2947-04-09 - Tales from the Inbox: KR-451

While there have been a few more notable reports of Sagittarian aggression across the Gap, there’s no major news on that front that hasn’t been covered sufficiently by our vidcast programs in the past few days. Instead, I want to bring to you another story of a KR-X ship – I’ve heard several people tell me about ghost ships seen on the Frontier, but since sightings of this particular class of ghost ship were among the earliest Tales from the Inbox episodes and I regularly field requests to publish more accounts of such encounters, I would be remiss to keep this particular tale from this audience.

As with many recent episodes, this story was created from notes taken during an in-person interview which took place recently here at Håkøya. Interacting with interstellar professionals with stories to tell personally does cut down on my free time considerably, but I think it results in better content.

On most runs between Maribel and remote Deana’s Rock, Henricus never even picked up another star-ship on any of his sensors. Two weeks out and two weeks back without being hailed by passers-by or boarded for random customs inspections suited him fine, compared to the relative bustle of Core Worlds space. When he wasn’t fixing his old Bois Bennette, a ship which whose main disadvantage was that it was designed to be crewed by at least six spacers, he had plenty of time to himself.

As usual, at the end of the final jump, Henricus steered away from the ruddy light of Damnation’s Candle, heading for its distant binary partner, the yellow-white pinprick of Deana. Only when the computer had plotted a course through the chaotic debris rings around the pair of stars did he notice gravitic echo on the plot. There were other ships in the system – three of them, to be precise, all of them quite small and appearing to fly in convoy.

Deana’s Rock being one of the most distant official Confederated colonies, Henricus was at first apprehensive of this presence. Dedicated brigand operations on the Coreward frontier were quite rare, but the hard-luck denizens of unregistered colonies did occasionally resort to space-lanes piracy to survive. Three vessels arriving at such a remote world at the same time as his own regularly scheduled supply run seemed a recipe for trouble.

Three shifts later, this suspicion was reinforced when the ships still hadn’t responded to transponder queries sent in their direction. Henricus sent a query to the diminutive Deana’s Rock orbital station, and received an equally uninformative reply – though the station control center had been in audio-transmission contact with the three small ships, they remained as puzzled as he. The crews of the three claimed to be lost and wanted to dock for full navigation system overhauls, but the always-frosty Deana’s Rock natives had refused until the “lost” ships provided proper IFF transponder signals. These demands had been ignored, and the three ships continued to plod inward, making inefficient maneuvers and generally behaving as if they indeed were operating with bad navcomputers.

Henricus didn’t believe the ships’ excuses for a second, of course. His cargo was only a load of parts and food for the colonists, but a bulk hauler like Bois Bennette was a prize even empty. He continued inward, watching the ships for any sign of aggressive maneuvers; though big, his ship was quick enough in an emergency to outrun most pirates who took it to be as sluggish as its configuration suggested.

After five shifts of awkward silene, Henricus tried to raise the lead stranger on an unencrypted audio channel. “Unidentified vessel, your transponder is off. Advise you re-enable it.”

Several minutes later, he got a reply. “Hauler Bois Bennette, it should be on? We are sorry. Experiencing equipment trouble.” The voice was that of a young woman who couldn’t have been older than twenty T-years, and transmission lag being what it was, he estimated the ship had sat on his message for nearly a minute before sending its response. Most likely, the commander had coached one of his subordinates into sending the reply, perhaps to sell the idea that the vessels were crewed by incompetents.

Henricus, of course, wasn’t buying it. “You know damn well it’s off. Turn it on, or your engine profile goes into the known pirate database when I get back to Maribel.” He was trying to coax the ships – pirates, he had decided – into dropping their cover early, when Bennette’s surprisingly high acceleration would still protect him.

After a delay, again longer than strictly necessary, the young woman’s voice replied again. “This is KR-451, on route from Alipran to Nova Corsica with KR-407 and KR-383 on private business. I can provide any transponder information over audio link if the equipment is still not operating.”

“Alipran?” Henricus knew the place; it was one of the other outermost settlements, but it was one he knew to avoid. Alipran was an unregistered settlement, neither definitely illegal under Confederated law nor sanctioned by its government. As with most like it, the planet was no place to make honest deliveries. It was also halfway across the Frontier, and the listed destination, Nova Corsica, was in the other direction. “Like hell any of that is true. You’re in violation of at least three counts of the Law of the Spacelanes, KR-451. Station control would be in their rights to open fire as soon as you get into range.”

The delay this time was much longer, perhaps long enough for KR-451 to perform some scans of the station and determine what Henricus knew – its secondhand defense network was in no shape to be fighting off three small, agile ships. “I hope that doesn’t happen. Many systems on manual control… They need to let us dock.”

Henricus snorted at the brazen declaration, then recorded a final reply. “They don’t need to do anything, kid. This joyride is over.”

Before he could hit send, however, he looked up at the plot once more, and saw that the three ships had all vanished without a trace. Being close enough to detect them on radar as well as tracing their engines’ gravitic echo, he ran an active scan, but that came up empty – the ships had simply vanished.

“Station control, did you see what happened to those three ships?”

The station replied as quickly as signal delay could allow. “Negative, Bennette. They just up and disappeared. We’re scanning for debris clouds, but nothing yet.”

Henricus shook his head and stared at the plot some more. He’d heard of ghost ships, just like any other spacer, but he had a hunch KR-451 and its compatriots were still out there, somewhere, and he didn’t like it.