To their credit the people on the Constrictor's bridge reacted calmly to this news, only a few quick intakes of breath demonstrating any signs of nervousness or surprise.
"What ship?" Kirrik demanded of the alien commander.
"Schriy raider," it replied, unhelpfully.
"That means nothing to us. Can you send details?"
"No. Detailed tactical information of enemy vessels is not in this ship's computer. Schriy ships use a variety of lasers, high explosive torpedoes, and guided missiles. Their shielding technologies are not understood. Out."
An uncertain silence enveloped the bridge. Some people opened their mouths to speak, only to stop before uttering a sound. Kirrik turned from person to person, watching their reactions.
"What's the matter with you all?" he eventually said, his voice no louder than normal but enough to make one or two people twitch.
Silsi was turned away from her station to face inwards, towards the rest of the bridge crew. Her eyes rapidly moved from side to side, seeing her crewmates make no answer.
"What is it?" she exclaimed. "We've been told nothing much at all. Even running up against a Thargoid ship I would at least know what to expect!"
"Death," muttered Marchero. Kirrik's mouth twitched at her, a clear "shup up" signal without audible words.
"Try asking them again," snapped the woman in the rear gunner's position, Sawaka. The rest of them started arguing once more, whilst Aeyris attempted to open a comms link.
Kirrik spoke out above the noise. "Lock the hyperdrive on anywhere convenient. If there's a fight we'll have a look at how those Vipers react, and we'll get out of here if there are any problems."
Aeyris nodded to his crew to carry out these orders. Silsi turned around again to settle back into her chair, hands tensed near the weapons controls. Marchero was slouching, apparently not paying much attention to her console, but she spoke suddenly.
"Something's just registered on long range navigational sensors."
"Confirm?" Kirrik asked.
"Negative on combat scanner," Silsi informed. Sawaka reported similarly.
"What can you tell, Marchero?"
She shrugged. "Nothing at this range. It's there, it's moving, and that's all."
The man on the engineering station glanced at his displays, but with a worried frown started to examine one system more closely.
"The shields report they're working, but the Zieman emitters are only drawing minimal power," he said in fright. "If we've got any shields, they're pretty negligable."
Marchero's face whitened, and Silsi's hands moved away from the controls to grasp themselves tightly.
"What's wrong with them?" Aeyris demanded.
The man waved his arms at the screens. "I don't know! One thing says they're working, other things indicate they aren't! The whole bloody system's crazy!"
"Well get out of here and go and have a look!" Aeyris shouted at him. As the man stumbled off the bridge he added, "And take someone else with you, idiot!"
"You used to cope better with stress," Kirrik noted.
"So did my crew. Will you take engineering?"
Kirrik gave a slight jiggle of the head that might have been a nod, and sat down in the empty chair.
"Let's see... Is this thing engine output?" he asked no-one, poking at a random switch.
"Stop messing about," Marchero said.
Kirrik looked over his shoulder to grin a sarcastic smile at her before going back to a more serious examination of the display.
"Well, I don't know what's the matter with it," he said after a while. "We'll just have to wait and hope. How long have we got?"
No-one answered, but they were all watching Marchero. "Don't ask me!" she exclaimed. "I told you just a minute ago that I couldn't tell yet."
After leaving the bridge Edwards stumped out into the mess room. There were three people sitting there, talking loudly and holding onto a variety of drinks containers that appeared to contain beer. He snatched one off Garath and took a swig.
"Oi! Give that back!"
The mug was returned to its owner with noticeable reluctance. "Where did you find that, Jim?" Edwards asked in disbelief.
Garath tapped the side of his nose.
"Oh, be like that then," Edwards replied. "I'd only end up throwing over that idiot's head. Put it down and give us a hand, though."
"The shields aren't working, and there's something heading this way," he announced.
"What?" Arrachachak asked from the corner he was reclining in.
"I don't know! Nobody seems to have a clue what's going on," he said in an exasperated voice.
"Great." Garath took a long drink, then stood up. "Lead on," he announced.
They left the same way Garath had entered. Back in the main corridor, Garath pulled back a panel next to a closed door and peered into the wall.
"What are you doing?" Edwards demanded.
"Just wondering if there's any air behind there," he replied, gesturing towards the door that now sealed the entrance off from the rest of the ship.
"Forget it," Edwards told him. "Come on."
Garath dropped the panel onto the floor as Edwards unbolted and swung open the door into the equipment level. A cramped corridor led down the side of the ship, at the end of which openings passed into the cargo bay and the drive sector. Next to this entrance was a small locker, from which Edwards took two pairs of ear defenders.
Access was gained by releasing several latches and ducking under a low lintel. With the ear defenders in place conversation was still possible due to strategically placed microphones picking up the engine noise and subtracting it from other sounds that were relayed to speakers in the defenders. Most ships used better insulated engines.
They carefully threaded their way between the engine's ancillary equipment until they reached the sealed off compartment containing the main drives and generators. Edwards peered at the maze of pipes and cables in the ceiling.
"Looks OK," he noted. "Pass us the toolkit."
"There was one around here somewhere when I was looking earlier."
Garath cast his gaze around until he found a box wedged between a bulkhead and the hyperdrive feeds. "This it?" he called back.
"Yeah, cheers." Edwards quickly extracted some sort of wrench from the kit and started tightening connectors. He put the wrench back, pressed a button on a wall-mounted intercom, and asked the bridge for a report.
"No change," Kirrik informed him.
Edwards passed the toolkit back to Garath and took a couple of steps back. Probing around the ceiling, he quickly found a catch, which when released caused a roof panel to swing open. He reached up and grabbed a handle, twisted it, then pulled down, at which point a ladder dropped down from the hole in the roof. At the top of the ladder he squirmed round to disappear into the narrow opening.
There was a bit of banging and a curse, then Edwards' head reappeared in the hole. "Chuck the tools up."
Garath took hold of the ladder in one hand and jumped onto the bottom rung so that Edwards could reach down and easily take the kit from him. Freed of the burden, he also climbed up into the ceiling.
The crawlway was tight but short, and opened into a low, wide space. Across it the area between floor and ceiling was taken up with an arrangement of plates contained within a clear box. Bunches of cables entered the box at numerous points; the two largest collections passed fore and aft into the rest of the ship.
Via one of the ever-present intercom points Edwards warned the bridge that he was about to shut down power to the shield distributor, then peered into box.
"Think I've got it," he grunted after some minutes.
"Oh?" Garath asked curiously.
"There's a charge plate going. Give us a hand with the cover."
With one of them working on each side they quickly undid the bolts holding the transparent cover in place and carefully levered it off. Edwards reached in to remove the defective plate.
There was a sudden flash and a bang. Garath instinctively jumped and cracked his head against something hard in the confined space. He lay there groggily for a while, unaware of the questioning voices on the intercom. When he finally managed to lift himself from the floor he saw Edwards sprawled back against the crawlway entrance.
There was no sign of life on the body. Garath hauled himself back over to the intercom.
"Edwards is dead. Residual charge in the plates, got him as he reached in."
"That shouldn't be possible with no power," Kirrik's voice informed.
"The power's off. Must be something to do with the fault." His voice sounded tired.
"Can you do anything?"
"Forget it. I'm out of here." He flicked the intercom off and headed back to the drive sector.
On the bridge Kirrik snarled at the now dead commlink and stood up.
"I'll go myself," he told Aeyris.
Kirrik met Garath as he was climbing down the ladder. He opened his mouth to shout at the man, but stopped himself when he saw blood dripping down from Garath's head.
"Get that looked at," he ordered him, then climbed up as Garath staggered out.
Kirrik ignored Edwards' body and moved straight to the defective device. Nearby lights claimed that there was no power to it, and any built up charge should have dissipated itself when the unfortunate Edwards came into contact with it, but Kirrik took something from the spilled toolbox and gently tossed it towards the plates.
The spanner hit them and dropped down onto the floor in a completely unspectacular manner. Somewhat satisfied that it was safe he quickly found the plate Edwards had been trying to remove, and pulled hard. Half of it came away in his hand, but the rest remained where it was, too closely surrounded by the others to be accessible. The break had been there before, causing an intermittent connection that stopped the continual smooth flow of power the Zieman emitters needed, but leaving half a plate in would disrupt the field to the point where it could cause the entire assembly to burn out.
The toolbox contained nothing that would be of any use, and there wasn't anything else lying around that could have assisted either. Kirrik jammed the broken half back into place as hard as he could, replaced the cover, and gingerly turned the power back on.
"If we're lucky there might be enough contact for the shields to work intermittently," he told the bridge. "Or they may burn out totally."