Modifying the probe was one challenge, and docking it with the tumbling vessel was another. But, to Joye's disappointment, Molly did it. We struggled to comprehend our next discovery. That ship was completely dead. There was nothing to talk to through the data ports our little probe tried to use. My gut reacted none too well. Could this happen to us? Are we vulnerable to whatever struck that ship? My lizard brain started treading nonsense and despair as fast as it could, but we had nowhere to run. I took a deep breath, then another until the cramps in my belleh went away.
While Molly still tried to connect to the ship through the freshly mated probe, Pancake launched another cutting probe and used it as a reconnaissance vehicle to fly around the tumbler. We wanted to see if there was any sign of external damage. We saw minor scrapes on the hull, most likely from micrometeorites. There was a large clump of ice stuck to one side of the craft, perhaps a leftover from an impact with an iceball. That could explain the slow tumble of the ship, but besides that, the outside looked healthy. We saw no signs of cracks or other symptoms of a catastrophic event.
Since Freddie was in general more familiar with the propulsion and control systems of vessels of this class, he talked us through the emergency power-up of the control system. We had to load the control software from our own backup-and-restore system, and then, we had to modify it to work with the tumbling craft.
In the end, the scheme worked. We stabilized the craft, and we docked with it. We had to; our improvised probe was too underpowered for a large-scale troubleshooting. We lied to the Center and didn't tell them about the real progress we had made. As far as they knew, we were still trying to figure out how to approach the drifter.
Trying to figure out why that ship didn't respond to any commands, diagnostic or otherwise, had us contriving all sorts of exotic explanations. Was there an outbreak of some extraterrestrial disease? Did they fly through some catastrophic gravitomagnetic anomaly? The first possibility became the most popular because of its romantic, old-timey, dramatic potential. The entire crew contracts some unknown but deadly infection, and the only way to save the rest of the population from certain extinction is to send them all back to the mother star and incinerate the sorry souls in the solar inferno.
The actual reason the ship did not respond turned out be much more prosaic yet still baffling. The control and guidance system was wiped clean. So was the life support system and everything else. Its operating system couldn't be interrogated because it didn't exist. It was gone. What was once almost a living, albeit artificial, organism that a ship like that resembled became a giant paperweight. Ava and Penny kept stalling the Center by weaving stories of technical difficulties our ship, the Buzzard, was experiencing. One minute, we had trouble with our docking computer; the next, one of the thrusters went offline because of a stuck valve on a fuel line. From time to time, I would forget that they were putting on a show, and my ears would twitch nervously. To make their stories more believable and serious, they managed to scramble the Buzzard's telemetry that no amount of switching SCE to AUX would fix.
Meanwhile, Pancake, Molly, and Abby carried on with the forensic inquiry into the dead ship's systems. Freddie stayed with them on the line, at times offering no more than moral support, until they located the ship's data recording system. Since it was physically isolated from the rest of the craft's operating system and instrumentation, it had a better chance of surviving whatever calamity struck the ship. Eventually, Freddie was able to correlate the structure and design of this tumbling derelict to a craft he knew. The freighter was an old model, no longer in production, and most of them were scrapped a long time ago. It was too heavy and required a large crew. Freddie couldn't trace the owners of the one or two that didn't go to the heap. What made those ships special, though, was how reliable and safe they were. Their radiation shielding made them particularly well-suited for journeys through the most unhealthy regions of space. Once we were able to define what craft we were dealing with, we could move faster with the troubleshooting. Because of all that, and the lack of signs of external damage, we had concluded that the ship didn't fall prey to an external event.
The next thing we learned was that there were no souls on board. That should have come as a relief, but it didn't. There should have been four, up to sixteen crew members bunning a freighter like that. The logs and biotelemetry indicated sixteen crew members should have been present during the voyage. The trouble was, the cabins were empty, and if there were bodies in that ship, we couldn't find them. None of the names of the crew rung a bell with Freddie or us. Who were they?
We powered up a couple of emergency generators on the drifter, and that helped us some more. We had tried to turn on some lights in the sections of the ship where the crew might have been, but there were no lights to be turned on. At that moment, we knew we would never attempt to enter this craft. I don't know why, but the thought of making any physical contact with this drifting, black pit became blood-curdling. I think we would much rather see this thing torn up or mangled than filled with the same impenetrable darkness that filled the universe from the beginning of time. Maybe we are brave only as long as we can bring some light with us wherever we go. Without it, we cease to exist even if we can still breathe.
Pancake almost lost it at that moment and contacted a few of the news buns we befriended on a different occasion. Joey tried to thump and strained his left leg. You can't thump when you're suspended in zero G. Ava started to clean her mouf nervously, and Abby went looking for snacks. I craved a carrotini. Only Freddie kept a cool head, even then, when we were on the verge of running away.