Find the Shoe on the Other Foot Ch. 01byMesmeri©
This story shares some names and concepts with 'Opening Andora's Box' but that is it. This is not a sequel of that story.
"It is tradition to give this little speech at this point in your middy cruise, right before the start of the first deepspace training exercise," Commander Anari told her small audience. And small it was because the three Amazonas in front of her along with herself made up the entire crew of the scoutship.
Of course, you didn't really need even that many as the AI did pretty much all the work on a spaceship. The job of these fresh recruits that had just completed their training wouldn't come into play until they found their first ship. "You have begun a career to defend Amazona against her enemies, but not just defend. Our task is to bring our freedom to those who don't have it, to release women from the tyranny of Man. We will do so ship by ship, planet by planet and solar system by solar system as the first Amazonan, Sarah the Huntress, commanded us."
Anari clasped her hands behind her back to stop herself from running one through her short, red hair. It was a habit a commander couldn't show in front of the women and it was one she still had even after four years of command. Her lean frame and smooth face made her look far younger then the 33 she really was but that was the case for most in the service and for Amazonans in general. The women in front of her though, looked just like the fresh-faced eighteen-year olds they were.
"You all know the story of Sarah, but the lesson therein cannot be emphasized enough. The original settlers of Amazona conceived it as Man's paradise. A place where Man would be master and women would be their serfs. And so it was for generations until the day Sarah was driven out of her village. Accused of poisoning her husband she was hunted like an animal for weeks until one day she stumbled upon an Aleatean research-outpost."
She could tell Yanara and Diana were loosing interest already. Like Anari herself they were natives who had heard the story since they could talk. Mei-Li was still giving it rapt attention though. Her appearance also made it clear she was not a native of Amazona because she lacked the height, shoulder-length brown hair or the bronzed skin that was common to those from Amazona herself.
The commander had read Mei-Li's file and knew her background. She was six when pirates had attacked the transport she and her parents were on. The pirates had killed her father and taken her and her mother on board. By the time an Amazonan raider came across the pirates her mother was dead as well and Mei-Li had suffered serious abuse as well.
To the girl, the Amazonans were her saviors and the education center had taken advantage of that. By the time she was mature enough to realize that the Amazonans would have either enslaved her father or killed him like the pirates had done she was firmly convinced the man had joined the pirates when they abused her mother and herself. The woman might be petite and wear her hair in a braid that came to her butt but she was fiercer than Yanara and Diana combined. The fact that thanks to microwire-muscles in her hair she could use that braid like a fifth appendage strong enough to crush bones just added to that image.
But tradition was tradition so Anari kept going. "The outpost was old and badly damaged but still operational. And it was from this outpost that Sarah got the tool to launch her revolution, the nanites that even now course through our bodies to keep us healthy and strong. And these same nanites keep our men in their place, as our servants." Which was all they were good for really in a modern society. The nanites that broke their will also lowered their intelligence quite a bit and most unskilled and even skilled labor could be done by robots far more efficient. So the men were kept around just for breeding and entertainment.
She wrapped the story up now, "Sarah's vision did not stop at Amazona however for she knew many more men were out here in the galaxy and that they would come to fear her. And so she commanded her followers to spread her truth to all corners of the galaxy. And now, you will add your weight to that mission."
She shifted her weight and continued in a lighter voice. "Now that we have that out of the way we can get to today's exercise. It's a simple one designed to get you familiar with the specific quirks of this ship because trust me, they all get them after a few years. We will drop out of hyper between systems in a less-traveled sector which is nominally claimed by the Thornburgers. Once we arrive there we will conduct simulated battles for three days and then we will see if we can't find a tramp freighter or yacht to test your acquisition skills on. Panopea," she addressed the ship now, "what is our ETA and do you have anything on the scanners?"
A contralto voice answered her. "We will be arriving at our destination in five minutes, Commander. My scanners are detecting a bulk freighter moving away from us at our present course, distance to the freighter is 7.2 light-years." That meant they were out of their scanner range, which was good since she didn't want anybody getting curious as to why they went to sublight in the middle of nowhere. Anari felt pleased with herself too, this was her first stint as a commander of a middy cruise and she had managed to time that little speech quite well in her opinion.
Everybody stayed in the room waiting for those final five minutes to pass. They could all hear the engines power-down as they dropped out of hyper but were rudely surprised when the ship sounded battle stations right after that. They all scrambled for their pods. These pods could hermetically seal themselves in the event of a hull breach and even functioned as escape pods for the small ship where space was at a premium.
"Bring defense-screen online and charge the graser," Anari ordered. "Panopea, tell me what's out there." Panopea did as she was ordered and showed an image of the ship she had detected after exiting hyper. A ship going at hyper could only detect major disturbances like suns, planets or other ships going at hyper. Likewise a ship going at sublight speeds couldn't detect a ship going at hyper but that wasn't much comfort right now for Anari because the readings coming in told her that her ship was dwarfed by the one out there. Then she blinked as she recognized its familiar hull as one of their research vessels.
Like the Panopea it was designed to mimic a fish. But while the Panopea looked like a flatfish, the research vessel resembled a whale more than anything else.
"It is an Amazonan research-vessel, Muse-class," Panopea confirmed. "The ship seems to be dead in the water and I am not detecting any energy emissions from it. The ship's transponder is offline as well. I do however have a visual on its hull-registry that identifies it as the Erato. According to my files the ship was reported missing 34 years, 7 months and..." Anari waited for more but Panopea had stopped talking.
She was about to prod the ship for more information when Panopea resumed. "My apologies captain, but upon identifying that vessel I received orders from the Intelligence AI. Intel has standing orders regarding the Erato that supersede any other mission. We are forbidden to report our discovery to Command and must maintain com-silence from now on. Our new mission is to board the Erato and assess its condition. If it can be flown back to the nearest naval base we are to do so. If not, evidence of this must be presented to the Intelligence AI who will adjust our orders accordingly. I assume that means we are to salvage a research project in that case but it is keeping quiet on that."
Anari slowly released her breath. 'Well that's just great, we just got drafted by the Intel weenies.' But she didn't let that frustration show. "Looks like your first assignment will be a lot more exciting than planned ladies. I can tell you right now that this cruise just got classified. Which means none of you can brag about this afterwards in a bar. Panopea, find an airlock and dock us with the Erato. As for the three of you, get suited up."
"Shouldn't one of us stay back, ma'am? Just in case?" Yanara asked after sharing a look with Diana.
The commander didn't chew her out, they were still wet behind the ears after all. "There's no point, Yanara. Panopea can handle everything here and I need all three of you anyway. Two to carry a powercell and one to act as lookout while I operate the scanner. Now, let's suit up!"
Anari looked the middies over as they waited for Erato's airlock to open. It was slow going because the power had to come from Panopea who also had to prod the computer controlling that airlock into action. They were wearing skinsuits of course although Anari personally had never really liked the things. The plumbing of it always felt a little awkward to Anari for the first hour or so and maintaining a bald crotch like all spacers did only helped a little.
Once again she checked her force baton and the controller strapped to her left forearm. The force baton could be used to either stun or just shoot someone while the controller sported a very long needle and a reservoir of nanites. The needle was controlled by wrist movements and was quite flexible. Neither would probably be needed on this mission but you could never be too careful and she had told so to the middies.
Finally the light sprung from red to green and both airlocks opened. Normally only one would do so but they had discovered there was no air inside the ship so they didn't have to bother.
Mei-Li went in first, shining a torch over the darkened corridor. Her steps were deliberate and slow to give the magnets in her soles time to lock on. A necessity due to the fact that artificial gravity was just as dead as the rest of the ship. Next up was Anari herself while Yanara and Diana, carrying the powercell between them, made up the rear. The light cone was playing on the walls, floor and the occasional particles of dust. There was no sound except for their own breathing.
Once they passed the second airlock-doors she signaled the others to stop so she could take some readings. 'Radiation is within norms and there is no evidence of any biological, chemical or nanotech-agents that might explain what happened to the crew. Not that I expected something like that after the ship had decompressed itself,' Anari reflected. An inspection of the hull had revealed no damage except that someone had destroyed the transponder and its backup. And that meant the ship's atmosphere had been vented on purpose.
"Alright, looks like its clear. Let's get to the bridge." She also needed to distract the others from the spookiness of this dead hulk. "Mei-Li, perhaps you could enlighten the rest of us as to what the purpose of the Muse-class is?"
"Yes, commander. The Muse-class is a purpose-built research vessel meant to host research projects too dangerous or classified to be housed near populated worlds. They are also used for research that requires the scientists to leave the safety of Amazonan territory like archeology or astronomy. Their missions usually last about two to three years and they have the same armaments as a Nike-class heavy cruiser."
Anari nodded to herself. "Nice summary, looks like you remembered your warbook well. And good to see you kept an eye on your surroundings too, good work. Now can you tell me what the specs are of that powercell you're carrying, Yanara?"
"Yes, commander. But I do have a question first?"
"Spit it out Yanara."
"Ehm, Mei-Li mentioned experiments too dangerous to be conducted near populated worlds?"
Anari rolled her eyes even though none of the women could see that. But they could hear its auditory equivalent in her voice just fine. "Which is why I am lugging along this scanner Yanara. And that is the reason you keep that skinsuit on till I give the green light. Now, the specs of the powercell if you will."
The doors to the bridge parted and slid sideways without a sound although Anari thought she could feel the deck beneath her vibrate a little. She motioned to Yanara and Diana to disconnect the powercell again, they would need it to get the bridge and the central computer of the ship operational again.
She cautiously lead the party onto the bridge. It was a bit bigger than the one on the Panopea but not much. Like the Panopea's bridge it contained a number of stationpods arrayed around a central pod where the captain would sit. From their position they could see most of the pods and they were clearly empty.
She pointed the engineering station out for Yanara and Diana so that they could go ahead and connect the powercell to it while she made her way to the central pod followed by Mei-Li. At first she thought the captain's pod was just as unoccupied as the others but that changed when she stood next to it and looked closer. Behind her Mei-Li gasped, a sound that the built-in radio transmitted to everybody on the bridge.
Naturally Yanara and Diana immediately made their way to them to see what they had found and they too were astonished. In the pod were the mummified remains of what appeared to be the captain or a woman wearing the captain's uniform in any case. But the strange part was that the uniform was unsealed completely and that the mummy had one hand on its chest and another covered its private parts.
Diana spoke up. "Was she actually masturbating while she was dying? What the hell was wrong with her?"
Anari gave her a withering glare. It wasn't normal but she couldn't have these three get overcome by fear either. "For some people oxygen deprivation causes a sexual rush. She might have found out the hard way that was true for her too. Now get back to work," she snapped at the two.
The two guiltily acknowledged the reprimand and hastened back to the powercell. Anari meanwhile motioned Mei-Li to shine the light on a covered panel on the side of the pod. Even without power it was possible to open a pod by hand and that was exactly what she was going to do.
Once she had disengaged the airseal on it she lifted the canopy of the pod up with the help of Mei-Li. A puff of air disturbed some of the dust but that little pocket of gas had soon dissipated. Connecting her controller to the scanner she stuck the needle in the corpse to get a tissue sample. 'Time of death seems to be about 30 years, but this hand-scanner can't narrow it any further. No unidentifiable micro-organisms or chemical agents present and her nanites are all deactivated as they should be. No sign of alien nanites either, damn. No real clues to what happened.'
"Good news people, she seems clean." That was addressed to everybody, the next part was for Mei-Li only. "Help me seal this thing again. I want to preserve the remains as best as possible."
After that was done and Anari had disengaged the pod from the ships enviromental systems, they made their way to the other two Amazonans who had finally managed to get the engineering pod to work when they arrived. Anari held back and let Diana hop into it. "Alright Diana, check the fuel-reserves first. See if we can get this ship to run on its own power."
Diana nodded and brought up the relevant data. She studied it for a while and the news she gave wasn't as bad as Anari had feared. "Fuel-reserves are low but we have enough to get critical systems running and keep them that way for a week or two. But we will have to transfer fuel from the Panopea to get her hypergenerators working again."
Which would mean they wouldn't be able to go anywhere afterwards without refueling at the nearest station either. The h-generators on this tub were actually more efficient than the Panopea's but she was also a lot bigger. Anari didn't have to give it much thought though. She already knew they wouldn't be allowed to go on their merry way after they brought in the Erato. "Get the critical systems running then. Once that is done we will check the stasis-chambers. Maybe some of the crew managed to make it to them before things went to hell. Oh, and keep the labs sealed and don't bother to restore power to those parts. We need to keep power consumption as low as possible."
Stasis-chambers were the last refuge of a crew if anything went wrong. The stasis-tubes in those chambers would keep a person in suspended animation to await rescue. And in the event of a real catastrophe the ship could launch those same stasis-tubes like escapepods. But those chambers were automatically sealed when a ship lost its atmosphere and wouldn't unlock unless its sensors detected the presence of air again.
The first thing to come back was gravity and everyone sighed with relief when it happened. Zero-gravity wasn't a common experience for spacers in the modern age and this was no exception for the crew of the Panopea. When the air was back, it was Anari who first took of her helmet. She instructed the others to wait half an hour before they followed suit just in case there was something the scanner had missed.
Her first inhalation of Erato's air was followed by a sneeze. There was quite a bit more dust on the bridge than Anari had seen elsewhere but it was to be expected for a ship where the automated cleaners were offline for 30 years.
They had high hopes when they opened up the first chamber but all they found was a row of empty tubes. The only positive thing was that the air was safe to breathe so the others could loose their helmets too. And the story was no different when they cracked open the next chamber and the one after that. Eventually they arrived at the sixth and last chamber, which was near the labs.
"I'll bet you 50 creds that this one is as empty as the others," Yanara said to Diana.
She gave the door a speculative look and then shook Yanara's hand. "And I think this one won't be. A Muse-class has a total crew of 54; there is no way all of them didn't make it."
Anari suspected this was a show of false bravado. She could tell the sheer emptiness and lack of answers was starting to get to them. Again she thought about activating the ship's AI and see what was in the logs but that would drain even more power and right now, the AI was one of the main suspects anyway. But she could keep her people focussed on their job. "Unless anybody else wants to bet on how many we're going to find inside, I suggest you open it up, Diana."
The door opened and revealed that Diana had won the bet because there were three pods that were lit up out of a row of twelve. Anari blinked when she noticed that the middle pod was occupied by a man. She quickly approached it and took a closer look. Her eyebrows rose up when she saw the shock-collar around his neck because that device was only used when a man wasn't treated with nanites yet. 'Not going to wake him up until I have a good explanation of why he is even here.'
"Okay, I want you to revive the crew. We will leave the man in stasis but don't lower your guard around the other two right away. We still don't know what happened here."
She stepped back and kept a hand close to her force baton as Mei-Li and Diana started the revivification process. The first woman to wake up was the one on the right. When the lid slid upwards it revealed a young woman with blond, mid-back length hair in the white labcoat of a researcher with civvies underneath it. Those civvies were fairly tight pants and an equally tight top. The other clue that she was a civilian were the large breasts that the coat couldn't hide. Any Amazonan soldier would have gone for a reduction simply because the things tended to get in the way during a fight.