When Carthage stumbled onto the bridge, his heart was racing, but not because he was scared. He had to pry open the doors to get there, as they had apparently malfunctioned, and this effort was great in comparison to his quick sprint to the command center. The doors might have been trying to spare him the horror of that day, the stark reality of which was all too plain as he entered.
Carthage’s crewmates lay dead, their blood almost luminescent in the bluish glow of the well-lit bridge. The compact space left no room for imagination, though there was no doubt as to the manner of their demise. Holland stood at the helm station, his back turned toward him, and his right hand grasping a bloody bayonet. The weapon belonged to Carthage, obviously stolen from his quarters at some point in the recent past. His four friends must not have suspected any ill intent from Holland. And though Carthage was surprised as they must have been, he was at least fortunate enough to see it coming.
Holland barely turned his head to acknowledge his presence, though Carthage had made a tremendous racket opening the jammed doors. In that moment, he hadn’t yet threatened him directly. He didn’t feel particularly threatened, since he responded to the vague warning issued by the ship’s computer with a weapon of his own. His fingers twitched around the retention strap of the holster, his forearms burning from the recent exertion. Even still, he knew there was no way Holland could turn around and cross that distance before Carthage could clear leather. If he somehow missed, the frangible rounds would disintegrate long before they penetrated the hull. But the entire bridge was less distance than the easiest shot at the academy pistol range.
It may have been the presence of Carthage’s pistol, or his ease of its use, that made Holland decide to talk to him instead of eviscerate him with his own blade. He turned slowly, seeming completely at ease.
“Dun Ringill will not have us after all,” he said casually.
Carthage’s genetically-enhanced brain struggled to understand the reference, though the well-spent government funds to make it that way soon paid for the answer. Skye, the planet they were orbiting, was the legendary location of Fort Dun Ringill, both named from Scottish history back home. Though the original settlers were free to name the planet whatever they wished, as far as he knew, Dun Ringill didn’t have a companion location there. If found, it was rumored to be the gateway to the world of the dead, or a path for their ghosts to wander ours. For Holland to bring it up now would have been baffling, if he’d had the time to ponder it. As science officer, myth and legends were not Holland’s ken, and he never mentioned even a passing interest in them. He did, however, study the mission briefings some weeks prior to now, so he wasn’t exactly revealing privileged information.
“So you’ve lost your head, is that it?” Carthage asked, after an attempt to say something far more clever.
“I won’t submit myself to interrogation,” he said, almost whispering. “Not that it would work, anyway.”
“Fine,” Carthage said, and blew half of Holland’s torso onto the helm.
These frangible rounds were no joke. He’d never shot anyone aboard a spacecraft before, so it was the first time he’d seen the results of that ammo type on a human. That thought crossing his mind would have been odd, if not for his conditioning. Carthage was trained to be calm and analytical in combat. While he felt sadness for the deaths of his friends, and anger at not knowing why Holland had killed them, he couldn’t help but look over the scene with a colder eye. His thoughts were as much on the mission as the scene that had just played out.
Carthage could still (theoretically) accomplish the mission, as long as the ship didn’t have any serious mechanical problems between now and home. Operating a ship this size with one person was possible, if not ideal. He would have to rely heavily on the autopilot to get him to and from the surface of the planet, as his own piloting skills were for a much smaller craft. Once Carthage determined what happened to the colonies on Skye, he could return to Earth, albeit with far less information than preferred. Without his scientist and anthropologist, he couldn’t really compile much of a report. All he had to go on so far was that there were no artificial satellites in orbit, which was not a good sign, nor detectible transmissions from the surface, which was a very bad sign.
Carthage considered these things while at the same time wondering how he was going to dispose of the remains of his crew. All but Holland would have to be given some kind of respectful send-off. He had decided he should go get some coveralls, because he hadn’t yet gotten any blood on himself, when he noticed an indicator light blinking on the propulsion console. It looked important. He tried to avoid stepping in anything as he made his way over to it, but that proved impossible. He also slipped and fell onto the helm, grabbing onto the top half of Holland in a futile attempt to keep from hitting the deck. Despite his typically reserved attitude, that frustrated him a little.
The indicator light was telling Carthage that Holland had purged the radionuclide reaction initiators from the engine. That frustrated him a little, too. A few more seconds of smudging up the console also revealed that he had locked the flight controls. Their orbit was decaying. He stood there, up to his ankles in ichor, and methodically attempted to fix the flight system. He had already given up on getting back to Earth, at least on this ship, but he wasn’t looking forward to an uncontrolled descent through Skye’s atmosphere.
Carthage looked at what was left of Holland, now lying face-down on the deck. He still had no idea why he wanted them all dead. Carthage was supposed to be in charge of security for this mission, and he had missed any indication that Holland was unstable, or a traitor, or just a jerk. Of course, there had to be some kind of indication; Carthage couldn’t believe that he, of all people, missed it. One thing they taught them at the academy was that nobody can keep secrets forever, and after five weeks of sharing space with Holland, he would have known. He should have known. This was his fault, as much as it was his bayonet that Holland stole to kill them.
None of that mattered any more. There was no point in magnifying one professional failure with another, especially since the next step in the progression was to die horribly. Carthage forced himself to take deep breaths, and considered the problem. He might be able to free up some of the control surfaces if he bled off some of the hydraulic pressure. If he was lucky, the system would go into diagnostic mode, and he could work them manually. So, Carthage wiped his bloody hands on his pants, and went to the engine room to grab an axe.
The ship had cut a nasty swath through the sparse pine forest, and barely resembled its space-worthy self, but it did not explode on impact. From the side of what used to be the third deck, an emergency exit panel popped off. Carthage emerged, his face caked in grime and blood, and tumbled onto the soft ground. He lay next to his rifle and large rucksack for a few moments, and listened. The woods were quiet, the wildlife still in hiding after the violent crash, leaving only the crackle and hiss of cooling metal. Carthage took a deep breath, and sat up. The first order of business was a quick scan with the sensor array on his PDA, since the sensors on the ship were not functioning on the way down. He pulled the small device out of one of his chest pockets and activated it.
Readings were what he expected them to be on Skye, except for the presence of ionizing radiation. Carthage confirmed that this was coming from the environment, and not the wreck of the ship. It was curious, but not yet a problem; the levels were low enough to ignore for now. His greatest concern was his location, as in the absence of satellites he couldn’t use global positioning. The easiest thing to do would be to wait until dark, when he could use the data stored on his PDA to use the stars. Since nightfall was a few hours off, his next move was obvious: get far enough away from the ship to spot anyone long before they spotted him. Anyone investigating the crash shouldn’t be a threat, but that would be a foolish assumption.
Carthage set his PDA to monitor the radiation, then donned his rucksack and grasped his rifle. He quickly located higher ground, and headed in that direction. The ship was not on fire, and the dust plume and residual smoke from the crash would eventually dissipate, so he was hoping to find a hill with a clear line of sight to the wreck. From the density of the forest, it looked like he could put about one kilometer between himself and the crash site. That would be adequate for now.
Trudging through the easy terrain, Carthage considered his aching body. He had sustained a few bruises during the landing, but was otherwise fine. His rucksack had already been packed for just such an eventuality, and contained everything he might need to survive alone indefinitely, if he could find a source of clean water and some small game. His current food and water resources would last for five days, and he had plenty of ammo for his rifle and pistol should his trapping efforts fail.
Eventually the expected sounds of the forest returned. Carthage had read about the flora and fauna he might expect to encounter in this kind of environment, even if he wasn’t sure where he was. Food shouldn’t be a problem, and he had ways of mitigating the threat from predatory animals. That left the only real problem being his distance from the nearest settlement; Skye was sparsely populated with humans, and depending on where he crashed he could have weeks or even months of walking to get to them. That wouldn’t be so bad; exploring a new planet wasn’t the worst way he could think of to spend his time. He may have been predisposed to enjoying that sort of experience, but his training guaranteed it.
Carthage found a spot he liked, and sat down. He was near the edge of a valley, and the afternoon sunlight glinted off of a lazily snaking river through the middle. It was beautiful, especially after several weeks in space. He unlimbered his rucksack and retrieved a pack of moist disposable towels. He cleaned off his face and hands, and considered the supplies he’d left behind in the ship. He could easily grab enough stuff to set up a fine base camp, if that was his goal. Any other luxuries he might want were limited by his carrying capacity. His rucksack was already nearly full, and another ten or fifteen pounds of gear would start to cut into his endurance. That still left him the option of taking a few more things, and more food, another pistol, and some ammo wouldn’t hurt. Once he was satisfied that the crash hadn’t attracted the wrong kind of attention, he would go back. The interior of the ship was a mess but it seemed to be structurally sound.
Retrieving his binoculars, Carthage settled in to wait. Small gnats soon found him so he applied some insect repellent. He thought about the bodies of the crew inside the ship. He was perfectly content to let Holland rot in there, but perhaps not the rest of his colleagues. He was conflicted; his training told him that burying them would be a waste of time and resources, and in combat, bodies would only be recovered after the mission was complete. Since he had transferred out of the Combined Space Fleet, however, his sensibilities had begun to change. As more time passed, he was more likely to adopt the customs of the people he was with. Whether or not this was a product of his training, or simply human nature, was a question for psychologists to solve, not a soldier on a mission. Still, Enhanced Infantrymen like Carthage were always encouraged to consider such conundrums, as a flexible mind made for a more competent warrior. As the sun approached the top of a line of distant mountains, he decided he would not remove the crew from the ship. Not before the mystery of Skye was solved.
After a few quiet hours, Carthage pulled out his PDA. He had waited until after astronomical twilight to ensure that he could see the most stars. A complete lack of light pollution made the night sky almost as bright as it was in space, and he was lucky enough to have a clear evening. He accessed the data that had been regularly received from the planet prior to the termination of contact, and quickly found a match for several locally-conceived constellations. Since he knew what the local time was, it was easy to locate himself. He was on the southern continent in the eastern hemisphere, and the closest town was only a three-day walk. That was good news. He pulled his poncho over his head to conceal the light from his PDA, and researched the town. It had a population of four thousand, and was a predictable combination of agrarian and light industrial efforts. He noted that it had a small nuclear reactor, a problem with which might explain the ionizing radiation he’d encountered. The town was firmly aligned with the global government, so he would probably be welcomed upon arrival. But again, he wouldn’t take any chances. He would find some high ground and observe the town at his leisure before approaching.
Carthage retrieved his poncho liner to ward off the evening cool, and settled in for the night. He would not sleep, and wouldn’t need to for another three days. That was fine with him; he rarely dreamed, but when he did he didn’t like the memories that would surface. And the crew he failed to save, trapped in their twisted metal tomb, would surely become one of them.
For the first time in as long as she could remember, Siobhan forgot to set her alarm. She was awoken by a knock at her door at 10 am, three hours past her normal wakeup time. She blinked in the sunlight and wondered why the brightness of the room hadn’t woken her. Her dreams had been of otherworldly beings, and it took her a minute to snap back to reality. The knock at the door was doubtlessly a customer, and she should have opened her shop an hour ago. She rubbed her eyes and tied back her hair, and pulled on her jeans. She picked up a bottle of water and took a swig. On the same table was her Geiger counter, showing the same reading it had for years, if you didn’t count hundredths of millisieverts.
Siobhan unlocked her front door and flipped the sign to “open.” She admitted Donal, a bearded farmer from Romanby with buzzed white hair, and the two exchanged greetings.
“Sorry about that,” she said, heading to her work bench. “I must’ve forgotten my alarm.”
“That’s not like you,” Donal replied. “Usually the rooster waits for you to rise.”
“I know. What’s up?”
Donal raised the cloth case he was carrying. “It finally happened. The Colt’s giving me grief.”
Siobhan nodded. “You should be lucky it lasted this long. 250 years is a good run. What’s the issue?”
Donal opened the case and put an unloaded 1911 pistol on the bench. “The brass is staying in the breach after I fire, so of course the next round smacks into it. It’s doing it about half the time.”
“Sounds like the extractor is getting weak. I can try to adjust it for you, but I have to warn you. If I bend it too far, or if it breaks, I don’t have a replacement. There might be one in Edinburgh, but, you know.”
“Aye. Do your best, lass. If it breaks, it breaks. Last night’s sight might be a bad omen.”
“Of course, you wouldn’t have heard. There was a very bright meteorite last night, went from west to east. Connor said for a moment he could see his shadow. But you don’t believe in omens, do you?”
“Skye is going to do what Skye is going to do. That’s how we ended up where we are. It was probably one of the last satellites suiciding itself. No more of an omen than when they stopped transmitting.”
Donal smiled. “If it cursed my Colt, let’s hope it’s the least of our problems.”
“Aye. I’ll get started on it soon. Do you have some ammo with you?”
“Oh, right.” Donal reached into his pocket and withdrew a fired case. “I’m afraid I can’t spare any live rounds. Hopefully you won’t need to test fire it after you adjust it.”
Siobhan frowned. “Well, we can’t be sure my adjustment as worked without live fire. How many rounds do you have left?”
“Shite. Even if we use half of those to test it, you shouldn’t trust the pistol with the rest. I’m afraid you may be stuck carrying your Sig until you can find more forty-five.”
“You mean when Connor’s pigs take to the air.”
Siobhan smiled. “Just about then.”
Donal put his hands on his hips. “You know what, forget it. I’m not going to waste your time on fixing it if we can’t properly test it. If by some miracle we come across some ammo then I’ll bring it back. It’s not like we’re short on nine mil anyway.”
“Aye, but I know how much the Colt means to you. It’s up to you, Donal, I don’t mind. You know I won’t charge you if I can’t fix it.”
“Of course. I’ll leave it, then. What else do you have going on today?”
“I’m still in the middle of making a new stock for MacLeod’s Remington. Skye rowan is a nice wood, but it isn’t easy to work with. He’s still kicking himself for not buying a synthetic stock all those years ago.”
“And I would have bought a thousand more rounds of forty-five, along with a hundred other things. You know what I miss most? Deep fried mudcarp. Ugly animal, great meal.”
Siobhan laughed. “We could never get fresh mudcarp out here anyway, you’re probably better off, old man.”
“I’d rather die of an intestinal parasite than thyroid cancer. Anyway, lass, I’ll leave you to your woodworking. And don’t forget to wake up tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Donal. Same to you.”
Donal exited and shut the door behind him. Siobhan sighed, stood up, and walked over to her fridge. She was well past the point of needing breakfast. Bread and cheese would have to do, as she was too hungry to cook anything. She felt bad for Donal; if he was that low on .45 then he probably wouldn’t ever be able to carry the Colt again. Her own supply of fifty rounds was not for sale, and she didn’t know of anyone else in Romanby with any. Fortunately Donal also had a Sig P320 and they were well stocked on 9×19. Like the Colt, though, just about everything mechanical was beginning to show its age. Her fridge was making awful sounds, though the reactor was just as likely to fail first. She had no doubt that Romanby would survive, but she knew certain luxuries wouldn’t last forever. Most of all she would miss her library, as the only copies of her books were on her PDA and computer. Already she had begun memorizing all of her gunsmithing manuals, lest she lose some of her ability to make a living. At least the town library had physical books for entertainment purposes.
Siobhan finished her breakfast and polished off the rest of her water. She grabbed a carboy from next to the fridge and headed outside to visit her well. The town’s water distribution system had failed three years ago, and was an already lost luxury that she sorely missed. Still, she was lucky her father was the self-reliant sort, and had a well dug by their home long before the Wave hit. She turned on the electric pump and filled the glass container. She took a deep breath and tried to appreciate the beautiful spring morning before heading back inside.
On the way, she thought she saw a glint of light reflecting off of something on Silas Hill. It gave her pause because the radiation levels up there were deadly. Everybody in town knew that. She watched for a couple of minutes, but didn’t see anything else. If it was a stranger, they wouldn’t be around long enough to be a threat. It was a shame, too. She and her dad liked to have picnics on Silas Hill before the Wave. Now it was a constant reminder of the Curse of Dun Ringill.
“Old ghosts indeed,” she muttered, and went back to her woodworking.