As various bridge consoles began to come to life, Ando and Nitram both slowly backed away from the rear of the bridge, toward the observation windows.
"Well, maybe this is a good thing." Ando ventured nervously.
"Like hell it is. I'm reading a massive energy spike. Ship's starting to warm up, life-support is coming on, the whole works. Look at those bridge consoles all lighting up."
"Well ... isn't that what we wanted?"
"Ando, we didn't notice this thing till we were almost on top of it because it was cold and dark. As far as the sensors were concerned, it was just a metallic lump in space. Well, not any more."
"Oh, great. So any Cardie or Jemmie ship comes anywhere near here is going to pick it up?"
Nitram looked back at him as the bridge lights flickered on. "Yeah. But don't get panicky. It's not as if we're broadcasting a subspace beacon or anything. They still have to come pretty close to pick it up."
Ando checked his tricorder. "Well, at least it'll be comfortable. Air's warming up and cycling. I'd say we can take our helmets off in a few minutes."
"Good." Nitram grunted, hopping down into one of the bays. The screens were lit up and active now, with various indicators and lights and displays showing all manner of information. "What the hell kind of language is this?" he muttered, pulling out his universal translator.
"Got something?" Ando leaned over the edge of the bay and looked down.
Nitram struggled with the universal translator for a few moments before answering. "Nothing. The UT's useless, Ando. I've seen some weird shit in my time, but this language must be totally alien. I'm not even getting fragments."
"So now what?"
"Well, why don't we go exploring? I was kind of hoping that the UT would be able to help us once we got things powered up, but it doesn't look that way. Maybe we can find some other clues deeper inside the ship."
"OK, let's go."
The two men walked down the corridor toward the bowels of the ship. They passed numerous doors along the way, some of which opened and some of which did not. With the lights on, the ship did not look nearly as foreboding as it did before, the hallways and doors not quite so menacing. But the vast emptiness of the ship was still eerily foreboding. The tension slowly rose, until Ando became visibly uncomfortable.
"You all right?" Nitram inquired solicitously.
"Yeah, fine." Ando lied. "Helmet's getting uncomfortable, that's all." He undid the seals and pulled off his helmet, tentatively sniffing the ship's air.
Nitram looked at him, noted that he was not passing out or turning green, and then grinned broadly. "Thanks for testing the air" he said, pulling off his own helmet. They continued walking in silence, looking in room after room. Some contained supplies, some led to what appeared to be equipment areas, all were devoid of life, or even bodies.
"Real ghost ship, eh?" Nitram asked.
"No kidding." Ando replied. "Doesn't it creep you out a little?"
"Not really. I almost got killed about a half-dozen times in the Orion Syndicate. I think it's left me emotionally dead or something. The only thing that gets a rise out of me nowadays is holo-porn."
Ando laughed, the tension briefly broken. "Hey, why'd you join the Maquis anyway?"
"Kids. You can't run around smuggling shit for the Syndicate when you have a wife and kids. Too dangerous. Not a good lifestyle."
"Being a Maquis isn't much better." Ando observed.
"Yeah, well, it didn't seem that way when I joined up. Nowadays, with the Feds calling us terrorists and the Cardies getting more aggressive every day, it's starting to look like a dumb idea. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that."
"So why don't you leave?" Ando asked, still curious.
"Why don't you?" countered Nitram.
"Same problem, eh?"
"Yeah ... my older boy is very sensitive and introverted." Ando explained. "He's just starting to get comfortable with the other kids at school, learning how to open up and talk to people. I'm afraid that if we leave and uproot him, he'll go back into his shell."
"Ah." Nitram said knowingly.
"Besides," Ando continued. "The Feds think we're all terrorists anyway, so we'd probably end up in some kind of rehabilitation colony. They might even take him away from us, put him in some kind of government facility. Fuck him up for life."
"Yeah, our options are a little limited." Nitram commisserated. "How old is your boy?"
"Six. Turning seven in two weeks." Ando answered.
"My daughter is eight."
Ando nodded, and the two men walked on in silence. They both knew the next question, but neither wanted to ask it. Finally, Nitram couldn't take it any longer.
"So ... what if they get killed in a Cardie attack? Isn't that worse than a penal colony?"
"Yeah, but how likely is that? Who's gonna commit genocide over a few worthless planets in the demilitarized zone? Even the Cardies aren't that stupid. The Feds may have disowned us, but I'm sure they would step in if the Cardies started making noise about taking this to the next level."
"The Feds?" Nitram snorted derisively. "I trust them about as far as I can throw them. I wouldn't count on those bastards to cover your ass if I were you. That's why this ship is so important. I think it was fate that led us to her, you know."
"Fate?" It was Ando's turn to snort derisively. "Don't make me laugh. It was-" he stopped short as they walked past an open door which led into a cargo bay full of androids.
Nitram let out a long, slow whistle. "Would you look at that!"
Both men ran into the room, pulses quickening. "They look like they're all powered down." Ando called out from the far end of the room. "Hey, do you think this might have been a race of sentient robots? Maybe this is the crew, in suspended animation."
There were rows upon rows of identical droids: tall, hulking bipedal units with thickly armoured bodies. At the end of the room were a handful of smaller, silver-shelled, much more fragile units.
"Who knows?" Nitram mused, almost to himself. He used his hand phaser to cut open a control panel next to one of the droids' storage bays. "Maybe we can power one of 'em up, and we can communicate with it."
"Hey, be careful." Ando warned. "That thing looks mean." The gleaming droid stood easily head and shoulders above either of them. One of its arms ended in a pair of large cylindrical protrusions which looked suspiciously like weapons.
If Nitram heard the warning, he gave no sign of recognition. He was engrossed in his task now, and he discovered some wiring inside the panel which looked important. He crossed two of the wires, and there was a brilliant blue flash which temporarily clouded his vision.
"Hey, you did something!" Ando exclaimed. "Its eyes are lighting up!"
The Balmorran war droid, which had sat motionless for so long, abruptly stepped out of its storage alcove and stood to face the two men. While they chattered to each other in their incomprehensible language, it identified them as human, but without any recognizable rank insignia. It attempted to contact the ship's security network with an identification of the intruders, and waited patiently for instructions while one of the two humans moved closer, jabbering loudly and holding up what appeared to be a communicator.
"This ... is a universal translator" Nitram explained to the aloof android. "It can communicate using audio or visual impulses." He stepped back toward Ando, hoping for a response.
"Strong, silent type, eh?" Ando whispered.
"No shit." Nitram whispered back. The two men stared at the droid, and the droid stared back.
The android, meanwhile, timed out waiting for a response. The security stations appeared to be unmanned, so it went into standard intruder-defense mode. "UNIDENTIFIED INTRUDERS. SURRENDER AND LAY DOWN YOUR WEAPONS IMMEDIATELY." it barked in perfect Coruscant-accented Basic.
Instead of surrendering, the intruders seemed to become wildly excited at this warning, moving closer, chattering in their strange language, and holding up their odd communicator device. The droid moved to level 2. "YOU HAVE 15 SECONDS TO DROP YOUR WEAPONS." it intoned.
Still, they chattered to each other, holding up their communicator.
The droid raised its right arm and powered up its armblaster, pointing it directly at the two intruders. A targeting laser shone on the taller one's forehead. "YOU NOW HAVE 10 SECONDS." This time, the two intruders reacted in the expected manner, the looks on their faces changing instantly from excitement to naked fear.
"Uh, Nitram?" Ando said quietly, staring at the droid's raised arm with its stout barrel-like end.
The two men looked at each other.
"Run!" he hissed.
Nitram didn't move. He dropped his phaser rifle to the floor and stood frozen in place, seemingly hypnotized by the sight of the double-barreled gun pointing at him.
Ando looked to his right, and saw another door at the far end of the room. If I can just get into these rows of droids, I'll have some cover! he thought to himself. He knew Nitram couldn't move with that gun pointed at his head, so he made a split-second decision. He dove to his right, ducked into the next aisle, and sprinted for his life. The war droid immediately followed, roughly knocking Nitram to the ground with its dexterous arm and unleashing a hail of blaster bolts from other arm. Ando frantically wended his way through the rows of quiescent droids and ran for his life, using the droids as cover. The rapid-fire concussive chud-chud-chud sound of its bolts hitting the walls was deafening, with clouds of superheated metal exploding away from each hit.
He ran past a few aisles and then dove left into one of them, listening to the heavy clank-clank of the big droid's footsteps as it followed him. He ducked out past the end and ran down a few more rows until he reached the far end of the room. He stopped, turned to the right, and could see the open door.
I can make it! he thought. He started to run, but at the halfway point, a massive bipedal form lumbered into view at the end, blocking his path. It raised its arm, and Ando dove between two of the parked droids on the wall as the heavy blaster bolts blasted chunks out of the floor where he'd stood. He tried to go back the other way, but as soon as he stepped out from between the two droids, a hail of blaster bolts was unleashed in his direction, forcing him back.
Trapped! he thought to himself. The robot walked closer, its heavy feet clanking on the deck. Ando squeezed up against the wall between the two droids, frozen in terror. The clanking footsteps became louder, and had almost reached him. He closed his eyes and pressed against the wall, muscles straining as if he could push his way through it. He tensed, knowing the end was near.
"Hey, asshole!" a voice shouted out. It was Nitram, bloodied but alive, standing in the door and holding his phaser rifle. He pulled the trigger, and hit the droid square in the back of the head with a full-power shot. But the colour seemed to drain from his face when he saw that his shot left only a small scorch-mark on its armour. He backpedalled frantically away from the door, just barely avoiding the red-hued hail of return fire.
"Ando!" he screamed as he scrambled to his feet. "The other door at the far side of the room! Get outta there!" He poked his head into the doorway and took another shot at the advancing droid, but to no avail. Again, it left only a singe-mark, and again, the war droid was completely unfazed and answered his fire with a hail of blaster bolts.
I don't believe this! he thought to himself. He fumbled with the controls until the familiar phaser overload sound started, and then he threw his rifle into the doorway and ran, back toward the bridge and safety. Exploration of this ship no longer seemed like such a good idea.
He had gotten less than 30 metres away when the hulking droid stepped through the doorway. It ignored the curious noise emanating from the discarded weapon, stepping on it and raising its heavy blaster arm to take aim at the fleeing intruder. But before the first shot had left its barrel, the phaser rifle exploded beneath its foot.
The shock of the blast knocked Nitram off his feet, sending him sprawling to the deck. He twisted around to look behind him, and he could see smoke and flame shooting out the doorway.
Ando came stumbling out of the other exit and came over to help him. "Phaser ... overload?" he asked between breaths.
"Yeah." Nitram said with a hint of a smile. "I think I got him."
Ando pulled Nitram to his feet and was about to congratulate him, but his smile vanished when he saw a dark form moving through the smoke. His eyes widened in fear.
"Move!" he screamed, sprinting away. Nitram didn't need encouragement to follow.
The droid's left foot was heavily damaged, frayed wires and melted actuators turning it into a useless stump. It heavily favoured its undamaged leg, and limped forward clumsily toward the intruders. But its blaster arm was perfectly functional, and it raised that arm to fire.
The two men ducked around a corner and ran, blaster bolts exploding off the walls and showering them with debris.
"Haven't these people ever heard of a goddamned STUN SETTING?" Ando screamed. "Beam us out of here!"
"I already tried!" Nitram barked back, still running. He tapped his comm-badge again anyway, with no effect. "I don't think the signal's getting through! It's these walls! We've gotta get to the bridge!"
"With that thing chasing us?" Ando yelled back. They came to a four-way corridor intersection. "Which way?"
Nitram looked confused, but the sight of the limping war droid rounding the corner behind them forced his hand. "This way!" he shouted, throwing himself to the left. The storm of blaster bolts seemed to fill the air, and shrapnel exploded away from the walls once more. One burst was too close, and Nitram fell to the ground screaming. A glowing piece of shrapnel had passed through his leg just below the knee, tearing flesh and sinew. Flaps of crimson muscle tissue hung loosely from the wound, oozing blood.
Ando wordlessly ran back to help his friend, hoisting him to his feet over his cries of pain. "Come on!" he screamed, and tried to drag him along for the ride.
"Arrrrgghh ..." Niram gritted out between clenched teeth, his leg giving way beneath him.
The slide-clank, slide-clank limping footsteps of the war droid came closer and closer, and Nitram wordlessly removed his comm-badge, offering it up to Ando as the last gift of a dying man.
"Take it and get the fuck out of here." he gasped over his pain. "I'm done."
Ando ignored him and tried to pull him to his feet again, but Nitram would have none of it. He pushed Ando away and fell to the floor. He looked up at Ando's anguished face, and offered his comm-badge again. "Go on, dammit!"
Ando took the comm-badge, but couldn't bring himself to run. He looked frantically about for a weapon, an avenue of escape, anything to forestall the inevitable, and noticed thick, heavy metal plates protruding slightly from the walls just behind them. He looked up at the ceiling, and saw the track in which these plates were obviously designed to slide, and it immediately clicked into place. A blast door! he thought triumphantly, running toward a red wall plate and randomly punching buttons until the heavy plates began to slide shut.
Ando stared at the plates, as if he could force them to close more quickly through sheer force of will. The slide-clank, slide-clank footsteps of the war droid were very close now, and it came limping around the corner while the door was only half closed. It opened fire immediately, forcing Ando to take cover behind one of the moving plates. He took careful aim between the plates and fired a sharp-angle shot through the gap toward the wall-plate on the other side, hoping to keep the droid from re-opening the doors. The panel exploded in a shower of sparks, and the doors continued to close.
The droid continued to advance, but it was clear that it could not make up the ground quickly enough. It was less than five metres from the doors when they slid shut with a heavy thump. Ando allowed himself the luxury of a smile as the war droid fired its blaster uselessly at the blast door, producing only a muffled staccato thudding sound through the thick wall of metal.
"Thanks." Nitram said, still grimacing in pain.
"Hey, just remember," Ando grunted, tearing strips off his clothing to bind Nitram's leg, "this was all your idea!"
"Don't remind me." Nitram answered. He cried out in pain as Ando hoisted him to a standing position and began to half-drag, half-carry him toward the bridge.
It seemed an eternity. Ando's breath was ragged, and his mouth dry. Nitram was starting to see spots clouding his vision. But at the end of the long corridor was the bridge, and safety. They could see it now, tantalizingly close. Ando tapped Nitram's comm-badge, but there was still no effect.
"We're almost there, buddy. Just a bit more." he said, not sure whether he was trying to encourage Nitram or himself. The sound of his voice echoed off the reflective metal walls of the long corridor. With an extra surge of energy, they stumbled onto the bridge and collapsed. He tapped Nitram's comm-badge again, and ... nothing.
His heart began to beat faster, and he hit the comm-badge again. Again, nothing.
"That won't work, you know."
Ando froze at the sound of the smooth, calm voice coming from behind him. He began to raise his phaser rifle.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you." the voice continued. "Drop your weapon."
Ando's shoulders slumped in defeat. He dropped his weapon, and slowly turned around to see a tall Cardassian flanked by two men, all armed.
"I am Gul Lucet, and I'd like to thank you for the generous gift of this scientific discovery." he said with a smile. "Imagine our surprise when we tracked you here, and discovered this!" he said, spreading his arms to motion at the enormity of the ship.
Ando cast a glance outside the window, and saw a Cardassian attack ship holding station behind his own. Crew's about thirty men, he thought to himself. Looking around the bridge, he noticed at least 20 Cardassians, mostly working in the instrument pits. He cursed himself for not noticing them until now.
He turned back to Lucet and adopted a defiant posture. "This man needs medical attention." he said firmly, pointing at Nitram.
"All in good time, human. All in good time. First, there is the small matter of this ship, and how much you know about it."
"No." Ando said, his heart pounding. "I want a medic to work on him first."
Gul Lucet's expression was mild. "You are in no position to bargain, human. But very well. Medic!"
The Cardassian medic knelt at Nitram's side and inspected his leg. "What happened to him?"
"He had an accident." Ando replied evenly.
"Ah" the medic said, seemingly satisfied by that answer. He scanned the wound and continued speaking, as if to himself. "Accident of some kind, damage appears to have been caused by a physical object. No known weapons signatures." He began gingerly working on the flayed muscle tissue, slowly putting Nitram's leg back together.
"Now," Lucet said, "what do you know about this ship?"
"About as much as you know." Ando replied. "It's a derelict, been here for a long time. We managed to set off some kind of automated startup sequence, and that's why we have power."
"And the crew?"
"No sign of them" he lied.
"I see. Well, I'm sure-" they were both interrupted by a bright flash. To their mutual shock and horror, the Cardassian ship had just exploded. Outside the bridge windows, a coruscating green bolt seemed to come up from out of nowhere and strike the Maquis Raider, destroying it too. They stared at the glowing debris for a moment, but there was almost nothing left.
Lucet turned back to face Ando, his face mottled with rage. "What did you do?" he screamed.
"Nothing!" Ando protested in a panicked voice. "Do you think I would destroy my own ship?"
"Maybe." Lucet snarled. "Maybe you thought it would be better to trap us here than let us take this prize!"
"I didn't even know you were here!" Ando shot back.
Lucet started to speak, but stopped himself. "What's that noise?"
"What noise?" Ando asked. The Cardassian's ears were obviously better than his own, but he could soon hear a faint sound echoing down the long corridor. Drag-clank, drag-clank ...