It’s time for another exciting episode of The Operative! Just in time for Hallowe’en, we present a tale of mystery from the deepest reaches of the Unknown. Read on… if you dare.
Deep Space, Lesser Ephebian Cloud, 0200 Ship Time
I was on my way back to Founder’s Landing after a very profitable courier job on Charmed World. I’d moved some papers from here to there for some strange aliens, and I was looking forward to some alone time. There’s nothing more lonely than a nebula.
I was passing through the center of the Lesser Ephebian Cloud in my converted runabout, dozing in the captain’s chair, when a preset alarm woke me. We had dropped out of warp for a routine nav check when the ship’s computer picked up a very faint distress call. Naturally, we changed course to go check it out.
I say “we”, but that’s only a habit. My runabout carries a crew of one in comfort. I converted it years ago from an old fuel carrier; the oversized fuel tank just took up space, as far as I was concerned, and so did the IFF transmitter. It’s not that it’s a stealth ship per se, merely one small enough to go about unnoticed, particularly by planetary customs officials.
The distress call was an old style automatic beacon set on repeat. There was no information, not even a ship’s name; it was a simple S.O.S. and nothing more. Considering the vast number of fatal accidents that can befall a warp ship in a nebula, I didn’t expect to find much — a disaster buoy next to a metallic smear on a rogue asteroid, maybe. Not wanting to duplicate the incident in the murky nebula, I came in slow — and suddenly, there she was: a Lady Royale class ship, complete with sparkly running lights.
In this age of perpetual interstellar war, these old luxury passenger liners are pretty much forgotten; gambling on cruise ships went out with shag bulkheads and disco jazz. I’d heard about a few being salvaged by the Colonials, but then, they’ll stick engines on a freight container and call it a starship. Back in the old days when there were still space pirates around, some of them refitted these as command vessels or left them around as glittery bait for one of their ship traps.
Bearing this last in mind, I was extra careful, using passive scans only. Pirate cloaks are primitive, and in a nebula the perturbations in the dust clouds will give them away to a careful observer. I took my time and checked everything, and only when absolutely certain it was safe did I coast in for a closer look.
I went around her twice looking for damage, but there was nothing visible. The hull looked pristine; apparently, the auto-repair systems were still functioning, because, aside from the antique styling of her lines, she looked fresh out of the yards. Sensors still told me nothing, and there was nothing for it to employ what my old instructor termed the Mark I eyeball, so I lined up with the passenger airlock at the bows.
And then I saw it — the name.
This wasn’t just any Lady Royale class ship. It was the legendary Lady Royale herself!
I’d heard the legends; we all had. Commissioned by a reclusive billionaire centuries ago, fully automated luxury from bow to stern, a cruise experience like no other — and she vanished on her maiden voyage, never to be seen again. For years they launched expeditions in search of her; the precious woods and iridium inlays alone would have been worth an emperor’s ransom, while the collected wealth of the passengers might buy a planet entire.
Books had been written about her; decades of research had been invested in the quest to no avail. For over a thousand years, dreamers and treasure hunters from across known space had devoted their lives to finding her.
And here she was: All mine.
I sat back to savor the sensation for a moment, but then my paranoia went into overdrive. If this was really the original Lady Royale, how did she get way out here, in an interstellar backwater far past the middle of nowhere? Why was she in such apparently perfect condition, yet had deployed a rescue beacon? And then the big question — what was more likely: that this actually was the real thing, or some sort of trap?
That last thought is why, rather than parking at the airlock, I set my ship on recall mode and spacewalked to the hatch. Better safe than sorry, I thought as it eased away under maneuvering jets. The com on my wrist would call it back at need.
The interior was like nothing I’ve ever seen in space. Subdued lighting, thick pile carpets, rich wood paneling beneath… was that real marble? — this was more like a land-bound palace than any ship I’d ever heard of. Telltales went green; I deactivated my force suit and inhaled. Smelled just like a new car in here. Huh.
The entry corridor opened onto a grand concourse, and I leaned against the rail, looking out over a broad sweep of utterly tasteless wealth and conspicuous consumption. There were honest-to-God fountains down there, water sprays glistening under artificial light. Open fires (in space!) sat in braziers on huge buffet tables groaning under the weight of the displayed food, their light sparkling on ice sculptures. Precious metals were everywhere in evidence, from the flatware to the inlay on the thousands of service droids that circulated among the patrons, who were laughing, eating, gambling, and dancing across the whole of the vast room beneath huge domed windows open to the stars above. It was breathtaking.
The people well-repaid a closer look. There were over a hundred, resplendent in archaic fashions. The gentlemen were richly dressed in the colored fabrics of a bygone age, with lace cuffs, ruffled shirts, and embroidered vests; the ladies were gowned and bejeweled in every color of the rainbow. A few couples sat alone in discreet alcoves, but most were gathered in clusters of about a dozen, leaving large areas of the floor untenanted. So much for my dreams of salvage rights. Still, there was something peculiar about all this.
One of the servitors had come up behind me; I only noticed when it issued a discreet electronic cough.
“Does sir have a reservation?” it asked in accented Galactic.
“Doesn’t much look like I’d need one, Charlie,” I replied. It’s best to establish dominance early on, so I flashed my old militia badge (expired, but fine to bluff with) and continued, “Inspection. Customs and safety. Identify this ship, port of origin, her mission, and her purpose in Imperial space.”
“Passenger liner Lady Royale out of Bes Pargrinic, on a passenger cruise.” That checked with what I could remember; Bes Pargrinic had been a trade hub not far from Old Earth. The droid went on. “Our purpose is recreation, sir. And I think you’ll find we’re not quite within Imperial space.”
Damn. Of course he — it — was right. Still, admitting defeat never won a skirmish. “Best check your charts, then, and I’ll do the same — after the inspection,” I replied crisply. “Either way, you’re definitely in our customs zone, and that means you’re getting inspected if we have to blow you out of space to do it. Take me to your duty officer.”
The machine looked at me, and I could swear something altered slightly in its stance.
“I regret to report that our last human officer passed away some time ago, sir,” it said. “The ship’s computer is now in nominal command.”
“You have the permits for fully automated running?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Well, then, let me see them. On the bridge, I presume?”
The service droid buzzed and clicked at me for a little while, then changed stance again. I could swear it was becoming… no, acting more subservient, the more authority I showed. “Captain’s lounge. This way, sir.”
It led me aft, down a long ramp to the floor of the huge compartment and into another much like it just behind. This one was primarily devoted to gaming, with huge banks of slot machines and card and tile tables. I could hear the siren of a big slots winner somewhere across the floor, but there was nobody at any of the nearby machines.
My escort must have sensed my interest. “Would sir care for some complimentary chips, to try out some of the games?”
I checked the packet it had handed me — colored chips, each marked in various denominations in Galactic credits. Fifty thousand or so; hardly chump change, but insignificant if it were trying to bribe a customs official. I grunted and pocketed them, and we moved on. In the distance I saw a small knot of gamblers, and I angled off in that direction. Somehow, I must have gotten turned around, however, because when I got close there was nobody there. I walked up a nearby ramp and looked around until I saw another group, made a careful note of nearby landmarks… and again, when I got there, the gaming machines were devoid of customers.
Frustrated, I turned to my ever-present escort. “Where are the people I just saw? They were right here a minute ago!”
The droid buzzed and whirred for a moment, then replied. “There are no other patrons in this compartment, sir.”
“What, they left? But I can still hear—“
It clicked. The sounds were artificial. And that meant… “Hey, Robot: Are there holograph projectors simulating patrons?”
It made sense. Nobody wanted to be the only gambler in a casino; the crowds are part of the fun. Winning loses a lot of its savor if there’s nobody to witness it. But why use the tech to fool me? I wasn’t a customer.
Hm. Actually, come to that, maybe the ship’s systems weren’t sophisticated enough to distinguish. This was a prototype, after all. That would also explain why I was being led aft through the casino maze rather than directly up to the command level; every casino makes its patrons walk past banks of slot machines to get to shows, restaurants, or hotel rooms.
I had a further thought. “How many real customers are there? How many living people are on board this ship?”
“Just yourself, sir.”
The complete absence of passengers was not entirely surprising, since the Royale had last been known to have made port over a thousand years ago. Time dilation and cryogenics had been widely discussed theories, but… well, apparently not. Hrm. Maybe salvage was possible after all.
I began a barrage of questions:
“How many escape pods does this ship have?”
“How many have ever been launched?”
“How many passengers have disembarked in any manner?”
“What is the capacity of the ship’s morgue?”
Six corpses in stasis tubes.
“How many corpses are in the morgue at present?”
“So where are all the passengers? What happened to them?”
No answer. The droid just clicked and buzzed at me. I couldn’t tell if it was refusing to answer, or if it really didn’t know… but if my suspicion was correct, I was never going to be able to claim the ship as salvage. I’d be lucky to escape with my life.
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