JACK FORGE, LOST MARINE, BOOK 2
JAMES DAVID VICTOR
Copyright © 2019 Fairfield Publishing
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Except for review quotes, this book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the written consent of the author.
This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is purely coincidental.
The hull of the frigate vibrated violently. Consoles around the command deck threatened to fly loose of their housings as the frigate bucked like a wild animal while racing across the interstellar void. Space-time in front of the frigate compressed into a dense point just short of a singularity and pulled the ship forward at terrific speed. The ship’s wake of tortured space-time eddies did nothing to slow or deter the pursuers; they were steadily catching up. Jack Forge leaned forward in his command chair and looked at the holoimage showing his frigate surging through space as well as the pursuing ships, hot on their heels. Knowing they would not fire on his frigate brought no ease. Jack knew the Devex raiders were not there to destroy his frigate, they were there to capture him and his crew alive.
“Slow the ship, Major.” Commander Gerat Bale looked at Jack in the command chair, his face screwed up in fear. “The hull can’t take it. You’re going to get us all killed.”
“Focus on your job, Mr. Bale,” Jack said calmly as he saw the holoimage of the Devex raiders drawing a fraction closer. “Keep those sensors tuned. I don’t want us colliding with any rogue interstellar objects.”
“The frigate’s reactor is close to failsafe shutdown,” Ripa reported, her voice quivering. She moved from the navigation to the engineering console, losing her step and falling as the ship lurched. She fell toward Sam Torent, who was staggering onto the command deck.
“What’s our weapons status, Sam?” Jack asked as he checked the reactor condition.
“All guns ready. I’ll service them from the central weapons console. We really need a few more bodies in this crew if we want to service all these guns to peak efficiency.”
“We are nowhere near a recruiting office, Sam, so we’ll just have to make do for now,” Jack quipped.
“It’ll be okay,” Sam said, walking unsteadily toward the console. “We haven’t got much in the way of ammunition anyway, so our guns will be useless soon.”
The frigate creaked as the ship was pulled violently to port, a distortion forming in the gravity channel as the reactor power fluctuated. The slight change of course at full speed pushed the hull almost to the point of catastrophic failure.
“You are going to tear the frigate apart,” Bale complained loudly. “Let me try and communicate with them again. Maybe we can cut a deal.”
“The Devex are not interested in talking to us. We’ve seen what they want. Prisoners. Standby on the weapons console, Sam,” Jack said calmly. “The first raider will be in weapons’ range in a moment.”
Sam leaned against the weapons console trying to maintain his balance on the rattling deck as he aimed the upper laser assembly with his single arm. With the drones recalled, the sensor range was limited. He adjusted the targeting sensors and sacrificed resolution for range as he searched out his first target. The Devex raiders were big enough for Sam to hit at this resolution. He could put a lancing beam from the laser assembly straight through a raider, he just couldn’t target any specific areas of their ships.
“A new signal,” Bale reported the instant he spotted the blurry, indistinct signal.
“What is it?” Jack said.
Bale turned from his console and looked up at Jack. “Whatever it is, it’s right in our way. It’s cutting off our escape route.”
Jack had always known there was no escape. The Devex raiders had matched their every move for almost a day. Even at full power, the frigate was only able to delay the inevitable. The Devex would catch them sooner or later.
“Look to your console, Mr. Bale,” Jack said calmly to the man who was clearly not used to receiving orders, “and tell me what exactly is blocking our way.” He gripped the armrests of the command chair as the ship shook violently all around him.
Bale checked his sensors and then turned back. “Devex,” Bale reported. “It’s another squadron of raiders. Dead ahead and moving in fast.”
The vibrations running up Jack’s arms and spine brought a feeling of nausea that sat deep in his stomach. He felt the fear of failure creeping up on him along with the urge to vomit. He had failed to avoid the Devex. He had gotten his ship and crew in the jaws of a trap. He had put them in a situation that they might never escape from. On top of that, his ship was flying itself apart and he didn’t have enough ammunition to stand and fight off the threat. Jack pushed doubt from his mind—doubt was a leader’s greatest enemy. He was still in command, of the crew, the ship, and himself. He hadn’t lost yet, and he wasn’t going to lose to fear and doubt. He plotted a course adjustment, determined not to get caught in the raiders’ pincer move.
“Lieutenant Ripa,” Jack shouted as a heavy vibration threatened to throw him from his command chair, “input course correction.”
“We won’t make the turn at this speed unless we can smooth the fluctuations in the main reactor,” Ripa said. “We’ll lose the outer hull, or the drive assembly could shear off. We will throw the ship out of the gravity channel for sure. It’ll collapse the ship in an instant. We’ll be crushed.”
Lieutenant Ellen Ripa’s voice quivered. Jack knew it could be partly due to the vibrations that tortured the frigate’s command deck, but it could also be a heavy dose of fear. He knew she was young and inexperienced, and it was a near-impossible challenge to overcome fear. Every young officer had to face that challenge at some point, but Ripa had had to face it as part of a small crew, lost and alone in deep space. Nervousness was as much a part of her tremulous tones as the vibrating ship. But Jack knew she was right. The maneuver would be suicide.
He canceled the course adjustment with a few taps of the armrest command controls. “Copy that, Lieutenant. Maintain heading.”
Jack tapped the control panel again and checked the condition of the reactor. The core reaction was exceeding acceptable variance every few seconds and was close to failure. The reactor housing could only withstand so much variability in the reaction and was reaching its peak tolerance.
The Devex raiders in front and behind were spreading out and cutting off all lines of escape. The frigate’s upper and lower laser assembly, and two batteries of kinetic hail cannons, could smash a Devex raider. The raiders were determined but cautious. They were closing in but holding just beyond weapons’ range. Jack knew they were waiting for their prey to tire and come to a halt, which would happen soon, and then they would close in. Jack would fight, but there were too many to fight off. The end was drawing closer. Capture, or death, was becoming ever more inevitable.
“Maybe we should surrender,” Bale said, throwing his arms in the air.
Sam looked at Bale with utter contempt, then turned to Jack in the command chair. “Surrender is not an option, Jack. I don’t want them to take me alive. Krav knows what they do with their captives, and I don’t want to find out.”
Jack looked at Sam. He shared his friend’s fear of captivity from the Devex.
He looked at the holostage and the positions of the Devex raiders that were close to surrounding the frigate.
“Can you plot any sort of firing pattern to take on all these ships, Sam?” Jack said.
“We can take one or two,” Sam said.
Commander Bale shouted across the rattling noise of the command deck, “A new signal, just coming into range. An Oort cloud of a star system.” Bale turned to Jack. “It’s super dense for an Oort cloud. We could lose them in the asteroids, if we can make it there.”
“Send coordinates to the navigation systems now,” Jack said.
Bale complied quickly. Jack sent the coordinates to the main holostage and threw up the image of the star system. Far below the frigate, a distant system showed up as an indistinct blur, obscured in part by a dense Oort cloud of orbiting asteroids surrounding it. The unusually dense cloud would make a perfect place to evade the Devex. And it might buy Jack time. At this point, delaying the inevitable sounded like a win.
“Good find, Mr. Bale,” Jack said. “We will make it before the Devex raiders trap us, and we’ll hide from them in there. But we’ll have to shut down all power and go completely dark if we hope to hide. We’ll be defenseless if they find us.”
“How can we change heading, Jack?” Sam said almost too casually, as if his life was not on the line. “We’ll destroy the ship.”
“I’m going to disengage the reactor from the drive assembly. I can only hold it for a few seconds before I’ll have to reengage it. We can change heading with thrusters only and then I’ll throw the power back into the drive.”
“But the Devex will be on us in a second if we cut the drive.” Bale complained
“They will, but they might not be able to react in time and should over-shoot us by hundreds of kilometers. Let’s just hope they don’t collide with us when we stop. Just be sure to give Ripa the sensor readings on that Oort cloud so she can set the new heading.”
Jack called out to Ripa as he prepared the bold maneuver. “You ready for this, Lieutenant?” He saw her nod. She was already focused on the thruster commands at her console. “Stand by to adjust heading for the Oort cloud the moment I cut the power.”
The sudden power cut sent the ship tumbling out of control, and it twisted and pitched as it fell through space. With the reactor offline, power to the gravity generator was cut. Jack felt himself floating free.
“Thrusters responding,” Ripa shouted. She sounded terrified but still focused on her job.
“Devex closing in fast!” Bale called out. “They’ve overshot us. They are slowing and turning. Now moving in. They’ll be on us in a few seconds!”
This was a risky operation, and they all knew it. Jack consoled himself with the knowledge that if it went wrong, he probably wouldn’t know about it. The reactor failure would vaporize him, the frigate, and probably a few of the Devex raiders too.
“Heading reset,” Ripa shouted. “Kick on the reactor, sir.”
Jack hit the drive engage tab on the command chair armrest. The inertia buffers and artificial gravity kicked in a nanosecond before the drive re-engaged. Jack was pinned back in his command chair the moment the drive assembly threw the frigate forward.
Sam sounded unusually nervous as he reported their situation. “Breach in the outer hull. Integrity field can’t draw enough power from the reactor. We’ll lose the ship if we don’t divert power from the drive. The consoles are practically shaking themselves free already. Not sure the ship can take any more.”
“The Devex raiders will be on top of us if we don’t push it,” Jack said. He jumped down from his command chair, landing awkwardly on the vibrating deck. “We have to make it that Oort cloud.”
“Where are you going?” Sam called out.
Jack staggered toward the exit.
“I’m going to cover our escape.”
Jack ran off the command deck and out onto the main deck, through the wide corridor to the hail cannon service stations on either side of the wide deck, which were loaded and ready to fire. He reached the ladder down to the lower deck, slid down, and landed heavily again. His ankle twisted and nearly hit the ground as it gave way under his weight. He pulled himself upright and pushed the pain from his mind as he continued on toward the ordnance cache. The walls of the corridor appeared to shudder and vibrate as all the reactor’s power was drawn into the drive systems, hurling the frigate across space toward the Oort cloud.
“I’m going to rig a high-ex warhead to act as a space mine,” Jack said over the crew communicator channel. The lights were dim and flickering on the lower deck as the power was drained to the drive. “Let me know when we’re in cover.”
Jack slid open the ordnance cache. The racks of ammunition for the hail cannon were running low. The frigate was never meant to operate alone for such a length of time. The empty shelves struck a note of dread for Jack. So far, they had been lucky to avoid contact with the Devex. With supplies running low, any contact could be their last.
The sound of the lower laser assembly startled Jack. Then he heard Sam calling out the shot.
“Devex in range of lower assembly. That’s one less raider. Lancing beam cut straight through, forward to aft.”
Then Jack felt his hairs stand on end as the laser assembly discharged again, this time accompanied by the sound of the laser assembly failing mid-shot. Sam’s voice, filled with frustration, came over the crew communication channel again.
“Krav it! Laser main power ring fused. Laser out of action.”
Jack carefully pulled a high-ex warhead off the rack. It was heavy for its size. Jack carefully set it down on the deck, though the vibrating worried him. If the warhead detonated now, it would be the end of a long and difficult road for him. He had always hoped he could eventually settle on a new world, but for now, he was racing through space hoping to escape with his life.
In the last few weeks, Jack had been so busy he had barely thought of his future, but when fleeting thoughts had occurred to him, it was still of finding a way out of the constant threat of hostile space, to link up with the fleet, and then to find a place to settle and call home. If this warhead detonated, it would be the end. The thought was grim. Jack took a calming breath and hunched over the device. He carefully opened the warhead’s control panel.
And then the vibration stopped.
Jack froze. The ship had been vibrating for hours in their frantic escape. The sudden disappearance of the vibration made Jack think for a fraction of a second that the warhead had detonated, and he was dead. The realization that the very thought meant he still lived welled up in Jack with relief and humor. He laughed.
“Approaching the Oort cloud outer edge,” Ripa’s voice came over Jack’s communicator. She sounded calmer than she had been for hours. “I’ve cut all power to the drive assembly. It’s too dense to navigate at speed. Proceeding with thrusters only.”
“Copy that.” Jack tapped away at the detonation circuits. He rigged the warhead to detonate on his command and carried it to the lower airlock and placed it inside. The small window in the inner hatch let Jack see the warhead drift out into space.
“What I wouldn’t give for just one combat drone right about now,” Jack said to himself. He pushed himself to his feet. A shooting pain in his ankle reminding him of his awkward fall down the ladder. He limped back to the ladder and climbed up to the main deck.
Sam’s voice came over Jack’s communicator, and he heard it echoing through the corridors from the command deck.
“Jack. Jack, you need to get up here. You have to see this.”
Jack could sense the nervousness in Sam’s tone. Jack moved quickly, hobbling on his painful ankle. Sam was not one to become nervous easily. The fact he was shouting and uneasy made Jack uneasy.
He ran for the command deck, ignoring the discomfort in his ankle.
Sam climbed down from the command chair when Jack walked onto the deck. Bale was standing at the main holostage. The image of the frigate was projected in a mass of asteroids. At full zoom, the ship was a tiny point of light. Behind them, just beyond the Oort cloud, was the squadron of Devex raiders that had been pursuing them and had nearly trapped them. The Devex had slowed and were holding position. And there, another new signal. Far below Jack and his frigate, there was a massive Devex warship, holding position just outside the Oort cloud on the system’s ecliptic plane.
“We’re on passive scanners only, Major Forge. Those Devex are searching for us,” Bale said, leaning heavily on the side off the holostage. “We’re not out of this yet.”
Jack would like to think they were out of danger, but the Devex would not give up easily. Still… an entire warship, for one frigate and a crew of four? It seemed unlikely to Jack that the warship was here for them.
“And here’s something else too,” Sam said. He pointed at a planet on the holostage, the fourth planet out from the star, a little larger, and much colder, than Jack’s former home planet that humanity had abandoned. Jack noticed the holotag displayed next to the planet, a Fleet code transmitted to any and all Fleet ships that would pass the system.
On the surface of that planet was a ship.
Jack climbed up into his command chair and tapped the holoimage projected above the armrest. He accessed the code. The full information came streaming over the small holostage. He transferred it to the main holostage. The image of the star system and its dense surrounding Oort cloud vanished and was replaced by an image of a city-sized ship.
“It’s a civilian transport ship,” Jack said.
“They don’t know we are here,” Sam said. “Should I contact them?”
Jack returned the holoimage to the tactical display showing the positions of his frigate and the Devex raiders holding position outside the Oort cloud.
“Negative, Sam.” Jack held his hand to his chin and studied the situation.
“We should just ignore them?” Bale said calmly as he pushed himself away from the holostage and walked toward the sensor console. “We need to fix up the frigate and get away from those Devex raiders.”
“We can’t just ignore them,” Jack said heavily. “We might be able to help.”
“How can one frigate with only four officers help a civilian transport?” Bale said. “They might have thirty thousand people on board.”
“We won’t know how many people are down there or how we can help unless we try and find out. I’m sure that Devex warship will be only too eager to go and take a look.”
Bale called out, “The Devex raiders are moving into the Oort cloud.”
“Lieutenant Ripa, stand by for evasive maneuvers,” Jack said. “Sam, plot a firing pattern for the hail cannon. Wait for my order to fire.”
Sam and Lieutenant Ripa confirmed they understood the order.
“Mr. Bale,” Jack said, “start mapping a route through these rocks.”
“Sensor range to maximum,” Bale said. “The Devex warship is powering its primary weapon. They are preparing to fire.”
Jack watched the Devex warship on his armrest holostage. A single blast from that ship was enough to cripple a Fleet destroyer. A frigate could not hope to withstand the power of the massive energy weapon. He expected the killer blow to land any moment. Jack saw the energy discharge from the massive warship, but to his relief, Jack saw that the weapon had targeted an asteroid. The massive rock was destroyed in a fraction of a second, reduced to a cloud of subatomic particles.
“Warship weapon recharging,” Sam said. “Looks like it’ll take ages.”
“Sensor readings show another area where an Oort cloud object has been destroyed. It looks like…” Bale tapped his console. “They are clearing a path through the cloud.”
Jack looked at the data from Bale’s analysis and threw it up onto the holostage. The warship was inching into the cloud. The massive boulders of rock and metal were too dense and moving too fast for the warship to safely navigate. Instead, it was blasting its way through the barrier and creeping into the system.
But why, Jack wondered. And he answered the question the moment he asked it of himself. The civilian transport contained thousands of passengers. That was the warship’s target. That was why it was blasting its way into the system. That was why it was here.
“Major Forge,” Bale called. “Devex raiders. They are moving toward the Oort cloud. I think they’ve located us!”
Jack shifted in his chair. They had evaded the raiders for days, and this particular pursuit had been going on for hours. He had won a little respite, but the Devex had him outmanned, outmaneuvered, and outgunned. And now they were moving in for the kill.
Jack watched the raiders closing in on his position amidst the rocks of the dense cloud. The movement at that point in the cloud was fairly rapid. They orbited the parent star at a lazy pace around the ecliptic plane but moved more rapidly over the star’s poles. Here at about forty-five degrees north of the ecliptic, the rocks moved at pace. Jack kept his frigate moving through the asteroids all around with a light touch of thruster jets and use of the faint gravitational fields around the larger of the asteroids. He swung through the cloud in gentle arcs.
“Devex raiders approaching the outer edge of the Oort cloud,” Sam called out.
Jack had half an eye on the massive holoimage displayed over the holostage in the center of the command deck. He also had a finger hovering over the drive panel on the armrest of his chair.
“Course through the asteroids set,” Ripa said. “I’ve allowed for the motion of the asteroids. We will have a clear run through.”
“Good work, Lieutenant,” Jack said. “Stand by to activate drive. On my command.”
Jack watched the Devex raiders swoop into the asteroids. The sleek craft were totally different in shape and size than the massive Devex warships. The raiders were streamlined, making them suitable for operation within planetary atmospheres, while the massive warships were shaped like towering blocks reminiscent of a high-rise city tower. They were dark and featureless, almost invisible in the black of space.
The raiders were slightly larger than Jack’s frigate and most certainly contained more crew. The Devex were known to have captured people with the massive warships and the raiders. A massive warship was probably well-suited to the task of capturing the thousands of people aboard a civilian transport ship, but for a small ship like the frigate, the raiders were more than adequate.
Jack watched the sleek raiders swooping in and around the asteroids. They moved in closer to the mine they had positioned on the sunward side of a small asteroid.
“Stand by,” Jack said. He waited for the opportune moment, and then, judging the time to be right, he played his hand.
“Power to the drive. Go!”
Jack watched the power readout on his armrest holostage as the frigate jumped to high speed. The power from the reactor surged through the frigate’s systems. The main holostage dimmed slightly as the surge robbed power from secondary systems. However, the holostage clearly showed their sudden and rapid movement though the asteroids. And with a close eye on the location of the pursuing Devex, Jack sent the detonation order to the high-ex warhead hidden amongst the tumbling chunks of metal, rock, and ice.
The detonation created a blue and green sphere of destructive energy the size of a small moon. It grew to full size in a fraction of a second and held its shape, a shimmering and seething mass of energy that engulfed the surrounding asteroids and the Devex raiders swooping in toward Jack.
“Got them!” Bale said. He brought his fist down on the console in triumph.
Jack watched carefully as the glowing sphere began to cool. Out of the sphere came a Devex raider. It had been thrown off its axis and was tumbling forward, but it was still under power and moving in on Jack.
“Sensors,” Jack spoke on the open channel. “Report.”
“One raider on sensors here, Major,” Bale said. “It’s veering off course.”
“Entering field of fire for the starboard battery,” Sam called out. “Opening fire.”
Jack leaned forward and watched the image on the central holostage. A blast of kinetic hail from the frigate’s starboard battery slammed into the Devex raider’s lower hull as it banked and turned away from the pursuit. The debris of the other raiders came tumbling out of the now-dissipated sphere of energy from the space mine.
The fragments of kinetic hail each created small superheated spots over the raider’s hull and pushed the raider further off balance, sending it tumbling nose over tail and into an asteroid. It collided and embedded itself on the surface. A shower of rock fragments thrown up by the impact drifted away from the asteroid and joined the swirling mass of the Oort cloud.
Jack watched intently as the raider’s drive flickered and then fell dark.
The debris rippled out from the site of the detonation. Rock fragments, pushed to even higher speed and in new directions, came pouring through the narrow empty spaces between the swift-moving asteroids, racing toward the frigate as it darted away, narrowly avoiding the asteroids in its path.
With their escape masked by the detonation, Jack cut main power.
“Going dark. Reactor to standby. Keep us on course, Lieutenant.”
And then the downed Devex raider exploded. The ship vaporized, the blast pushing the asteroid slightly off its course around the parent star, which it had held for millennia. A billowing cloud of energy from the destroyed Devex raider expanded out from the explosion, smashing into nearby asteroids, boiling the surface dust off the nearest to reveal the solid rock and metal of the main asteroid body.
The blast front raced on through the asteroids, sweeping across and around more asteroids, throwing a huge cloud of dust and grit before it. It drew closer to the rear of the frigate as the craft moved away, relying on momentum alone.
Jack watched the progress on the central holostage. They were nearing the inner, sunward edge of the Oort cloud. He switched the view on the holostage to show the way ahead.
The rocks in front of the frigate thinned out and finally the way ahead was clear, revealing dark open space and the distant sun at the center of the spinning sphere of asteroids. Jack looked at the star at the center of the system. The fourth planet lay ahead of Jack’s frigate, which was now drifting, unpowered, toward the small, cold world and the downed civilian transport.
Jack sat back in his chair as a measure of relief washed over him. He resisted the feeling, knowing they were far from safe. This was only momentary.
“Check the Devex positions.”
“Devex warship is holding position,” Bale reported, his hands moving across the sensor console. “Warship is firing again. It’s drilling its way through the Oort cloud.” Bale turned and looked at Jack. “We need to get away. A group of raiders are moving in to check the debris field on the Oort cloud.” Bale looked back to his console. “It looks like a standard search pattern. They are looking for us.”
In the weeks since his last encounter with the Devex, Jack had managed to avoid them. He cursed his luck running into them again, but at least he had given them the slip for now. With the pursuing Devex raiders destroyed, Jack hoped they could avoid them, at least until he could make some running repairs on the battered frigate, but it was not likely. The civilian transport ship was surely attracting the attention of the Devex. He wished he could ignore it, but duty demanded he at least attempt to offer assistance.
“Maintain silent running. Hold course for the fourth planet. Ripa, set down next to that civilian ship. We can organize repairs for the frigate, and I’ll board the transport and check the situation.”
The civilian ships were vast, city-sized vessels that had been used to evacuate the population from the now-distant world of Eros. Jack put the image of the civilian craft up on the main holostage. He leaned forward and looked at it.
“No power readings from the ship,” Jack said.
“Did they crash?” Bale asked.
“It doesn’t look like it.” Jack scanned the vessel. “Its hull appears to be intact. Maybe they are hiding, just like us.”
“Maybe they’re all dead,” Bale said.
Jack ignored Bale. “Linking to the transport’s internal sensors. Checking the internal environment.”
The readings that came back were unusual. The atmosphere was present and at a standard pressure, but the mix of gases contained a trace substance that the sensors recorded as Dox vapor.
“There is something in the air.” Jack ran a thermal image scan. The bodies of the passengers and crew were all identified, alive and scattered about the ship.
“They are all in there,” Bale said. “Looks like the ship is full.”
“Slowing for orbital insertion,” Ripa said as she worked at the flight console. “Thrusters only. I’ll try and put us down gently.”
Jack watched the holoimage of the planet surface growing closer.
“Fifty meters,” Ripa called out. “Deploying landing struts. Twenty meters. We’re landing now. Civilian transport off our starboard side.”
The frigate hit the planet surface hard. A power conduit along the main deck ruptured. The squeal of stressed hull composite filled the command deck.
Jack flinched and waited for the hull to collapse. Then the squealing in the hull composite died away, replaced by the gentle beep and chirp of warnings and the heavy beating of Jack’s heart.
“There is a rupture in landing strut system,” Bale said. “Minor damage only. I’m isolating the system and shutting it down.”
“I’ve put the frigate down as close to the transport as I can,” Ripa said as she powered down the thrusters.
Jack climbed down from his chair. “I’ll prepare to board the ship and assess the situation over there. Commander Bale, I want you to take charge here. Run a full damage assessment. Patch the frigate as best you can and get her ready to fly. We might need to get out of here in a hurry.”
Sam stepped away from his console.
“You can’t go alone,” Sam said. “It could be dangerous over there.”
Jack nodded. “Sam, you’re with me. Let’s get suited up.” Jack marched off the command deck and headed to the equipment store on the upper deck.
They wasted no time climbing into their extreme environment tactical suits. These suits were so familiar to Jack and Sam that they were able to pull them on and have them sealed, powered, and ready to go in moments. The procedure was a distant memory, but both acted almost on autopilot. Jack checked Sam’s suit and then turned for Sam to check his. Jack felt the pat on his shoulder from Sam telling him he was ready for action. They were both prepared for the extreme environment of the planet surface and whatever danger they may face on the civilian transport.
Jack reached into the storage locker and pulled out two pulse pistols. He handed one to Sam and slapped the other against his thigh, where it was wrapped instantly in the suit’s sidearm holster.
“Follow me,” Jack said, then slid down the first ladder to the main deck and down the second to the lower deck, where he opened the inner hatch of the lower airlock.
A moment later, Jack dropped down from airlock onto the planet surface. Sam landed a moment later. The wind was light, but it brought a flurry of snow and ice in billowing gusts. Visibility was practically zero. The dark shape of the frigate stood out from the blizzard, and next to the frigate was the outer hull of the civilian craft. It towered into the dark, snow-filled sky and stretched away to Jack’s left and right, disappearing into the darkness.
“Right behind you, Jack,” Sam said.
Jack walked carefully through the snow, which nearly blinded him. The fine snow slid over his suit and faceplate, though it was thin on the hard ground and barely came up over Jack’s boots.
The image enhancer on his helmet display showed him the outline of a massive landing strut and an access point to the civilian craft.
He approached the strut and Jack sent a Fleet entry request to the transport. A control panel lit up the instant Jack sent the request. He tapped the control and a light came on from above and lit the ground around Jack in a bright white light. The sound of a motor told Jack that a ramp was being deployed. The steep ramp with steps came down to ground next to him.
Just as Jack took hold of the handrail, he saw a dark shape in the snow. The shape was large and moving fast. It was silhouetted by the landing lights from the frigate only a few meters away. Jack felt his heart in his throat. His hand went to his pulse pistol on his hip.
Then the helmet visor identified Sam running toward him. The data overlay displayed his name and rank. Jack relaxed. He waited for Sam to join him.
“Slow down, Sam,” Jack said on their channel.
“I don’t want to be out here any longer than necessary,” Sam replied. “I can’t see a thing. There could be anything out here.”
Jack smiled to himself. He had enjoyed the short walk to the transport. The feeling of solid ground and natural gravity was a welcome relief. The air was breathable but extremely cold. Jack could have been at a ski resort. He enjoyed the snow. He had grown up in wide prairies with constant year-round warm weather, and a blast of cold had always been a welcome change. For a moment, Jack missed home, but it wasn’t his home anymore. Most of humanity was searching for a new planet to call home now. Jack knew if he ever caught up with the fleet and made it to their new home, he would probably choose a warm climate like the one he had known as a boy.
Sam stepped up to the base of the stairway into the transport.
“Do you want me to go first?” Sam said.
“No, Sam. I’ll take point. Stay close on my six. Copy?”
“Copy that, Major,” Sam said, then chuckled. “Guess we’re still Marines, even if we are the last ones.”
Jack smiled to himself. He had never wanted to be a Marine, but after being pressed to the service, it had quickly taken over his life. Now it was the only way he knew how to act. And in an uncertain situation like his current one, it made sense to proceed in the manner he’d come to know so well.
“Okay, Commander,” Jack said with a smile. “Follow me.”
Jack walked up the stairway to the access port on the side of the massive ship. The door slid open, causing a dusting of snow to fall off the side of the ship. Jack stepped inside, his visor display showing him the way through the dark.
Once inside, Jack found an internal transit channel and a pod that would take him up from the secondary access to the main body of the transport. Jack stepped inside. Sam joined him.
“There should be lights in this entrance,” Sam said. “Something’s not right.”
“Agreed. We proceed with caution. Okay?”
Sam nodded and replied, “Okay.”
The transit pod door closed and then opened a moment later, having taken Jack and Sam up to a large lobby area. Low lighting filled the lobby, which was several stories high. Huge walkways ran around the side of the room on several floors. It was all transparent composite walls and smooth floors.
And, scattered over every square meter of floor, on every level, Jack could see the fallen, slumped bodies of the passengers.
“Are they dead?” Sam asked.
Jack stepped over to a young woman holding an infant boy. Jack scanned them. The result showed they were in a deep sleep.
“Not dead.” Jack stepped over to the next body, a fallen old man. He ran the scan again. “They are all asleep, kind of.”
“How…” Sam was looking around the lobby, his head turning this way and that as he tried to take in the entire scene.
Jack ran an environmental scan. His environment suit captured a sample of the air and tested it.
“The air,” Jack said. “It’s laced with Dox vapor. It’s a powerful soporific of some kind. Everyone here is in a chemically-induced coma.”
Jack walked over to a pillar at the center of the lobby, pulling the cover off a panel there. He tapped into the main data stream. The ship was reporting itself to be fully powered. Only environmental controls were offline.
Jack stepped away from the panel. He spotted a uniformed person nearby and scanned for a Fleet identification. The reading came back that the young man was a civilian and merchant fleet junior deck officer. Jack scanned other bodies lying nearby. Most were civilian, their personal histories coming back with job titles from across the spectrum, all now without jobs until they landed at their new home planet. A person lying nearby was a multichannel entertainment designer. She lay next to an agricultural equipment engineer. The entertainment designer’s clothes suggested she had previously held a respected and glamorous position, while the young man laying not two meters from her wore the rough clothes of a land machine worker. Jack guessed which one would be the first to find a job on the new home world, and which would be more important for establishing a new civilization.
“Can you find a way to return the air to the correct levels? Can you filter out this Dox vapor?” Sam asked, looking over Jack’s shoulder at the young officer on the ground.
“Not from here,” Jack replied. He picked up the cover panel and carefully replaced it over the exposed circuits. “We need to get to an environmental control panel. There are small sub-units throughout a ship this size, but the main controls will be on the command deck,” Jack said. “We can restore environmental norms from there.”
Jack sent a request for access to the ship’s systems. The request was granted, his Fleet Marine command codes still letting him bypass several layers of security. He called up a map of the ship, and it was released to his enhanced data view. The route to the command deck was laid out.
As a serving Fleet Marine major, he still had clearance codes that gave him access to many ship systems. He hoped he could gain access to the command deck.
“Okay, Sam. Follow me.”
They walked to the internal transit pod, stepping over sleeping passengers. The pod took Jack and Sam to the upper forward section of the massive ship in moments, moving swiftly and silently. The doors slid open to a bright, white corridor with smooth walls.
The walk along the gently curving corridor to the command deck took Jack and Sam past more fallen, sleeping passengers and Fleet officers.
Jack stepped up to the command deck doors and ran his security codes. The door slid open.
The command deck was large, but no more than a destroyer’s command deck, which Jack knew well. The layout was virtually the same, a raised command chair overlooking banks of consoles all arranged around a central holostage.
The lights on the walls were at a low level and filled the space with a sickly glow. The consoles were all powered down. The captain was slumped in his command chair. Various command deck officers were either lying at the foot of a console or slumped over them.
Jack looked up at the captain.
“See if you can adjust the environmental controls,” Jack said. He checked the captain’s vitals. Captain Jez Morton, a former bulk haulage transport captain, no doubt more used to transporting inert lumps of rock and metal around than passengers.
“No problem, Jack,” Sam said as he stepped over to the environmental control console. He slid the slumped officer gently down to the deck. “We should have all the passengers and crew up and about before long.”
“No,” Jack said suddenly. He turned away from the captain and stepped up alongside Sam, stepping over the officer on the deck. “Can we restore the environment to the command deck only?”
“What, and leave everyone else asleep?” Sam asked in surprise.
“Yes. Let’s speak to the captain first. Can we do it?”
“Sure. Should only take a moment. I’ll isolate the command deck environment from the rest of the ship.”
Jack watched the environmental readings on his wrist-mounted holostage as Sam reset the controls. The levels of Dox vapor fell, and a standard oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere was restored. Once the air levels read as standard, Jack removed his helmet.
The air in the restored atmosphere smelled dry and fresh. The air on the frigate was becoming filled with the stink of the four-person crew with limited access to washroom facilities.
Sam also unclipped his helmet and took a cautious breath.
“The air is fine,” Jack said. Then he looked up at Captain Morton in his command chair. The captain was stirring slightly, his eyelids flickering. His fingers began to twitch. Suddenly, he opened his eyes. They were wide with fear and surprise. He stood up, then lurched to one side. He grabbed his command chair for support and stumbled toward Jack.
Jack grabbed hold of the captain and steadied him. The captain looked Jack in the eye.
“Get out! Get out! They’re going to kill us all! Get out!”
“Captain!” Jack gripped the wild man by his shoulders. “Get a hold of yourself! You’ve been in an induced coma. How did you end up here?”
The captain’s eyes were red and bloodshot, tears coating the reddened eyeballs. He looked around frantically.
“We were attacked. Huge soldiers. They boarded. I don’t remember much after that.”
“Devex?” Jack said, trying to catch Captain Morton’s wild eyes again.
Morton’s gaze snapped back on to Jack’s. He nodded wildly.
“Yes! Devex! Those beasts. It was them.” Morton leaned against his command chair. “I was in the center of the fleet formation when they attacked us the first time. Their massive warship came at the fleet. The Overlord engaged them along with a few destroyers and some support ships. The Blades engaged their raiders. The fleet threw everything at them. We got away. We watched the data streaming in. It was horrible. All those ships, lost.”
“Is that when you fell out of formation?” Jack asked.
“No. We ran with the remainder of the fleet. The Overlord held them off and we ran. I would have fought them. But I couldn’t fight. This is a civilian ship. I don’t have any weapons. We just ran. Then once we were clear, we had power distribution problems and dropped out of formation. We settled down on this planet. My engineering team was working on the problem… We nearly had it fixed and then they came. Krav it, we were only a few hours from rejoining the fleet.”
“Do you know where the fleet is?” Jack asked excitedly, all other thoughts secondary. He had tried for weeks to locate the fleet. Maybe his search was nearing the end.
“The fleet is running to clear Devex space. We were told to make repairs and rendezvous with the fleet when we get back underway. I thought we’d be hidden from the Devex down here. Some Mechs came in system. I tried to contact them for help. They didn’t even enter orbit. And then, the Devex found us. And then... And then...” The captain became agitated again. Jack gripped him by the shoulders and fixed him with a stare, forcing the captain to regain composure.
“The fleet, Captain. Where is the fleet?”
“I have the rendezvous coordinates here somewhere.” The captain climbed up into his command chair and started tapping on his armrest console.
Jack felt a sudden surge of excitement. This was the closest he had been to the fleet since the last days of the Chitin War.
“Yes. They haven’t completely abandoned us,” Morton said, “but then they didn’t know the Devex would find and attack us.”
Others around the command deck were waking and climbing up off the floor. Command deck officers were groaning, some vomiting as the Dox vapor left their system.
“Who are you?” Captain Morton said groggily. “Where did you come from?”
“Major Jack Forge. Fleet Marines. This is Commander Sam Torent.”
“Have you come in force? You’ll need an army to fight off those soldiers.”
“No, Captain, just me and my colleague,” Jack said, indicating Sam. “Not much of an army, but I will offer assistance as I can.”
Sam was at the engineering console. He called over.
“Jack, the reactor looks in good condition.”
“There is a problem with the power distribution,” the captain said, “but I can bypass some of the main power nodes and have this ship in space in a few hours, a day at the most.”
“Sooner would be better, sir,” Jack said. “We are deep in Devex space. They appear to be rounding people up for some reason. Enslaving any they can capture alive. We have to get back into space and meet up with the fleet.”
The captain smiled at Jack. “I think the first thing we should do is wake up all the passengers.”
Jack shook his head. “The people are all unconscious. If we wake them now, we’ll have thousands of frightened people running all over the ship.”
“I think they’ll be grateful to be awake,” Morton said. “Wake them now. I’ll address them and inform them of our situation.”
“I think it’s best to leave everyone where they are and focus on fixing the ship,” Jack appealed to Morton.
The captain looked at Jack and shook his head. “This ship is not under martial law, Major. You don’t give orders here. This ship is under my command, my authority, and I will make the decisions about what is best.”
Jack turned to the captain. “Sir, this is your ship. You do have authority here. But you must attempt to return to the fleet immediately. We need to get out of here as soon as possible. There is a reason you were all left asleep. There is a Devex warship nearby. They are coming back.”
The captain looked at Jack and then Sam. Morton nodded and said. “We repair the ship and rendezvous with the fleet.”
Jack nodded. “Can you handle the job, Sam?”
“No problem, Jack. I can handle it.”
Captain Morton stood up again, still a little unsteady on his feet. “I know the ship better than anyone. I used to fix my own haulage vessel before they put me in command of this kravin’ flying city. And…I could use the change of scenery.”
“No, Captain, I think it’s best if you remain on the command deck,” Jack said.
“My command crew can handle the deck without me watching over them,” Morton said. “And I know these drive systems better than anyone else currently conscious on this ship. I’ll accompany Commander Torent to the drive room, unless you want to impose martial law and have me confined to the command deck, Major?”
Jack glanced at Sam and gave a look that asked for Sam’s opinion. A simple glance between old friends and front-line brothers-in-arms conveyed the message of a hundred words. Sam shrugged. It was a slight, almost imperceptible gesture lost to those standing around the command deck, but a gesture that Sam would accept Jack’s decision, whatever it was.
“Very well,” Jack said. “Get this ship running, Captain.”
Morton walked toward a side locker on the command deck. It popped open in response to Morton’s command code, transferred from his ID chip. Morton pulled out an oxygen mask that he secured over his nose and mouth. Then he took a set of protective glasses and slid them on. After a quick adjustment of breather and glasses, Morton reached into the locker and drew out a pulse pistol and holster. He slung the holster strap over his shoulder and slammed the locker shut.
As Sam left the command deck, following the captain, Jack spotted a young Marine on the deck climbing to his feet. Jack ran his ID. He was a squad leader from the Leo battalion, Tim Hawke.
Hawke spotted Jack and came to attention unsteadily. He gripped a console for support.
“At ease, Hawke,” Jack said.
“Sir. Yes, sir.”
“Who is the senior Marine aboard, Hawke?”
“Me, sir,” Hawke hesitated. “But not anymore, not now you are here. Permission to speak, sir.”
“Go ahead, Hawke,” Jack said.
“You are Major Forge, aren’t you, sir? I mean, you are the Major Forge?”
Jack felt the eyes of several officers turn on him, but he ignored the curious looks from the command officers and stepped forward to help the young Marine before he lost his balance.
“Yes, Hawke, I’m Major Jack Forge. What are you doing here? Were you part of the evacuation?”
“No, sir. I’m here with 8th Squad of Leo Battalion, posted here as security, sir.” Hawke turned away from Jack and vomited over the cold deck.
“One squad?” Jack asked incredulously. “One squad to provide security for an entire civilian transport?”
“Yes, sir,” Hawke said, turning back to Jack, looking pale and tired. “But we are not even at full strength, not anymore,” Hawke said apologetically.
“How many Marines are aboard?”
“Six, sir, including me. We were scattered all over the ship when the Devex attacked. I’d posted units at major corridor junctions.”
“Good work, Marine. You used your resources well.” He looked around the command deck. Officers were shivering in the cold and attempting to power up their consoles.
“We studied your defense of the Scorpio at training camp, sir. I just copied your plan, but we were too few.”
“Well, you’ve got two more Marines aboard now, Hawke,” Jack said.
Then Jack heard Lieutenant Ellen Ripa on a private channel.
“Major Forge, sir. Have you seen this? A ship. I just detected it. It’s heading toward our location now. It’s moving fast.”
Jack moved about the command deck looking for any functional console to check the approach of the ship.
“Is it Devex?” Jack said on the private channel with Ripa.
“No, Sir,” Ripa replied. “It’s not Fleet either. It’s a cruiser. Some rich person’s private ship.”
A command deck officer called Jack over. His console was coming to life, panels blinking on and off. Then as power was fully restored, it lit up.
Jack instructed the officer to direct a sensor at the incoming ship. It raced over the surface of the planet at a suicidally low altitude, throwing up a whirlwind of dusty snow behind it.
“Can anyone open a channel to that ship?” Jack called out. Jack walked over to the communications console. The officer there was working the console but was still half-asleep and looked like he would collapse at any moment. He looked at Jack and simply shook his head.
Jack looked at the readout. The ship was ignoring the communication.
“Jack,” Bale’s voice came over the private channel heard only by Jack. “My scanners show that the approaching ship is unarmed.”
Jack ran to the tactical console. He checked the defensive systems of the civilian transport. There were no weapons, only the hull integrity field designed to protect against rogue asteroid impacts in deep space. It might be powerful enough to deflect some attacks, certainly a ramming attack from the incoming cruiser.
“It’s bearing down right on top of the transport. It’s ignoring all my attempts to communicate. It looks hostile to me. We can get a shot at it with the frigate’s port battery.”
Jack walked over to the command chair and picked up his helmet. “Negative. They can’t damage us. The civilian cruiser has a massive hull integrity field. It could withstand being rammed by that racer. Don’t engage it. A ship like that might not have our level of sensor nodes. It’s possible it hasn’t picked up our frigate next to this massive transport. If we are undetected, I’d like to keep it that way. I’m going to meet whoever they are.”
Jack walked toward the command deck exit. “Send out a surveillance drone and stay alert for any other ships entering the system. Let me know if anything else decides to join us. And watch out for the Devex. I just know they are going to be coming along some time soon.”
Jack closed the channel. He turned now to Squad Leader Tim Hawke.
“I am going to meet this visitor. If you must, you will defend the command deck. That is an order. I know you have it in you, Hawke.”
Hawke saluted Jack. Jack returned the salute and left the command deck.
The corridors were dark, and the faceplate enhanced data showed Jack the way. The ship was coming in to land on the upper hull of the civilian ship. Jack located the nearest transit and climbed into the waiting pod. The door slid shut. Jack felt the sudden movement as the pod accelerated upward. He used his suit’s stability field to steady himself.
The pod came to a sudden stop, and Jack felt himself grow lighter for a moment in the sudden deceleration. The door slid open and Jack looked along a dark corridor. He checked the map on his data overlay to find he was on the uppermost deck of the huge ship just meters from where the private cruiser was touching down.
A hatch just ahead was clearly the intended point of entry. Jack ran toward it. He pulled his pulse pistol off his hip and held it at his side. He didn’t want to greet the visitor with pulse pistol fire, but there was something suspicious about the silent approach. Jack thought that the communications systems might be malfunctioning aboard the sleek cruiser, but it might be something more sinister.
“The ship has landed on the upper hull of the transport,” Bale reported.
Jack scanned the area above, but his suit’s scanners couldn’t penetrate the transport’s hull. He watched the hatch for signs of movement.
Then the hatch opened. It fell inwards with a thump and a cold, snow-flecked wind came flying into the low-pressure environment of the transport ship.
Jack took a combat stance, left leg forward. Pistol in his right hand cupped with his left, ready to be raised if needed.
Then a small device dropped in through the hatch in the ceiling.
Jack instantly knew what it was and turned to run away.
The detonation slammed into Jack the moment he turned, and the blast threw him along the dark corridor. He landed heavily. His data overlay flickered as the suit’s power systems reset. The concussion grenade had delivered a heavy punch and momentarily disrupted his suit’s power. The medical readout showed he had sustained no injuries but a mild concussion that was already being treated.
Jack rolled and pressed himself off the deck, rising onto his hands and knees. Before he could stand, he was violently pushed back to the deck. He rolled over and looked up at an industrial handheld laser cutter pointed at his chest. The tip of the cutter was fizzing and ready for work.
He looked past the cutter to the face of the person holding it. It was a face covered with stubble, dark goggles over the eyes and a breathing mask covering the nose and mouth. A large, fur-lined hood covered the head.
“Drop it,” the voice said from behind the breathing mask, barely audible over the howling wind. The laser cutter moved a fraction closer.
Jack let go of his pistol and slid it away. He suspected the cutter would burn through his tactical suit and chest cavity more easily than the rock and metal it was designed to cut. He was sure he could get a round off before the assailant could press the cutter forward, but the shot would kill the man, and the cutting blade would be still deadly in a dead man’s hands. Should he topple forward, Jack would be run through as the man fell forward. He thought it was best to play along, at least for now.
“Okay. Okay,” Jack said. He held his hands out to the sides and showed he was surrendering to the man in the mask. “No one needs to get hurt, right?”
“No one needs to get dead,” the man said.
Jack scanned for identification using the suit’s scanners. The neural interface recognized Jack’s instructions and in an instant, the hooded man’s information flashed up on the enhanced display inside of Jack’s helmet.
The man was an asteroid mining contractor named Lou Beretta. The file Jack had was incomplete, but a fractured resume showed that Beretta had worked for years transporting ore from the asteroid mines to the home world before the Chitin War. There was a period of incarceration for trafficking, followed by a long period where there was no data. Beretta had apparently left his profession and gone underground. Jack guessed he had taken control of the cruiser some time toward the end of the war and used it to escape. Now he was looking out for himself.
“You were in the mining industry, right?”
“You scanning my ID, soldier?”
Jack pointed at the mining tool, the blade a few centimeters from Jack’s chest.
“Just a guess. I’m Jack Forge. A Marine.”
“I didn’t expect to find any soldiers here. I thought everyone was sleeping.”
“You knew they were all unconscious? What do you know about that? Do you know how it happened?” Jack asked.
“A soldier and a detective. You are a man of many skills, Jack.”
Jack raised himself up off the floor a fraction.
The laser cutter moved closer a fraction. “Oh, no you don’t, soldier,” Beretta said. “Just stay where you are. I didn’t come here to kill anyone, but I will if I have to.”
The man kicked Jack’s pistol back with his heel and stepped back. “I’m just doing what I can to survive.” He stooped and picked up the pulse pistol.
“I can help you,” Jack said. “You’ll stand a much better chance of surviving with some people around to help out.”
The man laughed and took another step back. “Look around you, Jack. There must be twenty thousand people on this transport. They weren’t exactly stronger together, were they? They got knocked out easily enough. The Devex will be back to scoop them up before long. I’ve seen it before. They knock out the ship and wait for the big ships to come along. Have you seen the size of those things?”
“Yes,” Jack said calmly. “I saw data from their first raid on the fleet.”
The man stepped back again, laughing a single humorless grunt. “The fleet. Makes it sound like we are all in it together.” The man looked up to the open hatch and let out a shrill whistle. “Don’t fool yourself, Jack. That fleet is falling apart. Selfishness and greed will always win out in the end. You have to admire the Devex. They really know how to work together.”
A second man dropped through the open hatch and landed next to Beretta.
“Who’s that, Lou?” the second man said.
Beretta handed the pistol to the big man. “Get to work.”
The big man aimed the pulse pistol at Jack. Jack knew the suit would protect him from one or two poorly-aimed shots, but he braced himself to get away.
“You want me to take care of him?” the big man asked.
“No,” Beretta said. “I’ll watch him. Go and get what we came for. Go.”
Then another person dropped in, a short, stocky, nasty-looking man. He looked down at Jack. Then he glanced at the man with the fur-lined hood.
“Get to work,” Beretta said with menace. The stocky man took another look at Jack and then ran off, the big man following into the dark corridor.
Beretta stepped forward. “Now you just hold still, Jack. We are gonna help ourselves to a few items to help us on our way and then you’ll be free to sit around on this cattle cart until the Devex arrive to scoop you all up. But if I were you, I’d try and get away from here as quickly as possible. Do you know what those Devex are doing with all these people they snatch?”
“No,” Jack said. Maybe, he thought, this pirate knew. Jack was keen to know for himself.
“No, me neither,” Beretta said, “and that’s what kravin’ terrifies me.”
The snowy wind continued to blow in through the open hatch. Jack checked the vital signs on the masked man in front of him. He was beginning to show signs of cold. The heavy coat was able to protect him from the extreme cold outside but not indefinitely.
“You were an asteroid miner, right?” Jack said.
The man grunted with annoyance. “That chip was a requirement for any off-world miner. I hated taking it, and I hate it now. Scan me again and I’ll burn your head off.”
“Don’t do that,” Jack said. “I like my head where it is.” Jack propped himself up on his elbows, still lying down and looking up at Beretta. “You were a hard-working man back before the Chitin War, right? You’re no pirate.”
The two men returned from of the dark moving a small hover-loader in front of them. Jack scanned the pile. Rations and power cells from a supply hold. A cable dropped in through the hatch and the pair attached the loader. They climbed onto the loader themselves and started moving up through the open hatch.
“Looking after yourself is not piracy, Jack. It is simply good sense,” Beretta said. “Staying here and trying to help these people is not good sense. You strike me as a clever guy. Why not come with me, now. I got room for one more.”
Beretta stood back and showed Jack the way to the open hatch.
“You got some skills, I bet. I could use a good hand in my crew. The offer is closing fast.” Beretta stepped back and stood under the open hatch. Snow and wind blowing around him.
“We can’t leave these people to the Devex,” Jack said. “If we work together, I think we can save them.”
“Save yourself, Jack,” Beretta said. Another cable dropped in through the opening and Beretta grabbed hold. “Good to meet you. Don’t get killed.”
Beretta was pulled up through the opening. Jack jumped to his feet and ran to the open hatch, looking up. Only dark sky above with snow blowing through the sky. Then Jack saw the light from the cruiser’s drive system flash through the snow-filled dark.
Jack jumped up and tapped the ladder release. A ladder dropped down and gave Jack access to the open hatch. He climbed up and saw the drive assembly of Beretta’s ship roaring away.
He grabbed the open hatch and pulled it closed. The hatch lock was burned out, cut away by the mining cutter. It would not make a seal. With the hatch in place as well as he could get it, Jack dropped down. The air still rushed in through the narrow gap and created a shrieking whistle that was ear-shatteringly loud. Jack’s tactical suit filtered out the shrill frequency as he made his way back to the command deck.
As he stepped into the transit pod, his communicator received a message from Tim Hawke on the command deck.
“What is it, Mr. Hawke?” Jack asked as seconds later, he stepped back out of the pod into a public lobby and transit hub. The people lying around on the deck were stirring, shivering, and some were clambering up to their hands and knees.
“There is a breach in the hull somewhere. Air is rushing in. It’s diluted the Dox vapor throughout the ship. People are waking up.”
“Copy that, Mr. Hawke. See if you can contact any of your squad. Have them form up outside the command deck. Copy.”
“Copy that, sir.”
Then Jack heard a low rumbling noise. It grew louder by the moment, and it was coming closer. Jack stepped away from the transit pod and looked along wide corridor where people were stirring from their induced coma. A rush of people came pouring along the corridor, shouting as they came. Some were waving batons and clubs.
Jack had seen panic on the faces of civilians before. It was worrying and dangerous for a mob to be afraid and angry. Without discipline to hold them in check, they could become extremely dangerous, especially in a delicate environment like a deep space transport ship.
He checked the environment readout on his data overlay. The Dox vapor had been diluted by the fresh air rushing in from outside. The sleeping civilians were waking, and they were scared and angry.
The mob rushed toward Jack. He turned to the transit pod door and pressed for it to open. There was no way he was staying here to confront a mob of club-wielding civilians.
And then the power went out. Jack turned to face the oncoming mob. They were lit up by the enhanced data view on his helmet visor. The sudden loss of power made them scared and confused, but at least it slowed their approach for a moment.
“This is Sam,” Jack heard over his communicator. “Sorry about that. Just a minor glitch while I reroute around the main distribution nodes. Should have power back up in a moment.”
“No,” Jack said, “keep the lights off!”
But it was too late, and Sam was too quick. The lights came up to full intensity and the briefly-stunned crowd came to life again—angry, snarling life. One man with a pool cue looked at Jack with fury. He rushed at Jack, his mouth wide open, bellowing a war cry filled with anger and fear.
The fat end of the stick came down on Jack, the heavy blow delivered by the wild man at the head of the mob. His eyes were red and fierce. Jack recognized the huge amount of fear backed up behind the wall of anger. Jack raised his arm and the cue stick snapped over his forearm. The enhanced data recorded the impact. No damage.
“Hold,” Jack shouted. He used his helmet’s amplifier to increase the volume of his voice and address the crowd.
The mob closed in, more frightened and angry men and women armed with a variety of clubs and batons, mostly domestic implements now repurposed as rudimentary weapons. They fought to get forward, to close in on Jack and add their weight to the attack. The blows rained down. His tactical suit recorded every impact from the blunt objects. The faces of the crowd pressed in on Jack, and he was forced back against the closed transit channel door.
Jack fended off the blows, his tactical suit easily absorbing all the force the mob could deliver. He shouted again, but the mob was wild. This was becoming tiresome. Jack had more important things to do than stand here facing a mob. He had to save them.
The tactical suit’s thruster was an obvious choice for escape, but the exhaust jets would burn and choke many in the crowd. It could even kill an unprotected civilian. Jack calmly adjusted the local gravity field around his suit and made himself extremely light. He dodged the next blow and pushed himself off the deck with both feet. He rose above the mob.
Hovering just out of arm’s reach of the clawing mob, Jack looked at the hate-filled faces as they reached up to drag him down. He kept just out of reach.
Jack opened a channel to the Captain Morton. “Captain. Your passengers are awake. They are afraid and are rioting down here.”
“Major Forge, I’ve got you on the surveillance feed up here. I don’t have any security personnel to offer assistance. Can you hold position for now?”
Jack rolled his eyes. He didn’t have time to hover over an angry mob. “Captain, can you seal all internal hatchway covers and doors? Let’s at least kettle this riot until we can restore some calm.”
Jack waited for a reply. It came in the form of a closing hatchway off the lobby. The mob turned from Jack and rushed to the closed doorway. Handheld mêlée weapons were now directed against the door.
Jack used a short burst from his thruster to push himself to the lobby’s high ceiling. He accessed the transport ship layout data and searched for a route out of the lobby and back to the command deck. A maintenance access hatch for the transit channel was his best chance. He maneuvered himself over to the cover and removed it. Once inside, he levitated up to the command deck level.
As he passed each level, Jack could hear more raised voices beyond the access doors. People were waking up all over the ship and were in a state of fear. If he opened any transit channel access with no pod in place, he had no doubt that many civilians would fall into the channel, pressed by their panicking fellows.
Jack eventually made it to the command deck level. A transit pod would have made the trip in seconds. He was slower, relying as he was on his suit’s thrusters, but he had made it. There was no sound from behind the door. Jack scanned through the composite and confirmed the corridor was clear.
Jack opened the transit channel door and stepped out. He reset his suit’s gravity field and felt the weight of local natural gravity take hold. He took a few steps to become accustomed to it then walked over to the command deck door and it opened.
The command deck officers were busy working at their consoles. The image of Captain Morton was on the holostage projected from the drive room to holostages all over the ship. He began speaking, and Jack realized he was addressing the ship.
“Attention all passengers. This is the captain. I am here to assure you that all is well.”
“All is not well,” Jack muttered to himself. “They are rioting all over the ship.”
“I know you have many concerns and many valid questions that you need answered. But let me assure you that we are safe.”
“We are not safe,” Jack said, striding toward the holostage.
“Ship systems are currently being repaired and will soon be restored to provide you with security and comfort.”
Jack shook his head. Morton was not just a ship’s captain, he was a politician, and he was running off a series of promises based on what the people wanted to hear rather than any facts.
Morton finished his address with a few promises of immediate action. Jack opened a channel to the captain.
Jack had seen enough of battle to know fear. He had felt it in himself and seen it on the faces of his fellow Marines. But the Fleet Marine Service was a disciplined force and the Marines were trained to manage their fear. The passengers were not a trained and disciplined force, they could not handle the fear they were feeling, and it was exploding in a wave of uncontrolled anger and violence.
“Captain,” Jack said as Morton’s image reappeared on the holostage, speaking now only to Jack. “We need to get the civilians under control. They are going to hurt themselves or damage the ship. The best thing we can do is knock them all out again,” Jack said.
“Now just wait a moment,” Morton said with a condescending tone. “This is a civilian ship. I have authority here.”
“These people don’t know what’s going on,” Jack responded. “They are afraid, and it is safer for everyone if we just send them back to sleep. We need to seal the hatch on the upper hull and then pump in some kind of soporific. That is the best and easiest way to restore calm.”
“You are talking about assaulting thousands of innocent civilians. I won’t allow it. I will restore calm. Once they know I am back in charge of this ship, they will calm down. They will listen to me.”
Jack tapped a panel on the side of the holostage, selecting a surveillance feed at random. The holostage was suddenly filled with images from a wide corridor along a row of personal cabins. The doors were all flung open and people were rushing about, frantically trying to find a way out.
Jack sent the feed to the captain’s location. “Look,” Jack said. He selected another feed almost at random. The same scene was playing out, people in fear and panic. “They know the ship was attacked. They know they were knocked out. Now they think they are in mortal danger and they don’t know what to do about it. It’s chaos.” Jack walked over to the command chair. “Send them back to sleep so we can save them.”
Jack climbed up into the command chair and opened a channel to the frigate.
“Ripa. Bale. Get a drone up to the transport’s upper hull. There’s a hatch that needs to be sealed.”
Ripa replied immediately, “Copy that, sir. Drone away. We’re almost done over here, sir. All damage has been…” Ripa hesitated to say repaired. “Let’s just say we are as ready for action as we’re going to be, sir. Ripa out.”
Jack accessed the control panel on the chair. “I don’t know how well this will work. I really need a medical officer to authorize this... Pumping soporific into the air supply.”
“Some might say this is an assault on our civil liberties, Major Forge,” Morton said.
“If we make it back to the fleet alive, you can report me,” Jack said. He watched the environmental controls show the change in air chemistry as a soporific was slowly introduced to all levels and all sections except the drive room and the command deck.
Jack tapped the armrest console. The civilian transport command system was almost identical to the system Jack was familiar with. He accessed storeroom information and checked the supplies that had been raided by Beretta. He sent the information to Morton.
“The group who forced their way in, the pirates— They took several power cells and ration supplies. Is that going to be a problem?”
“That could be a problem,” Morton said. “For them,” he added with a smirk. “They were configured for this transport, coded to our systems. Not sure it’ll suit a private craft, not without extensive modification and a few clever hacks. They might have been better off if they’d snatched the civilian cabin power cells, lower power but compatible with any system.”
“Then they might be back for more,” Jack said. “We need to get underway before they return. Next time, they might take something we are relying on. How soon can we get off the ground, Captain?” Jack asked. “My frigate is ready to escort you back to the fleet.”
“We might be some time, Major,” Morton said. “The drive system is not responding. It looks like there is a problem with the reactor. It wasn’t apparent while the power distribution was malfunctioning.”
“How long?” Jack repeated. He accessed the ship’s sensors and projected a system-wide image on the holostage. Danger was nearby and could arrive at any moment.
“I’m working as fast as I can,” Morton said. “But we’re not leaving any time soon.”
Jack watched over the environmental controls as the soporific was pumped into the air supply. Within moments of the concentration reaching critical level, the passengers began to slow, stumble, and collapse. The surveillances feeds showed an eerie sight. In places where the people had gathered, the floor was covered with bodies. The images of a deserted ship in the areas that had been vacant were even more eerie.
Jack plotted the route to the drive room of the massive civilian ship and transferred the route to his wrist-mounted holostage. The holographic arrow over the 3-D map of the immediate area pointed the way.
Announcing to the command deck crew that he was going to the drive room, Jack stepped through the sliding double doors and out into the ship.
Most of the corridors were empty. Turning a corner into a public area, the sight of dozens of people collapsed to the deck was disconcerting. Jack stopped to adjust the position of a woman who had ended up in an uncomfortable-looking position. A few steps along, Jack came to a transit pod.
Stepping inside, the pod door closed behind him. The pod’s movement was barely perceptible, even though it was moving at tremendous speed. He arrived at the aft section of the massive ship in moments. The transit pod door slid open and Jack stepped out into an industrial-looking area.
Sam was waiting a few meters away.
“I think we’ve found the problem, Jack,” Sam said. “But the fix is not so easy. This way.”
Jack fell in step alongside Sam, who was looking at his upper right arm. The black composite tendrils that had once connected his cybernetic arm were twitching.
“Is that you making them do that, Sam?” Jack asked, watching the thick tendrils squirm like a knot of snakes.
“No,” Sam said, perplexed, “and I’m sure they are getting longer too.”
Jack took another look. He could not see for certain that they were looking any longer than usual. “You want to get it checked out?” Jack asked. “There is a med facility on this ship. Fully equipped. Med drones, the lot. Go and check yourself.”
Sam shook his head. “No,” he said, still looking at the remains of his cybernetic prosthetic. “It’s fine. I’m fine. Let’s get to work.”
Jack nodded. He agreed, for now, but if Sam started to look like he was having some sort of reaction, or his arm’s endcap was malfunctioning, he would order his old friend to the med facility and have the drones examine him. He suspected that Sam was reluctant to visit a med facility because he would possibly be given a new cybernetic arm. The prosthetics had always given Sam a bad time. Jack knew he found them to be uncomfortable and irritating. Sam had always preferred to remove the arm at any opportunity. Now that there was no cybernetic arm available, no one, not even Jack, could insist he attach it. Sam managed just fine with the one arm, but Jack knew that the moment they returned to the fleet, the Marine authorities would insist on Sam having a new arm attached. Jack didn’t see why Sam should have to suffer that any sooner than necessary.
“Okay, Sam,” Jack said. “But if having one arm starts to impede your performance, I will have to insist you get down the med facility and have the drones check you over. I might even rouse a doctor. There must be one on this ship somewhere.”
Captain Morton was standing at the primary maintenance console. It was alive with blinking red lights all across the wide panel. Jack stepped up and began to switch them off, from least vital system moving up to the most important until he found the single biggest problem. A fused reactor couple and drive assembly shunt.
“That’s the problem alright,” Morton said. “That and a hundred other minor problems. It all adds up to a week in drydock with a full engineering team and then we’ll be good to go.”
“We can bypass some of these safety protocols,” Jack said, “and we can deactivate others. Most of these minor problems can be ignored. Others we can run in parallel with some other systems.”
Morton checked Jack’s assessment. “There is no way we can let this ship take off like that. We would have to circumvent a dozen safety systems. It is not just against regulation,” Morton said, “it is criminally negligent. We could all die.”
The fleet ships had all been in a battered and sorry state toward the end of the long and bitter Chitin War. Jack had become accustomed to fixing and mending and making do. He was not surprised to hear this civilian captain take a different view. Too often, the civilian ships were grounded for the slightest system error, while the military had to fight on. Jack had feared Morton would refuse to attempt take off without having fully functioning systems across the board. His fears were realized. He had to insist the ship would take off regardless of the captain’s reservations. The lives of the passengers were at stake.
Jack stepped away from the panel. “Yes,” he conceded. “It will be dangerous to run the ship in this condition, but we will certainly all be lost if we stay here on the planet. I don’t want to act without your agreement, Captain, but we are in mortal danger. Every moment we lose brings that danger closer. Let’s assemble an engineering team and get to work,” Jack said.
Morton folded his arms and looked at the console. “Even if I agreed to deactivating all safeties, we are still dead in the void, Major. This is not just a simple patch-up job here,” Morton said. “The fused reactor coupling will have to be replaced and reconfigured to the drive assembly shunt. We will need replacement parts.” Morton turned to Jack. “We could strip out the frigate. The reactor coupling is practically identical.”
Sam looked at Jack but said nothing. Jack looked at the console in front of him. It might be easier to strip the frigate, but it was a big job moving that much hardware. And the frigate was the only ship in the system that could fight. Jack would not reduce his fighting strength without very good cause.
“I worked maintenance on a Fleet destroyer. I can repair the fused coupling. I’ve done it before on Marine tac boats. Practically the same design, just smaller. A good maintenance team should be able to get it done. Do you have a workshop, Captain?”
Morton nodded as he flicked through the damage reports of all minor systems. “Yes. We have a workshop and a maintenance team. They’ll be asleep somewhere because you knocked them all out. We’ll have to find them, wake them, and put them to work. I’ll get the command crew to assist.”
Jack was already tapping away at his wrist-mounted holostage. He selected the crew list and selected the maintenance team. He found the locations of the members of the unconscious maintenance team scattered about the ship. He sent the information to Squad Leader Hawke on the command deck and opened a communication channel.
“Hawke here,” the young Marine responded as his image appeared on Jack’s wrist.
“Muster your team and locate these individuals. Escort them to the workshop in the aft section. On the double, Squad Leader.”
Hawke responded positively to the order, a job to take his mind off the boredom of doing nothing.
Then Bale’s voice came over Jack’s communicator, distressed and garbling his words.
“Just calm down, Mr. Bale,” Jack said. “Say again.”
“A group of Devex raiders have been detected. They are heading directly for the planet, directly for the civilian transport.” Bale became agitated, clearly afraid. “They are coming for us.”
Jack watched the approaching Devex raiders on his wrist-mounted holostage. They had already entered the upper atmosphere and were heading directly for the upper hull of the transport and one of the many entry points there.
“Sam, you keep a handle on things down here. I’m going to hold off these Devex.”
Sam grabbed Jack’s arm as he turned to leave. “Jack,” Sam said. “You can’t go alone. You haven’t even got a weapon.”
Captain Morton unclipped his pulse pistol and handed it to Jack. “I can take charge down here, Major.”
Sam drew his pistol and nodded at Jack. “Ready?” he asked.
Jack looked at Sam and then the captain. He trusted Sam to get the work done on the drive more than he trusted the captain. The captain was too cautious. If this transport ship was to survive, there would be some risks. Jack knew Sam would judge the risk and get the ship running. But Jack trusted Sam in a battle more than any other Marine alive, and battle was fast approaching.
“Okay,” Jack said. “Get this ship ready to fly, Captain. Nothing pretty, we just need to get moving. Sam, you’re with me.”
Jack ran along the smooth, curved corridors and took up a position near a central transit channel. He was ready to move quickly to intercept the raiders when they boarded.
“It’s a bad idea, Jack,” Sam said. “We can’t fight them off alone.”
“You didn’t say anything in the drive room.” Jack checked his pistol. It was a Fleet pistol, very similar to the Fleet Marine weapon he was used to. Only difference was this pistol did not have an electron blade. He would have to manage without it. He hoped he wouldn’t get that close to this enemy.
“I didn’t say anything in the drive room because if I told you it was a losing battle, I knew you would insist on going alone.”
“Maybe I should have. What’s the good of us both dying?”
“It’s a bad idea,” Sam said again. “Who’s going to protect this ship if we fail?”
Jack watched the raiders approach. They were already in the inner system and moving in on the ice planet fast.
“There is only us,” Jack said. “So, we had better not fail.”
The sound of footsteps in the corridor caught Jack’s attention. It was the sound of a squad of Marines moving quickly on a tactical advance into battle. Squad Leader Hawke came around the corner followed by five Marines in full Marine tactical suits, pulse rifles across their chests. The equipment looked battered and worn, but clean. Hawke had not let his squad stand idle. They had clearly used their time productively.
“Hawke. You had orders,” Jack said, standing in front of Hawke as the squad came to a halt.
“Sir. Yes, sir. All engineering personal have been woken and moved to the drive room. The captain has taken charge and is directing the repairs.”
Sam leaned over to Jack and spoke quietly in his ear. “We need to protect the maintenance team, Jack. If the drive room is taken...”
Sam didn’t need to finish. Jack understood that getting the ship mobile was the best way to win. If they lost control of the drive room, they would surely fail.
But Jack also needed to repel the Devex warriors when they boarded. The thought of them moving through the ship snatching sleeping passengers was horrible. Jack checked the locations of the main entry points on the upper hull. He checked the location of the sleeping civilians. There was a concentration of civilians near a forward entry point. Jack showed Sam and Hawke the image on his wrist-mounted holostage.
“That’s where the Devex will enter. That’s where they’ll go to snatch their captives, where the life signs are most concentrated.”
Sam nodded. “So, what are we going to do?”
Jack zoomed out and selected an image of the entire ship. It was enormous and impossible for a handful of Marines to defend. He had to make a decision.
“Sam, you take two Marines and protect the drive room. Defend the repair crew. I’ll hold here and move to repel the Devex when they board. Okay?”
Sam nodded. He stepped over to the squad of Marines. “I am Commander Torent,” Sam introduced himself. “Company commander of the Scorpio Battalion. Now it’s my good luck to have a chance to fight side by side with you.” Sam reached out with the stump of his right arm and jabbed the two lucky Marines in the chest.
Sam turned to Hawke. “With your permission, of course, Squad Leader,” Sam said with a mischievous grin.
Hawke nodded and then repeated the order to the two selected Marines.
“With me, Marines,” Sam said and ran off. He called over his shoulder as he went. “Good luck, Jacky. Don’t get killed.”
Jack shouted back. “Try not to lose any more limbs or I’ll start to think that you are trying to get out of the service a little piece at a time.”
Jack turned to Hawke and the remaining Marines. They seemed surprised to hear two senior Marines talk to each other in such a familiar manner. Jack realized he had been alone with Sam and away from the rest of his battalion for such a long time, and because he and Sam were such old friends and brothers-in-arms, they might have become a little too familiar.
A gentle beep from his wrist-mounted holostage alerted him to the Devex raiders’ proximity. He called up an image relayed from the ship’s passive sensors. The three Devex raiders were slowing their descent and maneuvering to land. They would be on top of the transport in moments.
Jack watched patiently. He glanced up at the squad. The data on his helmet display showed the life-signs of the small squad. Their pulse rates were elevated. All, including Hawke, were showing signs of stress and anxiety. He did a quick service check on them. All were fresh from the training base, their only active service included supervising the boarding of civilians onto this transport during the evacuation, and the action against the Devex raiders when they first boarded the ship, which they had comprehensively lost. Now they were fewer, and their fear greater. Jack checked the data on the squad’s encounter with the Devex. It had been brief and bloody. The Devex had killed the few Marines they had encountered, captured the civilians nearby, and laced the ship’s air with the Dox vapor. Hawke’s small squad hadn’t really stood a chance against a hostile, well-equipped, and determined enemy.
“Listen up, Squad,” Jack said, deactivating the image of the approaching Devex. “You are on home ground here. You know the lay of the land, so I’ll be following your lead when we move. We need to move to intercept with speed. When we encounter the enemy, we will engage with all force. The Devex are a powerful enemy, and they are coming. You are well aware of their capabilities. They won’t be a surprise to you this time. We know what to expect of them. You are ready, and we are going to stop them. Copy?”
The squad all responded in the affirmative, but Jack could hear they were still nervous. He knew they needed focus, but the thought of a fight left them feeling uncertain and afraid.
“Equipment check. Double-time, Marines!” Jack barked. The squad hesitated for a fraction of a second.
Hawke found his voice and called out, “You heard the major. Equipment check.”
Before Hawke had finished speaking, the three Marines were checking their tactical suits, hands moving down their suits from helmet over their chests and down to hips in a regimented pattern, checking it over. Then they checked the backs of the suit of the Marine next to them, signaling the check complete with a heavy pat on the shoulder. Once all suits were checked, they checked their pulse rifles. And as the last part of the standard procedure for an equipment check, the Marines fired up their electron bayonets. The white fizzing blade, a meter long, burst into life at the end of their rifles. Then the Marines deactivated the bayonets and came to attention.
Jack was satisfied that at least the small squad was well drilled. He turned to Hawke.
“You keep your squad on top of their drills, Squad Leader.”
“Yes, sir,” Hawke said. His voice failed to deliver the words with confidence.
“You will be happy that you kept your equipment in good order, make no mistake.” Jack received a final alert from his holostage. He held up his arm and displayed the image. The Devex warriors were exiting their raiders and moving toward an upper service hatch.
“There they are. Combat spacing. Move, move, move!”
He watched as Hawke led his pitifully small three-man squad into battle against a dozen Devex warriors. The only positive that he could find was that the Devex were probably expecting all occupants of the ship to be in a coma. They were surely not expecting resistance this time.
Jack drew his pulse pistol out of his holster and fell in step behind the Marines.
The transit pod brought the squad within earshot of the Devex warriors. The fall of their heavy boots filled the corridor. Jack noticed the heart rate of his squad leap as the shadows of Devex fell along the corridor.
He silently directed the squad to take cover along the corridor. One team of two Marines at the end of an adjoining corridor, a second two-person team, including Hawke, took cover in an open doorway to a luxury passenger compartment. Jack held back, taking cover around the gentle curve in the corridor.
He sent a message to each Marine, heard only by the recipients on their helmet communication circuits.
“Ready to fire. Pour it on them when they come in sight. We’ll hit them hard and drive them back. Stand by.”
The first Devex warrior came into view. He stooped to fit in the corridor, his three-meter height hampering his ability to move freely. Jack couldn’t help but feel in awe of the massive warrior. Its exoskeleton, much like a Marine tactical suit, was impressive, along with its massive rapid-fire blaster.
The Devex opened fire. A stream of tiny white dots of energy raked the corridor. The energy bullets came fizzing from the blaster and slammed into the composite of the corridor and exploded, throwing chucks of material out from the walls
“Open fire!” Jack said. He pressed himself against the side of the corridor.
The Marines in the open corridor let loose with a few pulse rounds. The familiar sound of the Fleet Marine’s primary weapon filled Jack with a hundred memories. He fought back those memories, since few of them were good. Rifle fire was too often accompanied by shouts of fear and pain. Jack put fear from his mind and urged his Marines into action.
“Maintain the fire!” Jack called.
The Devex warrior dropped to the deck, and a second warrior came lumbering behind. The two Devex delivered a sustained stream of white energy bullets onto the open doorway where Hawke was taking cover.
The stream of burning energy from the Devex blasters came with a high-pitched fizzing, and with each hit, the corridor walls and doorframe erupted with burning explosions. The Devex maintained a steady stream, tearing chunks out of the corridor and pouring fear into the small squad of Marines.
The two Marines at the end of the adjoining corridor broke cover and ran back toward Jack. Jack, alert to the deadly danger, dropped and rolled across the corridor to give him a line of sight on the two Devex. He gave covering fire with his pulse pistol, striking the stooped Devex in the faceplate. The Devex head jerked back as the pulse round struck.
The prone Devex turned his blaster on the retreating Marines. They were both flung toward Jack as the energy bullets slammed into their backs. Both fell dead. Their time of death transmitted automatically from their tactical suits to Jack’s.
The prone Devex propped himself up on his elbows and turned his blaster toward Jack. Jack rolled aside and found just enough cover around the slight bend. The bullets tore into the deck plating at Jack’s elbow. He scurried back and pressed himself close to the edge of the corridor.
“Pulse grenade out!”
Jack heard Hawke’s call. He heard the tell-tale sound of a grenade hitting the deck.
The Marine stationed with Hawke came running back along the corridor in a disorderly retreat. He was running for his life.
“Cover!” Jack said, the instruction intended for the fleeing Marine. Checking his enhanced display, Jack discovered that the Marines was several meters back along the corridor already and steadily retreating, his bio signs off the chart, fear and stress flooding his system with a chemical cocktail that was difficult for even a seasoned Marine to endure, and clearly too much for a novice.
The blast from the pulse grenade ripped along the corridor. Jack braced himself and leaned into the residual blast wave. He risked a glance around the bend of the corridor. At that point, Hawke came running toward Jack. Out of the clouds of dust thrown up from the pulse grenade came the minute white energy bullets from the Devex blasters. They raked the walls of the corridor, exploding and tearing chunks of smooth composite out of the corridor and leaving charred, rough marks and smoldering scars.
“Take cover!” Jack said and directed Hawke to a nearby doorway.
“Where’s Webster?” Hawke said as he took cover across from Jack.
“He lost it and ran.”
“Not Webster!” Hawke lamented. “He was always so tough.”
Jack fired at the dark shape in the white dust that filled the corridor. “Open fire. Heavy fire. Hold them back.”
“We can’t hold them!” Hawke said.
A stream with energy bullets zipped past close to Jack’s head. The flash of the white bullets, brighter than a neutron star, flooded his helmet, the flare shielding not reacting in time to completely protect Jack’s vision. The brightness flashed across his eyes, temporarily blinding him on the right side. He returned fire, knowing that a few centimeters more and he would have had his helmet blasted away, a good deal of his skull and brain along with it.
“Pulse grenade out!” Hawke called and stepped into the corridor, grenade primed and ready to toss.
A stream of white energy cut across Hawke’s right shoulder, tearing a chunk out of the suit. Hawke toppled to one side, his legs crumpling under him. The grenade tumbled from his hand and his fingers uncurled.
Acting on instinct, Jack reached for the falling grenade and tossed it toward the Devex. He checked Hawke’s life signs. The young Marine was alive but falling into shock.
“Fall back, Hawke!” Jack shouted. He grabbed Hawke and turned to run. The stream of energy bullets slammed into the deck, walls, and ceiling all around them. Every bullet was almost too small to measure, each one burning fiercely, every one slamming into the composite and smashing out chucks with a deafening explosion. And each one mercifully missed Jack and Hawke.
The grenade detonated. The stream of pursuing bullets stopped, for a moment.
Jack strode onto the command deck, Hawke and Webster close behind. The doors slid shut behind them, closing with a dull thud as he pulled off his helmet.
Captain Morton was standing at the central holostage. He looked up at Jack.
“The Devex have taken one hundred and fifty passengers. Their ships lifted off a moment ago.”
Jack placed his helmet on a console. “I thought you were supervising the work at the drive section.”
“The maintenance team can handle the repair. I’d rather not watch, to be honest. I still think repairs are a bad idea. I still think it’ll kill us all.”
“It’s a robust piece of hardware. It’ll take more abuse than you know, Captain.”
“That’s what the maintenance guys said,” Morton replied. “I hope you are right.”
Morton turned to the holostage. The image showed the section that had just been cleared out by the Devex. “What do they want with these people?” Morton asked, looking at the holoimage, his shoulders slumped.
“Can you track the raiders?” Jacked asked, instead of speculating, as he stepped up to the holostage.
Morton tapped a few controls and showed the three raiders racing away from the planet. They moved at high speed toward the distant Oort cloud that surrounded the system. They moved away at forty-five degrees to the ecliptic.
“Is that the direction they came from?” Jack asked.
Morton nodded. “I’ve traced their movements and searched for residual traces of their drive. Since they first put us all to sleep, they have made six trips, each one to and from the same location. Every time, three Devex raiders come, and they take around one hundred and fifty passengers.”
“I know where they’re taking them,” Jack said. “We spotted a Devex warship outside the Oort cloud. The cloud is too dense for it to move through. They are creating a path through the cloud so they can come and scoop everyone up, but they are sending the raiders to start collecting their prize.”
Morton turned away from the holostage and looked up at his command chair. “They have been on board many times while we we’ve all been asleep, before you arrived.”
“And they will be back,” Jack said as he tapped the holostage and called up an image of the civilian transport. “Now they know we are awake, more will come next time. They aren’t going to leave this ship alone until it is emptied of passengers or destroyed.”
Jack marked the locations on the upper hull where the largest entrances were. “I think we should run as soon as we can, but if we can’t get away before the next raid, I think we should fight. I don’t want them snatching any more civilians.”
Hawke was standing to one side of the command deck, Webster crumpled on the floor at his feet. Hawke shouted, “We can’t fight them. They’re too strong. We just got our kravin’ asses kicked, again. I just lost two more of my squad. How are we going to fight them?”
Jack stepped away from the holostage and walked over to Hawke. He spoke softly in Hawke’s ear. “When you address an officer, you say ‘sir’.”
Hawke’s head dropped. “Sir. Yes, sir,” he said quietly.
“You are a Marine, Squad Leader. You will fight and maybe you will die, and so will your Marines. We are here to protect these people and that obligation does not disappear because we are outnumbered. Copy?”
“Copy that, sir.”
“Now get on that passenger list and find every ex-military, every cop, anyone with weapons training. When you find them, go and wake them. If we are going to hold back the Devex, we are going to need volunteers for a militia force. Do you copy, Hawke?”
“Yes, sir,” Hawke said.
Morton stepped over to Jack. He looked hesitant. “I volunteer, Major,” Morton said. “It’s my duty to protect my passengers. I should be the first to volunteer for your militia.”
Jack realized his voice had been rising and saw the entire command deck crew looking at him, nervous and uncertain. He felt a rush of embarrassment that he let his emotions get away from him, but he was feeling frustrated and guilty for the loss of two Marines and a hundred and fifty civilians.
Jack put his hand on Morton’s shoulder. “No, Captain. You are needed here. As soon as the drive repairs are complete, you need to get us to that Oort cloud as fast as possible. I can’t have you in a running battle with the Devex when you will be needed here.”
Morton nodded. “I’ll break out the small arms. The command deck crew will be ready to defend the deck.”
“Good. Keep the scanners active. We need to know when the Devex are coming back.”
Jack surveyed the command deck as an officer opened a locker and distributed pulse pistols to the other dozen deck officers. Hawke was at a console, the nerve-shattered Webster standing at his side.
Jack stepped over to Hawke. “Progress?” he asked.
“We have a hundred and thirty cops on board. An entire precinct was evacuated on this ship.”
Jack looked at Hawke, studying the young Marine’s mood. He seemed composed and focused on his task. Webster looked calmer but was distracted.
“And you, Marine?” Jack said. “How are you holding up?”
Webster looked nervously at Jack. His eyes were red from tears, his face pale from fear.
“I ran, sir,” he said weakly. His lip quivered. “I was afraid.”
Jack fixed Webster with a firm stare. “We are all afraid, Webster,” he said.
The sound of his own name gave the Marine a jolt of confidence. He nodded, and Jack thought he saw some color return to the young man’s gaunt cheeks.
“Everyone on here is afraid.” Jack cast his arm about the command deck. The officers were prepping their pulse pistols and getting on with their jobs at the various consoles around the deck.
“Go with Hawke and wake those cops. You need to look confident when you do that. Can you do that, Marine?”
Jack turned to Hawke. “Ask the cops for assistance. If I know cops, they’ll be ready to help. Give them each a pulse weapon and oversee some fire practice. Be quick, though, we don’t know how long before the Devex will be back.”
Jack grabbed his helmet off the console where he’d left it and stepped over to the command deck doors. “Captain Morton, I’ll go and check on the repair work. Call me the instant anything happens.”
Jack pulled on the helmet and stepped out into the quiet corridor as the door slid shut behind him.
Opening a private channel, Jack took a few steps into the dark corridor. “Sam,” Jack said.
The channel opened and Jack heard the sounds of the repair work in the drive room. “Yeah. What is it, Jack?”
Jack walked with more confidence. “How are the repairs?”
“Progressing. How’s the Devex?”
“Not good. I’m coming to the drive section. See you soon.”
With the ventilation shut off to prevent the soporific filtering into the drive room, the air was becoming hot and heavy. The teams worked in their underclothes, sweat dripping from them as they fought to replace a huge part of the main drive.
Jack pulled off his helmet as Sam stepped over. His sleeves tied around his waist. His body dirty and sweaty.
“You’re out of uniform, Marine,” Jack said.
Sam pushed Jack out of sight of the maintenance team. He waited until he was out of earshot before his smile turned to a frown. “I am guarding this section, but I might as well lend a hand too. If the Devex break in, I’ll kill them all, but I’m not standing around waiting for that to happen. I am working. But what is your excuse? What are you doing here, Jack?”
Jack looked at the floor. “Two Marines got killed, Sam.”
Sam fixed Jack with a firm stare and then softened. “Hard luck. We’ve lost people before, Jack, people we knew. Why you so bothered about these?”
“And the Devex took a hundred and fifty passengers.”
“Hard luck for them too. Good luck for the rest that are here. We will save the rest. Right?” Sam pushed Jack hard.
“But it was my call, Sam. I took those Marines. It’s my fault they are dead.”
Sam pushed Jack again. “It’s the kravin’ Devex’s fault they are dead, Jacky. You didn’t shoot them.”
“I might as well have.”
Sam shoved Jack one more time. “Stow that kravin’ talk, Marine. Copy?”
Jack clenched his fist and tapped it against the bulkhead.
“I should have known more about my team. I didn’t know if they were ready for it.”
“No one is ready for an encounter with an enemy like this, Jack. We’ve faced battle a dozen times. Have you ever felt ready for it?”
Jack shook his head. Every time Jack faced danger, he felt afraid. He prepared the best he could, but no preparation was enough once the weapons fire began, once Marines started to fall.
“They were Marines, Jack. You took them to battle. They died. End of story.”
“It’s not the end of the story, Sam. The Devex will be back. We’ve got to fight them off again. I’ve told Hawke to wake a bunch of cops. They are not Marines. What if I get it wrong again, Sam?”
Sam shoved Jack in the shoulder. “So, you get it wrong. People will die. Hard luck for them, and hard luck for you. You are a Marine officer, Jack. We don’t follow you because you always make the right call, you just make the call. We follow you because you can formulate the plan. Half of all battle plans fail, right? Of course, they do, or else both sides would win every time. Maybe you are overdue a failure. Maybe you need to learn to accept failure before you can win.”
“You know how to cheer a guy up, Sam.”
Sam shoved Jack again. “I shouldn’t have to cheer up. You’re the kravin’ boss. So, boss the kravin’ situation or stand down and let someone else make the call. But I’ll tell you this: they won’t be as a good a tactician as you. So if you’ve lost your nerve, you need to stand aside and let someone else call the shots. We can’t have you second-guessing your every move. We’ll be sure to fail if you can’t make decisions, good or bad. You copy, Major?”
“Copy that,” Jack said with a weak smile. “Thanks, Sam.”
Sam looked Jack up and down and saw Jack was standing a bit taller. “Was it bad?” he finally asked.
“The Devex?” Jack asked. “Yeah. They came in hard. Took two of my Marines down fast. One Marine ran. I only just got away. I should have stayed and fought.”
“But you made the decision to fall back. A tactical retreat, right? And here you are, ready to smash them next time.” Sam punched Jack in the shoulder.
Sam stepped next to Jack and leaned against the bulkhead. He pulled a hydration pack out of his pocket and took a sip before handing it to Jack.
“Cops?” Sam said with mocking incredulity.
“Yeah, a whole precinct is aboard. Over a hundred.”
Sam shook his head disapprovingly. “I don’t have a good record with cops.” He held out his right arm. The composite tendrils hanging from the endcap were still twitching. “They keep doing that,” Sam changed the subject. “I used to be able to control them, even pick things up, but right now, they seem to have come alive. Maybe it’s this air.”
Jack looked. The composite tendrils were there to connect Sam to his cybernetic arm as a nerve and neural interface. Now they seemed longer and even a bit fatter than before.
“Does it hurt?” Jack asked.
“No, it doesn’t hurt, but you’ve got bigger things to think about than the remains of my old prosthetic.”
Jack pushed himself off the bulkhead. “Get that drive up and running. If we can get away before the Devex come back, so much the better.”
Sam pocketed the hydration pack and pushed himself away from the bulkhead. “Lead them, Jack. Get us out of here. If anyone can do it, it’s you.”
The captain’s voice came over the communicator. Sam looked at Jack.
“Major Forge. Devex raiders detected crossing the Oort cloud. They are heading back into the system. A dozen raiders in total. They are on a direct course to us.”
“Copy that, Captain,” Jack said with a strong, steady voice. “Keep me informed.” Then Jack opened a channel to Squad Leader Hawke. “Hawke, you got those cops awake yet?”
“We’re in a cargo hold on fifth deck." Hawke’s voice was lost under the sound of pulse rifle fire.
“Hold there. I’m on my way to you now.”
Jack paused and patted Sam on the shoulder. “They’ll hang you for striking an officer,” Jack said.
Sam punched Jack in the chest then patted him on the side of the head. “You’ll have to get us out of here first, Jack.”
Jack smiled. He turned and ran from the drive section, pulling on his helmet and checking the fastest route to the cargo hold where his hastily-formed militia was waiting.
Lou Beretta sat in the cockpit of his cruiser. Feet up on the console, hands tucked behind his head. He watched the scenes on his flight console’s small holostage.
“What’s the plan, Lou?” Lars Crooke stood behind Beretta, hovering uncertainly.
“Watch,” Beretta said. “And wait.”
The holostage showed the six Devex raiders swooping in toward the inner system. Beretta hadn’t calculated their heading, but it seemed clear. They were heading for the civilian transport on the surface of the ice planet.
“We need those power cells, Lou,” Crooke said, his inaccurate speech was almost childlike, but the deep voice was clearly that of a grown man.
“You need to take it easy.” Beretta shifted his weight in the seat. “Go and grab me a drink.”
“You want water, Lou?” Crooke asked, jabbing his fat thumb over his shoulder toward the untidy galley to the rear of the small cockpit.
“No. There are still a few bottles of Amber. Bring me one of those.”
Beretta brushed some dirt off the leather armrest. The pilot’s chair and everything in the cruiser was the best. He was proud of his ship, but his crew was making it untidy. He had never had such a high-end ship before, and he wanted to keep it clean for as long as possible.
Crooke returned with the squat, square bottle of Amber. He handed it to Beretta.
“You want a glass, Lou?”
Beretta took the bottle. He held it up to the light coming from the flight console. He swirled the rich liquid around the bottle, the liquor sticking to the sides and running back to the bottom in thick fingers.
“You touched this, Lars?” Beretta said.
“No, Lou. I never touched nothing.”
Beretta twisted in his seat. “You drink this?” he said.
“No, Lou,” Crooke’s voice becoming lighter and slower.
Beretta fixed Crooke with a stare then suddenly twisted back into his seat, feet up. “Good. I need you alert. Okay?”
“Yes, boss,” Crooke said.
“What are those guys doing back there?”
Crooke glanced over his shoulder. Beretta looked at their reflections in the shiny console. Snatch and Darran were standing in the plush, white leather-covered saloon. They were talking quietly. Beretta didn’t like the look of these criminals talking quietly together.
“They want to know if we are going back for those power cells now.”
Beretta stood up out of his seat and squared off against the big man’s chest. Crooke stood head and shoulders above Beretta, and he was almost twice as wide across the chest. Beretta stepped close to Crooke. The big man stepped back.
“We will go when I say we go.” Beretta spoke with a sharp and pointed tone, every word a dagger. He reached up and clasped the back of Crooke’s neck. Beretta smiled. “Relax, Lars. There’s no rush. Let’s go and put their concerns to rest. You with me?”
“Always, Lou,” Crooke said.
Beretta let his hand slide away from Crooke’s neck and stepped into the saloon of the cruiser where Snatch and Darran were talking.
A luxury cruiser of this kind hardly needed a crew to run it, but it needed a few determined thieves to steal it, even during the chaos at the end of the Chitin War. The cockpit could be managed by one person. The onboard AI could handle most of the piloting and navigation. Micro-drones could take care of routine maintenance and even semi-major repairs. Beretta would not have left Crooke behind during the evacuation. Snatch and Darran were distant associates and had just been in the right place at the right time when Beretta had made his move for the cruiser. They had been helpful in securing the craft.
The saloon was a shambles. The silver covers torn from ration blocks lay strewn about the place, along with discarded clothing on the white leather sofa and chairs. The mess caused by the small group was too much for the small team of micro-drones to keep up with. If there had been a full complement of drones, it might have helped matters, but in the first hours aboard, Darran and Snatch had used a few for target practice, calling them out to clean up minor spills and then smashing them with an autographed bat they had found in a display case in the saloon.
When Beretta had first set foot in this saloon, it was the most luxurious sight he’d ever seen. After years in asteroid mining camps and backstreets, and a few stretches in custody, Beretta had become accustomed to basic living. But the clean, plush interior of the cruiser was a new world only seen on VR entertainment feeds. The previous owner would surely have been dismayed to see his luxury pleasure craft in such a sorry state.
“You guys really need to learn to clean up your trash,” Beretta said.
Bill Snatch spat on the floor and glowered at Beretta. “What you going to do about the power cells, Lou?” A dribble of spit hung off his stubbled chin and refused to drop. “We better go in and grab some cells that kravin’ work, and you can do the heavy lifting this time.” Snatch’s voice rose in volume the angrier he became.
“Yeah.” The small, stocky Tal Darran stepped in front of Snatch. “You can go on your own this time. And you better get it right, Lou. I’ve had enough of skulking around in deep space. I want to catch up with the fleet so I can grab me some high and some…company.”
Beretta picked up the bat. There were few swingers who could go by a single name and the simple ‘Al’ on the bat told everyone who the bat had once belonged to. The previous owner of the cruiser must have been exceptionally rich to afford such a trophy for his ship. The cord around the bat’s handle was worn and polished with the famous swinger’s sweat. Beretta felt the harsh thread under his palm.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Snatch said. “These Devex are going to strip that transport clean. It was your call to grab those power cells. A bad call, Lou. You better make it right.”
“Yeah,” Beretta said. “I will put things right.”
Beretta swung the bat one-handed in a wide arc that connected with a sickening crunch to Snatch’s chin. The big man staggered back, gripping his smashed jaw bone.
The pulse pistol shot rang out and Darran collapsed to the deck, clutching his guts in pain. Lars Crooke stepped over to the crumpled body of Darran, the pulse pistol held at his side. He watched Darran squirm for a moment and then delivered another pulse round to the back of Darran’s head.
Beretta had not liked or trusted either Snatch or Darran. This was all for the best. A lifetime of backstreet dealing had taught Beretta many things, and no matter how many times Beretta heard about pacts and oaths and codes, he knew one thing for sure: there was no such thing as honor among thieves.
Snatch staggered backwards, one hand on his broken jaw, the other held up to ward off Beretta, who came forward slowly, twirling the bat in circles and kicking some trash aside.
“Who makes the calls?” Beretta said.
“You do,” Snatch said through his broken jaw.
Beretta grabbed the bat two-handed and brought it around in a wide swing. The bat connected with Snatch’s head and knocked the man to the plush carpeted deck.
“That’s right,” Beretta said, throwing the bat onto a leather sofa.
Crooke stepped over to Snatch and fired a round into the unconscious man’s head.
“Clean up that trash.” Beretta pointed in the general direction of the saloon as he walked back to the cockpit. “Dump it out the airlock.”
Crooke grabbed Snatch by an arm and dragged him away. Beretta saw the smear of blood left behind on the white fur carpet. He threw his hands in the air.
“My rug. Lars, I swear I will airlock your fat ass if you keep messing up my cruiser.”
“Sorry, Lou,” Crooke said, an innocent look on his face. Then Crooke’s face twisted in a bitter grimace. “He ain’t going to make a mess no more, Lou.” Crooke’s voice rose in volume as he spoke and ended with a strange giggle that was almost childlike but for its dark edge.
“Guess not,” Beretta said. Back in the cockpit, he dropped into the captain’s chair and took a deep swig from the bottle. The Amber was sharp and sweet, and it sent a shiver down his spine. He watched the Devex raiders move in on the ice planet and the civilian transport.
“Hey, Lars. Get up here.”
Crooke came over, his heavy footsteps thudding over the thick carpets.
“Those Devex are going in force this time. I bet that Marine gave them a fight.” Beretta took a drink and handed the bottle to Crooke.
“We’re not stupid enough to get into a fight, are we, Lou?” Crooke took a swig and finished the bottle. He pulled off with a gasp.
“No, we aren’t,” Beretta said. “Those Devex are only after the passengers. Those Marines are going to be busy with the Devex. So, let’s go and help ourselves to some power cells while they’re both busy. Yeah?”
“Go and get ready. We’ll go in quietly once the Devex are on board. We’ll land away from the raiders and sneak in, grab some power cells while they are busy killing each other, and get out of this system. Is that plan good enough for you?”
Crooke laughed. “I don’t know.”
Beretta laughed. He reached out and snatched the bottle back. He saw it was empty.
“Krav it, Lars. You finished it.”
Crooke laughed. “Yeah. It’s horrible.”
“Yeah,” Beretta agreed. He threw the bottle over his shoulder and back to the saloon, where it fell amongst the trash and the dead. “I would kill for a beer.”
Jack sat against a pillar in a wide-open public area near the center of the ship. Sleeping passengers were all around him. The holoimage from his wrist-mounted holostage was projected on the deck and showed the civilian transport and approaching Devex raiders.
The militia had been split into three teams to cover the three main entrances on the upper hull. Jack posted Hawke and the two Marines to each team of cops. Jack held back to direct the defense and swoop in on any area that needed support. Sam Torent and the nervous Webster completed Jack’s three-man reaction force.
Sam was looking at his arm, the missing one. He lifted the upper arm and watched the composite tendrils as they moved.
“Are you sure that’s alright?” Jack said.
“I don’t know, Jack. It doesn’t hurt. It feels better than ever, really. But it’s growing.”
Jack looked away from the holoimage. “It’s what? Growing? How?”
Sam held the arm out for Jack to see. The black composite that had once connected to Sam’s hated cybernetic arm were much thicker. There was a dull gray material apparently growing over the tendrils. Near the endcap, the mechanical cap that covered Sam’s flesh and bone stump, the tendrils had clumped together with the material.
Jack recognized the material, it was similar to the metal that covered the head and bodies of the Mechs.
Sam moved his arm about to look at it from all sides. “It’s where that Mech grabbed me when we encountered them. I think I’m growing a Mech arm.”
Jack felt his mouth fall open. “Is that…” Jack hesitated. “Is that good?”
Sam shrugged. “Feels good. Hope I don’t strangle myself with it.”
Jack laughed a nervous, slightly frightened laugh. The Mechs had good reason to distrust Jack and Sam. And for all their close contact with the Mechs, they remained an unknown species, a powerful and potentially dangerous species. Jack had more than enough reason to be wary and suspicious of them.
He looked back to the holoimage. The Devex were only a few minutes away.
“Game time, Sam.” Jack opened a channel to the Marines posted with the cops. “Devex approaching. Stand by to activate the first stage of our plan.”
The passengers had been moved from the entrance points, but there had only been time to move them a few dozen meters behind the cop’s defensive line. If the Devex burst through the defensive line, it wouldn’t matter if the passengers were a hundred meters away. The aliens only seemed to be interested in one thing: taking prisoners. They would kill anyone who stood in their way. Jack knew they were fighting for the lives of everyone on board.
The Devex ships touched down on the upper hull. Jack spoke on an open channel to the entire defense force.
“Hold them back. The longer you stand your ground, the better the chance that the Devex will withdraw. We need time before the ship can escape the planet. Give us the time. Front ranks, standby to activate defensive measures. Good luck.”
Webster paced in front of Jack and Sam. Then the sounds of battle came over Jack’s open channel. The Devex at the aft entry point had dropped into the upper corridors.
Webster looked at the holoimage. The red points indicated weapons fire. The tiny dots flashed in a small area that represented a narrow corridor.
“Take it easy, Webster,” Sam advised.
The aft section was under Hawke’s. The young squad leader’s voice came over Jack’s communicator.
“Devex have breached the hull and are entering in force. Activating localized gravity increase.”
The sounds of pulse fire filled the background. Among it, Jack could hear the telltale fizzing and popping of the Devex energy bullets raking the walls of the corridor.
“It’s working,” Hawke said. “The deck plates are at maximum gravity. The Devex are trapped. They are stuck.”
Sam leaned in toward the projection. “Pour the fire on them Hawke,” Sam said quietly. “Give them a wall of fire.”
Beretta watched the sensor readings on the flight console. The Devex had landed on the transport. Energy readings from just inside the hull looked to his untrained eye to be weapons fire. He activated the cruiser’s drive and set a course.
“Okay, we’re moving in. Lars, you ready?” Beretta turned in his seat
Crooke was reclining in the saloon, his feet up on the sofa and a virtual reality hood over his eyes. Beretta grabbed an empty bottle from under his seat and threw it at Crooke. It flew, tumbling end over end, and cracked Crooke on the back of his head.
Crooke pulled the hood from his face and rubbed his head. He turned to look at Beretta, a heartbroken expression on his big face.
“What’d you do that for?”
“Get ready, you lazy, scroat,” Beretta said. He turned back to the flight console. “We are going in. There is a nice quiet spot on the lower section right by the civilian-grade power cells.”
“But you said the military ones were better,” Crooke said, sitting up on the sofa.
“Yes, but they weren’t compatible, were they?”
Crooke gave Beretta a blank stare.
“They didn’t fit,” Beretta explained.
Crooke grinned. “So we get the right ones this time, Lou?”
Beretta nodded, feeling a little irritated that his old friend was reminding him of his earlier mistake, a mistake that had cost Snatch and Darran their lives, in a roundabout manner.
“Yes, Lars, we’ll get the right ones this time. And we can get in and out, and no one will even know we were there.”
Jack zoomed in on the central entrance and the courageous defensive effort. The images on the holodisplay showed Devex warriors dropping into the upper corridors. The high gravity field on the deck plates slowed the Devex to a crawl, some literally so, and they came scrabbling forward on all fours, partly to move their massive three-meter-tall frames through the corridor, partly to press themselves forward in the high gravity field.
The cops were in cover behind hastily-built barricades. Sections of composite erected across the width of the corridor gave enough room for three or four defenders to take cover. They fired their pulse pistols at the approaching Devex.
The report from the forward section was delivered by a worried Marine.
“Major Forge. Forward defense station here. The Devex have nearly cleared the grav traps. Our weapons are having little effect. We are going to fall back.”
“Negative, Marine. Hold,” Jack spoke calmly and firmly. If the Marine and his team of cops fell back, then the Devex would move in and begin snatching the sleeping passengers. They had to hold them back a little longer. “Concentrate your fire on the closest Devex. Its fallen body will make it more difficult for those behind to advance.”
The frightened Marine replied in the affirmative.
Webster was still pacing and drifting further away from Jack and Sam. Sam spotted the Marine’s nervous and subtle withdrawal. He jumped to his feet and marched over to the man.
“Fall in, Marine,” Sam shouted. “Stand at attention. You may move when I tell you to move. Copy?”
“Sir. Yes, sir,” Webster said uncertainly.
A communication from the drive room flashed on Jack’s communicator.
“The drive components are all repaired,” an engineer reported. “Assembling the drive now. We’ll be powering up the reactor in a matter of minutes.”
Jack zoomed out on the deck in front of him and focused on the aft section. The Devex were held by the grav trap and had stopped entering through that way. The middle section was holding well. The defenders on one flank had fallen back to their second positions, but the enemy assault was faltering. Jack spotted the Devex warriors in the mid section returning to their craft.
The forward entrance was not fairing so well. The Devex were pressing in greater numbers at the forward flank, the local gravity field strength not holding as strong as at the rear. Jack was worried that if the Devex broke through at that location, the command deck might become their primary target.
Jack rubbed his chin. “Sam,” Jack called.
Sam hurried over to Jack, leaving Webster standing at attention. “What is it, Jack?”
“Take Webster and move to this location.” Jack indicated the forward position. “Hold them back. We can’t let them break through here.”
Jack looked a Webster. The Marine was going pale. Sam jogged over to him.
“Fall in, Marine. Tactical advance, on the double. You know what that means, Marine. Draw your weapon and follow me. Keep up or you will discover I am more terrifying than the kravin’ enemy. Do you get me, Webster?”
Webster shouted his reply and there was even a hint of confidence in the tremulous voice.
Jack watched Sam run to the nearest transit pod, Webster in close formation behind. Sam gave Jack a casual salute as he stepped in the open pod, then the door closed, and he was gone.
Jack looked back to the holoimage in front of him. He zoomed in on the rear section. The Devex from the mid-section attack were lifting off in their ships, and Jack allowed himself a moment of elation. He had beaten them back. But then the first raider to take off merely drifted back toward the rear section of the civilian transport and landed with the raiders already there.
Jack called up the locations of all the passengers. He noticed the concentration of passengers near the aft section, a few decks down from the upper corridors.
Jack opened a channel to Hawke.
“We’re holding them back, but only just. They hit us with some wave blast, and it knocked out my front rank. Trying to disorientate them by oscillating the grav field from the deck to the ceiling plates.”
Jack got to his feet. “That’s good thinking, Hawke. You must hold them. There are more on the way. I’m sending reinforcements.”
“Reinforcements? That’s great news. Thank you, Major. How many?”
“One,” Jack said as ran to the nearest transit pod. “Me.”
Jack stepped out of the transit pod onto the upper level to the sounds of weapons fire. The smell of charred composite filled the corridor as he moved cautiously toward the sounds of battle. He came to a line of cops, all with pulse pistols and breathing masks, all giving nervous glances around the bend toward the approaching Devex.
The cops turned and aimed their pistols at Jack as he stepped into view. He pressed himself to the wall and just out of sight of the cops just in time. A hail of pulse rounds came along the corridor.
“Hold your fire. I’m a Marine. I’m coming out.”
Jack stepped away from the wall. He could see just around the bend. The cops were still aiming. Jack held up his hand and took a step forward. He walked over to the team, confident they would not shoot at him again.
He walked past the team and toward the front line of the defense. A composite barrier across the corridor at chest height stood between him and the Devex. The gravity trap was working and held the Devex like they were wading through thick mud. They still came forward, though, pressing their way through the high gravity, moving in slow motion, their massive energy weapons firing streams of white as they went.
Jack took cover next to Hawke. A cop lay dead next to him and two others were alternating between firing and taking cover. One stood and fired a few times before dropping while the second stood and fired.
The first Devex warrior cleared the grav trap. He stood and took a long step forward, his rapid-fire blaster pouring a stream of bullets. The stream ripped through the head and shoulders of the cop who was standing, sending him flying back along the corridor.
Hawke leaped up and fired a blast from his pulse rifle. The rounds struck the Devex in the faceplate. The warrior toppled backward, firing as he went. The white energy bullets flew in a stream along the corridor walls to the ceiling. The weapon continued to fire as it fell from the warrior’s grip, falling silent at its dead owner’s side.
Behind the fallen Devex warrior came another bursting free of the gravity trap and moving more freely. Then another.
Jack glanced over the barrier. The two Devex filled the corridor. Their bulk made it difficult to move but they came on, two abreast, firing as they came.
Jack ducked into cover as a stream of bullets slammed into the barrier just by his head. Hawke and the remaining cop looked to Jack.
“You fire left,” Jack said to Hawke. “You fire right.” He pointed at the cop. “Wait for my command.”
Jack stood up and fired a blast, hitting the first Devex in the chest and the second a glancing blow on its helmet. Then Jack let himself fall back as the Devex turned their rapid-fire blasters on him. The rapid stream of energy bullets targeting him from both Devex raced over his falling body, just millimeters from his chest. Before he hit the ground, he called out his command.
Hawke and the cop stood and fired. Their targets took a sustained blast, their own weapons still targeting Jack as he fell back to the deck.
Jack saw the rounds hit and the Devex fall just before he himself landed on the deck. He scurried forward and chanced a look. The two Devex were down but another one was breaking out of the heavy gravity field.
Jack fired and several shots struck the warrior, knocking it backward, but it was not enough to stop the heavily-armored warrior. The Devex slung its energy weapon and drew a smaller device. It fired and a wave spread out from the device, filling the corridor and creeping forward.
Hawke and the cop broke cover and fired at the Devex. The pulse rounds slowed in the energy wave.
Jack had seen this before. It would incapacitate anyone that the field came into contact with. He added pulse fire of his own to the sustained assault from Hawke and the cop. The pulse rounds eventually disrupted the wave and it shattered, leaving tortured strands of energy slowly dissipating and creating lines of rainbow light in the corridor, like oily traces in water.
The report from the far end of the corridor on Jack’s communicator was cut short.
“They are breaking through! They are—”
Jack called forward some cops that were holding at a section of barricade behind the forward defensive position. They came forward and laid down a sustained volley of pulse pistol fire, allowing Jack to fall back. He withdrew a few steps, taking cover around the curve of the corridor and behind a composite barrier. He checked the holoimage from the surveillance network and checked the other side of this defensive position. The cops were falling back.
The Devex were breaking through.
The exit panel on the side of the cruiser opened and the leather-covered wall slid up. A frozen wind laced with ice crystals blew in from the surface of the ice planet.
The ramp slid away noiselessly from the side of the cruiser, down to the snow-covered ground. Beretta pulled his heavy jacket closer to him. His breath vented through the breathing mask and crystallized in the air, creating a tiny cloud of ice crystals that rained to the ground in a sparkling, silver shower.
The civilian transport towered overhead, vanishing in the dark, snow-filled sky. A landing strut four hundred meters away was his target. Beretta activated a wrist-mounted holostage and scanned the surrounding area.
The civilian ship was too large to fit on the small holoimage at this scale and it dominated the image. Behind Beretta, parked on the snow about another four hundred meters away, was the Fleet frigate he’d seen entering the system hours before. The Marine he’d encountered on the first power cell grab was probably a member of its crew.
Beretta knew a Fleet frigate had a dozen strong crew. If the frigate also had a few Marines on board, it was worth giving it a wide berth. He wished he had time to plant a few demolition charges on the outer hull of that Fleet ship, just as insurance should they try and stop him from completing his smash-and-grab. He needed power cells if he was going to make it to a habitable planet.
Beretta had an image in his mind of the planet he was going to settle on—a warm, geologically stable world with no creatures more dangerous than a feral domestic cat. He would park his cruiser near a coast, within walking distance of a beach, and live out his days as if on an extended vacation. An unpopulated planet, a world all his own. He’d need a companion, of course. Maybe he would need to make a trip back to the fleet to find someone willing to share a lifelong beach vacation with him.
“It’s kravin’ freezing,” Crooke said
“Quit your whining,” Beretta said. “Follow me.”
Beretta trudged through the snow toward the civilian transport’s landing strut. The lower section of the transport was far from the action Beretta knew to be taking place in the upper corridors. That was hundreds of meters and dozens of decks above where Beretta needed to be, which was at a small storage locker underneath the drive section, filled with enough power cells for thousands of passengers, more than enough for Beretta and his old friend Lars Crooke.
Reaching the bottom of the landing strut, Beretta began to climb. The secondary access beside each strut was a perfect entry point now that the upper decks were filled with Devex warriors and weapons fire.
Beretta popped open the outer hatch on the underside of the transport’s hull. Lights blinked on and showed the ladder leading up to the inner hatch. His wrist-mounted holostage showed the route to the power cell storage.
“Get up here,” Beretta called out in a harsh whisper, a force of habit after so many clandestine raids on businesses and warehouses back home, in the last days of the war, before the evacuation.
Crooke looked up and shook his head.
“You’ll freeze if you stay out there, you idiot.”
Crooke shook his head. “I’ll wait and take the cells back to the cruiser.”
Beretta turned his back on Crooke. They had known each other since they were boys and that short period in juvenile detention. Beretta liked Crooke better than anyone else alive, but if the fat idiot wanted to freeze to death, he wasn’t going to stop him.
The inner hatch slid open and Beretta climbed up into a service duct. It was warm just to be out of the screaming wind, but the moisture from his breath through the facemask still froze in the air. Beretta checked the map and moved toward the inner door, the power cells only a few bulkheads away.
Jack ran along the corridor. The route to the far side of the defenses took him down to the deck below, under the corridor where the fighting was taking place and up again. The Devex were moving back toward the rear of the transport and had cleared several defensive barriers. Once they cleared the next, they would have multiple access points to the rest of the ship. Jack would have to hold them there, or all was lost.
A message came in from Morton on the command deck.
“Major, the internal sensors show a breach in the lower hull. Someone had entered through a hatch at the rear starboard landing strut. It looks like it’s just a lone individual. Sending the surveillance feeds to you now.”
Jack glanced at the image. A hooded figure in a dark corridor. Jack recognized him immediately—Lou Beretta. The thief was back.
“We can’t hold them,” Hawke said to Jack, fear almost overwhelming him as weapons fire slammed into the corridor wall nearby. Hawke looked to Jack for help.
“We must hold them.” Jack looked at the location of the intruder. He was almost directly—and a short transit pod trip—underneath the fight going on in front of Jack. The corridors below were free from passengers, either none had fallen there or the Devex had cleared them out already. Jack had an idea, but he would need help.
Jack activated the communication system in the lower corridors near the intruder.
“This is Jack Forge. I am talking to you, the person moving in the lower decks. Lou Beretta, respond please.”
Berretta kept walking.
“Those power cells weren’t what you’d hoped for, were they?” Jack said. “I guess you’re looking for a better fit this time.”
Beretta walked on.
“The civilian ones will be compatible, but will they have the sort of power duration you will need? It’s a long way out of Devex space. Maybe I can help you with that. But you know nothing comes without a price, right? I’m not asking for much, but you are in position to help me with a small Devex problem.”
Jack looked at the schematic of the immediate vicinity. The Devex were in danger of breaking out. If they made it into the main ship, they would snatch passengers for some cruel end. If they made it to the drive room, they could permanently disable the ship and pick off their bounty at leisure.
But if Beretta planted power cells primed to overload on the deck below the Devex, an explosion could put an end to their invasion in that part of the ship. The explosion would tear a hole in the middle of the transport, tearing deck composite for several levels of the ship, blocking access and ending the Devex threat to the drive room. He hoped there were no sleeping passengers hidden from the surveillance feeds in that area, and he hoped the detonation wouldn’t breach the outer hull. He hesitated, and then berated himself for the hesitation. He needed to act. He was making a call. It was a risk, but a calculated one. It was a case of succeed or die.
“Major Forge,” Bale said, communicating from the frigate. “I’ve located Beretta’s holostage. He’s using a civilian device. I hacked it easily. I can link you to his holostage.”
“Do it,” Jack said. He lifted his wrist and looked at the image of the thief he’d met just hours before.
“Hi there, Jack,” Beretta said cheerfully. “Changed your mind about joining my crew? A few vacancies have come up all of a sudden.”
“Listen, Beretta. You can help me save these people. Then you can take whatever you want. I’ll even help you load it.”
Beretta activated the small laser cutter and began burning through the hatch over the power cell storage.
“Or I could take whatever I want and save myself. Let me think about your offer for a while.”
Jack clenched his fist. Selfishness had never been a very successful strategy in Jack’s opinion, and it drove him almost to anger to see a man, who appeared in all other respects to be a clever person, take such an idiotic course.
“You can try and go it alone, but you’ll get further with some allies,” Jack said as diplomatically as possible.
“I won’t get anywhere if I am dead, Jack. I might make it into your roll of honor, or I might make it out of here with a stack of power cells and my life ahead of me.” The door popped open in front of Beretta and he deactivated the laser cutter.
“Or I might come down there and drag you to a cell,” Jack said, giving in to his anger.
“Now that sounds like you mean it,” Beretta said. “You do have some emotion in you, don’t you, Jack?”
“Listen, all you need to do is plant some power cells at the locations I’ve sent you. You’ll save the lives of thousands of passengers.”
Beretta grabbed a power cell. He dropped the heavy rectangle block into his bag and then grabbed another.
“What’s the bigger number, Jack? One or a thousand?”
“Will you help?” Jack asked, ignoring the ridiculous question.
“One,” Beretta answered his own question, “when that one is me. Good luck with the Devex. They won’t stop. They will keep coming until they have enslaved every single one of these chumps. If I was you, I’d find a way to get out of here. One last chance to join my crew.” Beretta hesitated. “See you later, Jack. Or not. Probably not.”
Hawke came along the corridor, walking backward and firing as he came. The stream of white energy bullets tore through a cop who had turned to run.
“Major, we can’t hold them any longer. We need to fall back.”
Sam urged the cops forward to the defensive line. Webster was shuffling nervously about, mumbling to himself, glancing nervously toward the sound of gunfire.
“Steady, Webster,” Sam said calmly. “Ready your weapon."
A sudden blast rocked the deck plates, and a concussion wave threw Sam off his feet. A stream of defenders came along the corridor, staggering, crawling, bleeding from their ears, nose, eyes. A shocked and stunned expression was on every face.
Sam knew the effects of a concussion wave. He felt the throbbing in his head and nausea welling up in his stomach. He picked himself up off the deck and felt the pulse pistol in his hand.
Then the Devex fire came and ripped through the retreating defenders. Sam took cover behind a sheet of defensive composite. He readied his pulse pistol.
“Jack,” he said into a private channel. “I’m about to be overrun. We need to protect the command deck. Get us off the surface, Jack. I’ll give you as much time as I can.”
Sam looked up at Webster, and he was surprised to see the timid Marine still holding position. The sounds of heavy footsteps in the corridor beat at Sam’s heart. He activated the electron blade on the end of his pistol and prepared for close-quarters combat.
Lou Beretta dragged his load of power cells to the exit. He looked down the ladder. It was a long drop to the snow-covered surface. The air was filled with billowing snow so thick that Beretta could not see the ground. He looked more closely, hoping to make out the form of Crooke.
“Lars,” Beretta shouted. “Where have you gone? Lars, you scroat.” Beretta started down the ladder, the bag of power cells held clumsily in his grip. He struggled down, adjusting the unwieldy bag as he went. Just before the outer hatch and only halfway to the ground, Beretta lost control of the bag. The bag tipped, opened, and fell. Power cells dropped from the bag, and the whole lot disappeared into the swirling snow.
“Lars,” Beretta shouted, his frustration and anger spilling over. “I swear I will kick your kravin’ ass all up and down this snow-covered planet, you fat, lazy scroat!”
Beretta reached the bottom of the ladder and dropped into the snow. The power cells were scattered around the open bag. Most of the cells were still inside, fortunately. He began to pick up those that had spilled out.
“Lars!” Beretta shouted again. What was the point of having a stupid, fat lummox like Crooke around, Beretta thought, if he had to carry his plunder himself?
Beretta pushed the last cell into the bag and stood up. He spotted a shape in the snow, standing a few meters away.
“Lars?” Beretta said uncertainly.
And then, the wind dropped for a fraction and the snow cleared a little, the shape becoming clearer. It was a tall, rounded shape, covered in white fur. A small head broke the line of the shoulders. Huge arms, massive paws, and in one of the paws, a limp form.
“Lars?” Beretta said softly.
Then the beast came forward, dragging the limp body of Lars Crooke with it. Short legs stepped forward, and a mouth in the fur-covered face opened. After another step, Beretta saw that it wasn’t a mouth but a beak, a short and wide beak, white like the fur save for the blood frozen to it.
The creature dropped onto its upper limbs and bounded forward. Beretta had drawn his pistol and as the first shots were fired, the wind whipped up again. The furry beast was partially lost in the swirling snow. The pulse rounds flashed and lit up the outline of the beast as it came ever closer.
Jack walked backward with his pulse pistol trained on the bend in the corridor. He fired well-aimed rounds at the Devex that came around the bend and into his line of fire.
Captain Morton spoke over Jack’s communicator. “Report from the drive section. We are ready to spin up the reactor. We should have full power in moments. What’s your status, Major?”
Jack took cover around the edge of an adjoining corridor. A line of defenders filled the corridor and fired at the advancing Devex. The warriors soon fell to a hail of pulse fire. Another came and another, and the corridor was filled with Devex dead.
“We are holding—just—but the Devex are past our defenses. They can access the entire ship.” Jack checked the Devex positions on his wrist-mounted holostage. The surveillance feed showed him the location of every Devex, small points of red on the flickering image of the ship.
The enemy had pressed past the defenses and were already moving sleeping passengers back to the Devex ships sitting on the upper hull. The passengers’ bodies levitated in a Devex capture field.
“We have power,” Captain Morton said. “I am initiating takeoff procedures. I’d rather try and run than sit here and get picked off like cattle.”
Then the pulse fire slackened off and finally stopped. Jack took a cautious step forward. The Devex were pulling back and covering their retreat. Jack ducked into cover as a retreating Devex fired a stream of energy bullets at him. Jack checked the surveillance feeds and all across the transport’s upper levels, the Devex were moving back toward their points of entry.
“Looks like they’re falling back.” Hawke was crouched behind Jack looking at the holoimage over Jack’s shoulder.
“For now,” Jack said. “They must have all the captives their raiders can hold. It must be dozens, probably a few hundred passengers taken.”
Jack noticed the Devex recovering their dead, levitating them in the same Devex capture fields. They floated back toward the entry point unaided.
He saw the pile of dead Devex in the corridor seemingly come alive. Their limbs untangled from each other and they began to float away. The cops pressed forward and poured fire in to the dead as they drifted away.
Jack noticed that the Devex warriors were using their dead like a shield for themselves and their captives. The Devex exoskeletons took round after round of pulse fire, the bodies becoming soft as they were pulverized within their armor.
Jack couldn’t let them get away without a fight. “Advance,” he ordered.
Then Bale’s voice spoke over the private channel. Jack heard the anxiety in his voice.
“Major. Sensors detecting movement in the Oort cloud. It’s the Devex warship. They have blasted through the asteroids. Their warship is coming through. I don’t think we have very long.”
Beretta fired at the beast as it came closer, ever closer. The ground shook, and Beretta could hear the grunting with every bounding step the beast took. With the beast in spitting distance, a pulse round to the face finally finished it, dropping it and sending it plowing through the snow, coming to a halt at Beretta’s feet.
The beast let out one last grunt and then quivered. Beretta poured another round of pulse fire into it, then looking around for Crooke, he realized the horrible truth.
Bloodstains on the snow led Beretta away from the landing strut of the civilian transport. In the billowing snow, he found his friend, face up, his jacket ripped from his body, slash marks from the snow beast’s beak on his chest. Beretta dropped next to Crooke. The left shoulder was crushed, and the arm was almost completely severed.
Then Crooke gasped.
“Lars,” Beretta said excitedly.
Crookes eyes flickered. “Lou. A bear. It got me.”
“I know, Lars. Take it easy. I got it. it’s dead.”
“Did we get the cells?”
“Yeah, we got the cells. We got plenty.”
“It’s cold, Lou. Very cold.”
Crooke shuddered, and his body convulsed before going stiff. The snow settled onto the blood on his bare chest. Beretta wiped the snow away and revealed the chest, ripped open, ribs bared, flesh and blood, and a stilled heart.
Beretta stood up. He checked the surrounding area with a glance, then ran to grab the bag of power cells.
Sam risked a look. The Devex warriors were falling back. He crept forward along the corridor and checked. The few dead Devex were floating, and in between the floating bodies Sam could see the Devex retreating.
Webster became wild and started shouting. He stepped forward, growing confident and crazed with every step. “Yeah, get off my ship!”
“Take it easy, Webster,” Sam said.
Webster fired up his electron bayonet and began to stride along the corridor toward the retreating Devex.
Sam called again. “Stand down, Marine!”
Webster let out a wild cry and charged forward. He slashed at the floating bodies, the electron blade slicing through the exoskeleton and the Devex inside with ease. The body parts floated independently, spilling gore as they went.
“Webster, get in line! Fall in, Marine!”
Webster pressed on, jabbing and slicing. Sam saw him disappear through the floating dead.
“Krav it all, Webster,” Sam said, and he ran after the wild Marine, Webster’s battle cry ringing out.
Pushing through the floating body parts of the dead Devex, Sam saw Webster attacking a massive Devex warrior. The Devex warrior struggled to avoid the thrusting and slashing of the long electron bayonet, and it fell as it raised its massive rapid-fire blaster, ill-suited for close-combat in a confined space.
Webster dropped the Devex with a thrust to the faceplate. Sam watched the Devex crumple to the deck, revealing a pair of warriors standing just behind. They filled the corridor, their blasters raised and aimed at Webster. They poured a stream of white energy bullets, the tiny, white, deadly points of energy. They tore into Webster mid-stride.
Webster fell. The electron blade sliced into the deck plate before it deactivated, the pulse rifle recognizing that the Marine who held it had fallen.
Sam fired at the pair of Devex, scoring a direct hit on one at the shoulder. The pair fell back, the dead Devex floating up and creating a shield that blocked Sam’s fire.
“Sam,” Jack’s voice came over Sam’s communicator. “The captain is preparing for takeoff. Follow the Devex. Make sure the access points are sealed before we get into orbit. It looks like they are leaving. Don’t put yourself in any unnecessary danger. Copy?”
Sam looked down at Webster’s body. A group of defenders moved up cautiously.
“Copy that, Jack.” Then Sam urged the defenders after the retreating Devex.
Jack entered the command deck to find the officers busy at their consoles. Captain Morton sat in the command chair looking down at the main holostage.
Jack looked at the holoimage. The planet was at the center of the image, with a point of light indicating the civilian transport, rising into space. At the edge of the image, the Devex warship was moving through the Oort cloud, blasting a few small asteroids that still lay in its path and throwing debris in all directions like a deadly shower of rock and ice. The small points heading to the warship were the Devex raiders, returning from their latest raid on the civilian transport.
“Guess the warship is here to take over the prisoner grab,” Jack said.
“I saw these warships in action before,” Morton said, “when they attacked the fleet. They captured civilian transports, clamping on with huge grappling arms. They can pour hundreds of Devex warriors into the captured ship. They’re coming to finish the job their raiders began. They’ll end it all in one big hit.”
“They are not going to hit us, Captain. We’re getting out of here.”
Jack stepped aside and opened a channel to Bale on the frigate.
“Get the frigate off the planet, Commander,” Jack said. “Take up position off the starboard side of the transport. That’ll put you between the civilian ship and the Devex warship. Copy.”
Bale replied with a simple acknowledgement of the order. Jack knew it was impossible to expect a Fleet frigate, even a well-stocked and fully-armed one, to hold off a massive Devex warship. It wouldn’t even slow an assault, but the Fleet needed to be in between the civilians and danger. Jack knew that Ripa could pilot the frigate, but with only Bale left to crew the guns, it would not be able to put up any sort of challenge for the warship.
Sam came into the command deck. He nodded to Jack and then reported to the captain.
“All Devex are off your ship, sir.”
Morton tapped at his armrest control panel. “Not for long, I fear.”
Jack stepped over to the holostage. He adjusted the image to show the Devex warship and the transport. The warship was on an intercept course. Jack had seen data from the Devex attack on the fleet. The warships clamped onto the transports like a massive spider gripping its prey, then scores of Devex warriors poured in through the clamping arms that had punched through the hull, seizing and taking prisoners.
Jack wondered again what purpose the Devex could have with humans. The Devex clearly possessed advanced technology, surely they had drones or automated servants for menial tasks. Why would they need slaves?
It was a horrible question, and there could be no pleasant answer. The Devex killed to secure their prize. They weren’t taking the humans away for a life of luxury. Only servitude, or possibly death, awaited the captives. Jack entertained the thought that the Devex might use the humans as entertainment of some kind. Probably death was the most pleasant end for those captured by the Devex. Jack hoped he would never live to learn what their purpose was.
Captain Morton called out to his navigation officer to plot a course through the Oort cloud. Jack checked the cloud directly ahead. The dense mass of asteroids was moving at incredible speed. Most Oort cloud formations drifted lazily around the star. Some strange phenomena in this system caused the Oort cloud to wheel about as fast as an innermost planet. It would be a challenge to move a massive ship like the civilian transport through it while trying to avoid collisions. It would be much harder for the much bigger Devex warship. Even blasting its way through would slow its pursuit, maybe long enough for the transport to escape.
“Captain,” Jack called over his shoulder. “I’ll send my frigate ahead and clear a path for the transport.”
Jack opened a channel to Ripa and Bale on the frigate. “Follow these coordinates. Try and clear a path for the transport. Nothing so big so the Devex can’t follow us easily.”
Jack zoomed out. He spotted one other ship in the system, moving away at high speed. Jack tried to identify the ship. It wasn’t Devex. It had to be Beretta’s ship. Jack opened a communication channel to the ship and broadcast to those inside.
“Beretta?” Jack said. “Don’t try and go it alone. You will be better off sticking with us. You won’t make it far on your own. This is Devex space, hostile space. If they find you, they will take you captive.”
The channel crackled in silence for a few moments.
“I’ve always managed on my own before,” Beretta said.
“Is that the thief?” Morton asked. He climbed out of his command chair and put the channel on the holostage.
Beretta appeared on the display, life-sized as if he was on the command deck himself. He was sitting, relaxed and reclined, a bottle of Amber in his hand.
“Bring back the power cells and I’ll not press any charges,” Morton said.
Beretta tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling of his cockpit.
“I don’t think you’ll be pressing anything. The Devex will be on top of your ship before you can make it to the Oort cloud. I can see you are trying to get away. I wish you good luck, just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my escape. You see, the Devex are following all those juicy life-signs on your ship. They will hardly notice me all on my own. If I formed up with you, I’d probably get captured too. I think I’ll take my chances on my own.”
“You selfish little rat…” Captain Morton leaned toward the holoimage.
Jack turned his back on the image. Maybe Beretta was right—the Devex were pursuing the juiciest target in the system. As the captain traded insults with Beretta, Jack deactivated the channel. He walked over to the command chair and climbed up.
“What are you doing, Major?”
“I’m going to transfer all our passengers over to Beretta’s ship.”
“What?” Morton walked over and stood looking up at Jack.
Jack tapped a few controls on the command chair armrest before jumping down. He ran to the environmental console. “We can copy the database of bio-readings from the sleeping passengers and the crew. Then…” Jack ran to the communications console. “We can send them over to Beretta’s ship. If we run them remotely through his environmental systems...” Jack turned to the captain. “In the Fleet, we are able to run almost completely dark, no power output, completely invisible. Can your ship do that?”
Morton nodded. “Yes, but we are heading toward the Oort cloud. If I power down, we’ll run into something.”
“Trust me, Captain. The crew on the frigate can get us through. Stand by to transfer life-signs to Beretta’s ship.” Jack opened a channel to Bale. “I’m going to be pulling some maneuvers over here, Mr. Bale. You have to get in front of the transport and stay there. I can’t give you my heading, so you’ll have to work the problem on the fly. And when we get to that Oort cloud, we’ll be unable to maneuver. You’ll have to make sure there is nothing in the way. Copy?”
“Copy that, sir,” Bale replied. “Upper and lower laser assembly fully functional, but we probably only have a few shots. Hail cannon loaded and fully powered, both batteries. We’ll get through. Lieutenant Ripa is already matching your course and speed, sir. We’ll watch for your moves. Bale out.”
“Okay, Captain Morton,” Jack called out over the command deck. “Plot an intercept course with Beretta’s ship. I want us to cut across his drive section no more than fifty meters out. Can you do that?”
“I’ll pilot the ship myself, Major. I’ll put us right on top of his drive assembly.”
The positive response from the captain gave Jack confidence that his plan would work. The captain joined the officer at the navigational console and got to work. Jack walked over to the holostage and watched the ships in the image. He held his hands behind his back to stop himself from fidgeting nervously as he watched the plan unfold, hoping that it would work.
The Devex warship was closing in on the transport. The transport was moving to intercept Beretta’s ship. The transport was only a few minutes away from cutting across Beretta’s wake.
Sam stepped over to Jack and stood close to his old friend. “You going to make Beretta a target?” Sam said quietly. “The Devex will be after him. Are you happy setting all those Devex after that one man?”
Jack mumbled to himself, his hands gripped firmly behind his back. “What’s the bigger number, Sam?” Jack asked. “One or twenty thousand?”
“One, if the one is me,” Sam said.
“And if the one is Beretta?” Jack asked.
Sam nodded and watched the trajectories of the ships.
“He won’t be able to defend himself.”
“No,” Jack said. “But if he is as devious as I think he is, he will find a way out of it.”
“And if he can’t?”
The transport moved within fifty meters of Beretta’s wake when Beretta hit the drive, punching it up another thirty percent. The ship pulled away from the course the transport was on.
“Now,” Jack said. “Transmit data.”
“Transmission underway,” the communication officer called out. “Fifty percent complete. A few more seconds… Done.”
“Cut all power,” Jack said. “Go dark, immediately.” He marched around the command deck watching all the officers powering down their systems. In a moment, it was done.
“We are dark, Major,” Captain Morton said. He moved from one console to another, checking the work. A Fleet ship could go dark in an instant. A civilian crew took a bit longer, but Jack was pleased with how quickly they managed it. After all their trials in the last couple of hours, the command deck officers had performed excellently.
“Confirmed,” Morton said. “The ship is dark.”
Now there was nothing Jack could do but watch. The holostage showed the transport racing away on momentum alone toward the wall of spinning rocks that was the inner face of the system’s Oort cloud. Beretta’s ship racing away at ninety degrees to the transport’s heading. And the Devex warship, moving in on the point where the two ships had crossed paths.
Jack zoomed in on the Devex warship. It held its course.
“Hey, Jack,” Beretta’s voice came over Jack’s communicator. “Were you trying to ram me? That’s not very nice of you. But you should have known a big old bus couldn’t get close to a racer like my little ship.”
Jack wanted to respond, to send a warning to Beretta, but a signal to Beretta’s ship would give away the civilian transport ship’s position to the Devex.
Jack spoke quietly to himself. “Sorry, Beretta. Good luck.”
“Approaching the Oort cloud now.” Captain Morton climbed up into his command chair. He put the forward view on the holostage. A wall of spinning rocks lay ahead. The frigate, tiny compared to the civilian transport, was thousands of meters ahead with its drive systems powered.
Jack watched the point ahead of the frigate as it approached the Oort cloud. The rocks appeared to be nudged aside as the frigate moved closer. A narrow gap in the spinning rocks opened just enough for the transport to squeeze through.
“Plotting the route ahead, passive scanners only,” Morton said. “Looks clear. We might just sneak through. It’ll take a while at this speed, though.”
Jack called up the view of Beretta’s ship on the holostage. The ship was arcing away at speed, the Devex warship curving to match him.
Jack watched and willed Beretta to escape.
“Thank you, Major,” Captain Morton said. “You did it. You saved us all.”
The command deck erupted in a cheer that the captain quickly silenced.
“Thank you, Captain,” Jack replied. But inside, Jack knew he had lost many civilians and set up another as bait to lure the Devex away. Jack didn’t feel like a hero. He felt like he had failed.
Sam patted Jack on the back.
“Good work, Jack.”
“Couldn’t have done it without you, or Beretta,” Jack said.
“No need to thank him,” Sam said. “He’d sell his last friend for a slice of pie. It was him or us. I’d choose us any day.”
Jack watched the image on the holostage flicker away as the Devex warship and its target, Beretta’s cruiser, drifted out of passive scanner range.
“We’re not out of this yet,” Jack said. “The fleet is still a long way off. But if we work together—” Jack patted Sam on the shoulder. “—we will make it.”
Beretta yelled in frustration as he realized that the Devex were in pursuit of his ship. He pushed the drive to its max.
“You kravin’ scroat, Forge!” he yelled as he worked the flight console. He aimed the ship at the nearby moon of an outer gas giant and threw the cruiser into a dive.
Jack finished checking Sam’s suit and then patted his friend on the shoulder. Sam checked Jack’s suit and delivered a heavy pat of his own. Jack turned to Captain Morton.
“Permission to leave your ship, Captain?” Jack said.
“You are welcome to stay aboard, Major. We’ve got all the home comforts here, and you’ll be my guest for the rest of the journey. I’d be pleased to have some experienced Marines on board.”
Jack smiled to himself. He held a hand out toward Hawke, who was standing at Morton’s side.
“You have an experienced Marine aboard, Captain. Squad Leader Hawke is one of the best Marines I’ve served with.”
Hawke stood a few centimeters taller and swelled with pride. He saluted Jack smartly.
“It is an honor to have served with you, sir,” Hawke said.
Sam stepped over and shook Hawke’s hand. “The honor is ours. You make sure you keep those cops in line.”
Jack opened the inner hatch to the airlock. The frigate was holding position a few dozen meters away. From the outside, the little frigate looked battered and bruised, and incredibly small. But Jack knew it was where he needed to be.
Sam stepped into the airlock alongside Jack and pulled the hatch closed behind him.
“Who’d want to give up a military frigate for all the leisure and pleasure amenities on this transport?” Sam asked sarcastically.
“Long way to go, Sam, and we’ve got work to do. Evacuating atmosphere from the airlock.” Jack hit the control and the air began to drain away, a high-pitched squeal indicating that the last of the air was drained.
Jack opened the outer hatch and stepped toward the edge. Black space all around and ahead of the frigate and an open airlock, waiting for Jack to cross the void between the ships.
“With me, Sam.” Jack stepped out into the void, his suit’s thruster jets nudging him toward the frigate. “Let’s go.”
Thank You For Reading
Jack and Sam are making progress on finding the fleet, at least a remnant. Now, all they have to do is keep away from a vastly superior military force intent on enslaving them.
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The next story in the series is called Escape. As the title implies, Jack and the human refugees must pull off a daring escape from the Devex.
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