William Zellmann

Deagth ship quest

Captain Rog Fan-Jertril, formerly Lieutenant Fan-Jertril, fell into another fit of coughing and staggered against the bulkhead, trying without success to ignore the agony in his chest. He paused to spit a ball of bloody phlegm to the already-foul deck before forcing himself erect.

Soon, he told himself. Very soon, the Vir Rekesh would be ready for her long sleep, and he would be able to surrender to the endless peace of death.

Death. He was going to die. He examined his feelings curiously. Why was he not afraid? Why wasn't he curled up in a corner, crying? Or shouting and cursing his cruel fate? Or drunk? Or stoned? Why this clinical calm, this easy acceptance?

Even six months ago, he knew, the thought of his own death would have at least sent a thrill of cold fear down his back. But that had been before.

Before, when he was Lieutenant Fan-Jertril, scion of a wealthy family on Raltha, Recent graduate of the Fleet Academy and a year's advanced training that had enabled his family to buy his promotion, and newly assigned to the Battle Cruiser Vir Rekesh. The assignment, coming so close on the heels of the promotion, had strained even his family's resources, but his father had insisted.

A slight smile crossed his face at a fleeting thought. If he could only tell his father! He was commanding a Battle Cruiser after only six months aboard! If he didn't know the circumstances, Da would probably be impressed.

The plague broke out shortly after they left a terrestrial planet they had surveyed. When it broke out, no one was too worried. After all, Rekesh had a full medical staff and a completely equipped sickbay with the latest in diagnostic equipment. But people kept getting sick, and sicker, and dying, and the medical staff could not isolate the cause or devise a cure.

Rog remembered the excitement when Captain To-Ruffin announced his intention to turn on the plague beacon. It meant that they would not be allowed to approach any settled planet and that medical assistance would be limited to help that could be given without going aboard. Sheol, some planets had been known to destroy plague ships on sight! Nevertheless, the senior remaining medical officer insisted and Captain To-Ruffin finally agreed.

Rog had been at the rear of the room for the Officer's Meeting the Captain convened to explain his decision concerning their next move. They could drive inward for the Empire, but there was no assurance that anyone would be alive when and if they got there — the deaths were mounting rapidly. Then, there was the problem of what would happen even if they got there. The medical staff doubted that, given the rapid progression of the disease, even the facilities on Prime would be able to come up with a cure in time to save anyone aboard. The senior medical officer had recommended that they rig all the fusactors to self-destruct simultaneously.

However, it’s hard for a captain to order the destruction of his ship. Captain To-Ruffin decided to run her to a system empty even of planets they had recently mapped and put her in a stable solar orbit, in the hope that she could someday be salvaged.

That was when the first mutiny occurred. A group of officers led by the Operations Officer decided to seize the bridge, and force To-Ruffin to return to the Empire for help. The Captain actually shot the Ops Officer and two others on the bridge, and had the rest confined to the brig. Officers! In the brig! Rog and the rest of the officers had been scandalized. Normally, Officers under discipline are placed under quarters confinement. However, Captain To-Ruffin considered these officers an ongoing threat — after all, they had attempted mutiny. The wardroom had boiled with anger and excitement, and more than a little guilt.

Regardless, the Captain brought them back here, and assumed a solar orbit. By this time, of course, every man and woman aboard knew they were going to die. Oh, the medical staff kept trying to find a cure, until they became too sick themselves. But everyone knew they had failed.

That was when the second, really nasty mutiny broke out. They were down to less than a thousand crew — a third her normal strength — and everyone had seen one or more of their mates collapse and die. Some ratings broke the surviving confined officers out of the brig, and demanded that they take them back to the Empire.

Captain To-Ruffin tried to talk to the crew, to explain that they had no chance of making it back and tell them that they had an obligation to save the ship for the Empire. However, he only managed to convince about half of them. The rest were sure that if they got back to the Empire, the Empire would save them. It was ridiculous of course, but desperation and panic are hard to resist.

Rog remembered the endless wardroom discussions and arguments, and the horrible feelings when he realized that three of his close friends were among the nearly one third of the remaining crew participating in the mutiny. Loyalists managed to get to the ship’s armory first, but a force of mutineers arrived while they were gathering the hand weapons. Rog would never forget having to fire on Tru Jorkin, a bunkmate, in the pitched battle that followed. He shuddered as he remembered the fighting retreat from the armory. They had rigged explosives to try to destroy the weapons they had to leave behind, but they must have misfired or the mutineers were able to deactivate them. At any rate, both sides had ended up with weapons, though the loyalists had many more than the mutineers. The mutineers, on the other hand, controlled most of the engineering spaces, including the workshops. They immediately began making improvised weapons.

The mutineers attacked the bridge, demanding that the Captain take them back to the Empire or surrender command to someone who would. That was when Captain To-Ruffin made what Rog considered his fatal mistake.

The captain invited the leaders of the mutiny onto the bridge under a flag of truce. He made them watch as he destroyed the Astrogator’s console with a laser and a blaster and ordered the ship’s AI to wipe all astrogational files and programming from its memory. Rog shook his head in disgust at the memory.

Oh, that had effectively ended the mutiny, all right. However, it also destroyed the last bit of hope among the survivors. Even if they found a miracle cure, even if the plague ended, even the dimmest apprentice wiper knew there was no longer any way to return to civilization — any civilization. A certain death penalty had been imposed, and every person aboard knew it.

Rog was still undecided about whether what followed was worse than the mutiny. Discipline and order collapsed. Rapes became so frequent that Captain Val-Tiken, who assumed command when To-Ruffin died, granted female personnel special permission to carry hand weapons aboard. Later he had to rescind it — too many women were committing suicide, and their weapons falling into the hands of the human predators to which some of the crewmembers had reverted.

For many, life became a drunken blur. Rog personally knew of some two dozen stills and three drug labs running in various voids and between-hull areas. There were non-stop parties going on constantly — though most of them had an edge of hysteria to them.

Rog had assumed the captaincy upon the collapse of Captain Jeffer, though the title and position were almost meaningless by that time. Military organization had almost totally disintegrated and anarchy reigned.

Rog was determined to reassert military authority and organizational lines. He, Lieutenant JG Tor Colm and Ensign Jak Tur-Ker had ruthlessly imposed order. Rog himself was haunted by the memory of the sixteen crewmembers he'd had to personally execute and the several dozen he'd had to order publicly flogged. But Rog knew that rule by force majeure made him no better than a gang boss. So he tried to balance brute force with a sense of mission.

Over a period of a few weeks, he managed to convince the ninety-three survivors that they still had a vital mission to perform. Captain To-Ruffin had brought them here with the hope that one day Vir Rekesh would be reclaimed by the Empire. They had to make sure that the ship would be salvageable when found. He had convinced them it was their job to make sure that they and their shipmates cashed in their Round Trip Tickets.

Rog's weary faint smile returned. It had worked. He had managed to give the ever-dwindling number of survivors something to live for. It was up to them to make certain that whoever recovered the ship knew that her crew had died Fleet, and not an undisciplined rabble.

That mission was almost complete. For weeks, they had scoured the ship for bodies and body parts, carefully labelled them, and collected their ident tags. Now, the bodies were gathered into cargo nets in the hangar bay,

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