Then, all communication with WSDP-17 abruptly halted. At first it was believed the plasma storm in that sector was interfering with communications, but when the plasma storm cleared no further transmissions from WSDP-17 came. A team was sent from Cavalry Command to investigate.
All that team found were ten injury-less bodies, some mildly puzzling entries in the station commander's log (although nothing serious), and a perfectly functioning, well-stocked, apparently abandoned station. Three thousand colonists, space-faring merchants and military personnel had simply vanished in the relative time-frame of a week and a half.
Cavalry Comand and the New Frontier federative governments sent further teams to salvage WSDP-17. Only five of those nine teams returned. Of the teams that returned, each team commander strongly recommended that all attempts to salvage, or otherwise investigate, WSDP-17 be abandoned.
So WSDP-17 was left to drift in the void. As the years passed, space travelers found excuses to make course corrections that would bypass the sector of space WSDP-17 was in, even if it meant delaying their arrival at their destinations. Those who did pass through it claimed to have received faint strange transmissions from the station. With the out-break of second conflict with the Outriders it was nigh completely forgotten.
Eight months after that war was over Cavalry Command received a distress signal from WSDP-17.
"So why are they sending us?" Colt complained, legs slung over the end of the couch in Ramrod's lounge, "some idiots got some engine trouble on their ship, closest place dock was this spooky old station, now they need a good repair crew or rescue ship, not us!" he glared at his commander, " 'Sides Robin and I had plans for this weekend," he muttered sulkily.
"I understand old chum, but Central currently believes that the disappearence of WSDP-17's colonist may have been an early Outrider sneak attack," Saber Rider patiently explained, "and I'm inclined to agree that perhaps this is also some sort of trap."
"And if that's the case, who better to send than guys who beat'em before?" Fireball said brightly, distractedly from his place on the other couch as he played with April's hair, "They try another sneak attack, we send them back with their tails between their legs."
"Mebbe, but I don't like the feeling o' this one," Colt's drawl became more pronounced as his displeasure rose, "something's...something's not right, I don't mean Outrider Not Right, just not right."
A short, sharp tone sounded in the lounge, informing the Star Sheriffs that they were nearing their distanation.
"Well, we'll know more soon," April yawned as she stretched, after having gotten up from the floor at her husband's feet, "I really just think some debris knocked against the station setting off the distress beacon accidently."
As the Sheriffs mosied their way up to the bridge, Fireball wrapped his arm around April's waist, and asked, "There was supose to be a 'but' at the end of what you just said, wasn't there?"
Beaming at him, April answered, "well, I have to admit I am hoping we have some time to look the Bell over. It was an interesting concept, and I was thinking that I could presuade Cavalry Command to look into building more deep space stations, maybe not colony stations like the Bell, but..." April rambled on oblivious to the fact that Fireball really wasn't listening to what she was saying, but only content to hear his wife's voice.
Another tone, a more persistant tone, sounded as they reached the bridge.
"I'm afraid you shan't be able to do that exploring, April," Saber said, as he looked over his sensors, "There's nasty storm brewing out there. We'll be getting in and out as quickly as possible."
April pouted for a moment, then busied herself preparing for Ramrod's landing.
Since no one had ever bothered to properly shut down the self-generating power core of WSDP-17, all the sheriffs had to do was send a signal to station's automated system of landing locks. Although sound doesn't travel through a vacuum, Colt couldn't help imagining a metal-fatigued groan as the pock-marked first lock opened.
It was like seeing a ghost. Well, the back of a ghost, as Jesse hadn't even turned around when Ramrod had rumbled to the deck, hadn't moved a muscle. Neither had the five other figures that had been fanned out faced the various entrances to the Bell's landing bay.
They didn't turn when Ramrod's hatch opened, nor when the ramp clanked down. They only turned, when Saber ordered:
"Drop your weapons!"
Even then they turned like they were moving under water, with a distant, dreamlike quality in their eyes. The Outriders all looked to Jesse, who stared at the Sheriffs like he was seeing them for the first time.
"Eh, Boss?" the Outrider nearest him quietly coughed.
Jesse shivered for a moment, then blinked, "put down your weapons, boys, we're getting outta this place," he said as he set his blaster down on the floor, and raised his hands to show he had no other weapon, and no intention of going for one either.
The Sheriffs were momentarily stunned, but recovered quickly as the Outriders and Jesse practically came storming up the ramp. One particularly nervous looking Outrider kept mumbling "we surrender, get us out of here" over and over again.
"Geez," Colt exclaimed, "Give us a minute to arrest y'all."
"You can arrest us once we're out of this tin can," Jesse shot back as he lead his group of Outriders towards Ramrod's brig. Then he looked back, and yelled, "DON"T TOUCH THAT!" when he saw April had left the ramp and was headed toward a station computer console.
She froze, and looked up at him.
"Because it took me too long to rig it so the bay doors stayed locked from the inside, and I'm not certain if that will last if you screw around with it," Jesse answered. He would have gone down after her, but both Saber and Fireball had a hold on him.
Taking the fact that Jesse wasn't struggling, but was perceptibly shaking, Saber called, down to April, "I'm afraid we have no time to, ah, 'screw' with it anyway, April. That plasma storm was setting in fast."
Sighing disappointment, April returned to Ramrod, noticing for the first time that her footsteps crunched. Looking down, she saw a fine scattering of a crystalline subject all over the deck. Against her better judgement she gave in to the impulse to swipe up a damp fingertip full and tasted it.
"Yuck, salt," she spat.
On board Ramrod, they ran into trouble. April had never expected Ramrod to carry one or two prisoners at a time, and so designed the brig accordingly.
"You could hand-cuff some of us to the bars on the outside," a silver-haired Outrider offered, to the puzzlement of the Sheriffs, "We won't mind."
"Or you could just let us confine to whatever passes for a lounge, we won't cause trouble," another Outrider suggested eagerly, "we won't cause trouble," and the Sheriffs had never seen such an earnest face on an Outrider.
Everyone eventually looked to Jesse oddly enough.
He had leaned back against a wall, crossed his arms and closed his eyes. One eye flicked open as he felt the pressure of their stares, "frankly I don't care if you tie us up in questionable positions using bondage gear," at this point both April and Fireball blushed slightly, "and take pictures. But if what Tin Star senior over there said is true, that plasma storm is just waiting to trap us, and I say get out of this hell's bell right now. Worry about where to put us later."
Then the lights went out.
"I've gotten the emergency generators going to keep life-support and communication systems active, but we're going nowhere until I can find out what's gone wrong with the main engine," April reported to Saber via Ramrod com-system.
"Estimated time, April?" Saber queried.
"Not a clue, Top Sword," came the reply.
"Very well, Saber out," He clicked off the com-system, and looked over his darkened sensor array; if his calculation had been correct the plasma storm had probably all ready hit the sector. He tried to send a signal to Cavalry Command and received nothing but static, confirming his supposition. He clicked the com-system line to the lounge open, "Fireball, Colt report."
"Everythings finally calmed down here, Top Sword," Colt's weary voice said, "the Outriders are all sedated, and Jesse..." Fireball interupted.
"Jesse is pouring the salt shaker out all over the place!"
"Salt?" Saber actually didn't seem surprised, taking a chance he asked, "Jesse, care to explain?"
"No," Jesse's flat, cold reply managed to send chills up and down Saber's spine.
"Let him continue, if it keeps him under control, Fireball," Saber advised, "Saber out," He switched back to April, "April, what would your current assesment of the Bell be?"
"Well, without having had a chance to look it over, I'd say it's in fairly good condition for a station that's been abandoned for over a decade," April seemed to grow more enthusiasic as she began to recount details she had learned about WSDP-17.
"So effectively we have a reasonably stable and supplied, if a bit dated, space station at our disposal?" Saber broke into her flow of factoids.
"The plasma storm has moved into this sector, we're stuck here for a while."
The response of the Sheriffs' prisoners was milder than expected. The Outriders had looked to Jesse, and Jesse had stated in no uncertain term that *they* were not going to leave Ramrod under any circumstances. And made the request that the Sheriffs tell them if water from the station was being used, should Ramrod's own supply run out.
"The station's water needs to be processed to make sure they don't get in," a twitchy eared Outrider blurted out.
"They?" Saber asked.
Jesse looked down, then to the side, distinctly uncomfortable, "just don't go exploring too far in this rattle-trap, tinstars. There were forty of us two months ago."
"There are thirty-four Outriders loose here?" Colt yelped, his hat falling back off his head.
"No," Jesse finally looked up, all traces of self-confidence gone from his pale eyes, "no one's out there. So far as we know, they're dead."
"How did they die?" Saber asked.
"I don't know," Jesse stepped back from the blonde commander, the Outriders huddling around him almost protectively, "but they certainly are not alive."
"You know, Top Sword, I think these guys are playing us," Fireball suddenly interjected, "They're trying to get us on edge, spooked. I don't think there were forty of them."
"You're an idiot, Race-boy," Jesse sneered, some of his arrogance returning, "but don't come crying to me when you're up to your ears in it."
"There's a decomtamination chamber just off this bay; it has a large submerging tub," April was almost bouncing.
Saber chuckled. The one thing in Ramrod's design April had never been happy with was the lack of room for a proper bath-tub.
"And you want to put it to good use?"
"It would feel sooo good to have a long soak," April grinned brightly.
"All right, but you'd better tell Fireball where you are," Saber cautioned, "I don't need him out of his head with worry. I think Jesse managed to shake him a bit,"
"All that boogey-man talk?" April scoffed, "I think Jesse's lost it. God only knows what happened to him after the war ended," her tone softened slightly, "what a waste."
Saber simply nodded.
"Jesse, may I ask you a few questions?" Saber slid into booth that served as Ramrod's kitchenette table. Unwittingly, trapping the former Outrider Commander against the wall.
"Do I have a choice?" Jesse muttered into his coffee mug, he looked over at his sleeping Outrider charges, "It's been at least a week since any of us got more than two hours of sleep at a time," he commented aimlessly.
"How long have you been here?"
"Three months, two week, five day, twenty-two hours, fifteen minute, and thirty-....thirty-nine seconds," Jesse gave a twisted grin, "the first month was okay, then it got a bit hairy. That's when I lost ten of my men," he looked down at his coffee, "it seemed like an ideal place at the time. You know, abandoned, supplied, self-generating power core, perfect place to base an attack from."
"I take it something happened?"
Jesse gave him a dirty look, "yeah, you could say that."
Fireball paused before the open doorway of the decomtaminatin chamber, inhaled, and smiled
'Trust April to bring her bubblebath,' he thought fondly, the jasmine scented steam wafted around the half-closed door, 'I hate to disturb her, but she can't stay in there all night.'
"April? Honey?" Fireball knocked on the door, before he went in, "well, will you look at that," and smile once again crept across his face.
April was asleep in her bath. Her face serene, her long hair piled and pinned on top of her head, she was leaning back against the back of the tub. Only her head, shoulder and the tips of her toes were visible from under the pink, scented bubbles.
As he came closer the scent of jasmine grew stronger, almost a tangible pressure on his skin.
"Sweetheart, wake up" he whispered loudly, "you'll chew me out if I let you become the human prune," he waited a moment more, "April?"
Fireball touched her shoulder to gently shake her, with no response save her arm floating up through the crust of the bubbles. Through that break rose a bitter coppery odor, and gave glimpse of the water below.
"April?" Fireball repeated in shock.
He grabbed his wife's shoulders, shaking her, pulling her up from the bath, red liquid sloughing off her body.
To Be Continued.