This is an excerpt from Relentless. It was originally written as a short story.
CW: death, funeral, violence, blood, gore
Funerary Fleet, Cannon system (Gliese 581 Lib), New Earth Alliance
The funerary fleet drifted in space like a flock of dead birds on a sluggish current, shepherded by a dozen autonomous tugs keeping them from colliding and spinning out of control.
Radiator panels hang ragged, pierced by debris and meteorites, coolant frozen now that the reactors were gone. The weapon systems had been stripped as well, leaving gaping holes in battered spaceframes, frayed power lines dangling like torn ligaments.
The ships were little more than wrecks coasting on a slowly decaying orbit, home only to the dead. They were monitored as a spaceborne hazard, but nobody logged the transports occasionally arriving, nor did anybody ask who was being buried there or why.
The small torchship inched her way toward one of the mausoleums, an old passenger liner, the logo and paint job faded beyond recognition. Her main drive wasn't running, only the maneuvering thrusters fired on and off to keep her on course, cold gas hissing from different directions like angry cats in a standoff.
There was no working berthing system on the mausoleum, not anymore. The transport would have to dock manually, with nobody on the other side to help her navigator. The hull around the mausoleum's docking port was dented and scratched where others had attempted the same maneuver before.
Juster waited in the airlock, mag boots planted firmly on the floor, keeping him in place in the absence of gravity. The blunderbuss and cargo net were slung over his left shoulder. He held his right hand close to his chest, easing the strain on the fresh scar tissue covering most of his arm and shoulder.
He had done this countless times before, exploring old wrecks, but only to salvage parts or retrieve contraband. Never to bury anybody, let alone the only family woth the name he had left.
He glanced back at the makeshift coffin stuck to the floor by a magnetic cargo frame. An old reefer pod dating back to some exploration mission centuries ago. It wasn't working anymore, but then it didn't have to. The body inside was sealed in a bag and still frozen solid from the weeks it had spent on the Bedovyj's wreck and in the tansport's cold storage.
The flash from the discharge rods and the brief flicker of the overhead lights drew his attention back to the mausoleum. The arc hadn't been nearly as bright as he'd expected from a long-dead derelict. Perhaps they kept the plasma contactors working, or the tugs soaked up some of the static electricity on their shepherding rounds.
"We're good to dock," Rocko's voice came over the radio.
Juster checked his gas mask and rebreather. He hadn't bothered with a bulky spacesuit, only his usual salvaging gear, work clothes and light body armor over a biosuit. Good enough in the confines of a wreck even if there was no breathable atmosphere.
"Ready when you are."
A light shudder ran through the transport as the thrusters fired again to adjust her position relative to the mausoleum. Both seemed to be standing still now, but Juster knew they were falling around the system's sun at roughly 17 kilometers per second and picking up speed as they got closer to the star.
The docking adapter extended with a series of metallic clangs, meeting its opposite fixed around the mausoleum's port, locking the two ships together and pulling the transport in. Once the seal was established and the systems connected, the docking display lit up.
Juster went through the few available sensor readouts. Radiation levels were elevated but nowhere near lethal. The temperature was a chilly but bearable 90 Kelvin. And there was air, a thin atmosphere with a little under ten percent oxygen and lethal levels of carbon oxides. He changed the settings on the rebreather accordingly. The mask would deal with the cold and the lethal gases.
While the airlock cycled, he released the clamps holding the reefer pod on its cargo frame. Cargo straps held the pod closed shut, its locking mechanism broken long ago. The sleeve that used to hold the passenger's ID now held a label with the body's name: Florin Burguet. His death date was five weeks ago.
Juster grabbed the upper strap with his left hand and slowly pulled the pod forward and up off the frame. It might be weightless, but its mass made it sluggish and its size unwieldy. By the time he had moved the coffin to the door, the pressure had equalized and the outer door indicator lit up green.
When the door opened, he was hit by a wave of freezing, foul air. He gagged and quickly switched to internal air supply. All ships stank, but this was a different kind of stench. It reeked of death, tasted of it, a mix of rotten meat, sewage and dust, drenched in moldy cold. And the smell stayed in his nose even after he had cut off the air intake.
"Oh, this is bad."
"It's a graveyard, boss."
He grimaced. "Yeah. You might wanna dump this air when I'm back."
"Aye. Good luck over there."
Juster found himself in a corridor much like the one that led to the transport's main airlock. The emergency lights were on, barely bright enough to see even for a Wastelander. He had an infrared torch with him, but he didn't bother with it yet, there wasn't much opportunity to get lost here.
He had to be in the attic, which put operations somewhere below and the former crew decks yet further down. The elevator shaft wasn't far ahead. Juster found the door open and leading into nothingness. There was a ladder at the far side, but it'd be a challenge getting all the way down to the crew decks with one hand and the coffin in tow. The attic would have to do.
He turned left and soon found an open door leading to one of the pressurized hulls. Judging by the distance, there had to be two, one on either side of the spine.
The attic had been gutted, interior walls torn out to make room for rows of heavy duty shelves built from salvaged structure. Coffins of all shapes and sized lined many of them already, held in place by nets or straps, a few taped or welded in place. Some were reefer pods, a few actual old-fashioned coffins, yet others ranging from battered metal crates to cardboard boxes.
Smaller shelves held an equally eclectic collection of urns, most duct taped to their compartments and others locked behind intricate metal grates. The air was filled with drifting bits of desiccated flowers, crumbling shreds of paper and other, less easily identifiable matter.
Juster slowed down to look for a good spot. Ladders ran up the wall beside the shelves for easier access. Tossing cargo around in zero-g was all fun and games until you realized inertia was still a thing.
He found what he was looking for at the far end of the deck, a few meters up and close to a sealed bulkhead. It would be a climb, but at least a mercifully short one.
He pulled the leash from his pocket, hooked one end into his harness and the other into one of the straps around the reefer pod. With his hand now free, he began to climb. The pod seemed to weigh a ton and the harness cut into his burnt shoulder, but it was worth the pain.
It took him nearly a minute to reach the shelf and a few more to maneuver the pod into the free space. The coffin in place, he pulled the net over it and hooked it into what looked like rivet holes on the side of the shelf. It wasn't secure as far as cargo went, but the mausoleum was coasting, so it would do.
One side done, Juster checked his rebreather. He had air for almost an hour if he didn't try anything overly exhausting. If things went according to plan, he'd be out in ten minutes.
He deactivated his mag boots and pulled himself along the shelf to the other side and hooked the other two corner of the net into the shelf.
"Well, that's done," he said and put his injured hand on the lid of the coffin. "Rest in peace, Florin."
He had no farewell he hadn't already said when his brother had left him behind in a lifeboat so he could start the Bedovyj's self-destruct. The last he remembered of him were his eyes, wide with fear and determination, his mask smeared with blood. Juster's blood.
Tears stung in his eyes. "I promised to protect you and I couldn't," he said. "They will pay for this."
He didn't have a plan where to go from here, not yet. That would have to wait until he got back to the transport.
He pushed himself off the shelf and dove to the floor, reactivating his mag boots on the way. When he landed, he saw movement from the corner of his eye.
He blinked and looked again. Something was skulking around in the half-dark near the bulkhead, a lean figure in salvage gear and gas mask like himself, hunched over as if trying to hide in plain sight. Faint light glinted off the long curved blade they were holding.
He knew immediately what it was: A ghoul, a cannibal roaming the graveyard looking for fresh bodies, recently dead — and for careless mourners who strayed too far into the dark corridors. He didn't worry about Florin, he was dead too long, his body too badly burnt. But Juster himself would be food for a week, more if that ghoul hunted alone.
There was no point in trying to flee, the ghoul knew the ship much better than he did. Juster was trapped with the shelf behind him and the bulkhead in front. But so was the ghoul, who seemed unaware of the threat their intended victim posed.
Realizing they had been spotted, they got up and slowly floated toward him. Juster grabbed the shelf as if to climb, and pounced on the ghoul with as much force as he could muster.
They might've been a Spacer, but they still miscalculated the kinetic energy created by 120 kilos of heavy-worlder in salvage gear. For a moment the ghoul hung in the air, flailing as they realized their mistake, then Juster's left shoulder slammed into their chest and they hit the bulkhead, bones snapping under his weight. His own impact was softened by the ghoul's body and his suit, but he knew instantly he'd gained a few bruises.
He bounced off the bulkhead, away from the writhing cannibal. They were alive, dazed and groping at their gas mask with one hand. When they pulled it off their face, globs of dark blood poured out, drifting away as they turned their attention to him once again.
Juster raised the blunderbuss and switched the safety off.
The ghoul's face was a snarling grimace smeared with blood, eyes sunken into dark sockets. They didn't seem to notice the merciless cold or the lethal air as they spun in mid-air to follow him.
He pushed the trigger.
The gun bucked like a startled horse, the recoil ramming the stock into his shoulder and sending him tumbling through the air and back against the shelf. By the time his boots made contact with the floor again, his right arm hung useless by his side, searing pain engulfing half his upper body.
Fighting for breath, he slung the blunderbuss over his good shoulder and looked back at what was left of the ghoul. Most of their upper body was gone, splattered across the bulkhead in a ragged circle surrounding the blackened crater where the shell had hit. Smoke and debris, both human and ship, formed a slowly expanding cloud around the site of the carnage.
Juster turned away. If there were other ghouls nearby, they would come running soon. They could feast on their fallen comrade for all he cared, but he wanted to be a safe distance away when they arrived. He deactivated his mag boots and pushed himself off the walkway. Even with only one working arm to maneuver, he'd be faster floating.
Juster reached the docking port without encountering anybody else. Once back on the transport, he punched the door button and stood at the center of the airlock as the door sealed shut behind him.
"Welcome back," Rocko said.
Juster spread his aching arms as well as he could, the blunderbuss dangling loosely from his left wrist. "Get us out of here."
"Already on it."
Thick mist flooded the chamber and Juster grimaced as the sharp stench of industrial disinfectant crept through the filters of his mask and the liquid soaked into the seams of his suit, biting into his skin.
Fifteen seconds later, the docking clamps released and the transport shuddered as the maneuvering thrusters pushed her away from the mausoleum ship. The haze of disinfectant turned into a roiling storm cloud that broke on the outer door, leaving uneven smears. Then the thirty seconds were up. Instead of the ventilation kicking in, the airlock cycled, dumping the contaminated air into space.
Juster closed his eyes before the warning sounded and he was bathed in ultraviolet light, drying the remaining disinfectant off his suit and killing what it had missed.
The airlock cycled again. He picked up the cargo frame and watched the pressure gauge rose until it hit 800 hectopascal and the inner door unlocked.
Juster stepped into the corridor. He pulled the mask off his face and took a deep breath. The transport stank as much as any other ship, but compared to the mausoleum, she smelled like the proverbial fresh breeze on an untouched garden world.