Authors: Phil Geusz
Zombie Station had carried seven hundred and thirty-six men on her muster rolls when war broke out. There were always more floaters than the original search revealed, so it was safe to assume that that perhaps a hundred fifty in all were drifting in open space. That left roughly six hundred bodies to be dealt with in the Station itself, though of course there’d never been a major battle where
was found. I assigned Snow’s squad to that part of the cleanup—his bunnies were older and more experienced than Devin’s, though less space-savvy. “For now,” I urged him, “process the bodies we’ve already brought in. But be ready to transfer your operations to the Station the minute we’re ready over there.”
“Yes, sir!” he replied with a smile. And that very afternoon, one of his graybeards successfully disarmed a booby-trapped Imperial who’d taken the time to wire his sidearm to a heavy demolition charge before dying. He’d been a midshipman like me, whoever he was, and wore the sash of a Noble House under his vacuum gear. Armored capsule or no, the explosion would’ve killed everyone on the entire work-deck and crippled if not destroyed
herself. I gave the old bun a special ration of banana chips, and on another ship might’ve asked the captain to come and praise him for his good work. On this one, however, he’d have to settle for me. The captain had retired to his cabin with Nestor and an unlimited supply of whiskey for the duration, and so far as I was concerned we were all better off if he remained there.
On the ninth day, Chief Engineer Lancrest came to see me. “I need a favor if you’re willing, David.”
“For you, anything!” I answered, meaning it. Near as I could tell, our chief engineer was the only competent officer on the ship. Working with him was always like having the sun peek out from behind the clouds for a few glorious minutes after days of grayness.
He smiled. “Dan Bryant’s come down with a foot problem,” he explained. “Which leaves me shorthanded in my department at just the worst possible time. I’m about to make my preliminary survey of the Station, and according to regulations I can’t go alone. You’re qualified and have a Field suit. Would you be willing to ride shotgun? The captain’s already blessed it, if you’re not too far behind here.”
“Of course,” I replied, though my reaction was dampened somewhat by the chief’s choice of words. ‘Foot problem’ was navy-speak for ‘developed cold feet’. It was a bit shocking, really; I’d spent several hours working with Petty Officer Bryant while qualifying for my certification and at the time had even been under his nominal supervision. Somehow I’d gotten the idea that the engineering staff was an oasis of cleanliness and decency amidst
’s mostly rotten-to-the-core crew. But here was proof that the decay extended even abaft the primary bulkhead.
“Good!” Lancrest replied, slapping me on the shoulder. “You’re a better engineer than he is in my book anyway, David. You’ve a real gift for it.” He turned to leave. “I’ll see you in the main shuttle lock in an hour.”
If there’s anything more disturbing than locking onto a cold, dark, powered-down Station full of unburied men who’ve all died violently and which may well be booby-trapped six ways from Sunday, I don’t ever want to find out what it is. By the time the chief and I had selected a bare patch of hull in the Engineering section and cut a nice round hole in it so that we could enter without fear of blowing ourselves to kingdom come on a sabotaged airlock, I had a lot more sympathy for Petty Officer Bryant’s foot issues. In combat at least I’d been distracted from my terror by rage and violence and flying blaster-bolts, with a simple and definite mission to perform and relief from the tension (one way or the other) well within sight. But this was another breed of cat altogether. It was so dark and still that every time the chief spoke I damn near leapt out of my suit. There was nothing to divert my attention from the danger that filed every cubic centimeter of space all around me, every single instant. Except the bodies, of course, in all their endless variations. There were headless bodies, armless bodies, disemboweled bodies, cooked bodies, exploded bodies, even bodies that seemed perfectly undamaged save for the effects of vacuum, so that you had to wonder exactly how and why their owners had come to die at all. In no time flat, in fact, I’d seen all the bodies I’d ever want to see, or would ever need to see in order to consider myself an unwilling expert on the subject for life.
But bodies weren’t what we were there for, for the moment at least. Our first order of business was to make a quick assessment of how damaged the powerplant was, and the second to power up the Station’s electronic control system and find out what we could about everything else. That meant traveling almost five hundred yards through cramped corridors and tunnels, among so many bodies that there was barely room to shove them all out of the way.
Rather to our surprise, we found that the power plant had been shut down in an orderly fashion and was ready to be restarted. It was wired to blow the instant anyone touched the controls or for that matter half the other surfaces in Central Control; that was standard Royal procedure when abandoning an installation to the enemy. But the chief knew how to defuse it—that was standard procedure as well. In no time at all we had most of the internal lights up and running, and even a couple externals so that the rest of the crew would know we’d made a little progress. “The outer skin’s a sieve,” I reported as I studied the environmental readout.
“That’s pretty much to be expected,” the chief replied. “Check out the internal bulkheads.”
I did so, and was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the Station was still holding its air. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “I’d have thought a boarding action would’ve done more damage than this.”
The chief sighed. Then he shook his head. “Anyway, David… We’ve got quite a bit of good reserve air in the Station’s tanks, and it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to get the fans and filters up and running again. With masks, we’ll be okay after that.”
“Masks?” I asked. “There’ll be
The chief sighed and pushed away a one-legged corpse that’d floated in behind us. “The masks won’t be for oxygen, David.”
Then I realized what a fool I was. All the corpses I’d seen so far were vaccum-dried, of course. But in the parts of the ship that were still all nice and moist… “Right,” I agreed. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” my friend replied. “I only wish
could still forget about little details like that.”
Because of the threat of booby-traps, at first our engineering people slapped a temporary docking ring onto the hole we’d cut and everyone entered and left the Station via that single route. The chief asked the captain for permission to let me supervise the welding work, which was both a sign of his confidence in me and a welcome respite from my usual duties. For three glorious hours it was almost as if my dreams had come true and I was an engineering officer after all, with a nice clean job that needed to be done and no interference from
’s miserable officers in performing it. Then it was back to the old grind.
Our procedures were thorough, meticulous, and effective. First we broke Zombie up into sectors. Then we pressurized as much of each one as practical and cleaned it up completely before moving on to the next. First I went in with Snow, snapping holos of the carnage so as to make a permanent record and looking for booby-traps, damaged ordnance, and anything else that might constitute a danger. Then Snow’s bunnies took over, first removing the bodies for processing and freezing and then scrubbing the bulkheads and deckplates with disinfectant over and over again until the place finally smelt clean. Putting things so baldly, however, is to do Snow and the rest a terrible disservice. Removing and processing the bodies, for example, sounds like a sterile, clinical process when it was anything but. Often the work involved scraping badly-decayed human remains from walls or floors or even ceilings, using everything from special flat-bladed shovels to putty knives. There were no machines or robots to help us with the dirtiest work—the job wasn’t automatable. Little bits and gobbets floated everywhere—we never did the gravity back online—and worked their way into everything. Often it was so bad that it was impossible to determine which arm or leg or head went with which torso; in these cases we took our best guess and added a special notation to our log.
We also found no more booby-traps, which puzzled me at first. Nor did we at first encounter many corpses outside of the engineering spaces, which had been hit hard and often by the Imperial line-of-battle ships. Then I also noticed that there were no signs of a firefight anywhere within the Station, and I began to think that perhaps in this case two and two equaled five after all. Finally I dropped in on the chief, who was now living aboard the Station full-time, and caught him alone. “Hi, David!” he greeted me with a big smile. He was lonely—there weren’t a lot of people aboard Zombie just then who were up for much in the way of conversation. “What’s new? Care for a bulb of coffee?”
My stomach lurched at the idea—not an hour before I’d accidentally sunk my left foot into something truly awful while pushing off for a long glide down a corridor, after forgetting to exchange my sandals for rubber boots. I still reeked of disinfectant, which as nasty as it was remained far more appealing than the alternative. Besides, I didn’t like coffee to begin with. “No thank you, sir,” I replied, glad that my fur hid the nasty green cast that my flesh was probably taking on. Then I paused, not quite certain of how to continue. “Sir… Is there something about Zombie Station that everyone else knows except me?”
Lancrest’s smile faded, but he said nothing.
“I assume you’re sworn to secrecy,” I continued. “You all must be, or else by now someone would’ve said something. But… There’s not much evidence of a fight after the main armament went down. I’m finding next to no bodies in the living spaces, where I figure any last stand should’ve taken place. And the Imperials claim everyone committed suicide.” I paused and met his eyes. “Just like they also claimed in the last war. This ship cleaned up after
one, too. And most of the same personnel are still in place.”
“Hmm,” Lancrest replied, looking away.
“I understand if you’re sworn to secrecy, sir. My Rabbits won’t discuss the matter, so I know there must be something going on. But… Sir, at some point don’t you think that someone ought to be telling me these things?”
“Well,” he said slowly, looking away again. Nothing more came out of his mouth, though.
“Sir!” I continued, growing angry. “I’m not
stupid. Not one Imperial body has been found in the Station proper yet. How can this be explained?”
Finally Lancrest sighed and stuck the coffee-bulb to his desk. “This is the captain’s job,” he finally said. “And by rights I ought to make him do it; he should’ve seen this situation coming
ago. But I know how busy you are, David. There’s no point in making you report to him back aboard the ship. And it’d be even worse if he came over here.”
I nodded; that last bit certainly needed no further explanation.
“So,” the chief continued, licking his lips nervously. “Keep in mind that you figured this out all on your own, son—I could be hung for breaking a secrecy oath at this high a level. Got that?”
I nodded. “Of course.”
He smiled. “Good. In that case… David, awful things happen in battle. Terrible, indescribable things. As you already know better than most, of course. Men find themselves tested in ways that they could never have anticipated. Sometimes they break. When that happens… Well, to be blunt, from time to time we find evidence of bad behavior on the part of our men. Once, for example, a Rabbit found a dead marine with a pouch full of left ears in his pack. They were being kept as trophies, as some men used to keep scalps. Two others in the same squad were saving ears, too. One was the NCO.”
I winced. “What’d you do?”
us to do, David. Which was what was right for the bereaved survivors back home. I mean… The men involved were beyond punishing. What could a court-martial achieve? And the mutilated Imperials were already dead, too. So what possible good would publicity do anyone, except to further wound the innocent bystanders back home?”
My eyes closed, as if of their own accord. “So, the ears simply vanished.”
“Of course!” the chief replied. “How could it be any other way? And as a result, somewhere there are orphaned kids growing up who’re still proud of their hero dads.” His eyes narrowed. “Now… You know the Imperials don’t take prisoners. To them, surrender is an act of inexcusable weakness—to wave a white flag is to elicit their deepest contempt. So… Do you know what the Imperials do if you try?”
“I’ve heard rumors. Ugly ones.”
“They’re true,” Lancester replied. “I’ve been involved in cleaning up after them. First they disarm you, then out the airlock you go. To surrender means drowning and exploding and flash-burning and vomiting your guts out all at one and the same time. You remain conscious far, far too long. And that's the
you can hope for; our enemies are capable of much worse.” He shook his head and sighed again. “Death in combat isn’t much to write home about either, David. You’ve seen enough of it already here to appreciate that. So, once the situation turns hopeless some choose another way. Quite a few, actually. In the case of Zombie, they’ve clearly done it in an organized manner.”
“And we won’t tell the folks back home, because it’s easier for them if their loved ones died heroes?”
“That’s only part of it, David. There’s other reasons, too. One, for example, is that mass suicide is bad for morale. It’s not something you want the other troops hearing about, especially the ones who make up the
garrison. People at home need heroes, too, and they’re growing more important to morale with each war we lose. Again, you of all people ought to know that.”