Fiction and Background By Tim Bancroft
This is the first episode of a serialised story recounting the discovery of the vast ship on which the VIRAI were found. We start a short while after Shaltok is promoted to commander after ‘claiming’ the deadly planet of Shamasai for the Ghar Empire.
A summary of the characters featured in The Taking of T.O.R. 563 can be found here.
‘This is my plan, Commander Shaltok, my troop ship and we will stick with it. You may tolerate some irregular behaviour amongst your troops but I will not have Ghar under my command behaving like humans.’ Though Dramak’s voice was higher pitched than normal – even for a Ghar – the last word came out with a squeaked vehemence that surprised even Shaltok.
‘I understand, Captain,’ replied Shaltok. ‘I am sure you have unsurpassed experience in dealing with such anomalies. I will follow your excellent and carefully constructed plan.’ Dramak scowled. Was my sarcasm too noticeable? thought Shaltok. I doubt, Dramak, that you have ever dealt with a situation such as this, at all. He hoped he had not inadvertently spoken his thoughts out loud.
Dramak continued as if he had heard nothing. ‘There are ancient, well-founded procedures to be followed and I will have my junior officers follow them. Do you understand, Commander Shaltok?’ Technically speaking, Shaltok was not his junior, merely being the commander of the troopship Bearer of Triumph Over Humanity IX whilst Shaltok was a Force Commander, with his own Command Crawler.
‘Of course, Ship Commander Dramak,’ said Shaltok. Let’s just remind you of where we really stand. He looked at Dramak’s posturing in disbelief. Is this how the rest of the universe sees us, I wonder? He composed his expression into one of innocence.
Dramak glared at Shaltok. When the innocent expression did not change his scowl deepened. ‘Captain, will do, Force Commander.’ He walked around the desk and gestured at the screen before them. It displayed a huge starship, over 1000 yan in diameter and five times that long, a shadow against the bright light of Antares. ‘To summarise: the anomalous structure has taken damage, but is intact. It resists the gravity of Antares and has active heat and pressure shields. However, it seems unpowered and is drifting on the plasma eddies.’
Dramak clasped his hands behind his back and paced back and forwards in front of the screen. Shaltok stared at him in disbelief. A strutting marionette? He almost missed Dramak’s lecture. ‘Despite my recommendation to High Commander Karg that the human hulk be ignored, he demanded we investigate so I have formulated a plan for you. These ostentatious living domes topsides’—he tapped the numerous domes, all shattered and cracked like upturned eggs—‘took severe damage and are open to space.’ He manipulated the display. ‘However, I believe that, internally, access from them might be sealed and littered with debris. Luckily, there are numerous sealed hatches around the ship’s surface that might lead to hangar bays. We will cut open one of these, connect our ship-to-ship conduit and you will transfer your force into the ship. From there you will ascertain whether or not the wreck is viable, salvageable or a threat to the Ghar Empire. If possible, you are to destroy or capture it.’
Shaltok waited a few seconds before answering. ‘I have the critical paths loaded into my combat array and crawler already, Commander. All my junior officers and squad leaders have the plan memorised.’ Not that it will work if we actually contact any humans on board: they don’t read our plans. Shaltok tried to hide the contempt he felt for the old Ghar’s hidebound approach. Were we always like this?
‘Very well. So no improvising, then. You are dismissed, Shaltok.’
Shaltok ignored the insult and saluted. ‘To success.’
‘Yes, very well. To success.’ Shaltok waited until Dramak gave him a formal salute, then marched out the door, shaking his head. He has no idea.
Ghar technicians swarmed over the crawler, snapped the neural connectors into Shaltok’s spinal links. He strapped himself into the command chair, put on his helmet and the combat array flickered, then burst into life. His driver and gunner-tech were already seated and connected. On Shaltok’s combat array, status reports from the squads around him flicked to ready. He checked the sensor feeds, comm. channels.
‘All squads, report. Verbal.’
Reports came back by the numbers: battle squads first, then bomber squads, assault squads, slave drivers, disruptor cannon and, finally, the Outcasts themselves. Flitters were fully functional and the inquisitive, ground-based skitters secretly developed by his Outcast technicians were making a nuisance of themselves by running around between the legs of the battle suits.
‘Technician, where are the Tectorists?’
‘Channel problems, sir.’ His gunner-tech sounded nervous. ‘Sorting it out now, sir. Sorry.’
‘Relax, gunney. The tectorists have probably decided on their own channel without telling us.’ Oh, for disciplined scouts, though Shaltok. But if they were that disciplined then they probably wouldn’t survive as tectorists.
‘Thank you, sir. Got them. Tectorist units Wolf and Gambit reporting in on channel WO-4 and GM-8.’
Shaltok growled to himself and opened the connections. ‘Thank you for saying hello, tectorists. Please remain on those channels.’ Why Wolf and Gambit? He switched the crawler’s internal comms. ‘Tech, log and reserve those channels for WO-4 Wolf and GM-8 Gambit.’
‘We’ll notify you of any changes. Wolf-1 out.’ The tectorist sergeant clicked off and the squads’ status lights flickered to green.
Shaltok switched to his camera feed. There were still Outcasts surviving from the foray on Shamasai, each readily identifiable by the hoods, hides and pelts they still wore. ‘Shaltok’s Sheep’ they called themselves now, and stood apart from the other huddles of Outcasts. They carried themselves with a pride not normally seen amongst the otherwise disgraced. Mentally, Shaltok shrugged. They act as if they are no longer disgraced. But they cooperative and fight willingly. And well. Should we really create so many Outcasts. He remembered his own problems on Shamasai. It could be me, there.
The comms bleeped: an incoming transmission. ‘Bridge, here. We’ve finished cutting an entrance into the landing bay. Extending docking conduit, now.’ Clanks and grinding machinery accompanied the statement as the flexible docking tube extended over to the massive ship to which they were anchored. What is it the humans call it? Ah, a transit observation report? That did not sound right. A transient? TOR, anyway, number 563. Unlike other anomalies floating in the Antarean photosphere, it was one that periodically reappeared and disappeared. We were lucky to capture the scout ship that found it.
Another beep. ‘Pressurised. Stand by.’
‘To success.’ Shaltok opened channels to his scouts. ‘Tectorist squads 9-13 and -27, you are clear to investigate.’ He released the remotes and skitters rattled across the deck towards the bay doors, flitters buzzed into the air, spinning around when a movement amongst the waiting Ghar attracted their attention. He focussed the remotes onto the bay door which was already grinding open. Air puffed into the connecting umbilical. Poor pressurisation. Dramak should deal with that.
The remotes slipped through the widening gap. Shaltok waited, but the tectorists did not move. He grimaced to himself. My fault in giving them so much freedom. ‘Wolf and Gambit squads, you are free to investigate.’ The tectorists cheered and ran forward into the connecting tunnel, zero-g lines and breathing apparatus over their shoulders.
The rest of Shaltok’s force stood at ease, waiting for reports.
‘Wolf team reporting, Commander. The connecting seal is intact. We’re in a huge landing bay. Empty. And there’s artificial gravity.’ Images flashed up on his array showing the vast expanse of the landing bay, ancient, decaying wrecks and hulks of spacecraft parked on its surface. None of the craft looked space worthy and many looked as if they were in-system shuttles or ferries, incapable of withstanding the heat of a passage through an Antarean wormhole.
‘Gambit team investigating vehicles. All clear. Lichen, mould, dust – no humans. No other life at all.’
‘Shamasai Dust?’ For a moment Shaltok had a flashback to the corrosive dust of less than a year before.
‘Err, no, sir. Just everyday dust, grime and spilt chemicals. Nothing you wouldn’t find in a warren back on Gharon.’
Normal dust was a relief; the lack of humans disappointing. Shaltok examined the grainy images from the aerial and deck-bound probes. The only light source was the infra-red from the tectorists and the connecting tunnel, and even the low-light and IR lenses were at the limit of their capabilities. None of the near-mindless probes had been attracted to any movement other than the tectorist scouts, though a few had found exits from the massive landing bay and were now bumping gently at the closed irises.
‘Force 9-5, move out in formation.’ Battle squads moved first down the wide umbilical tube, closely followed by an assault squad. Shaltok ordered his new command crawler to follow, the rest of the force trailing behind him.
His crawler clattered onto the metal hangar deck, its motion akin to a boat on a choppy sea. The hangar bay was lit only by floodlights from the suits and his own crawler. He opened a channel to his own ship’s bridge. ‘Force Commander Shaltok, in command of salvaged vessel.’ My first command as full Force Commander. Shaltok wondered about the sense of satisfaction he felt. Is such satisfaction because I am a Ghar, programmed to feel this way when I reach my rank?
He quickly suppressed such treacherous, questioning thoughts. I am a Ghar Force Commander, Shaltok 12-41-9. This is what I am meant to be; this is what I am designed to do. The thought gave a sense of purpose.
A tectorist scuttled up beside the crawler. ‘Wolf-1, sir. Nothing here. The smaller wrecks are abandoned, useless even for scavenging.’
Wolf-1? What am I encouraging? ‘The metal might come in use – the nacelles, for example.’
‘Do not take my leniency for weakness!’ roared Shaltok through the crawler’s voice amplifiers. ‘Impertinence will not be tolerated.’
The tectorist scuttled back, bowed. ‘Sorry, sir. I became too wrapped up in the survey.’
‘Any signs of power beyond the ship’s heat shields?’
‘We believe so, sir. Apart from power feeds to the surface of the hull, we detect faint power sources elsewhere. The hulk may not be as much of a wreck as we thought, sir.’
Shaltok gestured to the iris doors. ‘Can they be opened?’
‘Don’t know, sir. They’re locked, the controls burnt.’
‘Very well. Take the Slavemaster and his escorts. See what they can do.’ Shaltok’s Slavemaster and his immediate bodyguard had once been technicians for the infamous Fartok, the rebel leader and their technical insights and imagination had been useful in the past. Though not themselves Rebels, the techs had been inspired and guided by the – now Outcast – Hatchery 12 High Commander. What is wrong with my Hatchery? Why does it keep producing such very different Ghar? He made a note to encourage an inspection of its nutrient fluids and gene-stock, then put the matter aside.
There was abrupt movement to one side: his Outcast techs had already rewired the door controls and were opening the iris. Flitters dashed through the open doorway, skitters clambered up over the hatchway combing and tectorists ran forward to investigate. He snapped at the amplifier. ‘Hold!’ The sound boomed out in the hangar, echoing from the far walls. The tectorists jumped, Outcasts flinched and his driver held his head in pain. Shaltok dialled down the volume. ‘Wait for images from probes, then tectorists move out in pairs, cautiously.’ A tectorist lifted a foot. ‘On my command.’ The foot was replaced. ‘Defensive perimeter.’
Suits shuffled forward, Outcasts shifted backwards, disruptor cannon moved to the flanks. Whilst the corridor beyond the iris was not small, at only a yan square there was still no point using the bombers. He pulled them back, not expecting to need them at all on this mission.
‘Wreck Commander to Bridge.’
Dramak replied. ‘Bridge here.’ His squeaky voice sounded even more high-pitched than normal, the frequencies altered by transmitting through two hulls; Shaltok had to suppress a smirk.
‘Established bridgehead. Further exploration possible. The wreck appears salvageable and has signs of power. There may be hostiles; exploration vital. Critical path A-2 underway.’
‘Very good, Commander. We’ll send across supplies as per the A-4 extended stay situation. Construction strand A-3 is almost complete. To success.’
A-3? thought Shaltok. He pulled up a schematic. Ah, construction of the airlock across the hole blasted into the hangar bay doors. At least we won’t be blown out and burnt to a cinder. ‘To success. Shaltok out.’ He turned off the comms before there could be any answer.
 1 yan = approximately 5 metres. The wreck is therefore approximately 5km in diameter and 25km long. 20 yan would be 100m, 40yan 200m, half a kilometre would be a 100 yan and a kilometre 200 yan. The terms ‘kyn’ are sometimes used for kilo-yan (5km).