[Dirt Tripper, East Ferazi Galactic-picket ship]
“All right, line it up people. Snap to, snap to.”
The marines hustled into formation, their armored boots clanking on the grid flooring of the deck.
The sergeant walked to the end of the line and turned a crisp 180, facing the room’s entrance. His salute was picture perfect. “Captain on deck!”
“At ease sergeant.” The marine captain breezed into the room with a cursory salute, quickly turning his attention toward Beggar Company. “As you’ve no doubt heard, we’re making contact with the Red Jasmine in about 30 minutes. I’ve picked Beggar Company to make the initial breach-and-sweep so I need everyone booted up in fifteen. Your orders will be to secure any survivors, assess damage, and secure the helm. All we know is that they activated their rescue beacon approximately 67 days 4 hours and 32 minutes ago. That means that in all likelihood, the people on board are either dead or delighted to see us. Let’s hope for the latter.” Captain Varnes turned to Sergeant Reen and left with a nodding dismissal.
“All right everyone, you heard the captain. Get suited up!”
* * * *
[B Arsenal, Deck Six]
There was nothing quite like seeing a line of fully armored marines queued up to requisition their firearms at the arsenal. Their faces always had that sense of dream like awe as the gazed at the wall of weapons behind the counter. It was the same expression of every child who ever entered a massive toy store.
“Okay Braddock, here you go.” Chief armorer Warren Lewelski placed the fully automatic mag ripper on the counter with 10 mags of flechette ammo and 10 mags of stun rounds. “Next.”
Private First Class Li Zarren continued to stare at the rack or rifles. “Give me the C-10 scattergun and four drums.”
Chik, a scrawny marine no more than 17 years of age, dutifully picked out the C-10 and placed it on the counter. The Chief plopped four long drum cylinders, fully loaded, next to the scattergun. “All right, next.” And immediately he let out a curse. ”****, Kilmer, you’re on this op?”
Otto grinned. “Teelo 20mm sidearm, three mags. Bushwacker with a triple stack. C-10, two durms. Four frags, two stun grenades, and a freak pulser. Combat knife. And some rope.”
The Chief was shaking his head as he and Chik laid the tiny arsenal out on the counter. “You want flechettes for the Bushwacker?”
“Okay.” Warren dropped under the counter and popped back up with a handful of grenades. He slid a scan sheet toward Otto. “I’ll need a print for the frags.”
Pure routine, Otto promptly pressed his hand on the scan sheet and a digital copy of prints crystallized on the screen.
The Chief grabbed the print and put off to the side. “Next.”
* * * *
[Starboard hatch 7, Mid Deck]
Red wall lights washed the exit tube in an eerie crimson hue. Twelve marines clasped to handle brackets mounted into the wall as they waited for the air seals to cycle. The deck lurched as contact was made. Outside there would be a flimsy extension corridor wrapping around the hatches of the two ships as they mated up. A hard tube, a retractable metal mesh tunnel, would then extend out and pressurize. Door sensors would read out the internal hull pressures, and the corridor would equalize the two for a seamless boarding action.
A green light glowed above the marine’s hull door.
“Opening starboard hatch seven.”
Control’s voice came back calm and smooth. “Rodger that Beggar, you are clear to proceed.”
There was the slightest hiss of air as the door retracted. The sounds of their footsteps had a digital echo as their helmet’s filtered the noise.
A short hop through the ten meter corridor had them at the next door. “Opening Red Jasmine’s hatch.”
“Can we get a visual confirmation on that hatch number, Beggar?” Control’s voice queried.
“Uh, looks like number 44, Control. Seals look good.”
“Copy, proceed with the insertion.”
Taking point, Private Steven Williams disengaged the manual overrides and released the safety catches. The heavy plated door rolled into the wall of the ship revealing a dark room beyond.
“Looks like the powers out.”
“Come again Beggar, what was that?”
Williams spoke up. “It looks like the powers out. The boarding tube’s lights are off. No signs of power or activity.”
Sergeant Reen stepped up behind Williams. “Control, what kind of power readings are you getting from the ship?”
There was a pause. “Beggar, we’re seeing everything green up here. Positive atmosphere integrity, engines idle, active life support, even low level appliances running maintenance routines. Command recommends proceeding as planned.”
“Acknowledged Control.” Sergeant Reen tapped Williams on the shoulder. “You heard the man, take us in.”
“Right sarge.” Williams brought up his rifle, shining the solitary beam of light into the dark passage. There was no sign of any damage. It simply looked like someone had flipped the light breakers off. Listening carefully, there were no other sounds than the marines’ footsteps, the slight shuffling of equipment, and the low drone of the ship. The boarding tube was a mere five meters in length, cylindrical in shape with its primary use being human traffic. At the end it opened up into a small hangar. Sweeping his flashlight around the darkened room, nothing looked out of place. A few crates stacked here and there, but otherwise completely empty. Off on the wall was the light switch.
Williams reach out and flicked it on.
The lights buzzed and slowly warmed, ever so slowly brightening. “Entrance hangar clear.”
“Williams, take the doorway, Li, sweep those crates.” Reen walked into the hangar seeing the same thing Williams did. So far so good, he thought to himself. In the back of his mind he noted that the bodies would be in the helm cockpit, the crew quarters, the infirmary, and mess hall. He was fairly certain the crew was dead. The lack of a welcome was a dead giveaway.
“Corridor clear, sarge.”
Reen looked back toward Li.
“Crates are clean. Maintenance parts. Mostly filters and tubing.”
“Move us forward Stevey.”
Williams double checked both ends of the corridor and proceeded to the right. According to his HUD, the helm would be two decks above him and 50 meters forward. The stairwell in the distance would lead them up.
The sarge’s voice rang over the com. “Control, we have working lights in the primary corridors…or at least this one. Looks like they’re running on standbys though.”
Back in the control room, Major Winters was quiet as space. A deep thought furrowed on his brow.
“Sir,” the pale bald control officer turned around in his padded chair. “Why would the ship be conserving power? Their engines are standard limlights. They don’t run out of fuel.”
The major was contemplating the same thing. “Maybe there’s a sensor wash giving a false positive.”
It was possible. “Beggar, we think there might be a possible sensor error in the engine block or primary brain. If the crew was rationing power, chances are they’ll be grouped in the life blocks. We recommend a streamlined sweep.”
“Copy that Control. We’ll head straight for the helm.” Sergeant Reen gave Williams the hand signal to carry on. “Double time people, let’s make this quick.”
* * * *
The bridge was empty. Consoles blinked and flickered with signs of computer life, but there were no signs of the crew. Sergeant Reen carefully scanned the life support readouts, the ship’s status, then brought up the captain’s log. “Control, we’ve got no one on the bridge. Ship readouts look normal. I’m bringing up the captain’s log now.”
Williams stood over the copilot’s chair. It was a padded seat with a deep, soiled impression from long, heavy use. Popping the seals in his suit, he took off one of his gloves and placed his hand on the chair. “Sarge!”
Reen snapped his attention over to the chair.
“The seat…it’s still warm.”
“What?” Reen briskly darted over and popped off his own glove. “Sure as skrit. Control?” He barked, “We’ve got signs of life. The copilot’s chair is still warm. Someone was sitting in it. I’d say whoever it was got spooked by our arrival and booked before we got up here.” As his mind started considering the problem, he nodded to the others in the room, look around.
On a roll, Williams checked the other chairs, but none of them showed any signs of warmth. Only the copilot’s chair. Going back to that station, he checked the keys and monitors. The controls had that greasy shine from recent use. The primary display had two window tabs open. Using his ungloved hand, Williams brought up the other two displays.
The first one brought up a holographic projection of the ship. Green bars represented the hard lines of the structure while red blips distinctly gave away Beggar company’s current position in the cockpit. The other display was a maintenance program with dozens upon dozens of system configurations.
Williams stared at the dynamic panel and all its options, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. “Maglock 1A1: maximum efficiency, Maglock 2A1: maximum efficiency…Pressure Seal: retracted, Mag Seal: retracted…” His eyes continued to scan down. “…script->remote disengagement --time 1:03:29,” the screen blinked, “1:03:28.”
“Sarge, come take a look at this.”
Reen swooped in like a gamma hawk. ”Maglocks, code beams, pressure seals, air temp…script-“ He snapped his attention up. “Riley, Otto, take four men and double time to the egress hatch. Manually lock it up open. Move!”
There was no hesitation as the order thundered in the silence of the cockpit. The six marines hustled out and stormed back down the stairs to the corridor.
“Control, we may have a situation here. The copilot’s station activated a remote sever on our egress route. The ship’s set to release the ship-to-ship tunnel and seal the hatch and who knows what else.”
There was a pause from Control. “Sergeant Reen,” it was Major Winter’s voice on the com, “you dig through that console and find out precisely what that computer is set to do.” Winter’s voice calmed a decibel or two, “I’m sending Captain Varnes over now with Dog Company. You are to maintain your position until further orders, copy?”
“Good. Control out.”
Reen looked over at Williams. “See what you can find out. I’ll try and lock down the main console and terminate any remote access.” He glanced at the four other marines in the room. “Doza, close the door and keep watch. Cera, take the captain’s chair and start scanning through the logs.” His eyes hesitated on Private Ernie Lyle and Private First Class Benzer Donnitz, both unqualified specialists for the situation at hand. “Benzer, Lyle, join Doza at the door.”
Reen cussed himself for sending Otto to the egress hatch. He really could have used another set of hands digging into the computer terminals, but damn if Otto wasn’t the most heavily armed son-of-a-***** marine in his platoon and the only one qualified to handle an unknown, possibly hostile, threat with a level head for command. Right now he was the only one he could trust to secure their exit.
* * * *
[Aft hatch 44, Deck 6]
Corporal Otto Kilmer slung himself into the egress hatch room with his Bushwacker assault rifle sweeping silently across the room for possible threats.
The room was still clear.
“Mingo, Turner, cover the door, everyone else in the room.” Otto spared a glance out the ship-to-ship tunnel and saw marines just now floating out the other side.
He snapped his gaze back at the door controls. A flashing amber light warned of something ominous, but the small readout screen seemed okay. So far all the locks were in place. He started sliding the manual lock controls forward in order to override the ship’s system commands. The locks slid forward with a reassuring click, but the amber light continued to flash.
And now the small readout screen was giving an error message: Code E447 – sys cmmd no resp. Code E447 – sys cmmd no resp. Code E447 – sys cmmd no resp.
Otto glanced back into the corridor at the oncoming marines. “The tubes going to disengage!” He waived his arms in a frantic get a move on gesture. He had no idea how much time they had, but he knew there was nothing he could do.
Warning klaxons began to flash and howl as the mag locks powered up. Two marines got through the door, then the door rolled shut will mechanical efficiency. Private Lutours was only halfway through when neatly bisected him into two. His upper body, severed diagonal across his lower abdomen, slid forward and smacked against the ground. The blank glare of his helmet hid the lifeless shock of his bugged out eyes.
On the other side of the Hatch Number 44, nine marines floated weightlessly in instant vacuum. The rapid decompression turned their brains into scrambled goo. Their internal organs exploded. Death was instant. Captain Varnes was the only survivor, still safely aboard the Dirt Tripper, cut off by the instantaneous emergency protocols that locked down Starboard Hatch Seven.
Lutours’ body spasmed on the floor in a small pool of growing crimson.
“Ah geeze! Is he alive?” Braddock took a step toward the twitching armored torso.
“Spontaneous nerve reflexes.” Otto replied, cooly staring down at the carnage. “Sergeant, two men made it across, Private…” He checked the chest tag, “…Lutours didn’t make it all the way. Door cut him in half. He’s dead.”
The sarge was silent. “Otto, take everyone out of that room and seal the door, then head back to the cockpit.”
* * * *
“The sudden loss of the ship-to-ship tunnel was catastrophic. No one survived except Captain Varnes, he got caught on the other side before he could enter the tube. We show three marine contacts made it onto the Red Jasmine, confirm?”
“Negative.” Reen let out a sigh. “Two made it, the third, Private Lutours, got caught in the middle. The hatch sliced him in two.”
“Copy that Beggar. You are still in command. Please state your onsite awareness report.”
On site awareness. Reen almost laughed, but that was control for you, all protocol and procedure. Besides, part of it would be an on-the-site psych evaluation of his ability to carry on command of the op.
“Control, I have 13 fit marines under my command, all fully armed and fully stocked on ammo. I have full control of the Red Jasmine’s cockpit and remote access to the ship’s systems has been locked down. Relying on our own supplies, we have enough food and water to last three days. My advisement is to secure the mess hall and possible food and water supplies located there. Afterwards we should secure the infirmary. This will not only provide us access to the most essential supplies on the ship, but it will also add to our security sweep of the vessel and any possible survivors. Judging by the actions of the copilot, or whoever it was who set the remote lockdown of Hatch 44, my thinking is that some or possibly all of the Red Jasmine’s crew have gone space crazy and are to be considered dangerous. We will try our best restrain them without permanent physical harm. Over.”
There was a long silence from control. “We approve you judgment, sergeant. You may carry out with your plan. Command wants to inform you that we have engineers prepping now. We will have a forced entry for Hatch 44 in one hour. Please exert extreme caution in your sweep of the ship’s vital areas, especially doors.”
“Acknowledged Control, Beggar out.” Reen closed the com channel and looked up at the marines around him. Most of them were preoccupied with computer terminals or double checking their equipment, but Otto was looking at him, as well as Williams. Good men. “Control has informed me that they’ll be forcing a breach but it’ll take an hour. Until then, I want to finish our sweep.”
Now heads were spinning around to face the sergeant.
Reen had a feeling Braddock was about to protest, so he quickly added, “We’ll be overriding the doors one by one as we go in order to eliminate any more problems. Since this is a civilian vessel, and assuming the crew’s spaced out, then they shouldn’t pose any real physical threat to fully armored marines. We’ve got the system’s main control locked down, and safety protocols prevent the rapid decompression of any part of the ship.” He tried his best to reassure them that no one else was going to suffer the same fate as Dog company. “Now, the sooner we sweep this ship, the sooner we can get off of it. So let’s get to it. Otto, you’ll stay here with Doza, Williams, and the two men from Dog company. I’ll be leading the rest of us in the sweep. We’ll head for the mess hall first, then the infirmary. Everyone clear?”
There was affirmatives all around.
Sergeant Reen picked up his rifle. “Otto, keep in touch with control and the breaching team. Com signals could get touchy, but try to keep me up to date.”
Otto had picked up on it right away. “Otto, whoever shut down that hatch is paranoid, and smart. If they know what they’re doing, they can do a local scramble on radio frequencies and knock out or coms. Shortwave should be fine, but anything past 20 meters can be frosted. Up here in the cockpit we’ll be able to maintain sight-to-sight contact, but in the belly of the ship we’re vulnerable.”
“I understand sir.” Reen began to step away before Otto stopped him. “Sarge…just how bad is this?”
Reen thought a moment, glancing through the history of battles and ship-to-ship engagements, dying comrades bleeding to death in his arms, fanatics pouring over duration defenses. “It’s small scale deadly, Otto. Keep on your toes.”
* * * *
[Dirt Tripper, Bridge]
Naval Captain Theodore Svensiikrison swooped into the Control pit with icy silence. Major Winters abruptly stood to attention as soon as he noticed the skipper’s presence. “Skipper.” He saluted.
“At ease Major Winters.” Came Svensiikrison’s silky smooth voice. “What’s the situation.”
Winters swallowed a dry lump in his throat. “Skipper, Beggar company has been cut off on the derelict. Dog company attempted to reinforce their position but a rupture in the ship-to-ship tube caused massive casualties. Ten men were lost.”
“Was the tube breach a fault on our side?”
“No sir.” Winters added quickly. “Someone on the derelict initiated a remote lock down of the hatch. Beggar company was unable to stop the process.”
“And why was that?” The skipper sharply inquired.
“The power to the door controls were nonfunctional sir. Their manual links were cut off.”
“So someone over there is sabotaging the ship and has killed ten of my men?” The question was rhetoric. “We offer our hand in rescue and they bite the hand that shepherds. This is unacceptable. I assume we have a breaching party at work?”
“Good. Let me know as soon as they’re in. I want my marines off of that ship, major. No derelict is worth this much loss of life. Especially for a bunch of space barvy crack pots.” The skipper stared at a monitor showing the Red Jasmine floating outside. After a long moment, he broke his silence. “As you were major.”
Major Winters waited until the skipper had left the control room, then turned to Lieutenant Omaro. “What’s the status on Reen and his men?”
“We’re getting interference from Reen and his search party, however we still have perfect contact with Corporal Kilmer and the men guarding the cockpit.”
“Interference?” Winters tilted his head. “Interesting.”
“Yes, it is sir. Corporal Kilmer reported that Sergeant Reen warned him this might happen.”
“Really?” Winters was bringing up data on his own screen. “What are they hiding over there?”
* * * *
[Red Jasmine, main corridor to the mess hall]
Cera finished the spot welds on the final door. The eye burning flare of the hand welder threw sparks across the floor and filled the hall with the smell of burnt metal. As it snapped off, Sergeant Reen stepped through the door.
Inside the mess hall there were eight long tables, each about 5 meters in length. Dozens of chairs were neatly tucked in to each one. The floor was a spotless white, as if it had been mopped and polished just yesterday. Several vending machines stood along the wall, their colorful displays blinking for attention: Nova Cola, Refreshment of the Stars! Scrips, a sunful of chip! Dandy Bars, double dipped for twice the taste!
The kitchen area was equally deserted.
“Cera, get to work on that door over there. Turner, Li, cover her. Mingo, Ernie, you stay here and cover this door. Riley, Donnitz, with me. We’ll check the kitchen. Braddock, why don’t you check those vending machines, see if they’re empty or not.”
Sergeant Reen led the way to the kitchen, rifle at the ready. So far there was no sign of recent activity, which could be good or bad. Good in that hostiles would be unlikely in this area. Bad in that whatever crew was left was either not worried about food or was simply not sticking around to eat it. Then again, maybe they were just tidy.
Just like the main room, the kitchen was spotless. The smooth top burners gleamed in the bright white overhead lights. All the cabinets and drawers were shut. No utensils out of place.
“Riley, check the fridge.” Reen began opening cabinets.
The stores were full. Can goods, dry preserves, plates. “Doesn’t look like anything’s missing.”
Donnitz was checking the cabinets on the other side. “Plenty of food over here sarge.”
Reen glanced over at Riley who was staring silently into the fridge. “Riley, you alright?”
“Yeah, fine sarge. Just looking for ice cream.”
Reen laughed. “You find any vanilla, let me know.” He looked back over at Donnitz then pointed toward the pantry.
The pantry was a large, double door affair. The ship’s real stockpile of foodstuffs would be kept in there, while portions would be brought out into the other areas for the crew’s more immediate consumption.
Taking an armor gloved hand, Reen pulled open one of the doors. A light popped on in the pantry, illuminating the racks of food. The sergeant’s HUD indicated a slight chill in the air.
Looking straight ahead was one more door. The deep freeze.
Reen nodded to Donnitz.
Donnitz was a big man. Two hundred and fifty two centimeters of armor and muscle, roughly seven feet by the old Earth standards. He grew up on a farm on some colonial planet out beyond the Federations, eventually hopping a freighter back to the Trades and joining the Corps. Reen had been his sergeant ever since he got out of boot camp. Together they had served on the Dirt Tripper for fifteen months now, taking out pirates and slavers, inspecting haulers for contraband, and answering several distress calls on far off worlds. All in all it was a lot more exciting than sitting dirtside and tilling the ground.
He opened the door to the freezer and nearly bit off the tip of his tongue.
* * * *
[Red Jasmine’s Bridge]
Otto reclined in the captain’s chair as he spared a glance out the main window. Distant stars glowed in the blackness of space. More than he could possibly count. Reluctantly he tore his eyes from the brilliant spectacle and flipped the digital page on the monitor. The captain’s log so far was routine and mostly boring. The man complained about everything.
Date: 16-42-3029/Captain’s Log: Morning-left port from San Patrallo en route to Jado IV. Our haul, tze-tze monkey’s. Flash. Frozen. M-O-N-K-E-Y-S. To think people actually PAY for these things. I think it’s a waste. Twelve thousand light years just so some upper class nose drips can get their fill of exotic cuisine. Afternoon-I told Sully to cook one up for lunch, just to see what they were like. Mind you Sully isn’t the best cook in the Federation, but he’s certainly not half bad either. The monkey was tender, but the wild smell was terrible, almost as bad as the taste. Sully tried to bath the stuff in marinade, but I think there was just no hope for it to begin with. Just another acquired taste of the high and mighty. I swear some people would eat high denomination credits if it was served to them at four star restaurant. Evening-I miss Berta. Her cooking. Her hugs. Even just the smell of her hair at night. Vanessa tries to comfort me, but she’s just a flame. She burns hot when I need her, then vanishes afterward. I think she wants me to promote her to first officer. Daniel did spill my coffee this morning.
Days and days and days of the same stuff. What he ate, the ports they hailed from, the cargo they hauled, and how much he loved his wife and hated his mistress. Otto had to rub his eyes from the strain.
He checked the page counter. There were only two more entries left.
Date: 17-1-3029/Captain’s Log: Morning-Bacon and eggs for breakfast. It definitely hit the spot after that blasted monkey. Daniel tells me we should be just two days out from Jado IV. Nothing much else to report. Afternoon-well the monkey came out. Took a whole roll of toilet paper with it. Stinking monkey. Evening-Vanessa came by my cabin tonight. This time she asked to stay afterwards. Right now as I write this, she’s snoring blissfully on the ruffled sheets. Berta always snored just like that. I think I’ll sleep soundly tonight.
Date: 17-2-3029/Captain’s Log: Morning-Vanessa was gone when I woke up. Oh well, it’s probably better this way. Sully cooked pancakes this morning. They were pretty good. Afternoon-Cheeseburger and fries, nothing much else of interest. Evening-Daniel says the monkey market jumped up today. Our turnaround will be triple what we were expecting. He suggested we use the cash tune up the Jasmine’s engines. I’ll have to consider it.
That was it. “****!” Otto couldn’t believe it. The most valuable document on the ship and it was worthless.
But why did the journal stop seven days ago? He double checked the other entries. Sure as ****, the captain never missed a day. So what happened?
Running on a hunch, Otto checked the terminal’s recycle bin.
That figured. But there was still hope. Otto checked the ghost logs. Scanning down the list, he pulled it all the way to the bottom.
17_10_3029 Logfile.17.3.3029 deleted user_4033
17_10_3029 Logfile.17.4.3029 deleted user_4033
17_10_3029 Logfile.17.5.3029 deleted user_4033
17_10_3029 Logfile.17.6.3029 deleted user_4033
17_10_3029 Logfile.17.7.3029 deleted user_4033
17_10_3029 Logfile.17.8.3029 deleted user_4033
17_10_3029 Logfile.17.9.3029 deleted user_4033
Just what he suspected. Someone had deleted the final entries. Probably the same nut who closed Hatch 44.
Otto began to speculate. Say First Officer Daniel got wind of his new replacement. He gets ticked, takes action, kills the captain and his lover, or maybe just the lover. Things don’t go smoothly, he gets jumpy. One thing leads to another and bam, whole crew’s dead. He sits around for a couple days with all the bodies, goes nuts. Probably tries to clean up thinking it will make it all better, but it doesn’t work. Now we show up and…
No. That didn’t quite add up. A ship this size would have had a decent sized crew. Too many for just one person to kill off.
He pulled up the ship’s crew list.
Query: crew personnel.
The screen filled with line after line of data.
Query: crew personnel total.
Fifty two. That sounded about right for a freight tug. The Red Jasmine was 300 meters long, keel to stern. Most of its mass was devoted to six gigantic engines which could propel up to 5 million tons of cargo through the necessary barriers of hyper translation. Locked and trailing behind it was the long stream of cargo containers.
So Daniel kills Vanesa and the captain walks in, so he kills the captain too. He covers it up to make it look like an accident. That puts him in command. But what about the rest of the crew?
* * * *
[The Deep Freeze]
Donnitz stared in wide eyed disbelief, his face two shades paler than an Eskimo. If Reen could have seen his expression, he would have remarked that he looked like a zombie whose head had just been chopped off.
Sergeant Reen grimaced.
In the deep freeze there were two cows strung up from meat hooks, just like you would see in a meat house. Behind them were stacked boxes of other animals and vegetable goods, and a thin layer of frost coated everything. It was exactly how it should appear. All except for the severed head hanging on a meat hook between the two cow’s.
“Looks like we’ve got a hostile.” Reen sent a com pulse to Otto. He barely got a reply.
There was heavy interference. Reen tried anyway. “Otto, we’ve searched the mess hall. No living crew members found. We found a severed head in the deep freeze of the kitchen. Stay alert. Hostile contact on board.”
Reen shook his head. He couldn’t make out what Otto was trying to say. “Donnitz, get a picture of that. We might be able to cross check it with the ship’s crew profiles and get a positive identification.” He looked over at Riley who was making a sandwich, half a dozen jars and containers spread out on the counter. “Riley, what the **** are you doing?”
“Making a sandwhich sarge.” She didn’t look over at the deep freeze and the blank stare of the hanging head. “I’m almost done.”
“Riley, do you see this ****** head in the freezer?”
Riley looked up and emitted a whistle through her helmet mic. “Too bad for him. You want one sarge?” She held up the sandwich.
“No.” He walked past the private. “And make sure you put that stuff back.”
“Will do, sarge.”
In the main dining area, everything was as he left it. Reen adjusted the volume on his helmet mic. “Form up.”
Heads snapped around to find their sergeant, then their bodies quickly propelled them into motion, instinct drilled into them without conscious thought.
Reen waited a few seconds for everyone to gather round. Riley slowly made her way out of the kitchen, helmet in one hand, sandwich in the other. Donnitz was the last to make his way to the group.
The sergeant decided to be blunt. “There’s a head in the fridge. We don’t know who yet, probably one of the crew, but it’s a good bet we have a hostile on board. Now since someone triggered that hatch to remotely close, that means this someone is still on board and is still kicking. I want everyone on their toes and alert. Are biggest threat right now is a hostage situation. Keep your non-lethals at the ready and be prepared to take the shot. If this guy goes for the body shield card, I want you to drop him and drop him fast. Don’t give him time to think.”
Some heads nodded in approval or acceptance.
“Ok. The way to the infirmary is a linear route toward the back of the ship and down two levels. To get back to the cockpit, we’ll have to retrace are steps, so I’m going to leave a guard here to secure our route.” He immediately looked at Riley. “Pick two people. The rest of us will head to the infirmary.” He hesitated.
With the poor com channels, now would be a good time to send someone back to the cockpit to let Otto and Control know about the freezer. But with a hostile on the loose, Sergeant Reen didn’t want to spread his men too thin.
Control can wait.
Riley had picked Ernie and Mingo.
“I want you three to flip some tables over and form a light barricade over by the counter. That’ll put some distance between you and the two entrances. And don’t get trigger happy, we shouldn’t be that long.” Sergeant Reen motioned Turner to take point. “And one more thing, don’t raid the kitchen. We don’t need any distraction right now.” He turned to the others. “All right, let’s head out.”
* * * *
[Main Corridor, Accessway B2, heading toward the infirmary]
“Done.” Cera stood up, spot welder in hand.
Turner nodded and headed forward. The hallway was lit by a single band of dull orange-yellow lights directly overhead. There were closed doors on both sides every ten or so meters. At the end of the hall he could see another flight of stairs heading up and down.
As he passed the doors, he didn’t bother to check the code labels. Each one had a keypad and small black screen with scrolling green letters that identified the purpose of the room. But that intel wasn’t important. Halfway down the hall was a big door painted white, a giant red cross marking the unmistakable sign of a hospital or medical facility.
Two more hatches to go.
The ship was compartmentalized in case of emergency. Areas could be sealed to contain hull breaches, fires, chemical spills, or even diseases. In combat, ships would go into lockdown to slow down enemy boarders.
Of course Turner wasn’t the enemy. But something on board seemed to think him and the other marines were.
He slowed down as he approached the next hatch. Following right behind him, Cera immediately began spot welding the door closed. The brilliant flame of the welder sparked as it made contact with the metal of the door and the metal of the hull it slid into. The cool blue metal slowly turned red and globular, the hard edges melting into round curves. As the curves made contact with each other, the edge of the hatch becoming blurred with the edge of the hull, Cera moved her welder on to the next point. She hit two spots on each door, the two diagonal halves that slid into the ceiling and floor.
In two minutes, she was done.
Turner headed forward, his eyes glimpsing up at the infirmary door, down the hall at the far away steps, then back to the infirmary.
* * * *
“So Riley, how come our coms aren’t working down here?”
PFC Michelle Riley looked over at Mingo’s brutish face. The large, low sloped protruding brow and Mingo’s big lower lip made him look like some kind of prehistoric caveman. Riley just smiled.
“Microwave ovens. It’s an old trick. You can cannibalize the things to spit out random frequencies and wavelengths. Plays havoc with com signals.” She looked across the counter into the kitchen.
Oddly all the microwaves were still in place.
Maybe they had some in storage.
“Microwaves.” Mingo laughed a deep, hearty chuckle, then took another sip of Nova-cola. “So what do you think about this star-nut running around the ship.”
Riley shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I’ll tell ya what I think.” Ernie’s gravelly voice rumbled. “We catch this guy, he’s going to pay for every marine he vaped out in the cold of space. There’s ways to kill a man slow. Slow enough it feels like forever.”
Riley and Mingo shivered. Ernie was a vet of the Kerango War on the Ather Prime, the border between the Asiao and Paltraic Federations. He bragged once that out there a man’s rank was judged by how many ears he had around his neck.
Riley hoped she never ended up in a war as savage as that one.
“Dream on Ernie. You know as well as I do that they’ll haul that nutjob in and try him in one of the federation courts. Being he’s space crazy, they’ll stick’em in an institution.”
Ernie looked at Mingo with his cool, grey eyes. “You ever been in an institution, Mingo?”
Mingo shook his head no.
Ernie looked away. “Well it might just be punishment enough for him. Especially if he’s really wacked out.”
Mingo’s head tilted funny, and Riley silently begged him not to ask Ernie about the institution.
“You were in an institution, Ernie?” A childish smile began to beam across his face. “I mean, I knew you was a nut, but I didn’t know you was certifiable.” Then he laughed.
Riley stared in horror. She didn’t know whether she should try to laugh with Mingo and hope that Ernie would find it funny too, or whether she should step away and…
Ernie started laughing along with Mingo. “You ballzy barve.” He slapped his armor plated thigh. “I oughta screw your head around for that.”
Mingo just laughed louder. Ernie continued to chuckle, probably amused more by Mingo’s big laugh that anything else.
“To tell it straight, no, I wasn’t institutionalized. I might have done some crazy **** in the Ather Prime, but I was just a face in the crowd there. No, I spent my time in institution as an orderly.”
Mingo sobered up a little, but he still had a gargantuan smile on display. “You mean you actually had a job before you became a marine?”
“Yep. Five years.”
“How old are you Ernie?” Riley was genuinely curious.
“Let’s see…” Ernie paused in thought, his eyes looking up at the ceiling. “I’ll be 28 next month. I’m pretty sure.” Another pause. “Yeah, twenty eight.”
“So when’d you sign up for the corps?” That was Mingo.
“Bright age of twenty one.”
“What was it like there…working in the institution?” Riley’s curiosity was piqued.
Ernie’s face turned serious, his eyes finding a spot on a far off wall. “Crazy…but fun too, you know?” Of course they didn’t know. “It’s kind of like being a marine. Sometimes it sucks, but sometimes it’s not so bad. You cherish the memories. No matter what kind of crap you had to put up with to get them, in the end, it’s worth it.”
They all nodded. That they understood.
“There were some real psychos in that place too. People who see snakes crawling out of them and biting them, and then they freak out and start stabbing themselves with a pair of scissors. When stuff like that happened, it was my job to get in there and restrain’em.”
Riley thought about that, what it would be like to have to deal with crazy people on a daily basis. How would you reason with a person like that?
Mingo looked over intently. “So Ernie, if you had to compare the guy on this ship to the people you met there, how would he rate?”
Ernie didn’t even pause. “Definitely a lowballer. He might be brain dead to take on two companies of marines, but on the loony scale he’s kid factor. A real loon would paint the walls with his feces, gurgle urine, and declare himself the Toilet Buddha.” He laughed. “So far our guy just seems paranoid and scared.”
* * * *
[Maintenance Closet, Deck 3]
Haren Smith thumped his head against the wall again and felt the brief flash of pain black his vision. His forehead swam in a swelling heat, the pain surging through him like radiator fluid.
“I’m the copilot. Copilot.” He repeated to himself. “Copilot. Me. Copilot.”
It was a vain attempt. Like witch doctors warding off evil spirits.
He knew there were people here. Other people. People from another ship.
He had to emphasize each point to himself. Small steps to maintaining his sanity. At least he thought he was sane still.
“Can’t let them. Can’t let them.” The mantra changed. “No more. No more.” He rocked back and forth, his knees pulled up to his chest as his teeth chattered.
Seven days ago he had been the copilot on the Red Jasmine. Life had been normal. He had been normal. But then it happened, and he changed. It was a subtle change, one, even now, he couldn’t admit to himself. It was one of those things were you couldn’t see it if you were too close. You had to step away in order to see the big picture. In his little world, he was still the copilot. He was still on the ship. Surely the ship would deliver its cargo. Life would go on.
But he knew things had happened. That’s why he was here, after all. He had to hide. His attempt to shut the door had come too late.
They had gotten in.
And now he had to hide.
“Copilot.” He soothed himself.
For some reason the pure sound of the word was like a calming ointment, and so he repeated it to himself. Quietly. Over, and over. The knife held tightly in his hand.
* * * *
Turner was the first one to look into the infirmary. He stood side by side with Cera, both of them gazing quietly at the white sheets draped over the tables.
Sergeant Reen came up behind them. “Cera, weld the door.”
She snapped out of her gaze and bent down with the torch, quickly fusing the first weld. Meanwhile Reen got his first look at the room beyond.
It was a large infirmary. A good 20 meters across and 10 deep. There were three gurneys set up, the collapsible kind you wheel out of an ambulance to pick up a patient, as well as four sturdy tables on wheels. He noticed there were two permanent table fixtures in the room, and several tables that looked like they were brought in from elsewhere on the ship.
All of them had one thing in common: a white sheet draped over them, and a human shaped lump.
“That’s a lot of bodies, sarge.” Turner began bobbing his head ever so slightly.
Sergeant Reen thought he was losing it. He’s got it. Whatever it was that they caught, Turner’s got it now. It’s contagious. The sergeant froze in fear. Will I get it? What happens then?
And then it hit him, Turner was just counting.
Sergeant Reen let out a long, deep breath.
Turner heard it on the sarge’s mic. “You okay sarge?”
“Yeah.” He nodded his head. “I’m fine.”
Turner looked at him just a little longer, as if he wanted to make sure, then turned his back toward the room. “I count 50 bodies, sarge.”
“We don’t know they’re bodies.” Reen replied even though he had every reason to believe that’s exactly what they were.
He strolled into the room and went to the nearest table, one of the collapsible gurneys. Carefully, he lifted up the sheet and folded it over, revealing a pale white body beneath.
It was a male, an older man with a bald head and thick clumps of white curly hair stuck to the sides. His eyes were closed.
Sergeant Reen looked at the man’s upper body. There were no signs of any wounds.
He paused there, the sheet still gripped in his hand. Part of him said he should just pull off the whole sheet and verify there were no external wounds or marks, but his mind told him this man would be naked, and that was one thing he didn’t want to see.
So he let go of the sheet and looked on the gurney for a notepad or something that would list the patient’s condition.
Low and behold he found one there dangling from a clip.
Name: Mathias Perlo Casmen
Type: Human Caucasian
Reen scanned down the document until he got to ‘Cause.’
Cause: exsanguinations due to severing of femoral artery
Contributing Factor: Ethylene glycol poisoning
Note: The deceased appears to have attempted suicide by ingesting an entire can of engine coolant (4 Liters). Sometime after the consumption, the deceased, no doubt suffering from hallucinations and insistent vomiting, took a knife and proceeding to cut a deep incision into his left thigh (rough 3 to 5cm deep and 6 cm long). Once the femoral artery was severed, death due to blood loss followed very quickly.
Reen dropped the clipboard and let it swing down and cling against the metal gurney. “Suicide. Turner,” he turned around, “check the others. Cera, you too.”
Reen walked back out into the hall. “Donnitz, Braddock, you two keep watch outside, everybody else in.”
Walking back in, Reen ordered Zarren and Doza to help the others. “Pay attention to anything they have in common.”
Going through the death reports, there didn’t seem to be any commonality at all. Some were suicides, some murders, and others accidents.
“I don’t get it. What the hell happened here?” Turner asked out loud.
Cera leaned against one of the tables. “They all went space crazy. Maybe the engine malfunctioned and they dropped out of hyper too fast. It happens.”
Reen shook his head. “I’ve heard of it, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it.”
“They do have one thing in common though.”
Cera looked over at Turner. “Other than the fact they’re all dead?”
“Look at the way they all died. Not one normal death from any of them.”
Sergeant Reen let that thought bounce around but he couldn’t fathom what it meant.
“If anything, that just leads more credence to that fact that they got spaced out.” Cera picked up her rifle and walked over to a small roller table laden with surgical instruments. “You’ve got the captain over there with his throat ripped out. The first officer neatly severed limb from limb…none of it makes since unless they’re crazy.”
Well at least they had a firm body count now. “Well there can’t be too many more members of the crew unaccounted for. Let’s grab what medical supplies we can and head back to the mess.”
Going through the cabinets, they began scrounging for first aid kits or trauma bags. Cera opened a cabinet and immediately fell to a kneeling position, assault rifle snapped to her shoulder. “Sarge, I’ve got a live one!”
Everyone paused in the search and looked over. “Keep looking.” Reen ordered to the others as he walked over to Cera.
Sure enough, huddled in the oversized cabinet, a man was crammed in there, his wide eyes staring out in fear.
“Zarren!” The Sergeant called out.
“Get over here. We might need to sedate this one.”
PFC Li Zarren, the most qualified medic in Beggar Company, scuffled over while bringing around a small medic pouch. Sergeant Reen waited until he had the syringe and the sedative ready.
“Alright Cera, let’s see if we can coax him out of there. If he starts to flip out, yank him out. Then Zarren sticks him with the needle. Ready?” They nodded. “Okay.”
And so Sergeant Reen bent down on his haunches and reached in with his armor suited arms. With his marine combat suit, there was little he had to fear. The worst this guy could do would be to spit on his visor.
Gently, Sergeant Reen laid a hand on the man in the cabinet. “It’s okay. We’re space marines. We’re here to help. We need to get you out of there so we can check you, to make sure you’re alright. Just come on out.” Carefully he gripped the man’s shoulder and gave a slight tug. Cera was doing the same.
The man was trembling fiercely, but he wasn’t resisting. Slowly he began to assist them, using his legs and forearms to crawl out of his hiding place. When he was finally out, he stayed on the ground in a curled up fetal position, his whole body shaking in tremors.
“Should I sedate him sarge?”
“Nah, not yet, but keep it ready.” Reen looked up at Li. “What do you think?”
“Jeez, sarge, I’m a combat medic, not a head shrink.” Li’s black, non-reflective visor stared blankly. “He’s suffering from some kind of traumatic shock.” He swept a glance at all the bodies in the room. “And it ain’t hard to guess what.”
“But will he be okay? We’ll he be trouble?” The sergeant pressed.
“Well, people who suffer hyper translation shock usually don’t live long and require constant supervision. They’re very unstable. One instance they’re a whimpering puppy, the next they’re charging at you like a mad bear. We should probably tranq him just to be on the safe side.”
Reen thought about. “Let’s see if we can’t talk to him first.” He looked back down at the man and squatted low to create closer contact. “Can you tell us your name?”
The man’s pallid, sweating face rolled around toward the sergeant, his eyes wandering aimlessly, but his mouth began to move. At first he was just opening and closing his lips, then sounds started to struggle out.
Reen waited patiently.
The sounds gained more definitive enunciation. They started coming faster. “Dah, dahk, dahkter.”
“You’re the ship’s doctor.” Reen supplied.
The man shook his head up and down rapidly. “Yuh, yuh, yuh-ess.”
“What happened here?”
The man looked away without a sound. He laid his head down on the metal deck and closed his eyes.
“I think that’s it sarge. We should sedate him now.”
Reen stood up. Looking at the unarmored, shivering man before him, he felt like a giant. “What’s he going to do? Scratch our armor?” Reen looked over at Li.
“Well, I guess you’re right.”
“Just keep a good hold on him and don’t let him runaway. We’ll carry him back to the mess hall.” Reen switched over to short area broadcast with his mic. “Form up, we’re heading back.”
They piled out of the infirmary in a double column. Making their way through the corridors was much faster now that they didn’t have to mess with the doors. The dull yellow overhead lights illuminated their way. They got to the stairs and headed up. The mess hall was two decks above them, the engine access one deck below.
PFC Zarren hadn’t seen much of anything in the way of combat. He spent a year in brief medical training for field surgery and diagnosis before being shipped out on a Federation dreadnaught. There were plenty of accidents on a ship that size to keep him busy. Broken bones, bruises, cuts, mostly mild injuries, though there were a couple of life threatening run ins. One time a grav crate gave out and crushed a man’s chest. Li had assisted the ship’s chief doctor in that one. But the months dragged on and Li got bored. He signed up for transfer to one of the scout pickets that cruised the edges of the Federations’ boundaries, hoping he might get some excitement.
Now, carrying a limp freighter doctor up a flight of steps, Li wondered if he’d made the right choice. They certainly saw more action on the picket ships, but they also got less leave. It had been three months since he’d seen the ground of a planet. But he missed the life in the big cities, the people, the feeling of being in the now, being a part of society and its happenings.
Out here, he felt…left out. Isolated.
Then a door opened to his left. Li saw a blur fly out of it and dart toward him. It didn’t hit him though. Instead it crashed next to him.
Into the doctor.
A scream echoed through the corridor.
Sergeant Reen yelled over the com. People scrambled into cover positions, some jumped to Reen’s side, helping him pin down the thing that leapt out from the door. Two armored marines tackled the thing, slamming it to the ground with a crashing of metal.
Li’s brain tried to catch up. He looked down and saw a knife sticking into the doctor. The gleaming blade’s handle was soaked in blood. The doctor’s grey clothes were stained in red, slash marks ripped into his clothes, his pale face looking blankly upward, wheezing breaths coming out in spurts.
Finally Li woke up.
He fell to his knees and began pulling items out of his field kit. First he cut off the doc’s shirt, getting his first real look at the damage that had been done.
There were over a dozen wounds on the doctor’s chest. Some were deep stab wounds with dark, red blood pouring out in oozing pulses. Others were shallow cuts that bled superficially.
Li knew instantly that the doctor was dead. There were too many deep wounds for him to treat. But he tried anyway.
He took out a can of pressurized wound sealant and stuck into one of the small, dark red slits. A quick burst shot the aerosol concoction into the long wound channel. Pain neutralizers kicked in immediately while disinfectants tried to kill any foreign matter. A macro-molecule nano glue sought out severed vessels and organs using its primitive intelligence to mend the tissue in the proper way. It was a sloppy way to seal the wound, but it was mostly effective.
Continuing with the others, Li shot spray after spray into the deep cuts. The doctor’s breath was getting shallower, and the spurting wounds were getting weaker.
His pulse was slowing.
“Somebody give me a hand!”
Cera was next to him immediately. “What do I do?”
Li couldn’t afford to stop what he was doing. “Look for an orange syringe.”
Cera glanced at the laid out field kit. Nestled in the various bandages, ointments, scissors, and knives as a vibrant orange labeled syringe with neatly printed black text.
She grabbed it. “Now what?”
“Remove the cap and any air in the needle then stick it in his left arm and inject him with half the syringe.”
“Okay.” Cera moved over to the doctor’s other side.
She raised the syringe and squirted out a little bit of whatever was in it, ensuring there was no air left in the needle. Then she stuck in right through the doc’s shirt and plunged half of the syringe’s contents in one quick shot.
The doc’s eyes opened wide and his head yanked back.
“Uhhhahhh.” Came a surprise groan.
Cera watched as Li plugged up another nasty looking stab wound. It looked like the last one.
Li stopped with the sealant can and stooped over to check the doctor’s pulse. His armored medic gloves had sensors built into the palms. A digital display appeared on his HUD giving him the exact statistics.
The boost shot seemed to have worked. His vitals were stabilizing.
“I need to get him hooked up on some fluids.” Li finally spared a glance around him. “What happened?”
The man on the floor had gone limp, but Sergeant Reen wasn’t taking any chances. They had wrist and ankle restraints on him while Braddock and Doza held him down. “Who are you!” There was a controlled fury behind the sergeant’s words.
The man on the ground looked up with dilated brown pupils. “I’m the copilot.”
* * * *
Sergeant Reen was explaining the situation with Control as Li oversaw the care of his patient. He had the doc set-up on the tactical station, a large, flat table that normally displayed a holographic picture of space.
“Control, I’ve got two survivors, over.”
“Copy that Seargent Reen,” came the Major’s cool voice, “status on the survivors?”
Reen looked over at the unconscious doctor and the gagged and bound co-pilot. “In custody. One is wounded and barely alive. Seems to be the ships physician. The other claims to be the ship’s co-pilot. He’s also the hostile. We’re checking the ship’s computer records now to verify their identities.”
“Good work seargent. Our engineers will be on board shortly. I’ll need you to send a squad to secure their entrance.”
“Will do, I’ll send them now.” Reen shot a glance at Kilmer who quickly grabbed four men and headed out. “They’re on their way now, Major.”
“Hang tight Reen, we’ll have you out of their soon. Control out.”
"I believe toys resonate with us as humans, we can hold them them, it's tactile, real! They are totems for our extended beliefs and imaginations. A fetish for ideas that hold as much interest and passion as old religious relics for some. We display them in our homes. They show who we are. They are signals for similar thinking people. A way we connect with each other...and I guess thats why I do toys. That connection." -Ashley Wood