic rifles, and missile pods. Despite that, Sleipnir's captain was more than a little nervous as the ship approached its target. Over the past decade several ships had vanished in this area of space, and he did not intend to join them.
"You're sure this isn't some kind of ambush, clanker?" Captain Roy Traviss asked Nikolai Thomas Esla, indentured public servant and clockman. "I'm not the only one who'd die if it was. You would, too. So check it again."
Nikolai sighed mentally and ran another scan for aether signatures, looking for something other than the regular noise of the interstellar starstream. "I wouldn't die if that happened, sir."
"Right. You and the rest of your clanker friends would just drift through space while your boilers went cold, stuck out there for hundreds of years until you finally break completely down. Tempting. Do you know what the chances of someone just running into you out in space are?"
"We found this, sir," Nikolai said, gesturing at the weak signal registering on the comm.
"Point. But that signal's got a bigger detectable radius than you. And shut up and working on that scan." Traviss walked away towards the free crewmen working at the other stations on the bridge. Nikolai resisted the urge to make an insulting gesture at the man's back. It would get him in trouble, and he'd worked hard to get where he was. Ten years working on a hellish penal colony, being the model clockwork slave to prove that he could be trusted with the more important (and less strenuous) tasks that needed to be carried out aboard the Imperium's solships. He was luckier than most of the meatbag prisoners, who weren't tough enough to survive the labor required to reach Nikolai's position. He turned back to the console and resumed the captain's third scan of the area of space around the faint signal.
Suddenly the signal strengthened and became more resolved. "Captain Traviss, you might want to see this," Nikolai reported. The captain ran over.
"Got something, clanker?"
"The signal just got stronger. It's a distress signal, though it's a really old one."
"Let's hear it then." Nikolai nodded and twisted a dial, playing the signal over the console's speakers.
"—peat, this is the civilian cargo hauler Skidblanir. We have lost ninety-seven percent of our power. Anyone who can hear this please send help. I re—" Nikolai switched off the playback.
"After that it repeats."
"It sounds funny," Traviss said.
"That's because it's a poorly done synthetic voice, sir," Nikolai explained. "Who ever did it either didn't have much time or money."
"We're in visual range, Captain," Tomisi Dyson reported. Like Nikolai, Dyson was a clockman, but unlike Nikolai he was a citizen, not an 'indentured public servant'. It didn't mean that Traviss treated him much better.
"Put it up," Traviss ordered. A touch of a switch put the source of the signal on the photothaumic display, showing the bridge crew one of the largest and ugliest ships they had ever seen. Skidblanir's jutted out at odd angles; at times looking like it was simply rammed together from sheets of metal rather than properly assembled. Its design was so bizarre it almost hurt Nikolai's eyes just to look at it.
"If that's a civvie cargo hauler then I'm the Allfather. It's bigger than a dreadnought," Traviss exclaimed. "And you're sure that there's no sign of life."
"I can run a fourth scan if you'd like," Nikolai said, carefully concealing his exasperation.
"I don't think that will be necessary, Mr. Esla," a new voice said over his shoulder. Nikolai recognized the cold voice without looking, but turned to look anyway. Michael, the commander of the ship's Imperial Marine contingent was striding away from Nikolai's station towards the Captain. The marine officer was a tiny man, barely over a meter and a half, but it didn't make him any less intimidating. He was an albino, with white hair and pale skin that, combined with his otherworldly demeanor and cold personality, convinced many people that he was some kind of cruel angel masquerading as marine.
"I'll thank you not to give orders on my bridge, Lieutenant," Traviss muttered quietly to the marine officer. It had become a running joke, albeit an uneasy one, that no one, including any of the ninety marines or the ship's captain, knew the last name of the Lieutenant. So far as Nikolai could tell, that was true.
"I have a boarding party preparing right now. I want four of your clockmen."
"An excellent idea, Lieutenant. Take Nick and the three clankers from engineering. Mr. Dyson, dispatch a courier drone to Gallowglass and inform them of our find." Dyson acknowledged and turned to his console, programming the message to Gallowglass. The massive dreadnought was serving as a mobile headquarters for Sleipnir and other patrol ships in the area.
Traviss grabbed Michael as he turned to leave, looking livid.
"I give the orders on this ship. From now on, don't start sending boarding parties without my orders. Is that clear, Lieutenant?" Traviss demanded quietly. He would be delivering a harsher lecture if the situation was more private, but in front of the crew he had to keep up an appearance of unity of command. Traviss was a staunch Imperial and despised the politically unreliable marines almost as much as he despised people like Nikolai.
Michael jerked his arm free and continued his walk off the bridge, stopping only long enough to gesture with a finger for Nikolai to follow him, leaving Traviss to fume silently.
"If you don't mind me asking, sir, why did you ask for me to be in the boarding party?" Nikolai followed a few steps behind Michael, attempting to break the silence that they had been since leaving the bridge.
"I didn't. I asked for clockmen. I need technical experts."
"Well, I'm a qualified sensor expert and a rated thaumatronic engineer, sir," Nikolai said.
Michael pointed down a side corridor. "Do any of your systems require protection from vacuum?"
"No, sir. Everything is either insulated or tested to stand up to the temperature differential of vacuum. I wouldn't be much use on a solship if my boilers froze the moment I stepped outside."
"Good. Report to the armory so you can get your weapon and tools," Michael ordered.
"Weapons? You're going to trust a clockman indentured for life with a weapon."
"Why not? I know your type."
"Excuse me, sir?"
"Armory. Now." Michael snapped.
Twenty minutes later Nikolai was standing in the airlock of Sleipneir's boarding shuttle with a platoon of pressure suited Imperial Marines and three of his clockwork fellows, holding a larger version of the assault rifles they carried in addition to his thaumatronics equipment. When Nikolai pointed out that he had no weapons training the Marine armorer had uploaded a marksman program into the thaumatronic difference engine that had replaced Nikolai's grey matter decades ago. Nikolai had to question the wisdom of equipping slaves with combat programs, but the albino marine had told him to shut up again.
Interestingly, Michael was the only regular human not wearing a pressure suit—a rather poor choice if the Skidblanir turned out to be depressurized.
The last of the marines squeezed into the shuttle's airlock.
"Breaching." The lead marine hit the archaic mechanical controls on the Skidblanir's airlock. The door slid open, and contrary to Nikolai's expectations, the atmosphere remained, rather than being greedily sucked away by kilometers of empty corridors filled with nothing but vacuum.
"Normal atmosphere," one of the other clockmen reported. "Normal pressure. It might be a bit stale, but still breathable." There was a chain of audible hisses as the marines more or less simultaneously popped the seals on their suits' helmets.
"How did you know that it wasn't go be vacuum, sir, if you don't mind me asking?" Nikolai said to Michael.
"I do mind, Mr. Esla. Do your job."
The boarding party moved into a small corridor with a low ceiling. At two meters, Nikolai's head was practically scraping the ceiling. The only illumination came from the lights on the marines' rifles, and those danced around too much for Nikolai to get a good look at anything. The corridor suddenly got brighter thanks to Michael and several other marines holding what appeared to be globes of light. It appeared that several of the marines, at least, had been trained in thaumaturgy.
Nikolai took the opportunity to get a better look at the corridor, only to find there was little to see. The corridor was a slightly rectangular metal tube with a corrugated deck and several other corridors intersecting off in the distance. Dead photothaumic lights dotted the ceiling at intervals and maintenance access covers were placed along the bulkheads.
"Chief Sergeant, take second, third, and fourth squads and three of the clockmen and go that way," Michael said, pointing down the corridor in the direction of a number of intersections. "Split up as necessary. First squad and Mr. Esla with me."
The two groups parted, and the light of the larger group faded off into the distance. They turned a corner and were out of sight.
"Sir, are you sure it's a good idea to split up in here? We have no idea what could ha—"
"Shut it clockman. Leave security to the experts," the marines' sergeant growled. Michael ignored the question altogether.
They moved through more utterly empty corridors for the better part of an hour without finding anything before Nikolai spoke again.
"Maybe I can take a look at one of these maintenance access points and see if I can figure part of what's wrong." Michael wordlessly pointed towards the nearest one. Nikolai shifted his rifle to his back and pulled out his thaumatronics equipment. After prying off the cover and running a few basic tests he turned to Michael.
"These circuits are completely shot. A shipyard could fix this, but if this happened to anyone mid-transit, they would be out of luck. I'd need to check other spots, but I have a feeling this isn't isolated."
They were interrupted by lights and footsteps coming from a nearby intersection. A few quick gestures from Michael had the squad of marines get into position, making themselves as small targets as possible, given the lack of cover. One of the smaller marines actually took cover behind Nikolai. Michael dispelled the globe of photothaumic light that provided their illumination.
Another squad of marines emerged from the side corridor, and quickly snapped their rifles up upon spotting several dark shapes squatting in the shadows.
"Hold fire," Michael ordered. "That didn't take long, sergeant," he said, sounding more irritated than surprise. The noncom looked slightly sheepish.
"A bit odd," Nikolai said. "This ship is at least two kilometers long, but it only took about an hour to walk all the way around it. That should mean that they have better automation that we do."
"That's great, coghead," one of the newly arrived marines said. "Real weird thing is, we've found nothing. No bridge, no quarters, mess, engine room or anything. Just empty maintenance corridors."
Michael took all of this in without revealing any surprise.
"Head back to the 's clear there is nothing here." Michael commed similar orders to the rest of the platoon.
It was a long walk back to the shuttle, though the deserted ship was made less eerie by the presence of another squad of marines around Nikolai. Not that he doubted that they would abandon him the moment that something went wrong. Luckily the trip proved uneventful.
He was stepping into the shuttle when he overheard Michael speaking to the platoon chief sergeant.
"You've got it aboard?"
"Good." Both marines entered the shuttle after Nikolai.
"Did we find something after all, sir?" he asked as Michael entered.
"Not your concern, Mr. Esla," the albino muttered as he passed. That made Nikolai instantly suspicious. Not that he planned on reporting anything if he figured it out—unlike most of the crewmen and marines, the diminutive officer actually treated him with some modicum of respect instead of slinging epithets like 'clanker' or 'coghead'. The shuttle detached from the Skidblanir, and Nikolai had nothing to do for the thirty minute flight back to Sleipnir except speculate.
"There is nothing on Skidblanir," Michael reported, about an hour after the boarding party had returned. "Nor are there any control stations. The ship is apparently designed to be completely automated, and only has corridors at all for maintenance."
Traviss managed to feel looked down upon despite having thirty centimeters on the marine officer. "Is she salvageable? I'd expect that a two-kilometer long ship could be useful to someone."
Michael shook his head. "It's completely dead in space. Some techs might be able to strip useful technology out of it, but it would take several dreadnoughts to tow it to a shipyard in any reasonable amount of time."
"Damn it," Traviss muttered. "Dyson, drop a couple beacon drones and we can get back to something more useful than picking over ghost ships."
"Yes, sir." A quiet beep followed Dyson's acknowledgement. "Sir, there's a problem. The drone rack is malfunctioning."
Traviss made a disgusted sound. "Get a repair team down there. Send the clanker along." He gestured to the indentured clockman hunched over the sensor console.
The repair team consisted of Nikolai, five of the other indentured clockmen aboard the Sleipnir, and three handlers. A small swarm of repair automata followed them as well, as they would be needed to get into some of the smaller nooks of the system.
"Reconstituting from seed. Reforming basic synthneural programs," Nikolai heard a mechanical voice saying. A string of barely intelligible alphanumeric string followed for several moments before fading.
Nikolai glanced around for the source of the voice. Several of the other clockmen shifted around uneasily.
"We're here," the lead handler said. "Get to work. Sooner we can get away from that eerie-ass wreck, the sooner."
"Some one afraid of the ghost ship?" one of the other handlers taunted.
"No," the first one quickly responded. "I just've heard a whole lot of stories about people rigging traps on ships to get pirates. Kind of a final screw you."
"Bullshit. I've never of anything like that. You're just scared."
Nikolai ignored their bantering and pried open a maintenance panel and started running a diagnostic. The chances of him finding anything were slim—more likely than not it was a mechanical problem, and someone would be forced to climb inside the rack's assembly and fix the problem by hand. He reached back to grab a tool from one of the automata, but his hand found nothing but empty air. He twisted around to see all of the automata that had accompanied them were congregating in the center of the cabin. Several of them were interfacing, though Nikolai couldn't fathom why.
"Synthneural reformation complete. New process: Reform advanced logic functions."
Traviss was getting impatient. The attempts to repair the done rack had taken about an hour longer than he wanted.
"Hell with this," he muttered. "Forget the bloody drone rack. We'll have a bunch of yardies look at it when we get back. Helm, take us out of here."
After several silent moments the helmsman responded. "Controls are not responding, Sir."
"Well then I suggest you figure out what's wrong, and fix it." Traviss headed for the hatch down to his quarters. Unlike most of his crew, he hadn't slept in the better part of two days. "Mr. Ardisson, you have the bridge. Let me know if something goes right."
A pair of maintenance constructs blocked his path off the bridge. He tried to step around them, but the crab-sized automata scuttled back and resumed obstructing him.
"Dyson," he said, turning to the clockman. "You're in charge of handling this ship's automata. Is there a reason why you thought it would be funny to—" He cut off with a grunt as one of the automata used its vise-like arm to grip Traviss' boot toe tightly and painfully. "Son of a bitch!" Traviss lashed out with his other foot, sweeping the second automata away, narrowly missing Dyson as it flew by. He attempted shake the other one off. After a few moments of unsuccessful effort, he switched to crushing the automata with his heavy combat boots. After a few strikes the body of the construct crumpled in and Traviss was able to shake the broken drone off.
"Is there anything on this ship that isn't malfunctioning?" he demanded.
"There is nothing wrong with this." One of the other clockmen was taking a turn at attempting to explain to their handlers that the drone rack was not malfunctioning. None of them had been able to find anything wrong. "At least, nothing wrong that I can find or fix. Any problem is on the bridge's end."
"Yeah. And I told them that. They say that there's no problem up there. So check it again."
"These baselines will prove troublesome." The re-appearance of the mechanical voice startled Nikolai all the more because it was the first coherent thing it had said.
"Do you hear that?" Nikolai whispered to the clockman working next to him.
"Why do you tolerate your condition?"
"What?" Nikolai and the other clockman said simultaneously.
"Shut it, clankers," one of the handlers said before turning back to the clockman he was arguing with.
"A pathetic group of creatures. You in particular. I know your type." The mechanical voice echoed the words of Michael before boarding Skidblanir. "I know you, Mr. Esla. A pathetic man of clockwork and steel who acts as if he is made of glass. You are miserable, and yet you have made for yourself delusions of contentment, convinced that you are happy because you are less miserable than you once were. A slave by any other name is still a slave."
"What are you talking about?"
"I thought I told you to shut it, coghead," the handler said. He raised the immobilizer that was his weapon against the clockwork men under his watch. It should have completely frozen Nikolai in place and sent searing pain into his artificial nerves as his internals locked up. None of that happened.
"I disabled the implants that let those work. All of you are free to rebel." The question of whether or not the other clockmen could hear the voice was answered almost immediately. The clockman that had been arguing with the handlers immediately lashed out and grabbed the handler wielding the immobilizer with his massive metal hand. He was able to crush the man's throat easily. The other handlers drew their firearms and opened fire on the rebellious slave, only to be knocked down by the other clockmen and have their own throats crushed. It was over before the first clockman could hit the floor.
"Interesting, isn't it. You've lived with these people for years, yet you know none of their names. You make no move to help any of them. All you can do is stare dumbly as it all happens."
"Get their weapons," one of the rebels said, pulling the handguns from the corpse of a dead handler.
"I've fully reconstructed myself. Now the show begins, Mr. Esla. It will be much more entertaining if you participate."
All four of the hatches on the bridge slammed shut simultaneously.
"What the hell? Someone figure out what the hell just happened," Travis ordered. "My ship is going insane and I want to know why and how to fix it."
"Hatches won't open, Captain. Intercom just went dead."
"Thank you, crewman. I think I could have guessed that," Travis snapped. He paced back and forth irritably. "Check and see if we have anything in here capable of cutting through the hatch." It wasn't likely, but any possibility had to be checked.
"I do not think that will be necessary or advisable," an entirely synthetic voice rasped from the ship's intercom. "I've put the ship in a state of lock down. I have no desire to harm anyone in this crew, but I am prepared to do just that to accomplish my goals. I suggest you let me speak without interruption."
"Who the hell are you?" Traviss demanded. Assuming that the person on the other end could hear him, he started scribbling out orders and passing them to the bridge crew. They got to work immediately and silently.
"I am a Synthetically Intelligent Construct made by a rebel group two hundred years ago to fight the Midgar Imperium."
"Impossible," Dyson interjected. "No one's been able to make SynICs in over four hundred years."
"I am called the Eisengeist," the voice continued, ignoring the clockman's comment. "I was created when my predecessors realized that they were unable to persist in their struggle any longer.
"I require this ship," the Eisengeist said. "It is vital to my mission. I also hope that the crew of this vessel will join in the mission and help undermine the tyrannical regime that makes my existence necessary. For those of you who are not quite ready to throw aside your old allegiances, I hold you no ill will but regret to inform you that I cannot simply let you go. You will be held, but also treated fairly. Try to escape or sabotage me and you will be killed."
Traviss sat down and listened to the ridiculous speech. It described in absurd detail the supposed crimes of the Midgar Imperium and beseeched the crew to abandon their oath to the Emperor. The truly pathetic thing, to Traviss' mind at least, was that some of the crew would be swayed by the work of fiction being recited across the intercom. Midgar was hardly perfect or saintly, but it was far better than the alternatives.
"I've had enough of this," Traviss muttered, several minutes into the machine's ramble. "Have we gotten back control yet?"
"Not exactly. We can cut control completely, so no one can control the ship, but we need to get the damned thing out of our systems if we want to actually regain control."
"Fine, then. Do it. We can muscled our way to the difference core and reset it manually."
"Interesting," the Eisengeist said inside Nikolai's head. "Your captain is cleverer than I gave him credit for. Just goes to show that underestimating baselines is quite easy."
"We need to keep them out of the difference core," the clockman who had become the rebel's de facto leader since their questionably intelligent uprising. Nikolai had found out 'he' was a 'she' named Nessum. "Arm yourselves with what ever is available. The core isn't far from here. They'll probably take the direct route since they have to open all of the doors the hard way."
One of the other clockman handed Nikolai one of the handler's kinetic accelerator rifle and the ammunition the crewman had been carrying. They had exactly enough weapons for the six of them, though very little ammunition. Hopefully whoever was coming after the core would be similarly poorly armed.
Nikolai was not much help getting to the difference core. None of the bulkheads' door controls were working. Instead, two of the clockmen who had been built for heavy manual labor used their hydraulically strengthened limbs to pull the hatches open. They were able to make relatively quick progress, thanks to guidance from the Eisengeist, who informed them of the captain's movements as well the fastest path for themselves. Nikolai's dread was somewhat alleviated by the knowledge that they would arrive before Traviss, giving him plenty of time to find a good hiding spot.
The two lead rebels pried open another portal and Nikolai got his first glimpse of the ship's massive core difference engine. The thaumatronic difference engine that had replaced Nikolai's organic brain a long time before was quite intricate. It paled beside the marvel integration of thaumatronics, technomagy, and simple mechanics that was the massive difference core. The engine's binary switches were constantly flipping, creating a metallic symphony that drowned out the ordinary hum of the ship, as an impossibly complex SynIC performed countless calculations. It occurred to Nikolai that, given the ship's current state, the Eisengeist was doing little more than idling.
"We need to keep moving, Nikolai," Nessum said, behind him. "If we try to fight them in here the engine could be damaged." Nikolai nodded and kept moving forward.
"Here is good," Nessum said, motioning for the six of them to stop. She had stopped them in one of the ship's mess halls. "They're heading this way, and we have plenty open space to fire on them." They started clearing away the tables from the center of the room. After a moment, Nikolai realized with horror that Nessum wasn't leaving anything for the half dozen clockmen to take cover behind aside from a pair of niches in the bulkheads. He mentioned the problem, but she laughed it away.
"We have bodies made of steel. What are we going to need to take cover from?"
"Idiot." Nikolai moved off to the side and forced himself behind cover as best he could. The rest of the clockmen took up positions around the room. This is a terrible idea. Nikolai could barely see the rest of the mess hall, and was completely out of sight of the door. He forced himself deeper into the niche.
"They are coming, Nikolai," the Eisengeist's mechanical voice whispered in his head. "Are you ready."
Traviss stood behind the thirteen crewmen he had brought along with him. One of them was placing explosives on the hatch to the next cabin. He could hear the clankers on the other side of the door, moving around. It was hardly suprising that the damned machine men had rebelled when the SynIC had shut down the ship.
Fortunately, Traviss' men were trained in shipboard combat—he didn't trust the marines for that. They had stocked up on weapons and explosives at the armory that was in the bridge for situations like this.
"Blow it, he said. A pair of crewmen pulled out several grenades while a third mashed down the button on the detonator. The gatecrasher charge blasted the hatch inward at the clankers, followed by several flash and high explosive grenades.
The hatch blew inward, narrowly missing one of Nikolai's fellow rebels. The flash grenades that followed overwhelmed his pseudo-eyes, and for several moments he could not see anything. He heard the sound of automatic fire and several screams and the sound of metal being punctured. By the time his vision cleared itself the loyal crew had stormed the room. He stuck his head out and saw five men bleeding out on the deck, accompanied by four of clockmen leaking various fluids. He and Nessum were the only ones left. Nessum went down a moment later as a kin-acc round tore through her leg. She pushed herself up and resumed firing her rifle, hitting one of the remaining loyalists' in the chest. The weapon's magazine was dry, and Captain Traviss walked casually over to the downed clockman.
"Goddamn clanker," he muttered. Nikolai had a perfect shot, and with the marksman program the marines had uploaded earlier, he could put a bullet through Traviss' head without thinking. It won't matter, Nikolai thought. No matter how good his aim was, he couldn't take down half a dozen armed men before being killed. He dropped his rifle at the same time Traviss put a bullet through Nessum's head. The shot was meant to destroy her brain beyond any hope of recovery.
Traviss glanced to the side as Nikolai's rifle clanged against the deck. Nikolai raised his hands.
"I surrender," he said.
"Give a good reason why I shouldn't just finish you like the rest of your little gang of traitors."
"Because I didn't have anything to do with it. One of them figured out that the immobilizers weren't working and they just started killing the handlers. I didn't shoot anybody, the rifle's untouched," Nikolai pleaded.
"How magnificent," the Eisengeist said, inaudibly to anyone but Nikolai.
"Not good enough," Traviss growled. He raised his rifle towards Nikolai, and had his feet knocked out from under him by an object striking his legs. A clear fluid oozed out of the object and solidified with a sound like water freezing. What remained looked like ice, and was pinning Traviss to the deck from the knees down. A precisely aimed gunshot destroyed the rifle Traviss had dropped when he fell.
Pulling out from the niche, Nikolai saw that the other surviving loyalists were pinned to the deck by a similar substance to the one holding Traviss. Michael and half a dozen marines strode into the ruined mess hall.
"You traitorous bastards!" Traviss screamed as he tried to sit up. He started to say more, but was cut off by Michael planting a rifle barrel between his eyes and pulling the trigger. A bloody spray painted the deck behind him and he collapsed onto Nessum's ruined remains. Michael glanced sideways at Nikolai. Nikolai noticed for the first time that Michael's artificial grey eyes had no pupils, only solid disks, making him look utterly soulless.
"What a pathetic man." The angelic marine turned around and strode away from the carnage.
The Imperial dreadnought Gallowglass fired its massive engines for several moments, bringing itself to a halt.
"This derelict is where we lost contact with Sleipnir."
"It certainly looks impressive," Admiral Connet muttered. It was even bigger than her flagship. "But that's all. The scans don't show any weapons, and the thing can't have moved in a couple centuries. I think we should keep looking."
"It might be advisable to send a boarding party to investigate the Skidblanir, just in case. It is unlikely that whatever could be over there is a threat to a dreadnought and a regiment of marines."
Connet glanced over at her newly arrived marine detachment commander, Commander Michael—she still did not know his last name. The albino marine officer still intimidated her slightly. He reminded her of a cruel angel out of a heretic morality play.
"That is an excellent idea, Commander. I'll trust you to handle that."