Book: Starship Revenant
The Galactic Wars Book Three
1. The Revenant
8. The Decluvians
Connect With Me
Copyright © 2016 by Tripp Ellis
All rights reserved. Worldwide.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents, except for incidental references to public figures, products, or services, are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental, and not intended to refer to any living person or to disparage any company’s products or services.
No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, uploaded, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter devised, without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
An inbound nuke streaked across the star field. The LRADDS display lit up (Long Range Direction Distance & Speed). A brilliant red triangle zipped across the 3D display. In a few seconds, it would impact the hull of the USS Revenant—an Avenger class star destroyer.
It was under the command of Captain Edwin J. Dean. He was a crusty old bastard that had seen his fair share of combat. He had a stern face and stark white hair. He had a synthetic eye, and half his face was pocked and scarred from a shrapnel blast he had taken in the early days of his military career.
Dean was short tempered, and generally irritable—and who wouldn’t be, with all he’d been through? But his men loved him. He was hard, but fair. And the crew trusted him with their lives. If anybody could get them out of this situation, it was Captain Dean.
The history books are a little foggy about what happened next. Nobody really knows for sure. The Federation received a few garbled transmissions. They did their best to piece events together. But all it did was cause more speculation. There are a hundred different versions of the story. And each person who tells it seems to add their own embellishments. But the Revenant is the stuff of legends.
“Helm, starboard, full,” Dean commanded.
“Starboard full. Aye.”
“Fire control. Hit those bastards with the Mark 25s!”
The star field lit up with cannon fire from the Revenant’s massive turrets. Glowing tracers sprayed against the darkness of space. The staccato report of the guns rumbled through the ship.
The Mark 25 turret guns lined the port and starboard sides of the Revenant—three on each side. Another was mounted on the stern and one across the bow. Each turret contained three, 16 inch cannons. They were lethal pieces of equipment.
The super-sabot rounds had a titanium composite penetrating rod that was filled with an incendiary liquid gel core, S9, that when oxidized, burned at upwards of 4000 degrees. They were nasty little things that had been giving the Verge a run for their money.
The CIC was alive with activity. The crew frantically manned their stations. Klaxons blared. Displays flashed.
Dean watched as the cannon fire eviscerated the inbound nuke. The crew erupted with cheers. But Dean knew that more were coming. There was a Verge destroyer out there that had just launched a swarm of fighters. The Hornets would be strafing the Revenant within minutes.
Dean felt a quantum distortion ripple through the CIC. It made his stomach twist up in knots. The bulkheads warbled. He felt another wave. Then another. Then another one after that.
Four more Verge destroyers had jumped into the fray.
Dean could handle one enemy destroyer. But five?
The Revenant would be scrap metal tumbling through space before long. He needed to get the ship the hell out of there. But that was going to be a bit of a problem.
The Revenant was fresh out of the shipyard. She’d only been deployed for a month. Brand spanking new. She had a lot of bugs to work out. Glitches in the system. The slide-space drive seemed to be working randomly. No one had been able to track down the source of the issue. The IT guys blamed the engineering department, and the engineering department blamed the IT guys.
The Avenger class star destroyers had been rushed into production. They were going to change the course of the war. Crews were working around the clock to manufacture these warships. At the time, they were the pinnacle of modern space warfare. Heavy armor plated wrecking machines. Hunter killers. They were almost completely self-sustaining. They could venture out into deep space and stay there almost indefinitely.
Captain Dean was among the first to put an Avenger class destroyer through its paces in actual combat. Three of them had already been completed, with another 22 on order. The USS Avenger, the USS Revenant, and the USS Scorpion were all fully operational.
The LRADDS display lit up. An alarm sounded. Five inbound nukes streaked toward the Revenant from all directions.
“Sir, multiple inbound contacts!” the tactical officer yelled.
“Fire control!” Dean barked.
“I’m on it, sir.”
The Mark 25 cannons had an extremely effective auto-targeting system. They would scan and identify inbound targets and eliminate them. Still, shit happens. Targets can, and often do, elude destruction.
The turret guns took out most of the incoming nukes. But one of them slipped through. It slammed into the port side hull and detonated.
The blast rocked the Revenant. It was like an earthquake. Klaxons sounded. Many of the crew were knocked from their stations, crashing against the deck. Sparks flew from command consoles. Plumes of smoke billowed into the air.
Dean’s old body hit the deck. It seemed every time he fell, it was harder to get back up. He grabbed onto the command console and pulled himself to his feet. “Hit them with a Widow-Maker!”
Widow-Makers were the pinnacle of the United Planetary Defense Force arsenal—50 megaton nukes that were 3000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Two of them streaked from the Revenant’s launch tubes. Propellant spewed from their thrusters as they sliced through space. One of them slipped through the Verge defenses and impacted a destroyer. The blinding explosion lit up like a supernova. You could see it from all the way in the Antari sector.
The Verge destroyer was ripped to shreds. This was well before the Saarkturians had developed their smart armor—back when nukes actually had an effect on their warships. What wasn’t incinerated in the initial blast was reduced to glowing fragments of debris. Twisted bulkheads and mangled structural components littered the star field.
One ship was down. Four more to go. But that was four too many.
“Lieutenant Beck, plot a jump and get us out of here!” Dean commanded.
“Aye, sir. Where to, sir?”
“The Draconis sector.”
Beck punched in the coordinates, and a few moments later, he responded. “Ready when you are, sir.”
“On my mark, in three… two… one… mark!”
Beck activated the slide-space drive.
Dean had a sinking feeling in his stomach the moment he gave the command. He knew what kind of day he was having. He had that feeling when he woke up in the morning—it was going to be a shitty day. All day long. Something bad was going to happen. He just knew it. And Dean wasn’t a superstitious guy. But sometimes you just get that inexplicable feeling that your number is up. That your luck has run out. And you pray to whatever higher power you believe in that you’re wrong. It came as no surprise to Dean when the slide-space drive didn’t work properly.
“Engineering, Conn.” Dean yelled into a handset. “Give me a status update.”
“Conn, Engineering. Everything is working here. I can’t find a fault anywhere. The quantum array is working perfectly.”
“If it was working perfectly, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Fix it.” He slammed the handset down.
An alarm sounded. Dean knew what was triggering it without looking at the LRADDS display. More nukes, and a swarm of Verge Hornets, were attacking the ship. There must have been at least fifty of the fighters inbound.
The Revenant’s Mark 25s peppered the star field. But many of the nimble enemy fighters broke through the defenses. The rumble of weapons fire vibrated the ship. The Hornets pelted the Revenant with bullets and small tactical rockets. They were more of a nuisance than anything else. Sure, over time, they would cause a problem. But the Hornets weren’t what was causing sweat to bead on Captain Dean’s brow. It was the 12 red flashing triangles on the LRADDS display.
12 inbound nukes.
As tough as the armor plating was on the Revenant, it wouldn’t hold up to too many more direct impacts. The standard Verge armament was an array of 20 megaton thermonuclear weapons.
“Beck, keep trying to jump us out of here.”
“Fire control. Throw everything we’ve got at those nukes.”
Dean watched the red triangles draw closer. The Mark 25s took out 7 of the inbound nukes. Just before the other five impacted the Revenant, Dean felt a quantum distortion ripple through the CIC. Beck had activated the slide space drive.
But something went wrong.
It seemed as though time dilated. Everything slowed down and stretched out. Dean’s stomach turned, and he felt lightheaded. He was neither here nor there.
Usually a quantum distortion only lasts a few seconds. But this seemed to go on for hours. That’s what it felt like anyway. It could’ve been a millisecond in actual time. It was like a bad acid trip. The Revenant seemed to be melting through time and space, crossing dimensions, warping the very nature of reality. There was no telling if, when, or where they would materialize.
The minute the Skylark lifted off the ground, they were in trouble. Enemy scans would surely pickup their movement. In a matter of moments, attack fighters would be on their tail.
Delta Vega was in ruins. Europa City smoldered as the Skylark rocketed toward the upper atmosphere. The craft shook. The massive Hughes & Kessler engines rumbled.
The Skylark was a Raven class SXR 959 heavily armored drop ship. It could hold 16 troops in the cargo area, plus a pilot and a gunner. It had 2, 30mm chain guns and had four weapons stations mounted on sub-wing pylons. It was typically armed with an array of Exterminator rockets. The craft was built with multiple redundant systems to improve combat survivability. The Skylark could take a tremendous amount of punishment and keep flying.
Slade felt the weightlessness of space as they left the atmosphere. Delta Vega was in shambles. Attacks on multiple cities had occurred simultaneously. It was clear that the enemy didn’t want to use nuclear weapons. They had preferred a conventional attack. Nuclear armageddon would render the planet uninhabitable for thousands of years. Clearly the Decluvians had designs on the natural resources.
The Saarkturians had made a deal with the devil. The Decluvians were going to oust those pesky humans from the Holy Land. But with the Saarkturian fleet in shambles, who was going to oust the Decluvians?
“Send a transmission to the Federation,” Slade said. “Let them know what’s going on.”
“Can’t,” Harding replied. “Transmissions are jammed.”
Several enemy carriers were in orbit around the planet. They had met with little resistance, and the drop ship was still unable to contact the USS Ardent. There was a layer of debris in a low planetary orbit. It was probably all that was left of the Ardent. Bits of metal pinged off the hull of the Skylark as they rocketed into space.
A proximity alert sounded. An enemy fighter was on their six. Gunfire blazed toward the Skylark. Tracers streaked past the ship. The pilot took evasive maneuvers, zigzagging across the star field. The aft turret of the Skylark took aim at the trailing enemy fighter. The gunner, Lieutenant Jack Roland, unleashed a flurry of 30mm fire.
He wore a special visor that allowed him to see 360° around the Skylark. The targeting system tracked his eye movements. The automated system would recognize and identify threats. All the gunner had to do was pull the trigger.
But the Decluvian fighter was nimble and evaded the onslaught. Shaking this scumbag wasn’t going to be easy. To make matters worse, the fighter launched a targeted missile. The rocket homed in on the Skylark’s thrusters.
Another proximity alert sounded.
The pilot, Lieutenant James Harding, deployed electronic countermeasures. Two ECMs ejected, mimicking the emissions signature of the Skylark’s thrusters. Harding pulled on the controls, veering the craft. The enemy rocket locked on to the ECMs. A few seconds later, the rockets exploded in a blinding fury. The blast shook the drop ship, and slammed Slade against the bulkhead.
Roland returned the gesture and fired an Exterminator. The rocket streaked toward the enemy fighter. But it didn’t get very far. The Decluvian craft blew it out of the star field.
The proximity alarm sounded again—two more incoming missiles blasted toward the Skylark. Harding deployed another round of ECMs. He yanked hard on the controls and veered starboard.
One of the rockets exploded in the chaff. The other clipped the port side thruster. The explosion tore the engine to shreds and sent the drop ship tumbling into space.
It was a miracle the hull wasn’t breached.
The Skylark was a sitting duck. Alarms were blaring. The control panel was blinking and flashing. It was pure mayhem. The enemy fighter circled around for another pass. Harding regained control and straightened out the vehicle. The Skylark hobbled along like a wounded animal.
“Is the slide-space drive still functional?” Slade yelled.
“Then what the hell are you waiting for?”
“The system hasn’t verified coordinates yet.”
“I don’t care. Just get us out of here.”
Harding grimaced. He didn’t have much of a choice. The enemy fighter was closing in. The Skylark would be scrap metal in a matter of moments. But an unverified slide-space jump could lead to the same end.
Harding mashed the button and activated the quantum drive. The tiny ship rippled and warbled as two incoming rockets plowed toward them. The Skylark vanished in the nick of time.
The slide-space jump was particularly unsteady. It was like sloshing about during a violent sea storm. Slade felt her body, and her mind, pushed and pulled and squeezed and mashed.
It was a short jump, lasting twenty minutes. The exit from slide-space felt like an abrupt jolt. At least she was still alive, Slade thought. She was in one piece. They weren’t stuck in quantum space. They had one functional engine. All things considered, it could be a lot worse.
“Where the hell are we?” Slade asked.
“Working on it, sir,” Harding said. A moment later, his eyes went wide. “Holy shit.”
“What is it?”
“Epsilon Centauri. It doesn’t seem possible. This ship isn’t capable of a jump that far.”
Slade grimaced. “That’s a thousand jumps away from the nearest colony.”
“That’s not the only problem,” Harding said.
Slade arched a curious eyebrow.
“That last jump overloaded the quantum field generator. We’re stuck out here.”
Slade’s face was grim.
The Skylark drifted through deep space. With one conventional thruster they wouldn’t be able to make it to the nearest habitable planet within their lifetime. With only a handful of MREs on board, and little water, it was a death sentence.
“They can’t fucking do this, can they?” Zoey said. She was in a state of panic. Her eyes were wide. Her heart was racing. Her skin was clammy.
“They can, and will, do anything they like,” said Lieutenant Commander Catherine Kent. She was a JAG lawyer, and a damn good one. Behind those emerald eyes and fiery red hair was a pit bull of an attorney. Despite her tenacity, she hadn’t been able to save Captain Slade from a life sentence in a maximum security slam in some godforsaken sector of the universe. The deck was stacked against Slade from the beginning. But at least she had saved Slade from execution.
Zoey sat across the desk from Kent in her office. She read over the discharge letter one more time. She was crestfallen. “Involuntary administrative discharge. Fuck!”
“At least they classified it as honorable. You get to keep your benefits and the retirement you accrued.”
“Yes, but on my DD 214, the cause is listed as personality disorder. It’s bullshit. Everyone’s going to think I’m fucking crazy. I can’t get a job as a commercial pilot now. Law enforcement won’t take me. Customs and Planetary Protection won’t take me. I can’t fly emergency services. If I want to fly, it won’t be legally. I’ll end up smuggling or running merc ops.”
“Were you evaluated by a psychologist?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Zoey tried to recall everything that happened since the encounter with the Saarkturian fleet. Her eyes flicked back and forth as she scanned her memories, trying to remember the details of Slade’s court-martial and all the questions that were asked.
“We were all debriefed,” Zoey said. “Repeatedly interrogated about the events leading up to the terrorist attacks. I can’t remember everyone who grilled me. It all blended together after a while. This is about my deposition and testimony, isn’t it?”
“It’s Rourke. That son-of-a-bitch is getting back at me. He’s getting me out of the way.”
“I wish I could say this was uncommon. But over the last few years, I’ve seen people shuffled around and discharged for no good reason at all. It’s typically all political.”
“They can’t get away with this kind of thing. Somebody’s got to do something.” Zoey was at her wits end.
“When you figure out a way, let me know. It’s a big, bloated bureaucracy. Ever since the new administration, it’s gotten worse.”
“Can’t we appeal this?”
“We can try. Take it before the review board. The most we can hope for is to get an upgrade and have the personality disorder removed. But I have to be honest, I’ve handled many of these cases, and I can tell you that less than 1% ever receive an upgrade. It’s not a real review process. They just rubber-stamp it.”
Zoey looked crushed. Her big eyes brimmed. “All I ever wanted was to serve and defend the Planetary Federation. I was the top of my class in Fighter Weapons School. I had an impeccable flight record. I was moving up the ladder, fast. I was on a path. One day, I was going to command my own starship.”
Catherine frowned, looking at Zoey with genuine sympathy. “I’ll prepare the paperwork and file a petition for an administrative hearing.”
“In the meantime, find a job, stay out of trouble, and don’t do anything stupid.”
It was like telling a bear not to shit in the woods.
“Two whiskeys, straight up,” Zoey said.
She sat at the bar next to 8-Ball. Lock’n Load was a seedy little joint on New Earth that was popular with officers and military types. The place smelled like stale beer and cigarettes. There was a moderate crowd for a Friday night. The dull rumble of conversation and clinking glasses filled the air.
It was just off base and had a little something for everyone. There were 361 varieties of draft beer, and 283 types of liquor from across the galaxy. There were pool tables and dartboards. And there were plenty of young, available women looking for a strong military man. Some wanted company just for the evening. Some for a lifetime.
Baxter was almost always behind the bar. If you were a regular, he was the kind of guy who had your drink waiting for you by the time your ass hit the barstool. Though you’d never know it, he had eyes and ears like a hawk. He knew just about everything everyone was into. He was like a priest who had heard a million confessions, and his lips were sealed tighter than a bank vault. If you needed to make a connection, Baxter knew how to hook you up.
Zoey slugged a shot of whiskey down. It burned her throat and warmed her stomach, just the way she liked it. She motioned for Baxter to refill her glass.
“So, are you in, or are you in?” She arched an eyebrow at 8-Ball, waiting for a response.
“Look I think the situation is just as fucked as you do. But what you’re proposing is beyond batshit crazy.”
“Where is your sense of adventure?”
“I have a healthy sense of adventure. I just don’t have a desire to be charged with treason and spend the rest of my life in prison.”
“So you just want to let Captain Slade rot in some super-max?”
8-Ball slugged his shot down. He grimaced.
“Look, I’ve got it all worked out,” Zoey said.
8-Ball laughed. “Every time you say that, shit goes wrong.”
“You and I both just got the shaft from the very people we fought to protect. And I made a promise to Captain Slade.”
“You know I’d do anything for the captain, but I finally found a job driving loaders at the dock. Do you know how hard it is to find a job with a misconduct classification on your discharge papers?”
“Try finding one with a personality disorder.”
“Shit, you are a personality disorder.”
“Fuck you,” Zoey said, playfully.
“Is that an offer?”
She rolled her eyes.
Baxter filled their shot glasses. “This one is from the gentleman at the end of the bar.”
Zoey peered around 8-Ball to see a big oaf grinning at her, lifting his glass. He was a thick, meaty guy—maybe 6’5”, 280 pounds. She lifted her glass in return, and smiled half heartedly. She muttered under her breath before she slugged the shot down. “Help me. He looks like he fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.”
“Watch out for him,” Baxter said. “He’s trouble.”
“Put his next two on my tab. But don’t let him buy me any more drinks.”
“Aye, Commander,” Baxter said.
Zoey’s heart sank—she missed having the rank. Baxter’s salutation was a grim reminder that she would never hold any rank again. Her gaze turned back to 8-Ball. She could see he had been affected in the same way. His face was hollow and forlorn.
She pressed him further. “So?”
“You’re not going to make me do this alone, are you?”
8-Ball glanced around to make sure no one was listening in on them. He leaned into Zoey and whispered in her ear. “Let me get this straight. You want to travel halfway across the galaxy and break Captain Slade out of a maximum-security prison?”
8-Ball shook his head.
“You and I both know another attack is coming. And these idiots at JPOC have their head so far up their ass, it will be too late by the time they do something. It’s like they want to get attacked.”
8-Ball said nothing. He just stared at his shot glass.
“Slade got railroaded. We got shafted. Something has to be done.”
“You are out of control. I can’t even begin to list the number of criminal charges we face just by merely having this conversation, much less following through on it.”
“We wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Captain Slade. I’m not going to turn my back on her.” Zoey’s eyes burned into him. “Eddie Clark, I know you’re not going to let this injustice stand.”
8-Ball’s face was tormented. He couldn’t remember the last time somebody had used his real name. “So how do you plan to pull off this whole operation?”
“Like I said. I’ve got it all lined up.” Zoey nodded to a table in the corner. A crew of four guys and a woman sat in the shadows. “Baxter vouched for them.
8-Ball took one look and knew the type. “Mercs?”
“They’ve got a ship, weapons, and experience.”
8-Ball shook his head. “I know trouble when I see it. And they’re trouble.”
“Hey, have a little faith. I’ve done my homework. They check out.”
“I don’t trust mercs. Soulless vultures out for themselves.”
“The handsome one, Declan… he’s former Marine. Served two tours in the Krighton campaign.
8-Ball twisted up his face, a little jealous. “Handsome?”
Zoey rolled her eyes.
“Who’s the girl?”
“I don’t know.”
“She’s cute.” 8-Ball eyed Zoey to see if she’d get jealous. She just arched an eyebrow at him and gave nothing away.
Violet was a stunner. Sculpted cheek bones, full lips, piercing blue eyes, and raven black hair. She looked like she belonged on the cover of a magazine, rather than with a crew of mercenaries.
Baxter leaned in and whispered. “I served under Slade in the first Verge War. I’d be the first one to go get her if I didn’t have a bad hip. I think it’s a shame what they did to her. I see a lot of types come and go around this place. You’re not going to find a better crew for hire than Declan’s. He doesn’t work with any slouches.”
Baxter subtly pointed out the individual team members. “That round one there is Mitch. He thinks he’s funnier than he is, but he’s a good tactical officer. Bit of a horn-ball, so watch out.” Baxter winked at Zoey. “The short mouthy fart is Brody. The big guy. That’s Jaxon. Special Forces. Operational Detachment X-ray.”
“Really? He’s X-Force?” Eddie sounded impressed.
“He comes in handy in a fight,” Baxter smirked. “Ain’t none of them saints. But they’ll get the job done. And as you know, it’s hard for some of these former service members to find good work if they’ve got bad discharge papers.”
“Declan’s on the up and up. He’s been coming in here for years. He never drinks, and he’s all business.”
Baxter strolled down the bar, attending to other customers.
“So, are you in?” Zoey said, batting her long lashes at Eddie.
8-Ball looked into those big seductive eyes of hers. His heart fluttered a little. There was a reason Zoey had earned the callsign Boner. She was a damn fine woman. And very hard to say no to. “If I agree to this… and that’s a big if, how the hell are seven of us going to break her out of a maximum security slam?”
“75,000 credits upfront. 75,000 credits upon completion. Plus 75,000 in expenses,” Declan said. His steely eyes surveyed Zoey. He had a square jaw with about three days of stubble, piercing blue eyes, and unruly dark hair. He was a scoundrel, no doubt about it.
“Highway robbery,” Zoey said. She and 8-Ball sat across the table in a secluded corner of the bar.
“Find somebody else.”
“That’s double the other quotes I’ve received.” Zoey was lying. She hadn’t talked to anyone else.
“Really? Who are you talking to?” Declan was calling her bluff. He had a slight grin. There was nobody else that could, or would, do the job.
Zoey shrugged. “People.”
“Commander Bryant, I know everybody in this business. If you can find a better rate, and a better crew, I suggest you take the deal.”
“I can give you 35,000 upfront. 35,000 upon completion. And 75,000 in expenses.”
Jaxon scoffed. He was about to say something but Declan gave him the eye. Jaxon bit his tongue. Declan was the negotiator for the group.
“What expenses?” 8-Ball asked.
“We’re not going to break your captain out of jail,” Declan said. “Warden Carson is as crooked as a vandego’s tail. We’re going to buy her way out.”
“Maybe I should just save myself your fee, and buy her directly from the warden?” Zoey said with a little sassiness in her voice.
“Go ahead. Be my guest. Do you know the warden? Have you ever done business with him before?”
Zoey’s eyes narrowed at him.
“He won’t even give you the time of day. He’s not stupid.”
Zoey’s face tensed. She knew he was right. “50,000 upfront. 50,000 back end. 75,000 in expenses.”
“75,000 across the board or no deal.” Declan wasn’t about to negotiate. “This is a high risk venture. By the very nature of who she is, this will be considered a capital offense. We’ll all be looking at the death penalty.”
Zoey didn’t like it, but she had no choice. “Fine.”
Declan smiled. “It seems we have a deal.”
The two shook hands.
“Meet me at the Wright-Hammond Space Port at 0400.” Declan and the others stood up from the table. “Oh, and you don’t mind picking up our tab, do you?”
Zoey scowled at him as they left.
“How the hell are you going to come up with that kind of money?” 8-Ball asked.
“We’re going to rob a bank.”
“What?” 8-Ball’s eyes were wide. He looked like he was about to have a heart attack.
8-Ball breathed a sigh of relief. “You had me concerned for a minute there. I always knew you were crazy, but…”
“I had a little saved up… and I took out a loan,” she said, sheepishly.
“Who would give you a loan?” 8-Ball’s eyes narrowed at her, realizing what she must have done. “You didn’t… did you?”
Zoey’s attention had drifted back to the bar.
The big oaf was harassing another girl. She tried to get away from him, but he grabbed her arm and pulled her back. She slapped him and broke free of his grasp, then stormed out of the bar.
Zoey gritted her teeth.
“New Earth to Zoey?” 8-Ball said, trying to get her attention.
Zoey looked back at 8-Ball and shrugged. “I had no other choice.”
8-Ball shook his head. “Please tell me you didn’t borrow money from Fat Tony?”
“Okay, I won’t tell you.”
“Have you lost your mind? The vig is 20% a week!”
If you couldn’t get a loan from a bank, or you didn’t have good credit, there was one place to go—Fat Tony. But it came with a steep downside. The interest was 20% a week, which compounded quickly. People hardly ever defaulted on a loan from Fat Tony. If they did, the results were rather unpleasant. He was one of the most notorious crime bosses of Nova York. Fail to pay back a debt to Tony and you might get a visit from Tommy Bats, or Freddy Two Fingers, or Meatball Mac.
Tommy Bats got his name because his favorite thing to do was break people’s legs with a Louisville slugger. He’d pretend it was the bottom of the ninth and the bases were loaded. He’d swing for the fence, and if he could crack a tibia and fibula with one swing, he’d consider it a home run.
If Freddy came to visit you, it was guaranteed that he was always going to leave with the money you owed him, or with two of your fingers.
Meatball Mac was a big meathead of a guy with fists like sledgehammers. He was known to beat deadbeats until their face looked like a meatball.
Zoey was taking a huge risk. But that didn’t matter to her. She knew it was the right thing to do. “Relax. I’m not afraid of Fat Tony, or his boys. Captain Slade would put her life on the line for anyone of us. We’re lucky we are not right there with her.”
8-Ball knew she was right.
“We’ve seen the effects of Verge mind control first hand. How do we know they haven’t infiltrated the highest levels of government?”
8-Ball pondered this.
“All I know is that it’s a disgrace that Captain Slade isn’t in command of a starship. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to fix that. But she doesn’t deserve to rot in some hellhole.”
“What about Cameron?” 8-Ball asked.
“He’s still confined aboard the Devastator. I say we free Captain Slade. Then work on Cameron.”
Zoey was putting her life on the line, but she didn’t know Slade had already escaped from Alpha Ceti 7. Zoey and 8-Ball were about to risk everything for nothing.
Zoey looked up to see the big oaf that bought her a round of drinks hovering over her.
“What’s the matter, you too good to let me buy you a drink?”
“No. I accepted your drink, and bought you a round in return.” Zoey gave him a fake smile.
“You ungrateful little bitch.”
That was the wrong thing to say to Zoey. “What did you think, I was gonna drop to my knees and blow you because you bought me a shot?”
The oaf grinned. “You got the mouth for it.”
“I don’t think my boyfriend would appreciate that.” Zoey clung onto 8-Ball’s arm.
The oaf sneered at 8-Ball. “I call bullshit. This little pussy ain’t man enough to satisfy you.”
8-Ball clenched his jaw and stood up.
The oaf towered over him.
Zoey put a hand on 8-Ball’s arm as she stood up, trying to diffuse the situation. “Easy now, boys. No sense fighting over little old me. I can take care of myself.”
The words had barely left her mouth when she heaved a right cross at the oaf’s jaw. Her fist smacked the meathead square in the mouth. The impact rattled the bones in her fist. She had gashes in her knuckles from his teeth. It would have put anyone else on the ground. But it didn’t seem to phase the big bastard.
Zoey’s eyes went wide with concern.
The big oaf wiped a trickle of blood from his chin. He grinned and spit a pinkish mix of blood and saliva on the concrete. “I don’t usually hit women, but you did strike first.”
The thick bastard wound up and swung at her. His fist was like a wrecking ball plowing toward her face.
The Saarkturian gunship hurtled away from the desolate desert planet. Patched together and barely operational, it had just enough juice to escape the atmosphere. The baron red planet grew small as the ship headed into space.
“Thantos 6,” Malik said as he piloted the gunship. It was a heavily armed Phantom with two 30mm chain guns and an array of Inferno and Cobra rockets.
“What?” said Walker.
“The name of the planet. Thantos 6,” Malik said, looking over the star charts.
Lieutenant Commander Kurt Walker didn’t care if the crispy hunk of sand at the ass end of the galaxy had a name or not. He was just glad to be off of it. And if he never came back again, that would suit him just fine.
He had found an unlikely alliance with two of his mortal enemies—Malik and Saaja. Both Saarkturian warriors. He had also found a new best friend—Bailey—a dog-like creature he had formed an unbreakable bond with on the desolate planet.
None of these individuals would still be alive without the assistance of each other. It made for an unusual, but strong, nexus. They had survived the crucible of combat together. And from this point on, they would always be brothers in arms.
But the reality of their sworn allegiances, and the war, were setting in.
Walker was still recovering from his wounds received while battling the vicious creatures on Thantos 6. The numbness of the arthropod’s venom was wearing off. But his leg and arm tingled with pins and needles, like he had slept on them wrong.
Even with the accelerated wound healing technology of the Saarkturians, it was going to be a few days before Walker was back to full speed. The after effects of the venom made him feel hung over and nauseous. Though, he was almost getting used to that sensation.
“So, how do you want to work this out?” Malik said. “We can’t take you back to New Earth. It’s too risky. I don’t think a Saarkturian Phantom would make it anywhere close without getting shot down.”
“What about Delta Vega? It’s one of the outermost colonies. It’s not heavily defended. There shouldn’t be much of a UPDF presence. If we run into trouble we can use my identification code.”
Malik was skeptical. “Even so, we’d likely be greeted by a military escort. Once they found Saarkturians aboard, we’d be taken captive.”
“I wouldn’t let that happen.”
“You might not be able to stop it. We’d be interrogated and tortured. You know this as well as I do.”
Walker grimaced. Malik was right. It would be standard operating procedure to interrogate any enemy soldiers encountered. “I’m reasonably certain we’ll be able to get in without an issue. The only time that anyone from the UPDF visits Delta Vega is for shore leave.”
Malik didn’t look convinced.
“Polaris 5 would be another option. It’s a neutral research facility.”
“Polaris is too far. I can’t even say for certain the slide-space drive is going to work.” Malik pondered things for a moment. “What about the mining colony on Hyperion 6?”
Walker looked at Malik like he was crazy. “It’s been abandoned for the last decade. You can’t leave us there.”
“We’d make sure you had food and water. You could initiate the distress beacon. I’m sure it would get picked up by one of your kind.”
Walker shook his head. “How about we hop over to Delta Vega and check it out. If it looks too hot, we jump out. Then you can take me to Hyperion. Deal?”
“I agree,” Saaja said. “Let’s try Delta Vega first. It seems like a more reasonable thing to do.”
“See, even Bailey thinks it’s a good idea,” Walker said.
Malik sighed. “Delta Vega it is.”
Saaja plotted a course, and Malik engaged the slide-space drive. The tiny ship bulged and rippled. Time and space distorted. Walker felt like he had just reached the top of a roller coaster and was plummeting down on the long slide to the bottom.
Bailey barked and howled. This was his first quantum jump. And he wasn’t totally sure how he felt about it.
Walker petted him. “Easy, boy. Nothing to it.”
Like a rubber band stretched tight, the Phantom snapped into slide-space. Three hours later, they emerged on the outskirts of Delta Vega.
Malik’s eyes went wide.
Even from space you could see the destruction on the planet below. Smoldering fires were still burning out of control. The planet looked blackened and scarred from the bombings and destruction.
An armada of Decluvain super-carriers encircled the planet.
Malik’s heart raced.
“What the hell is going on?” Walker asked, stunned at the sight of the invasion force.
“Decluvians,” Malik said in a panicked voice. “Sworn enemies of Saarkturia.”
Malik knew nothing of the new alliance. It was baffling to him. “What are they doing in the Holy Land?”
Walker almost had to laugh. Delta Vega was anything but holy. It was so decadent and depraved that it made Sodom and Gomorrah look like a convent.
“Surely they can’t be stupid enough to take a system claimed by the Saarkturians?” Malik said.
“We did,” Walker murmured.
Malik frowned. “I think it’s time we get out of here.”
Malik attempted to engage the slide-space drive, but it wasn’t responding. The last jump had drained their improvised fuel cell.
An alarm sounded. Targets on the sensor display flashed red. Several Decluvian fighters were headed their way.
Malik’s eyes were wide. “Saaja, target the incoming ships.”
Saaja lowered her targeting visor. The gunship’s massive chain guns snapped to attention. The optical tracking system followed her eye movements, targeting anything she looked at. Saaja gripped the trigger on the joystick, ready to blast the incoming squadron out of space.
But opening fire would be a huge mistake.
Zoey ducked. The oaf’s massive fist rushed overhead.
8-Ball chopped at the back of the meathead’s neck. The blow was little more than an nuisance. The oaf backhanded 8-Ball, sending him crashing to the floor.
Zoey grabbed a beer bottle from a nearby table and smashed it against the oaf’s thick melon head. It shattered into a thousand pieces. Zoey thought for sure he’d go down with that hit. But it just seemed to enrage him.
He grabbed her and flung her through the air. She careened across the bar, crashing into a table. Wood splintered. Drinks splashed.
Zoey peeled her aching body off the floor. The oaf was marching toward her like a steamroller.
8-Ball jumped onto his back and wrapped his arm around the meathead’s neck. His neck was so thick, 8-Ball could barely get him in a chokehold. The oaf’s face turned red as 8-Ball squeezed with all his might.
But 8-Ball couldn’t hold on for long. The oaf reached back and grabbed Eddie's shirt. The oaf yanked Eddie forward and flipped him off his back. 8-Ball crashed to the ground in front of the meathead. He wound up and kicked Eddie in the gut, full force. Eddie groaned in pain. The kick was enough to lift Eddie's body off the floor.
Zoey came back at the oaf, breaking a chair across his torso. It shattered like balsa wood against the man’s stocky frame. The beast grabbed her by the throat, wrapping his mammoth hands around her neck. She couldn’t breathe. She felt like her eyes were going to pop out of their sockets.
The oaf reached his arm back and swung with everything he had. His sledgehammer of a fist crashed into Zoey’s cheek. The blow wrenched her jaw, twisting her neck. She smacked the concrete like a slab of beef. The floor smelled like stale beer and old vomit. Washed with bleach and water many times, it was a smell that never quite came out of the porous concrete floor.
Zoey had been in plenty of bar fights before. But she’d never been hit that hard in her entire life. Her eye was instantly black, and she was seeing double. It took her a moment to regain her faculties.
The meathead was moving in for the kill.
Zoey tried to peel herself off the ground. She couldn’t take many more hits like that. If she didn’t get off the ground soon she was going to be in deep trouble.
The fight had drawn a crowd. They were hooting and hollering and cheering. People were making bets on the side. Nobody was stepping in to help. Hell, it was a free fight on a Friday night. You couldn’t get better live entertainment than this.
Eddie charged the oaf, but he batted Eddie away like he was made of paper. He turned his attention back to Zoey. By this time, she had sprung up from the ground and was trying to plot her next move.
A shotgun blast got everyone’s attention.
Baxter had put a round into the ceiling. Bits of plaster and debris rained down from above. He racked the pump action shotgun and aimed it at the oaf’s mellon head. “I like a good fight as much as the next person, but this one is over, Harley.”
Harley scowled at him.
“Tell you what… you apologize to the lady, and I’ll give you another round on the house.”
“I got no qualms about making improvements to your appearance,” Baxter said. “Dr. Floyd here gives a helluva facelift.” Baxter had an affinity for his shotgun. It had settled down many a rowdy patron over the years.
Harley gritted his teeth. “She started it. I ain’t apologizing for shit.”
“Harley, I haven’t had to shoot nobody in a long time.” Baxter’s finger was wrapped tight around the trigger. Even with a 12gauge shotgun aimed at the big thug, Baxter was still a little nervous. Harley was just one of those guys that was hard to put down.
Harley pursed his lips, then sighed. “Alright, fine. Whatever.” His menacing eyes found Zoey. “I’m sorry. My behavior was rude and insensitive.”
Baxter’s tense body relaxed a bit.
Zoey was a little surprised Harley complied so easily. She wasn’t about to let her guard down, but Harley’s change in behavior was just enough of a distraction for him to make his move. And he moved quick, for such a big guy.
Harley lunged for Baxter’s shotgun. He grabbed the barrel and pushed it toward the ceiling. Baxter clenched his fist, involuntarily squeezing the trigger. The thunderous blast was deafening. Zoey’s ears rang. Bits of dust and debris from the ceiling rained down.
Harley cracked Baxter in the face with the stock of the shotgun. Then he stripped the weapon from Baxter’s hands. He pumped the weapon and aimed it at Baxter’s head. He was about to pull the trigger when Zoey lunged for the barrel.
The shotgun went off again—this time cratering the concrete next to Baxter. He managed to roll out of the way in the knick of time, pelted by chips of concrete.
Zoey struggled with Harley over the gun. But it wasn’t much of a struggle. Harley tossed Zoey aside. She crashed to the ground amid broken glass and the debris of the shattered table. Shards dug into her hands and forearms. Blood bloomed from the abrasions.
Harley racked the shotgun again. This time the big black barrel was staring right at her.
Emperor Tyvelon marveled at the destruction of Delta Vega from the CIC of the Imperial Spaceship Korvectus. It was named after the Decluvian God of War, and first emperor, Ivas Korvectus IV.
If Tyvelon’s campaign to exterminate the humans and drive them from the Saarkturian Holy Land was successful, which was off to a good start, he would be remembered as a god himself. And that thought gave him much pleasure.
The view from the CIC was awe-inspiring. There is a certain beauty in destruction. Tyvelon saw it as an act of creation. The smoldering planet below him was being reborn in the Decluvian image.
He wore his ceremonial body armor, though the view from the CIC was as close as he was likely going to get to actual combat. But he did look regal and imposing. He was a fierce warrior, and had proven himself in battle many times before.
The Decluvian’s had evolved from an amphibian species. They had brightly colored skin with black spots. They came in many colors, but Tyvelon’s predominant color was red. He looked like the devil himself.
The Decluvians had large, protruding eyes that gave them almost 360 degree vision. They were almost impossible to sneak up on. They had long, slender fingers—three on each hand, and an opposable thumb. There was slight webbing in between the digits. The tips of their fingers could adhere to almost anything. They preferred hot and humid climates with lots of water. And water was something the Decluvians were running out of. And there was plenty of it on Delta Vega.
They were an aposematic species—their skin could become toxic. It was secreted when threatened, fearful, or in pain. Touching a Decluvian could be a deadly proposition. The poison easily permeated through Saarkturian and human skin. Almost instantaneous paralysis and loss of autonomic function would result. They could also control the release of the toxin at will.
“My Lord, military operations are wrapping up. We have secured the planet and will begin transport of the prisoners. The second wave of operations should commence shortly.” The Decluvian commander stood at attention. But there was an almost imperceptible tremor in his voice.
“Well done, Commander Nalduun,” Tyvelon said. “Have a dozen healthy prisoners brought to the galley. Good, meaty specimens. Have the royal chef prepare them for our victory feast.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“And I want my favorite dessert.”
“Brain pudding, My Lord?”
“There is one slight problem.”
The emperor’s eyes narrowed.
Nalduun cleared his throat and swallowed hard. “A gunship seemed to escape. It blasted through our defense network and made a quantum jump.”
Tyvelon clenched his jaw and drew close to the commander.
Nalduun cringed with fear.
“That is unacceptable to me. Track them down, and destroy them.”
“But, My Lord, they have already jumped away.” He tried to downplay it. “It’s a small ship, and it was badly damaged. It will take them days to reach New Earth, if they arrive at all. By that time our forces will have arrived.”
“I don’t want the humans to have any advanced warning of our invasion. Track its quantum distortions. Find that ship and destroy it.”
“Yes, My Lord.” Nalduun trembled.
“What are you waiting for?”
Nalduun spun around and scurried from the CIC.
“Sir, a Saarkturian Phantom has jumped into the sector,” a tactical officer yelled.
Tyvelon’s round eyes shifted back and forth as he processed the information. “So, Prince Valinok has sent someone to keep an eye on me.”
“Do you want me to destroy it?”
“No. We will save our aggression against the Saarkturians until after we have exterminated the humans.”
“If Valinok wants to keep tabs on me, let him have a close view. Invite his spies aboard.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
Saaja was about to squeeze the trigger and blast the Decluvian fighters into oblivion when a voice crackled over the comm line.
“ISS Korvectus to the Saarkturian Phantom. ISS Korvectus to the Saarkturian Phantom. Do you copy?”
The voice spoke in perfect Saarkturese. The Decluvians were well versed in the language of their former enemy. Walker was fluent himself.
Saaja eyed Malik and lifted her brow. He nodded for her to respond.
“Go ahead, Korvectus.”
“Emperor Tyvelon has requested your presence on the Korvectus. He wishes that Prince Valinok could be here to celebrate this historic victory. But as his emissary, he is certain you will relay the full splendor of this success to the Prince. The Emperor would be honored if you would join him at the royal feast.”
Saaja and Malik exchanged a quizzical glance.
“It seems we’ve formed an alliance with the Decluvians,” Malik said.
Saaja responded. “We’d be honored.”
“Excellent. Please allow our fighters to escort you to the flight deck.”
The Decluvian fighters flanked the Phantom and guided her to the Korvectus. She was one of dozens of ships in the Decluvian fleet that were orbiting Delta Vega. Walker wondered if this was the entire invasion force, or just a fraction? Were other armadas attacking the other colonies?
“Excuse me,” Walker said. “In case you haven’t noticed, I happen to be human. The very species they are attempting to exterminate. I don’t think I’m going to be a welcomed dinner guest.”
Saaja cringed. “Yeah. About that. There’s something I need to tell you.”
Walker arched an inquisitive eyebrow at her.
“Human’s are a bit of a delicacy to the Decluvians.”
Walker’s jaw dropped. “So, I’m not only a guest, I’m on the menu.”
“That’s a possibility.”
“We might want to reconsider this invitation,” Walker said.
Bailey barked in agreement.
“The last jump taxed the fuel-cell pretty hard,” Malik said. “It may bounce back, but right now there’s not enough juice for another jump.”
Walker scanned the interior of the gunship. “I don’t suppose you have any hidden compartments in this ship?”
Malik shook his head. “We could say you are a spy for the Saarkturians.”
“I would never betray the Federation. I won’t even pretend.”
“You’re wearing Saarkturian battle armor. Put on a helmet and don’t take it off.”
“I’m sure that will go over well at dinner.”
“You won’t eat. You’re our personal guard,” Malik said.
“Have you taken a good look at us lately? We don’t exactly look like a diplomatic envoy.”
Their body armor was covered with rust colored dirt and mud from the desert planet. They looked like three warriors who’d been through hell and back.
“If you can come up with a better idea in the next five minutes, please let me know,” Malik said.
Walker grumbled under his breath. He fumbled for a helmet and put it over his head.
At 6’5” Walker could pass for a short Saarkturian. The average male was around 7 feet tall.
The body armor was sleek black form fitting battle protection. Like all Saarkturian designs, it was curved and organic. It looked like an exoskeleton. If you didn’t know better, you would think this was the natural form of the Saarkturians. Not the pale-skinned, dark-eyed, humanoids that they were.
The Phantom cruised toward the imposing fleet. With each passing second, the knot in Walker’s stomach grew tighter. The sweat on his skin grew thicker. He was an elite Special Warfare Operator—a Navy Reaper. He had been in plenty of unsavory situations before, but there was something unsettling about stepping aboard a ship full of cannibalistic aliens.
As they drew closer to the Korvectus, one of the escort fighters took the lead and approached the flight deck. Malik could see the massive bay and the optical landings system to the side of the flight deck. But he was completely unfamiliar with the Decluvian landing protocol. The Decluvian equivalent of a Landing Signal Officer was a Landing Control Specialist.
The LCS crackled over the comm line. “Saarkturian Phantom. I have you clear for landing. Can you see the Landing Guidance System?”
“I have a visual.”
“I’m sure it’s a little different than what you’re used to. But the principle is the same. Right now you’ve got a good approach. Keep this vector, you’ll be fine.”
“The approach is mine,” Malik said.
Walker was about to see how good a pilot Malik was. Anybody could hop from planet to planet. Flying through open space required little skill. Landing on a carrier was no easy task. You had to manage the transition from Zero G to full gravity flawlessly. Smacking the edge of the flight deck was generally frowned upon.
Malik stayed on glide for the entire approach. He made a textbook landing.
“Well, this should be… interesting,” Walker said.
“That’s one way of putting it,” Malik replied.
Walker petted Bailey and scratched his chin. “You stay aboard this ship. You got me, Sergeant?”
Walker pulled down his visor, obscuring his face.
The Phantom stuck out like a sore thumb on the flight deck of the Korvectus. It was a stark contrast to the design of the Decluvian fighters.
The normally elegant vessel looked like a hunk of shit. It had seen better days. Only one of the engines worked. The other had been damaged and was scorched and charred. The hull was pocked and scraped and scarred. There was no mistaking this for a diplomatic envoy.
Things only got worse when the Phantom’s ramp lowered and the three of them stepped onto the flight deck.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Harley stomped toward Zoey—his finger wrapped tight around the trigger. This was it. She was going to die in this little shit hole bar. Harley was big and drunk and dumb and out of his mind with rage. He was probably a nice guy when he wasn’t drinking. But after a few shots he was meaner than a constipated rattlesnake.
Just as he was about to pull the trigger, Harley was knocked off his feet by a Disruptor beam. It was the last thing Zoey remembered before waking up in the Nova York City Jail.
The NYPD didn’t screw around. They shot first and asked questions later. With a less than lethal Bösch-Hauer STN 50 Disruptor, they could do just that. The gun emitted a wide beam that could neutralize anyone within a 65° spread from the barrel. The beam would disrupt neural pathways, causing a loss of motor control and consciousness. The effects were usually temporary.
Sometimes people never woke up. But that was less than 2% of cases. It was also reported that a small percentage of people never regained motor control function. But these were all deemed acceptable risks by the NYPD.
Zoey’s head was throbbing and her extremities were still a little numb and tingling. But she could move, and that was a good thing. She was in a holding cell with 8-Ball and several other bar patrons. The NYPD had an unofficial motto: arrest them all, sort them out later.
“Remind me never to go drinking with you,” 8-Ball said.
“What time is it?”
Zoey’s eyes widened. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Who’s going to break us out?” 8-Ball joked.
Zoey glared at him.
“Bryant,” a guard yelled. “Come with me.”
Zoey stood up and walked with trepidation to the steel bars that enclosed the cell. The guard cuffed her and led her to an interrogation room. It didn’t look like she was getting out of this place anytime soon.
After twenty minutes, a detective finally arrived. Twenty minutes was more than enough in the tiny room. Everything about it was designed to drive you crazy. It was dead silent. So quiet you could hear your pulse pounding and the blood rushing through your veins. Everything about the room was slightly askew. Just a little bit off. It was like a subtle version of a circus fun house. Nothing was at perfect 90° angles. After several hours in the room, it would make you feel uneasy and question your sanity.
It was all designed to elicit confessions. If you keep somebody in a room long enough, ask them leading questions over and over again, exhaust them, isolate them, make them feel like they’re never going to get out, they’re likely to say anything. Zoey was familiar with interrogation tactics. It was part of her basic training to resist enemy interrogations.
The detective sat across the table from her. He was about 35 and had scruffy brown hair. He wore a leather jacket and looked straight out of a cop show. He scanned over her file on his personal data unit. “Lieutenant Commander Zoey Bryant. Assigned to the Scorpion. Former, Lieutenant Commander.
There was that damn phrase again—Former Lieutenant Commander.
“You have quite an interesting resume.” He read over her list of priors. “Drunk and disorderly. Disturbing the peace. Public intoxication. Assault… should I continue?”
Zoey shrugged. “All lies. I’m just a soft cuddly girl.”
The detective chuckled. “I’ve had an opportunity to review the security camera footage from the bar. The video doesn’t lie. It looks like you threw the first punch. That makes you liable for this whole event.”
Zoey scoffed. “That’s bullshit. What was I supposed to do, let him swing first. I don’t know if you’ve gotten a good look at that guy, but he’s a wrecking machine.”
“You seem like the kind of girl whose mouth gets her in a whole lot of trouble.”
Zoey couldn’t argue with that one.
The detective read from his PDU. “Zoey Bryant is an excellent pilot, but is too impulsive and lacks respect for authority.” He scanned through her file. “Reason for discharge: personality disorder.” He looked at her with condescending eyes.
Zoey shrugged. “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
“You’re lucky nobody got hurt.”
“Newsflash. Have you see my face?” The sclera of her eye was filled with blood from ruptured capillaries. She had a dark circle under her eye that was purple and green and yellow. She looked like she just stepped out of the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world.
“Unfortunately, the bar owner doesn’t want to press charges. If it were up to me, I’d nail your ass to the wall.”
“I bet you’d like that,” Zoey smirked.
The detective sighed. “Get out of here before I change my mind.” The detective released her cuffs and let her out of the interrogation room. “You might want to work on that attitude of yours.”
“But it’s my strong point.”
The detective shook his head.
8-Ball had already been released and was waiting on the street for her outside of the jail. It was 0330 hours. They had thirty minutes to get to the space port.
Zoey cringed. “That’s your ship?”
“Yes,” Declan said. “That’s my ship. You got a problem with it?”
They stood in a docking bay in the Wright-Hammond Space Port.
“It looks like it’s held together with bubblegum and duck tape.” Zoey quipped.
The ship was scarred and tattered from years of battle. The hull had been patched in many places, and no consideration had been given to the appearance of the repair work.
“She may be old, but she’s fast and built like a tank.”
“It has a quantum drive, right?”
“Yes, dear. It has a quantum drive. It’s not that old.”
“That’s a pre-war Thunder Cat, isn’t it?” 8-Ball asked.
“I didn’t think there were any of these left,” 8-Ball said.
“Trust me. She’s space worthy. I’ve done all the maintenance myself.” Declan looked at the vessel with a grin. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
“Well, all aboard the flying museum,” Zoey snarked. She started toward the ship.
“Hold up. Not so fast,” Declan said. “Weapons aren’t allowed on board.”
“What about him?” Zoey said, eyeing Jaxon. He was clutching an M729 Light Automatic Weapon. It was a selective fire machine gun, and was never far from his grasp. You could tell he was just itching for any opportunity to use it.
“Passengers aren’t allowed weapons.” Declan proceeded to frisk Zoey. He patted her waistline and felt up and down her thighs.
“You enjoying yourself?”
His eyes narrowed at her. “What happened to your face?”
“It’s an improvement.”
Zoey scowled at him.
Declan frisked 8-Ball. Both of them were clean.
“Can I board now?” Zoey asked.
Zoey headed up the ramp and Eddie followed behind.
Declan grumbled under his breath. “I’m not getting paid enough for this job.”
“Shit, I don’t do this job for the money, boss. I do it for the sport,” Jaxon said.
Declan rolled his eyes and headed up the ramp. Jaxon followed.
In the cockpit, Violet was in the copilot seat. She was going through the pre-flight checks. All systems were green.
Mitch took a seat at the navigation console. He grabbed the handset and spoke into the intercom. He sounded like a cheesy radio DJ. His voice boomed throughout the ship. “Welcome aboard the SS Zephyr, non-stop to the resort at Alpha Ceti 7. A luxurious tropical destination with today’s temperature at a toasty high of 300°. Hope you brought your sunblock. Looks like we’ve been cleared for takeoff, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”
“Declan hates it when you do that,” Violet said.
“That’s why I keep doing it.” Mitch smiled. He had sparkling eyes, blond hair, and a round face. He was a likable kind of guy that never met a stranger. He had put on a few pounds since he left the service—more than a few, actually. And he hadn’t kept daily PT as part of his routine.
Declan grimaced at the sound of the announcement. He showed his new passengers to their cabin. It was a small compartment with two bunks. “This is you. The head is down the hall.” He pointed aft. “The galley is on level one. Make yourself at home.” He pulled out his PDU and paged through a few screens. He checked his bank account. “Looks like the money is all there. I’ll have you to Alpha Ceti 7 in no time.”
Declan marched to the cockpit. “I hear that ridiculous announcement one more time, I’m kicking you off the ship. Preferably during flight.”
“Oh, come on. It’s funny,” Mitch said.
“If you were funny, you’d have your own comedy show.”
“Hey, I’m big on Zeta Cygnus. My standup kills it there.”
“Those people have no taste.” Declan took a seat.
“All systems go,” Violet said.
Declan engaged the thrusters. The powerful engines roared. The ship creaked and groaned as it lifted from the ground. It didn’t totally inspire confidence. The Zephyr was at least 50 years old. It rumbled and shook and plodded through the atmosphere like a lumbering elephant.
“Are you sure this thing is safe?” Zoey asked as she strolled into the cockpit.
“I don’t really like passengers in the cockpit,” Declan said. “Besides, you should really strap yourself in.”
Declan jerked the controls in an attempt to throw Zoey off balance. But she held onto one of the consoles. She glared at him, then took a seat and strapped in at an empty console. 8-Ball strapped in next to her.
An alarm sounded.
“Shit,” Declan said.
“We’ve got a leak in one of the hydraulic lines,” said Violet.
“It’s nothing major. I can fix it once we’re in slide-space.” Declan flicked a switch and silenced the alarm.
The old ship screeched and squealed as it rocketed toward space. It finally broke free of the atmosphere, and the ride smoothed out.
“Engage the artificial gravity,” Declan commanded.
Violet pressed the button, and Zoey felt her ass plant firmly against the seat.
A proximity alert sounded. It buzzed over a klaxon until Declan silenced it. “Shit.”
“What is it?” Zoey asked.
“It’s no big deal.” Declan tried to play it cool.
“Sir, I’m getting a communication across all channels,” Violet said.
“Mitch, have you got those jump coordinates plotted yet?”
“Working on it.”
A craft pulled alongside the Zephyr. A voice crackled over the intercom. “SS Zephyr, this is the Customs and Planetary Protection Agency. Stop your vehicle and prepare to be boarded.”
“Is there some kind of problem?” Zoey asked.
“It’s nothing really,” Declan said, trying to hide his concern with a grin. “Just a few outstanding warrants.”
Zoey shook her head. “I want a full refund if you get arrested.”
“I’m not getting arrested.”
The customs patrol ship fired two shots across the bow.
“I think they mean business,” Violet said.
“How are those jump coordinates coming?” Declan asked.
“Locked and ready to rock, sir,” Mitch said.
Declan grinned from ear to ear. He looked through the window at the customs officer pacing next to him. Declan smiled and flipped him off. Then he engaged the slide space-drive.
The bulkheads warbled. Zoey felt her stomach twist up in knots. The Zephyr vanished, and there was nothing the customs agents could do about it.
“One of these days they are going to catch up with you,” Violet said.
“Maybe. But not today.” Declan smiled and put his hands behind his head, triumphantly.
“What are your outstanding warrants for?” Zoey asked.
“Parking tickets,” Declan said, his voice thick with sarcasm.
“You might want to take care of those before you take on your next client.”
“Look, honey. You can’t hire a bunch of outlaws and expect them to be squeaky clean.”
“I’m not your honey.”
Violet arched an eyebrow at him.
“Lighten up, princess. We got away, didn’t we? I’ll uphold my end of the bargain. I’ll get you to Alpha Ceti 7. I’ll get your beloved captain out of jail, and take you wherever you want to go. But what I won’t do is listen to anymore of your grumbling. So, let’s all try to have a positive attitude. Fair enough?”
Zoey scowled at him.
“Great. That’s settled,” Declan said. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you. But I’m ready for a little breakfast.” He climbed out of the pilot seat and ambled toward the galley.
“Is he always this much of an asshole?”
“You have no idea,” Violet said. “But he grows on you.”
“Like a fungus,” Mitch said.
It wasn’t long before the smell of bacon and coffee lured everyone into the galley.
Declan was at the stove. He was cooking the old fashioned way. Bacon was sizzling in a pan. He was frying up a ham and cheese omelette in another. “I’m taking orders, if anybody wants anything?”
“Don’t you have a food fabricator?” Zoey asked.
“You know, sometimes you just can’t beat the real thing.”
“Two eggs, sunny side up. Bacon. And toast,” Violet said.
Mitch pondered his options. “Spinach and cheese omelette for me.”
“French toast,” Brody said.
“Scrambled eggs and bacon,” said Jaxon.
“Are pancakes on the table?” 8-Ball asked.
“I can do pancakes,” Declan said. “I got waffles too.”
Zoey melted for an instant. “Oh, my God. Waffles and maple syrup.”
“Shit, I change my order,” said Mitch. “I want waffles too. But I still want an omelette. Fuck it, give me both.” Mitch wasn’t shy about eating.
Declan slaved over the stove and fixed everyone’s breakfast. One thing was certain, he took care of his crew. They may have been a ragtag bunch of outlaw mercenaries, but they were the closest thing to a family that any of them had.
After everyone was served, Declan finally sat down to eat. It was one of those meals where nobody said a word—everyone was too busy stuffing their faces. After a night in jail, it tasted better than any breakfast Zoey had ever eaten.
Max jumped up on the table and surveyed the feast. He was an Antarian Sphynx from Beta 2 Majoris. His skin was royal blue and his eyes were emerald green. He was sleek and graceful, and lacked the wrinkly appearance of most hairless cats.
He sniffed the food as he strutted down the table toward Declan. It may have been Declan’s ship, but Max was the boss.
Declan held out a little piece of bacon, and Max devoured it.
Zoey was tired and hung over, and her face was tender as hell. “You got a med station on this ship?”
“What do you need?” Declan said, crunching on a crispy slice of bacon.
“Something for this headache would be nice. You have any cooling gel for this bruise?”
Declan pushed away from the table and stood up. “Let me see what I can rustle up.”
“Finish eating first,” Zoey said.
“I’ll just be a minute.”
Zoey scooped the last bit of waffles into her mouth and followed after him.
Max proceeded to nibble at Declan’s omelet.
Zoey caught up to Declan in the corridor, still chomping on her food. “Thank’s for breakfast. You’re not a bad cook.”
“My cooking will keep you from starving, that’s about it.”
“Do you do dishes and laundry too?”
He frowned at her and stepped into the med station. He rummaged through the cabinets and handed her a few pills. “Here. Take these. That will take down the swelling.”
Declan dug through the cabinet and pulled out a jar. He unscrewed the lid and dabbed a finger inside. “Let me see your face.”
He wiped the clear gel over her bruised and swollen skin.
“Ow. Go easy.” Her skin was extremely sensitive.
Declan finished applying the gel. Within moments, her skin grew cool. The gel was like an icepack, activated by skin contact. Declan gave her the jar. “Hang on to this. It will last about 15 minutes, then you can reapply.”
“Thanks.” She looked up at him with appreciative eyes.
“Just put it back when you’re done.” His steely blue eyes met hers. He held her gaze for a moment.
Zoey felt a little tingle in her stomach. Declan was attractive, in a dangerous, rough around the edges kind of way. She was a sucker for those kind of men, though she wasn’t about to admit it. “Well, it seems you aren’t as much of an asshole as I thought you were.”
“Don’t sell me short. I’m a tremendous asshole, you just don’t know me that well yet.” He grinned and left her in the med station just as Violet hovered in the entryway.
It was easy to see that she was a little jealous. She gave Zoey a back off, he’s mine look. It was an awkward moment.
Zoey slid past her and bumped into 8-Ball in the hallway.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m going to get a little shut-eye,” 8-Ball said.
“That’s not a bad idea,” said Zoey. “But don’t get any ideas about us bunking together.”
“Please, you are totally not my type,” 8-Ball said.
Zoey rolled her eyes. “Anything with a pulse is your type.”
“Are you suggesting I don’t have standards? I mean, I guess I could compromise my values, if you begged me.”
“You definitely need sleep. You seem delusional.”
As she headed to her quarters, Zoey suddenly got an uneasy feeling in her stomach. The bulkheads breathed and rippled. She felt seasick for a moment. The Zephyr had emerged from slide-space.
Zoey’s face twisted up, perplexed. It was much too soon to be exiting a quantum jump. She and 8-Ball raced to the cockpit.
“What the hell is going on?”
“It’s an old ship, sweetheart,” Declan said. “It doesn’t have the range of modern vessels. It’s just going to take a few more jumps than usual to reach our destination.”
“We’ll get there. I promise.”
“Where are we?” Zoey said, gazing out the front viewport. Visibility was almost down to zero. They had emerged in an angry green cloud of dust and ionized gasses. Electrical charges flashed about the hazy nebula. It was like an interstellar thunderstorm.
“X2997365. It’s a planetary nebula that doesn’t even get a real name,” Declan said, looking over the charts. “But we shouldn’t be here. We should be two sectors over. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The Zephyr cruised through the luminescent clouds. Suddenly, a large metallic object emerged from the haze. They were on a collision course, and there was no time to avoid it.
Declan pulled hard on the controls. The ship veered starboard. The inertia sent Zoey crashing against the port side bulkhead. The old Zephyr creaked and groaned. It was going to be a close call.
As they careened closer to the object, it became clear it was another spaceship. It was massive. But the nebula prevented a clear view of the ship. The bow and stern were obscured by the luminescent haze.
Declan reversed the thrusters, trying to avoid impact. The Zephyr shuddered and rumbled. The edge of the Zephyr scraped along the top of the mysterious ship. Sparks flew, and metal squealed. It was like nails on a chalkboard.
Still pulling hard on the controls, Declan arced the Zephyr away, clearing the mammoth vessel.
“What the hell is that?” Declan muttered.
“She doesn’t show up on the scanner,” Violet said.
“Must be electromagnetic interference from the nebula. We’ve got to be careful in here.” Declan circled around to get a better look at the ship.
They flew along the mammoth structure from end to end. It didn’t take Zoey long to recognize what it was. “That’s an Avenger class star destroyer.”
8-Ball stared out of the front view port, slack-jawed. “Holy shit. That’s impossible.”
The tattered and faded name on the hull read: USS Revenant.
“That ship’s been missing for 25 years,” 8-Ball said.
An eerie silence fell over the cockpit. No one was sure what to make of the phenomenon.
“Can’t be,” Declan said.
“It says it right there on the hull,” 8-Ball exclaimed.
“You spike our breakfast?” Violet said in jest. “Maybe we’re all hallucinating?”
“That’s not a hallucination,” said Zoey.
Declan made another pass around the ship.
Violet activated the comm system. “SS Zephyr to the USS Revenant. Do you copy, over?”
There was no response. Just static and interference from the nebula.
“SS Zephyr to the USS Revenant. Do you read me?”
There was still no reply.
“She looks like she’s in pretty good shape,” Zoey said.
“She’s a little dinged up here and there, but I don’t see any major hull breaches,” Declan said.
“Do you think she still has an atmosphere and gravity?” Violet asked.
“There’s only one way to find out.”
“Oh, hell no,” Mitch said. “You’re not thinking about going aboard that thing, are you?”
Declan’s face twisted up. “Why not?”
“The Revenant is cursed.”
“Nonsense. Old wives’ tales.”
“This thing disappeared without a trace, then reappears here 25 years later? That doesn’t strike you as odd?”
“I’m sure there’s a simple explanation,” Declan said. “They probably had some technical difficulty, got stuck in deep space, and drifted into this nebula. Look at all this interference going on,” he said, motioning to the electrical disturbances within the cloudy haze. “More than enough to wreak havoc with long-distance communications. It’s why the ship doesn’t show up on the scans.”
“I’m looking right at it, yet it doesn’t read at all on LRADDS,” Violet said.
“That’s creepy,” Mitch said.
“No, it’s not,” Declan said, ever the skeptic. “Look, the ship probably got locked into an orbit around the planet. Eventually the crew ran out of supplies and… well, shit happens.”
“I don’t like it,” Mitch said.
“Don’t be a pussy,” said Brody.
“That means there’s going to be a ton of dead bodies on that ship,” Mitch said.
“Crusty skeletons,” Brody said. “You’re not afraid of a few old bone bags?”
“Have some respect,” Zoey said. “There were over 1600 crew on the Revenant.”
“With all due respect to the dead, do you know what a ship like this is worth?” Declan said with a grin. “Trillions.”
Mitch's eyes widened.
“Hang on a minute,” Zoey said. “This is Federation property.”
“This vessel is abandoned, and is clearly in peril,” Declan said. “If we salvage this ship, we’re entitled to 100% of its value. The Federation can have it back, as long as they pay me for it.” He smiled.
“You don’t know if it’s abandoned,” Zoey said.
“Even if there is someone aboard, it’s likely they need our help. In which case, the vessel is in peril, and we’re entitled to salvage rights.”
“What’s the split,” Jaxon asked.
“The usual. I take 50%, the rest is split evenly between the four of you.”
“That’s bullshit,” Jaxon said.
“When you have your own ship, and your own crew, you can set the percentages.”
“I’m with Jaxon,” Violet said. “You want us to go aboard the ship, it’s an even split.”
Declan scowled at her.
“Even split, or I don’t go either,” Brody said. There was a little fear in his voice. “I’ve heard the stories about the Revenant.”
“Yeah, fair is fair,” Mitch said.
Declan threw up his hands in exasperation. “Okay. Fine. Even split. Five ways.”
Zoey stared at them with wide eyes. “Is money the only thing you people give a shit about?”
“No,” Declan said. “I though it was pretty obvious we all like bacon.”
“I’ll kill for bacon,” Jaxon said. He wasn’t kidding.
Zoey shook her head. “What about our mission?”
“Your mission can wait a day or two in order for us to make a trillion credits.”
Zoey’s face tensed. “You know, you wouldn’t have even stumbled across this ship if it weren’t for me.”
“So, 8-Ball and I should get an equal share.”
Zoey scowled at him.
“She’s got a point, boss,” Mitch said.
Declan glared at him. Mitch was just trying to make a good impression, hoping it might help him get into Zoey’s pants—and Declan knew it.
Declan sighed. “Alright. All those in favor of cutting the clients in, raise your hand.”
Violet, Mitch, Zoey, and 8-Ball raised their hands.
“You two don’t count,” Declan said, looking at Zoey and 8-Ball.
Zoey gritted her teeth and huffed.
“All those in favor of keeping the shares among us, raise your hand.”
Jaxon and Declan raised their hands.
“That’s 2 to 2. Who didn’t vote?” Declan scanned the cockpit. Brody stood sheepishly, trying to ignore his gaze.
Declan’s eyes narrowed. “Brody, how say you?”
“Well, to be honest, it only seems fair.”
“I agree. It only seems fair to keep it among us.” Declan glanced at Zoey. “I’m sorry, but that’s 3 to 2. You lose.”
“No, I mean, it only seems fair to cut them in,” Brody said. “After all, we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.”
Declan grimaced. “Fine. Seven way split. Are the negotiations over?”
“Just remember, it’s her fault if anything goes wrong. She brought us here.” Declan grumbled under his breath and spun back to the command console. “Who’s going to be the first aboard?”
“There are multiple air locks on the port and starboard side, and atop the superstructure,” Zoey said.
“This ship isn’t designed to form a hard seal. We’ll have to do an EVA walk,” Declan said. “Mitch, suit up.”
His face crinkled up. “Why me?”
“Cause it’s your turn.”
“I’ll go,” Zoey said.
“No, you’ll stay here.”
“I know how to operate the access hatch, and I know my way around the ship. 8-Ball and I are… were… stationed aboard the Scorpion. It’s identical to the Revenant.”
Declan reluctantly agreed. “Mitch, show Commander Ballbreaker to the airlock, and help her suit up.”
Mitch had a little glint in his eye. “With pleasure, sir.”
She rolled her eyes and followed him down to the airlock.
Declan maneuvered the Zephyr alongside one of the airlock hatches on the starboard side of the Revenant. He extended a magnetic docking arm that latched onto the hull. The two ships drifted through the green clouds in a synchronous orbit around the unseen proto-planet at the center of the nebula.
Zoey was skeptical of the spacesuits hanging from the bulkheads in the Zephyr’s airlock. There were a dozen of them. “How old are those suits?”
“They work just fine,” Mitch said.
She arched an eyebrow at him.
“Do you know how much a new pressurized spacesuit costs?”
“When was the last time anybody used one of these?”
“I don’t know,” Mitch said. “Maybe six months ago?”
“And you’re sure these things will hold pressure?”
“Well, that one has a slow leak,” he gestured to one of the suits. “But it’s within limits. The rest of them are fine.”
“And they maintain temperature?”
“Look, these aren’t SK-7s, but they get the job done.”
Zoey shook her head, then began to peel out of her uniform.
Mitch's eyes were glued to her.
“Turn around. You’re not getting a free show.”
He frowned, then turned to face the bulkhead. “I didn’t want to watch anyway. Let me know when it’s safe to turn around. I don’t want to catch a glimpse of something scary.”
Zoey shook her head and stripped down.
These were SK-2, Advanced Extra Vehicular Activity suits. They were at least 50 years old, and weren’t very advanced by modern standards. They had several main components—the bladder, the lower torso assembly, the upper torso assembly, the helmet, and gloves.
Zoey grabbed a pair of absorbency undergarments from a bin in the bulkhead and slipped them on. If you had to go in one of these older spacesuits, this was the only way. Modern suits had duel pressurized locking zippers that created a perfect seal.
Zoey slipped into a formfitting bodysuit made out of wicking material. This was primarily to absorb sweat. Then she put on the bladder—a liquid cooled jumpsuit, regulated by the suit’s CPU.
She slipped into the lower torso assembly, like a pair of pants, and pulled the locking ring over her hips. She pulled the upper torso assembly overhead and slipped her arms into the sleeves. She locked the two sections together. The gloves were already attached to the locking rings on the sleeves, but could easily be removed if necessary.
She attached the helmet and pressurized the suit. It was bulkier than an SK-7, and had less mobility when fully pressurized. You could slip an SK-7 on over your skivvies and be ready to roll. The SK-2 wasn’t quite as antiquated as the old Apollo suits that the first astronauts used several hundred years ago, but it wasn’t state-of-the-art either. Modern technology had advanced quite a bit since the debut of the SK-2.
The suit had an old, musty smell. It was well worn, and some of the materials looked like they were deteriorating. The suit didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
The SK-2s were one size fits all. The gloves could be interchanged for different size hands, and the upper and lower torso sections had expandable fabric to compensate for size differences. The center locking ring was the only sticking point.
Mitch slipped on his suit, which was a little snug, in contrast to Zoey’s, which was a tad large on her. Mitch’s belly was flush against the center locking ring. He had to suck in his gut to attach the upper and lower sections. He pulled the helmet over his head and locked it in place.
Zoey activated her comm system—it was part of the upper torso assembly. “Can you hear me?”
Her voice filtered through the speaker in Mitch’s suit. “Loud and clear.”
“Zephyr, what about you?”
“Unfortunately,” Declan replied.
“What’s our oxygen supply like?” Zoey asked.
“Roughly 2 hours.”
Zoey lifted her brow. “That’s it?”
“Of course, that depends on how much you breathe. How much you talk. How hard you exert yourself.”
Zoey shook her head. “These suits are fully shielded, right?”
“Yes,” Declan said, crackling over the comm link. “You’ve got protection from ultraviolet and particle radiation.”
“If there’s a reactor leak aboard the Revenant, we could be stepping into some high dose ionizing radiation.”
Fusion reactors were generally safe, and meltdown was impossible. Still, the inner components of the reactor were radioactive. But unlike fission reactors, the fusion reactor cores would only be dangerous for about a hundred years after being decommissioned. In comparison, byproducts of nuclear fission, such as Np-237, have a half life of 2 million years.
Mitch looked a little nervous upon hearing that.
“I’m not picking up anything on the sensors,” Declan said.
Zoey grimaced. “That’s because the sensors aren’t working.”
“Oh, right,” Declan said. “Look, the suits are equipped with dosimeters. I’m getting a clear readout on your vitals. If there’s anything to be concerned about, I’ll let you know.”
“I feel better already.” Zoey’s voice was thick with sarcasm.
Mitch grabbed a retractable safety line and attached it to his suit with a carabiner. Zoey did the same.
“You ready,” Mitch asked.
Mitch closed the hatch to the airlock and made sure the seal was secure. He pressed a button on the wall and expelled the atmosphere from the airlock. Air whooshed through the vents. It was safer than just opening the outer hatch and running the risk of being swept out into space with the rush of exiting atmosphere.
He pressed another button. The outer hatch disengaged and slid open. They were roughly 25 yards from the outer hull of the Revenant. The ship looked ominous against the luminescent green nebula and the electrical storm flashing around it.
Zoey gazed at the ship in awe. It wasn’t often that she got to see the outside of an Avenger class star destroyer while it was in space. Even in dry dock, these ships looked powerful and majestic. But floating free, in their native habitat, they were a sight to behold. And no one had seen this particular ship in 25 years. It was like discovering the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean.
The stories of the Revenant were often told on long deployments in deep space. Usually to frighten junior officers, or enlisted fresh out of boot camp. Everyone had a different version of the fateful events, and each story had morphed so far from the original that nobody knew what the truth was anymore. The only thing that was for certain was that the ship went missing, and the crew along with it.
Zoey’s heartbeat pulsed. She couldn’t help but feel the thrill of discovery. She was going to be one of the first to set foot aboard.
Mitch fired a magnetic harpoon that attached to the Revenant’s hall. He secured the line to the bulkhead in the airlock. He wound it taught and tugged on it to test its strength. “These suits don’t have built in propulsion, so we’re on our own.”
Mitch grabbed the line and pulled himself toward the Revenant. He spoke into his comm line. “We are leaving the Zephyr.”
“Roger that,” Declan said.
Zoey followed behind Mitch. It was an eerie feeling, floating through space in the middle of a nebula. It was like crossing a tight rope between two skyscrapers—except there was no up or down. If you were afraid of heights, this definitely wasn’t the place for you. If you lost your grip, or if the safety harness broke, it would be a long cold death as you drifted off into space.
Within a few moments they had reached the hull of the Revenant. Mitch activated the magnetic soles on his boots. He placed his feet against the hull, and they snapped into place with a firm attachment.
Zoey followed suit.
Mitch took a few steps on the hull and looked back at the Zephyr. He had a grin on his face as he rotated around, taking in the view from all angles. “This is cool.”
Zoey cautiously let go of the tethered line they had crossed on. Her boots clanked against the hull as she marched to the manual control for the airlock hatch. She knelt down and opened a fairing that covered the control panel. She pressed the button, and the display came to life. The ship still had power.
She had to enter a four digit passcode in order to access airlock functions. It was a generic code used by every UPDF ship. At least, she hoped it was still the same code. The codes were programmable and could be unique to each Navy ship. But the UPDF had mandated that all hatch access codes should be the same to facilitate emergency rescue operations.
She entered 0000 into the keypad. A moment later, the display flashed: access granted. The Navy figured they would make the code so simple, no one could forget it. It was like the old nuclear football code.
Before she could open the outer hatch, the inner hatch had to be sealed. She keyed in the commands, and a moment later, the external hatch released and slid open. A rush of air blew out of the airlock.
Mitch and Zoey climbed into the airlock and sealed the hatch behind them. Zoey pushed the button on the bulkhead and pressurized the compartment. An overhead light flashed green, and a klaxon sounded.
Zoey’s fist mashed another button, and the inner hatch slid open.
The corridor in front of her was pitch black.
She activated her helmet lights. Two brilliant beams pierced the darkness. Dust and debris floated in the air. A pencil, a piece of paper, a coffee mug tumbling end over end. Her magnetic boots were keeping her affixed to the deck, but the ship’s gravity generators weren’t working.
There was clearly some available power. But the main system was off-line. Even the emergency lighting wasn’t functioning. It was possible that after all this time the ship went into some kind of hibernation mode to preserve energy.
“I hope you’re not afraid of the dark,” Zoey said.
Mitch gulped with fear. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
As Zoey stepped into the passageway, she felt a chill run down her spine. The hairs on the back of her neck stood tall. Goosebumps rose on her flesh, like skyscrapers. She didn’t know if it was just her imagination or not, but there was something chilling about this place. It felt like evil.
The Officer of the Deck sneered at their appearance. One side of his lip curled up, and his big amphibian eyes grew even wider. He wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this tattered group of Saarkturains—or what appeared to be Saarkturains.
Malik, Saaja, and Walker stood at attention. With his battle armor and face shield, Walker blended in. Though they all stood out. Perhaps the fact that they were covered in dirt and mud drew some of the attention away from Walker.
“Permission to come aboard?” Malik said.
The OOD hesitated. When he spoke, he did so in Saarkturese. “Permission granted.” He looked them up and down again. “Perhaps you would like to freshen up before you meet with Emperor Tyvelon?”
“We had a little… engine trouble on the way over,” Malik said.
The OOD glanced at the damaged thruster. “Yes, so it seems.”
“We were ambushed by raiders. We had to make an unexpected stop on a rather unfriendly planet.”
“I see.” His big round eyes were suspicious. “Well, if we can be of any assistance in repairing your ship, don’t hesitate to ask.”
The OOD’s eyes found Bailey sitting at the top of the ramp in the Phantom. “And that… thing? What function does it serve?”
“It’s highly trained in tactical explosive detection, gas detection, search and rescue.”
“I can assure you, there are no hidden explosives, or poison gas aboard the Korvectus. But the ship is large. I can’t promise you won’t get lost.” His tone was condescending. “I guess I will allow the beast on board.”
“He’s very well behaved,” Malik said. “Years of extensive training.” The only training Bailey had was fighting nasty arthropods on Thantos 6.
Walker motioned for Bailey. He bolted down the ramp and sat alongside Walker.
The OOD stared at Walker, but he couldn’t see through his visor. It perturbed him a little.
Bailey gave a subtle growl as the OOD stepped close. Walker petted Bailey’s head to settle him down.
The OOD turned up his nose. “Follow me. I’ll show you to your temporary quarters.”
As they followed him off the flight deck, Walker saw a slew of prisoners offloaded from a transport ship. They were humans. Frightened and tattered. Wide eyes and hopeless faces. But they were healthy, for the most part. There weren’t any wounded—the Decluvians had either killed the wounded, or left them to die on Delta Vega.
Walker clenched his jaw. He knew that these people were going to be slaves, or worse. But now was not the time to do anything about it.
The OOD led Walker and the others through a network of passageways to a small berthing compartment with four bunks. But they weren’t ordinary bunks. There were misting stations above each bunk, in case you needed to rehydrate your amphibian skin during the night.
“There are bathing facilities down the hall. There is also a pool if you’d like to take a dip. The 2nd deck mess hall is just forward from here. There are a variety of insects, worms, and slugs from across the galaxy, if you get hungry. Just don’t spoil your appetite. I’ll send someone to fetch you for the ceremony.”
“Thank you,” said Malik.
“If that’s all, I’ll be returning to my post?”
Malik nodded, and the OOD marched away.
Bailey leapt into one of the bunks and settled in for a nap.
The ship was hot and humid. It felt like a swamp. And that was just how the Decluvian’s liked it.
Walker peeled off his helmet and took a deep breath. “We’ve got to do something about those prisoners.”
“Whoa. Hang on,” Malik said. “Let’s not get carried away.”
“If those were Saarkturians, how would you feel?”
Malik frowned. “Let’s just stick to the plan.”
“What plan is that?”
“We’ll attend the ceremony,” Malik said. “You stay here with Bailey. We’ll say you weren’t feeling well. We’ll have dinner, then we’ll say thank you, and be on our way.”
“I say we make a new plan. This fleet is on a mission to exterminate mankind. This may be our only chance to do something. We need to kill the Emperor, free the hostages, and destroy the ship.”
“If my people have formed an alliance with the Decluvians, then I must honor that alliance.”
“We’re talking about the annihilation of my people.” The veins in Walker’s neck were popping out.”
Saaja intervened. “Let’s all take a deep breath and calm down. The agreement we made was to help each other get off the planet and get each other to safety. None of us are exactly safe just yet.”
Malik gave her a sideways glance.
“You don’t really trust the Decluvians, do you?” she said. “They’ve never held to an agreement before.”
“I’m sure Prince Valinok had his reasons.”
“He’s a boy,” Saaja said. “He’s not qualified to make these decisions. He’s too young to remember our history. If he’s been taught anything of our history at all.”
“This conversation is veering into a treasonous direction.” Malik grew visibly uncomfortable.
“I am merely stating fact.” Saaja’s eyes burned into him.
Malik was quiet.
“He couldn’t have orchestrated an arrangement like this on his own. Someone is pulling the strings. I wonder what he had to agree to in order to get the Decluvians to wage war?”
“It makes no difference,” Malik said. “We are warriors, not politicians. We shouldn’t concern ourselves with such things.”
“Can you not think for yourself?” Saaja said.
Malik clenched his jaw. His pale face was beginning to flush red. “The bottom line is that the humans are occupying a sacred land.” His gaze met Walker’s. “No offense.”
“Because a 6000 year old scripture dictates this sector is off limits, that makes it okay to exterminate a sentient species?”
“It wasn’t like there was a no trespassing sign on New Earth when we settled it,” Walker said.
Malik’s eyes snapped back to Saaja. “Are you suggesting we should ignore scripture?”
“I’m not suggesting what you should or shouldn’t believe,” Saaja said. “I’m just saying, I’m not comfortable with annihilating a species because a book written 6000 years ago says to do so.”
“I’m not asking either one of you to betray your allegiance,” Walker said. “But I took an oath that I would support and defend the Constitution of the United Planetary Federation against all enemies foreign and domestic. If I have the ability to make a difference in the outcome of this war, I’m sworn to take it.”
Kyva sat on the edge of her bed sobbing. The tears leaked down her orange and blue skin. She was the daughter of Emperor Tyvelon. She was the queen-in-waiting of Saarkturia. And she could think of nothing worse. Both of those facts made her amphibian skin crawl.
She had a sprawling chamber in the palace that had a beautiful view of the capitol city. But it was nothing more than a gilded prison.
There was a knock at the door, but she didn’t seem inclined to respond. A few moments later, Rylon entered. He carried with him a magnificent evening gown and set it on the bed. “I hope the afternoon finds you well, My Lady.”
“It does not,” Kyva said. Her words were like daggers, and she could see right through Rylon’s pretenses.
Rylon was a wormy sort of Saarkturian. Black, baggy eyes, sharp angular features, and an unrivaled lust for power. He had been advisor to Queen L’Naar, and was now advisor to Prince Valinok. He had orchestrated the alliance with the Decluvians. And for that, Kyva wanted to kill him.
“The ascension ceremony is tonight. Prince Valinok will be crowned King. And, soon you will be his bride. It is a magnificent occasion. I have had the finest gown handmade for you.”
“It’s ugly.” She didn’t even look at it. She kept her head down, sulking.
Rylon’s attempt at cordial behavior vanished. His fake smile turned to a scowl. “You will put the dress on, attend the ceremony, and at least pretend to have a good time.”
“I don’t have to do anything you say. My father is the Emperor of Decluvia.”
“And that is precisely why you must do exactly as I say. It is his wish that you become Queen of Saarkturia one day.”
“I don’t care what he wishes. My life is not for him to determine.”
“I beg to differ, my dear. Your father has given me full authority to discipline you however I see fit. You have the run of this palace, you are treated like a queen, your every need is met… yet, I can just as easily have you locked up and confined until your rebellious spirit is broken. Perhaps then you would be more compliant?”
Her eyes burned into him. She was seething with the kind of rage only a teenage princess could muster.
“My first order as Queen will be to have your head.”
“Well, that should give you some incentive now, shouldn’t it?” Rylon smiled. “Put on the dress.” He strutted out of the room.
Kyva grabbed the dress and tossed it on the floor.
She sat in a huff for a moment, then picked up her PDU and called her father. A moment later, the Emperor appeared on the screen.
“I hate it here, and I hate you.”
“At least you are consistent in your emotions,” Tyvelon said.
“Ugh,” she grumbled. “You can’t make me marry him. He’s repulsive. He’s got pale skin and black eyes. He’s got five fingers. Disgusting.”
Tyvelon rolled his eyes, enduring her rant. “Are you done?”
“No, I’m not done. I’m just getting started.”
“That’s great. I’d love to hear all about it, but I’ve got worlds to conquer.”
“You never listen to me.”
“That’s exactly what your mother used to say.”
She growled at him. “I hate you.”
“One day, when you are ruler of all you survey, you will thank me.”
“Send a transport to take me back to Decluvia, or I swear, I’ll make you regret it.”
Tyvelon was partially amused at her spunk.
“I’ll ruin this whole alliance. I’ll kill the prince. I’ll be executed for treason. Then you won’t have a daughter to boss around.”
“If you’re going to kill him, at least wait until after you’re Queen. By then, hopefully you will be smart enough not to get caught.” Tyvelon ended the transmission.
She huffed and threw the PDU on the bed. She grumbled for the next few minutes, then finally looked at the dress. Kyva picked it up and held it out, gazing at its splendor. She had to admit, it was quite tasteful.
Zoey’s body was covered in a slick greasy sweat. Not so much from heat, but from anxiety—though the suit was a little stuffy. The temperature regulator was malfunctioning and was overheating the suit.
In contrast, the halls of the Revenant were well below zero. A thin film of frost coated the bulkheads.
Zoey’s heavy breath filled her helmet. Her peripheral vision was obscured by the narrow visor of the old design. It didn’t have the panoramic view of the newer models, and it was starting to fog up.
“We are on board,” Mitch said, transmitting back to the Zephyr.
Declan’s voice crackled back over the comm system. “What condition is the ship in?”
“There’s nothing here,” Mitch said. “This place is abandoned.”
Their boots clanked against the deck as they crept down the passageway. The narrow beams of light from their helmets slashed the darkness.
“We need to power the system up. Get the artificial gravity back on. Get the atmosphere replenished,” Zoey said.
“How do we do that?”
“We can run a diagnostic from the CIC.”
“Lead the way.”
It was uncanny how similar the ship was to the Scorpion, down to the smallest detail. Zoey moved forward toward the CIC. It was two decks up from where they were.
As the two plodded through the hallway, Zoey’s flashlight beam swiped across the bulkhead. Something she saw in the brief illumination caught her attention. She stopped to examine it.
The beam illuminated a crimson smear that streaked along the bulkhead for several feet.
“What is it?” Mitch asked, wondering why she was stopping.
“It looks like… blood.” She reached her gloved hand out to touch it. As she ran her fingertips across it, the blood seemed to smear. It appeared fresh—which was impossible.
Zoey turned the palm of her glove to face her, expecting to see bloodstains on her fingertips. But nothing was there.
Her face twisted up, perplexed. “Did you see that?”
Zoey glanced back to the bulkhead. The crimson smear looked like a swath of rust. It didn’t resemble blood at all.
“Nothing, I guess.” Zoey shook it off. Her visor was fogged and milky. Maybe she had misinterpreted what she saw. She stared at the rusty bulkhead for a moment.
The ship let out a low groan that lasted for a few seconds. The mammoth frame was likely creaking under some gravitational force.
Mitch glanced around, concerned. It was an unnerving sound.
“Come on. Let’s keep moving,” Zoey said.
They snaked their way through the maze of corridors. Zoey climbed the ladder to the next deck. As she reached the landing and pulled herself up, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye—a shadowy figure running through the corridor.
Zoey twisted to see. She almost lost her footing. Her flashlight beams scanned the hallway.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” she said.
Mitch climbed up after her.
Declan’s voice crackled over the comm system. “Wh— g—ing o— in th—?”
“Come again?” Zoey said. “You’re breaking up”
Declan responded, but his voice was even more distorted.
“I can’t hear you.”
Nothing but crackling static remained on the line.
“It’s probably just the nebula,” Mitch said. “Does funny things to electronics and communications.”
Zoey felt like it was doing funny things to her mind. She could have sworn she saw someone running across the corridor. Without a suit, as if there was gravity on the ship. But none of that was possible. She was beginning to think there might be something to all the stories about the Revenant.
She kept reminding herself that it was all just her imagination. It was quite common for your mind to play tricks on you after long stretches in deep space. There had been documented cases of entire crews going insane and turning against one another. The USS Providence at the turn of the century. The USS Rampage in the colonial war.
She wondered if that’s what happened here. There were many times aboard the Scorpion where she felt like she was going to murder someone if they said that same inane phrase one more time. Or if she had to listen to their annoying cackle, or see their stupid smirk one more time. After months and months of monotony, sometimes someone’s very presence just made you want to stab a kitchen knife through their eye socket.
But this was hardly a long stretch in deep space for her. This was just a product of an overactive imagination and too many ghost stories.
Zoey climbed up another deck and plodded to the CIC. She had expected to find skeletons or corpses drifting through the passageways. But there was nothing.
The CIC was dark and empty. Her flashlight beam danced across the control consoles. They were dark and powerless.
There was a clipboard, a pen, an empty bottle of wine, and other odds and ends floating in the air.
“Where are all the bodies?” Mitch asked.
“Maybe they evacuated the ship?”
Zoey stepped to the command station and brushed away the layer of frost that coated the display.
Mitch grabbed the wine bottle out of the air and read the label. “Château Delacroix.” He raised his brow, impressed. “That’s an expensive bottle of wine. Maybe the captain of the Revenant was drunk?” He let the bottle float back into the air. It tumbled around, freely.
“Here goes nothing.” Zoey initiated a boot sequence for the ship. She pressed a few command keys but nothing happened. After a few moments, the display flickered to life. Other command consoles began to light up in a cascading array. Just as she had thought, the ship had gone into a standby mode, conserving energy.
The system came online in safety mode. It was a limited mode that brought only essential components online in order to minimize complications, if some components were malfunctioning. It was designed to avoid an entire system lockup.
The emergency lighting came up throughout the ship. The hallways and compartments were still dim and dark, but at least you could see your way around now. It was probably the first time the entire ship had been illuminated in years.
Back on the Zephyr, Declan could see the Revenant’s running lights illuminate. He tried again to make contact with Mitch and Zoey, but only static filled the comm line.
The Revenant’s computer automatically ran a diagnostic to detect any faults. Zoey watched the console as it ran through a list of checks.
“So, what’s the word?” Mitch asked.
“It’s still processing.”
After a few minutes, the system completed its diagnostic.
“Shit,” Zoey said.
“What is it?”
“Good news and bad news. The atmosphere processor checks out. But the engines and reactors are off-line. We’re running on the backup fuel cells now. Looks like there’s a breach in the hull in sections 167 through 172.”
“If it’s small enough, we can repair it”
“I can seal off those compartments, for now.” Zoey selected the compartments on the display screen and closed the hatches.
“I’m going to activate the artificial gravity.” She pressed a button on the console. Everything that was floating around the room crashed to the ground. The wine bottle smashed into thousands of shards. You could hear the echo of debris and clutter clanking throughout the ship as the objects impacted the deck simultaneously on multiple levels. Zoey could feel the slight rumble beneath her feet.
She paged through a few more screens and activated the atmosphere processor. “It’s going to take several hours, but we should have breathable air before too long.”
Plumes of dust and particles rushed out of the air vents as the system rumbled to life.
Zoey tabbed through the display, trying to pull up the ship’s logs. She hoped that they would shed some light on what had happened 25 years ago. “That’s weird. All the logs are blank. It’s like they’ve been erased.”
“Maybe electromagnetic interference wiped the drives?”
“I don’t think so.” She kept scrolling through the data. “All of the escape pods were jettisoned.”
“Why abandon a ship that seems to be intact?”
Zoey shrugged. Her eyes fixated on the pile of broken glass. It was all that remained of a bottle of wine that cost 10,000 credits. Larger shards were still clinging to the label. Zoey stepped toward the debris and knelt down for closer look. She lifted up the label and tried to see through her foggy visor.
“What, are you some kind of wine connoisseur?”
“I know a good bottle when I see one. And I can also read labels. This bottle of wine is only five years old.”
Mitch’s eyes went wide. “Then what’s it doing on this ship?”
“Somebody else must have boarded her in the last five years.”
“And what happened to them?”
Zoe shrugged, her face tinged with worry.
“So, I guess we’ll just go back to the Zephyr and wait for the atmosphere to come up?” Mitch smiled nervously. He didn’t want to be aboard the Revenant any more than Zoey did.
“Let’s check out engineering first, see what we’re dealing with?”
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
Walker, Malik, and Saaja cleaned their battle armor and made it somewhat more presentable. It wasn’t quite worthy of an official event with the Emperor, but it was close enough.
Afterwards, Walker explored the ship. Most of the Decluvian crew had never seen a Saarkturian up close and personal. In full battle armor, Walker got plenty of stares as he strolled the corridors. He was convincing, dressed as a Saarkturian.
He found a navigation map on one of the bulkheads. He couldn’t read the Decluvian language, but the visor optics in the Saarkturian helmet gave him an onscreen translation. It was pretty handy, and he wished the UPDF had that technology.
Walker tabbed through the screens and familiarized himself with the basic layout of the ship. It wasn’t all that different from a UPDF carrier. There were only so many ways you could put together the same basic components. Flight decks, command centers, living quarters, recreational facilities, reactors, med center, hangar bays, storage, engineering, etc. He looked for the detention center. It was on deck 3 amidships.
No harm in sizing the place up, he thought. If he could reasonably rescue the prisoners and escape the ship, it would be worth a shot. But he didn’t need to turn this into a suicide mission. He couldn’t let his anger get the best of him. He couldn’t go in guns blazing.
He strolled aft down the corridor—a large bay window overlooked Delta Vega. He gazed out over the destruction below. There was a constant flow of transports, fighters, and drop ships coming to and fro the armada.
Walker clenched his fist, and he swelled with anger. This was going to be the fate of New Earth if someone didn’t stop the Decluvians. Right now, he was the only operational member of the military in the vicinity. He was going to have to be that someone.
“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” a Decluvain sailor said. He spoke in Saarkturese. The Decluvians seemed to be going out of their way to make the Saarkturians feel welcomed. He had taken a position next to Walker, gazing out at the triumphant victory.
Walker wanted to strangle the frog-like bastard. “Quite a sight indeed.”
“If you would have told me six months ago that we’d be fighting for the Saarkturians, I would’ve said you’re crazy. But I’m glad we’re on the same team. We’ll control the entire galaxy in no time.” He grinned. “I’m Gludard, by the way.” He held out his hand to shake.
Walker hesitated. He wanted to punch the bug-eyed amphibian.
“Don’t worry. Our skin is only toxic when we’re threatened. Plus, your gloves would protect you.”
Walker extended his hand, and the two shook. The Decluvian’s long slender fingers wrapped around his hand and squeezed tight. He had a helluva grip. These creatures were lean muscle. They had quick, springy reflexes.
“Well, it was nice to meet you. I’ve gotta get to my post.” The sailor took off down the hall. He seemed like a nice enough guy, except for the part about taking over the galaxy.
Walker strolled aft and descended to deck 3. He made his way to the detention area. As he arrived, the Decluvians were carting out a dead human body. Walker’s eyes grew wide. He recognized the dead man as one of the prisoners from the flight deck. He was alive an hour ago.
Walker’s face tightened. His blood boiled.
Two sailors wheeled the victim passed him in the corridor.
Walker’s rage emboldened him, and he grabbed one of the sailors by the arm. “What happened here?”
“We’re taking these to the royal galley to be prepared for the feast.” The sailor gazed at the corpse with envious eyes. “I wish I was invited to that.”
The two sailors carried on about their business.
Walker felt nauseous.
Two guards stood watch outside the entrance to the detention center. Walker strolled by, trying to get a look inside. He tried to peer in through the viewport in the hatch as he passed. But the guards weren’t having any of it.
“This area is off limits to visitors.”
Walker nodded and kept moving. From his brief glimpse, he had seen a central command station. According to the ship’s navigation map, beyond the command station was an intake and prisoner processing area. The holding cells were beyond that.
He strolled through the corridors until he found another map terminal on the bulkhead. He studied the layout of the detention center carefully. It was a massive holding area capable of housing 1000 inmates.
The detention center was designed to keep people from getting out, but not necessarily from getting in. Walker examined the layout for vulnerabilities. Potential points of entry from neighboring compartments. But no matter how he figured it, breaking a thousand prisoners out of jail and sneaking them to a transport ship on the flight deck seemed like an impossible task.
While Walker plotted and schemed, a security officer had taken notice of him, and gotten suspicious. He watched Walker on a display screen from a surveillance room. He zoomed in to see what was on the map Walker was studying. It sent up a red flag. He was paying just a little too much attention to the detention center.
The security officer ran a bio scan on Walker, and used the fluoroscopic x-ray imaging mode on the hall-cam to see through his body armor. He immediately reported his findings to the CIC.
Narrow beams of emergency lighting lit the corridors. They flickered randomly—some type of power anomaly. Despite the lighting, plenty of dark shadows remained throughout the ship.
The gas and dust particles of the nebula allowed the low frequency rumble of the electrical storm to cascade through the Revenant. Random bursts of thunder rattled the ship. Combined with the creaking and groaning of the vessel, it made for a creepy feeling.
Zoey and Mitch descended the ladders to the hangar deck—all of the fighters were gone. The hangar deck had the capacity to store a hundred. There were no shuttles or troop transports. There wasn’t a single craft left on the Revenant. Zoey felt an ominous sense of foreboding wash over her. She was more curious than ever about what really had happened here.
They marched from the hanger deck toward the engineering compartment. Both of them were starting to get the willies aboard this ship. Neither one of them wanted to spend any more time aboard than necessary. Zoey was getting the feeling that something bad happened here. And she figured the less she knew about it the better.
“We should really start heading back now,” Mitch said. “We’ve got less than 45 minutes of oxygen left.”
“I just want to see what condition the engines are in.”
“I don’t think we have time for that.”
Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she was thinking if she just gathered all the necessary information, she might not have to come back on board.
They were on deck 2, compartment 143. Even on a fully operational destroyer, this was a creepy place to be. Only nuclear techs and engineers came down this way.
The hatch ahead of them was closed—many of the hatches they encountered had been. Zoey pressed the button on the bulkhead, and the hatch slid open. They took several steps into the passageway. The hatch slammed closed behind them—all by itself. It made them both practically jump out of their skin.
“What the fuck?” Mitch gasped for breath.
“Relax. There’s some kind of glitch in the electrical system. It’s no big deal.” Zoey said the words to comfort herself as much as she did Mitch. Her heart was pounding in her chest.
The emergency lighting flickered for a moment.
Zoey and Mitch shared an ominous glance.
She took another step and the lights went out completely. It was pitch black until she could illuminate her helmet lighting.
Mitch moved back to the hatch and pressed the access button on the bulkhead. But the hatch didn’t open. He mashed it repeatedly.
He was starting to panic. His face was dripping with sweat, and the color had washed from his skin.
Zoey grabbed onto his arm. “Mitch. Pull it together.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but we’re stuck in this fucking hallway.”
Zoey tried to remain calm. She took a deep breath. “No. We are not stuck. We are going to walk down to the next section and open the hatch.”
It was an optimistic thought. But in the back of her mind she couldn’t help but start to worry that Mitch might just be right.
They clanked down the corridor, feeling more and more claustrophobic with each step. Zoey’s visor was pretty well fogged by now. The defrost system in the suit either wasn’t working, or was woefully inadequate. It only added to the closed-in feeling that the dark passageways evoked. By the time she reached the second hatch, she was covered in sweat.
She mashed the button on the bulkhead and nothing happened.
“Just a glitch huh?” Mitch’s brow furrowed.
Zoey hit the button a few more times. Still nothing. She freaked out a little bit and started kicking the hatch.
“Weren’t you just saying to remain calm?”
Zoey inhaled deeply, held her breath for a few seconds, then exhaled slowly. She repeated the process a few times. It was a technique she often used to calm herself down. Sort of like a mini-meditation session. Controlling your breathing is the first step to controlling anxiety.
Zoey had never really considered herself claustrophobic. She had been in many tight spots before. But something about the ship was getting to her. Crawling under her skin and ruffling her nerves.
It reminded her of going into a creepy fun house as a child. The distorted walls, the warped mirrors, the unnavigable mazes. There was something about traveling carnivals that creeped her out. The smell of moldy canvas tents. Poorly maintained rides. Charlatan fortunetellers. The sensation came rushing back to her.
“We are not stuck,” she repeated. “This is just a temporary setback.”
“It’s going to be a permanent setback if we don’t get out of here before we run out of oxygen.”
There was no other way out of the corridor.
“Maybe there’s a short in the wiring.”
“You got a screwdriver? We need to get the access panel off so I can get to the wiring.”
“Yeah, hang on while I pull a screw driver out of my ass.”
Zoey scowled at him.
There was no way she was going to get the faceplate off the access control panel without a screwdriver, or some kind of tool. The thick bulky gloves of the spacesuit made it almost impossible to do any fine dexterous work with your fingers.
Zoey scanned the passageway for anything that might be used to pry off the faceplate. Even if she could get the faceplate free, there was no guarantee that messing with the wiring inside was going to do any good.
The HUD in her helmet gave a readout of her vital statistics. Heart rate: 96. Blood pressure: 140/92. 32 minutes of oxygen remaining.
The oxygen sensor changed as it recalibrated to her increased heart rate and respiration.
29 minutes remaining.
Zoey tried several times to get in touch with Declan on the Zephyr, but all she ever got was static. She and Mitch had tried to force open the hatches, but they were unsuccessful. They looked for a ventilation shaft to crawl through, but there was nothing large enough in this particular compartment.
With 15 minutes of oxygen remaining, she had all but resigned herself to the fact that she was never getting out of this hallway. “I always thought I’d go out in a blaze of glory in the cockpit of a Stingray, not gasping for my last breath in a hallway.”
“You know, we could make our last few moments count.” Mitch had a lascivious glint in his eyes.
She stared at him, incredulous. “In a few moments we’re going to suffocate. It’s going to be a horrible death. And sex is the only thing you can think about?”
“Sorry. If I’m going to die, I’d like to maintain my dignity.”
“So, would a quick tug be out of the question?”
Zoey rolled her eyes.
“Hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying.”
The ship rumbled and groaned again. Thunder boomed from the electrical storm in the nebula. The emergency lighting flickered on. An instant later, both hatches at either end of the corridor slid open.
It seemed like a miracle.
Zoey’s eyes widened. “Come on, lets go!”
She sprang to her feet and raced down the corridor. Mitch followed behind her, their boots clanking against the deck.
They huffed and puffed as they sprinted through the maze of passageways to the airlock on the other side of the Revenant. Running only burned oxygen faster.
By the time they reached the airlock, there were only 3 minutes of oxygen left. Zoey sealed the inner airlock hatch behind them, depressurized what little atmosphere had built up, then opened the outer hatch.
Several metallic pings, emanating from the outer hull, echoed through the airlock. It was a hailstorm of small meteors, no larger than a golf ball. They zipped past the open hatch. They weren’t large enough to damage either ship, but they would tear through flesh like paper.
“Ladies first,” Mitch said.
Zoey waited until the last meteor had passed. The peppering of the hull stopped. It seemed clear, but there was no way to tell if more were coming. She didn’t have much of a choice. She didn’t have the luxury of waiting for too much longer.
Zoey latched the safety cable to her suit and grabbed onto the tether wire. She could feel the air getting thin. Her chest heaved with deep breaths, but it didn’t seem to satiate her need for oxygen. She began to feel light headed. Was the display reading properly, she wondered? Was she already out of oxygen and just re-breathing her own CO2?
She pulled herself into space and glided across the wire, pulling fist over fist. Looking out over the nebula was almost dizzying. Her heart was pounding, and her lungs were starting to burn.
Another small meteor zipped within inches of her visor. If she’d had crawled out on to the tether just a few seconds sooner, she’d be dead. Life comes down to moments.
She finally reached the Zephyr’s airlock. Once inside, she disconnected the safety cable and waited for Mitch. He wasn’t far behind her, but it seemed like an eternity. She couldn’t seal and pressurize the airlock until he made it across.
Zoey was moments from passing out. She felt her eyes grow heavy and her vision dim.
Mitch pulled himself into the airlock and closed the hatch behind him. He pressed a button on the bulkhead and pressurized the compartment. It only took 30 seconds to pressurize, but when you have no oxygen left, 30 seconds can be eons.
Zoey tore off her helmet and gasped for breath. Her chest heaved, and her lungs expanded. She hunched over on her knees and sucked in several fresh breaths before she could spit out a word. “The oxygen meter isn’t working on this suit.”
“I forgot to mention the gauges aren’t exactly spot on.”
Zoey scowled at him, still light headed.
The two changed out of their suits. Mitch didn’t even try to ogle Zoey. He was just thankful to be alive. The only thought running through his mind was that he never wanted to go back on that ship again.
They staggered up to the cockpit.
8-Ball was relieved to see Zoey alive and in one piece. He tried to contain his joy.
“What the hell happened?” Declan said. “We were starting to get worried about you two.”
“Yeah, Brody thought you two might have eloped,” Jaxon said.
Zoey flipped him off.
“What condition is the ship in?” Declan asked.
Zoey gave him a rundown of the situation.
“Are the engines operational?” Declan asked.
“I don’t know. The diagnostic that I ran didn’t detect any faults, but I can’t get them online. The ship’s reactors went into standby mode at some point in time. I tried to power them up, but they wouldn’t respond.”
“What do you mean, they wouldn’t respond?” Declan said.
“Look, I’m not a nuclear tech. The reactor cores need to reach temperatures of over a million degrees to convert the hydrogen to plasma. Only then can a sustained chain reaction occur.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“I don’t know. Maybe there’s not enough juice in the reserve power cells to make the reactor critical. All the diagnostics I’ve run show no faults within the system.”
“We’ve got another problem,” Violet said. “The Revenant’s orbit is decaying. I’ve been monitoring our trajectory since we’ve been docked.
“How long?” Declan asked.
“48 hours, give or take. Then she’ll end up as a twisted heap of metal on the proto-planet at the center of this nebula.”
“Can’t we just tow her out?” Jaxon asked.
“We don’t have enough power to break her out of orbit,” Declan said.
“I’m not letting my share of a trillion credits burn up in the atmosphere of some primordial rock,” Jaxon said.
“Maybe you can get out and push the fucker,” Zoey quipped.
Jaxon scowled at her.
“Brody, give the reactors a look and see if you can figure anything out,” Declan said.
“Those are pretty sophisticated pieces of equipment,” Zoey said.
“I know what I’m doing,” Brody said, squinting at her.
“Brody served six years as a Naval Reactor Engineer aboard the USS Hamilton,” Declan said. “He knows his way around a reactor and an ion drive. Mitch, Jaxon… work on shoring up the hull. I want that thing tip top.”
“I’m not going back on that ship” said Mitch.
Declan’s face tensed.
“What, you scared?” Brody said, baby talking him.
“You want your share of what’s she’s worth, you’ll get back on board and do your job.” Declan looked over the misfit crew. “Start loading the gear on board. Violet, supervise and keep everyone on pace. Look into the code, see if you can find a software glitch or something that explains the issues with the power grid and the reactors. We’ve got 48 hours, I want it done in 24.”
“Aye, sir,” Violet said.
“Why does she always get to supervise?” Mitch whined.
“Because I’m smarter than you.” Violet smiled.
“That’s not saying much,” Jaxon said.
“Eat me.” Mitch glared at him. “Oh, I’m sorry, you might actually like that.”
Jaxon’s nostrils flared, and he clenched his jaw. He could dish it out, but he couldn’t take it. “Careful, little man.”
“Knock it off.” Declan shouted. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and it ain’t going to get done by itself.”
The crew loaded their gear onto the Revenant, ferrying it across the tethered guide wire. Jaxon took his M729, just as a precaution.
Mitch and Zoey kept an eye out for stray meteors as they crossed.
By the time everyone was aboard the ship, there were 46 hours left until estimated impact with the proto-planet.
Brody knelt down to one of the cases they had brought over with the equipment. It was a pet transporter, and Max was inside.
Declan’s face tightened. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I thought he might like a little change of scenery,” Brody said. “The atmosphere in here is almost normal.”
“Take him back.” Declan was seething. His face was turning red.
“He never gets off that ship. Let him run around this place for a little bit.”
“We don’t know the first thing about this ship. It may not be safe.”
“Oh, right, fuck us… but God forbid something happens to Max.”
“Hey, fuck you. Max is family.”
Brody raised his brow. He looked a little hurt by the comment. “I love the little guy as much as you do, alright? He’s gonna be fine. I’ll make sure of it.”
Declan glared at Brody. “If anything happens to him, I swear to God…”
The ship creaked and groaned. Emergency lighting still flickered randomly.
“If anybody needs me, I’ll be in the reactor control room,” Brody said. He turned his gaze to Mitch. “Flickering lights don’t scare me.”
Mitch scowled at Brody as he brushed passed.
“Where’s the captain’s quarters?” Declan asked. “Maybe he left some written logs. Anything that might give us a heads up on what happened here.”
“I’ll show you,” Zoey said.
“Let’s be fast and efficient, people,” Declan said. He grabbed Max’s transport case.
Jaxon and Mitch headed toward the hull breach, lugging the repair gear. Violet went to the CIC to evaluate the ship’s operating system. 8-Ball tagged along with Declan and Zoey as they navigated the maze of passageways toward the captain’s stateroom.
Something caught Declan’s eye in one of the corridors. He stopped and leaned in to examine the bulkhead. Zoey thought he might be hallucinating at first. She stepped closer to see for herself. If it was a hallucination, all three of them were seeing it—there were bullet holes and blast marks in the metal.
Declan rubbed his gloved fingertip over one of the holes. “Looks like some type of skirmish took place.”
8-Ball and Zoey exchanged a wary glance, then Zoey continued on through the passageway. Several empty shell casings were scattered about, farther down the corridor. She knelt down and picked one up. It was a standard issue 5.56 mm round. Koenig Haas, the manufacturer, was stamped on the bottom of the spent casing.
Her big eyes stared at it for a moment. What the hell had happened here, she wondered? She squeezed the casing, just to make sure it was real.
“Let’s keep moving,” Declan said. He moseyed down the corridor, carrying Max’s case.
Zoey stood up. The casing pinged across the deck as she dropped it.
They pushed on and reached the captain’s quarters. It was exactly the same as Slade’s stateroom aboard the Scorpion, only with different appointments. A bed, a living area, a desk, a kitchenette.
Declan’s eyes gleamed as he saw several bottles of liquor. He picked up the bottles, perusing through the labels. He stopped when he found one that suited his fancy. “Now this was a man after my own heart.”
He was holding a bottle of McMillan 1939 scotch like it was a baby. It had come all the way from Earth, and was considered rare even back in the 20th century. Several hundred years later, and billions of miles across the galaxy, the bottle had to be priceless.
“This right here makes the whole trip worth it,” Declan said.
He ogled the bottle. Declan hadn’t had a drink in ten years. But a bottle of McMillan seemed too good to pass up. It would be almost sacrilegious, he thought, not to have at least a sip. He stared at the bottle, long and hard. He imagined the warm rich flavor dancing across his tastebuds. The sublime sensation of the onset of a buzz.
He wanted to crack it open right then and there. But he set it back on the shelf. He eyed Zoey and 8-Ball suspiciously. “Hands off. I’m coming back for this.”
“Technically, you’ve got to split that seven ways,” Zoey said.
Declan glared at her.
“Just keeping you honest.” Zoey flashed a sardonic smile.
They rummaged through the desk drawers, the bookshelves, and storage lockers. There was no sign of a personal log, or journal.
Max watched from his transport case that was perched atop the captain’s bed.
In another part of the ship, Brody marched aft toward the reactor room. It had been a long time since he’d been aboard a destroyer. It made him a little nostalgic. The Revenant was mentioned in every history text relating to the first Verge War. Along with Captain Slade’s heroics, every school kid learned about the Revenant. Now he was walking its halls.
The flickering lights didn’t bother him. He wasn’t afraid of the dark. He didn’t get claustrophobic. None of those things made the hairs on the back of his neck stand tall. It was the voice that he heard that did that. It sent a shiver down his spine.
He spun around to see who had called his name—the eerie whisper of a woman’s voice. But no one was there. His eyes were wide, and his breathing grew heavy. His heart was thumping.
He shook it off and spun back around toward engineering and the reactors. It could have been anything—his mind playing tricks on him.
He recognized the sound of the voice, and there was no way that person could be speaking to him. She had been dead for a year now.
After a few steps, he heard the whisper again. “Brody…”
He nearly jumped out of his skin. He could feel her breath against the back of his neck. He spun around and scanned the corridor behind him. The lights flickered, but nothing was there.
Brody activated his comm system. “Alright, knock it off.”
“What’s the matter, Brody,” Mitch crackled back. “You getting spooked?”
“Shut your ass, Donut. Who’s the practical joker?”
“I don’t know what your talking about, Cupcake.”
Brody could hear Mitch and Jaxon snicker over the comm line. He gritted his teeth. “Keep it up. Next time I see you I’m gonna put my foot in your ass.”
Brody turned around, and his flashlight beamed across a dead and decaying woman’s body standing before him. It was hideous and grotesque. Rotten flesh, eroding and sloughing from the bone. Festering, oozing sores.
Brody shrieked and fell back against the deck.
The woman’s eerie voice filled his ears. “Why, Brody? Why…?”
When he looked up again, she was gone.
By this time, Brody’s visor was beginning to fog. On his heads up display, all his vital statistics were elevated.
He looked at the empty hallway, bewildered. He blinked his eyes, skeptical of what he had seen.
Brody was huffing and puffing like he had just sprinted a mile. He pulled himself off the deck and tried to regain his composure.
The emergency lighting flickered and went out completely.
Oh, dear God, don’t let me see that woman again, he prayed.
“Get on your knees and put your hands behind your head,” a Decluvian security officer yelled.
Walker complied. There were too many weapons aimed at his skull to do otherwise. One or two of them he might have been able to handle. But six? No way.
One of the Decluvians pulled Walker’s wrists behind his back and restrained him.
The squad leader pulled off Walker’s helmet. His face twisted up at the sight of a human. “I think this is the ugliest one yet.”
“You don’t have a lot of room to talk,” Walker muttered.
That little bit of insolence earned Walker a smack across the jaw with the butt of a rifle.
Walker winced. The impact twisted his neck to the side and split his lip. He spit blood onto the deck.
One of the goons hoisted Walker to his feet and shoved him down the hall toward the detention center. He was going to get a good look inside after all.
In the prisoner processing area, he was forced to remove his body armor. He was down to his skivvies. Then he was escorted to a holding cell. The goons tossed him inside, sending him crashing to the deck. These bastards were strong. At 6’5”, Walker wasn’t an easy guy to throw around. But they made him seem like a rag doll.
By the time Walker climbed to his feet, an energy shield enclosed the opening of the cell.
Walker was like a snarling bull, ready to charge at the snickering goons outside.
“I wouldn’t touch that shield, if I were you.” The voice came from the corner of the cell.
Walker glanced over to see a Decluvian lounging on a bunk.
“That beam will disintegrate your flesh. But if you’re looking for a quick end to the misery, by all means, try stepping through that energy field.”
Walker’s eyes stared back at the blue field that illuminated the entrance. It gave off a slight hum, kind of like a bug zapper.
“The name’s Luvix, but you can call me Lu… or Vix… or whatever the hell you want. I don’t really care.”
He had orange skin and large black spots. He looked like he didn’t have a care in the world. He could have just as well been on vacation, lounging in a hammock.
“You speak pretty good English for a Decluvian.”
“The galaxy is filled with old Earth TV shows bouncing around. It’s a primitive language. Easy to pickup.”
Walker glared at him.
Lu pulled out a hand rolled cigarette he had stashed in his pillow case. He sparked it up and took a hit. He offered it to Walker, who waived it off.
“Are you sure? It’s really good Majuva herb. All the way from the Sapova sector.”
Walker ignored him, and tried to get an angle on the rest of the detention center. But he was careful to keep his distance from the containment beam.
“Might as well relax and enjoy this place. It’s only going to get worse from here. If you don’t end up as the main course, you’ll be shuffled off to one of the mining colonies. Let me tell you, that’s brutal.”
Walker stepped away from the containment beam and turned back to Lu. He surveyed the cell. It was barely big enough for the two of them. There was a small sink, two bunks, and a place to take care of your business. But that was about it.
“What are you in for?”
“My charming personality.” Lu smiled.
Walker almost chuckled.
“Are you sure you don’t want a hit, man? It makes the suck factor of the situation go way down.”
What happened to Walker was happening to Malik and Saaja. They were rounded up by armed guards and brought to the CIC.
Tyvelon’s eyes beamed with delight. “Welcome aboard. So good of you to travel all this way. As representatives of Saarkturia, it is my humble honor to have you as my guest.” He was toying with them. He bowed in mock deference. “But perhaps you could explain to me why you brought a human along with you and tried to pass him off as a Saarkturian? I’m sure I will find your answer most intriguing.”
“He is a spy, and has given us valuable information,” Malik said.
“Really? And what information is that?”
“Communication codes,” Saaja said. “Enemy locations. His help with translations has been invaluable.”
“What need does a diplomatic envoy have for a spy?”
“We’re not a diplomatic envoy,” Malik admitted.
“Obviously,” Tyvelon replied.
“We crashed on Thantos 6,” Saaja said. “The human helped us escape.”
“Interesting,” Tyvelon mused. “I find that hard to believe.”
“It’s a long story,” Saaja said.
Tyvelon grinned. “Take them to the brig. They’ll make excellent workers in the mines.”
Malik and Saaja struggled as the guards tried to pull them away.
“You can’t do this.” Saaja screeched. “What of the alliance?”
Tyvelon chuckled. “Do you really think there could ever be a true alliance between our kind?”
The guards dragged them away, taking them to the detention center.
Across the ship, more guards gathered outside the trio’s guest compartment. They opened the hatch and attempted to round up Bailey. He snarled and growled at them. One of the guards lunged to grab him. Bailey bolted through the hatch. He raced down the corridor, disappearing in the labyrinth of passageways.
“Find that mutt!” the squad leader said with a scowl on his face.
“Brody? Brody, do you copy?” Declan listened for a response over the comm line, but he heard nothing. Only static. “Where the hell is he?”
Zoey shrugged. It was pitch black in the captain’s quarters. Zoey’s helmet lights danced across Declan’s face as she looked at him.
“Mitch… Jaxon… do you copy?”
“Roger, boss,” Mitch replied. “What’s up?”
“Have you heard from Brody?”
“Yeah, he was griping about something a few minutes ago. If you ask me, I think he’s getting the willies.” Mitch chuckled.
“Violet, how are you doing?”
“Everything is in order up here, sir.” Her tinny voice filtered through the comm link. “So far the system checks out.”
“Keep me advised.”
Declan discontinued transmission. “Let’s go see if we can find Brody.”
They exited the captain’s state room and headed aft down the corridor. Their helmet lights slashed through the darkness. Thunder rumbled.
“I’ll be glad when the lights come on,” 8-Ball said. “This place gives me the creeps.”
They crept through the passageways until they came to a hatch that was sealed shut. Declan mashed a button on the bulkhead, but it still wouldn’t open.
“We can cut across and go down a level,” Zoey said.
Declan followed her.
She climbed down the ladder and continued aft toward the reactor room.
Passing by the head sparked an urge in 8-Ball. “Shit, I gotta take a leak.”
“Go in the suit,” Declan said.
“I ain’t going in here. It’s bad enough I gotta smell my own farts in this thing.”
“That’s attractive,” Zoey snarked.
“Didn’t you put on an absorbency garment?” Declan asked.
“No. I didn’t see any diapers handy.”
Declan shook his head.
“Does this ship have atmosphere yet?” 8-Ball checked his HUD. “Hell, we’re at 19% oxygen. That’s close enough.”
Atmosphere on New Earth was 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen. It was virtually identical to Earth’s.
“We still don’t know what happened to the crew?” Zoey said. “What if there is a pathogen present that activates with oxidation?”
“A 25 year old germ? You want me to worry about germs? Have you seen my apartment?” 8-Ball unlatched his helmet and twisted it off. He breathed a deep breath of manufactured air. It was the closest thing to fresh air he was going to get.
Declan watched him for a moment. When he was satisfied it was safe, he unsealed Max’s transport compartment.
Max darted out of the cramped case. He was wide eyed at his new environment. He looked back at Declan for a moment.
“Don’t run off too far,” Declan said.
Max wasn’t about to listen to anyone. As far as he was concerned, the Revenant was part of his empire. He took off down the hallway, exploring.
8-Ball carried his helmet under his arm and pushed into the head. He let the helmet lights illuminate his path.
He set the helmet down on the sink and aimed the flashlights toward one of the urinals. He unlocked the upper torso assembly, and pulled it over his head and set it down on an adjacent sink.
The ship groaned and squealed.
Eddie walked over to the urinal and did his business. As he walked back to the sink, he noticed the stalls were peppered with bullet holes. He picked up his helmet and shined the light across the stalls, illuminating the string of holes. The beam of light just happened to cascade across the bottom of one of the stalls. Eddie saw a pair of feet—someone was sitting on the toilet.
He felt his heartbeat thump in his chest. Could it be someone from the Zephyr? “Yo, who is that?”
There was no response.
“Brody, is that you?”
He knew it wasn’t, but it seemed more comforting to go through the ritual of asking. 8-Ball crept toward the stall door and pulled it open. He jumped back, shocked at what he saw.
The dead body of a man in his late 20’s was sitting on the toilet. He was freshly dead. He couldn’t have been there for more than a month. Though, it was possible the lack of atmosphere had preserved the body for the last 25 years. But where was the rest of the crew?
The tile wall behind the man was splattered with bloodstains. This man had obviously been shot while taking care of business on the toilet. His body was puffy and distorted, and his eyes had exploded from the lack of atmospheric pressure.
8-Ball stumbled back from the stall. He grabbed the upper torso assembly from the sink and spoke into the comm system. “Hey guys, I think you need to come in here and see this.”
“Gross,” Zoey’s voice crackled back.
“I’m serious. I ain’t talking about a deuce I left floating in the bowl.”
A moment later, Zoey and Declan entered. Their eyes went wide at the sight.
“He’s not in uniform,” Zoey said. “Doesn’t look like he was part of the crew.”
“We might not be the first people aboard this ship,” Declan said. “Somebody may have tried to salvage her previously.”
“Doesn’t look like that turned out to well for them,” 8-Ball said.
“How recent do you think this is?” Zoey asked.
Declan pursed his lips. “Hard to say. Let’s keep moving.”
8-Ball grabbed his gear, and the trio shuffled out of the head.
In the hallway, the emergency lighting flickered and came back on. The trio continued to the reactor room, but found no trace of Brody along the way. There were four main thrusters, and four reactors. They checked them all. The reactor room and the engine compartments were empty.
“It’s not like Brody to just disappear,” said Declan.
“Maybe he went back to the Zephyr?” Zoey said.
“Let’s split up and sweep the ship.”
“Oh, hell no,” 8-Ball said. “I ain’t walking around this place by myself. No wonder they kicked you out of the military. Poor ability to make command decisions.”
Declan glared at him. “They didn’t kick me out.”
“If you say so.”
Declan grumbled under his breath. He spoke into his comm system. “Brody, are you out there? Can you read me?”
The line crackled with static.
Finally, Brody’s voice distorted through the speakers. “Yeah, I’m here.”
“Where the hell are you?”
“I’m back on the Zephyr.”
“What are you doing there? Getting tools or equipment?”
“Okay. Want to tell me why you left?”
“Not particularly,” Brody said.
“I need you back on board ASAP.”
“Not going to happen.”
“I need this ship fully operational. We’ve got 45 hours left.”
“Sorry. I’m not stepping foot back on that ship. You can have my share.”
“This is unlike you, Brody,” Declan said. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Brody said.
Declan’s face tensed. “I’m coming back to the Zephyr, and we’re going to have a little talk.”
Brody started to say something, but then his voice cut out and static filled the line.
Declan clenched his jaw. He wanted to throw his helmet across the compartment, but he resisted the urge.
“You saw who?” Declan asked, incredulous. He sat in the cockpit of the Zephyr with Brody.
“Sara. It was her, man. I swear.” He was three sheets to the wind. He was clinging to a bottle of whiskey that was well below the label. It sloshed in his hand as he gestured wildly.
“I don’t have time for this nonsense,” Declan said.
“I heard her voice, plain as day.”
“What are you on?”
Declan stared him down.
“Don’t look at me like that. You’re no better than me. I didn’t start drinking ‘till I got back on the ship.”
Declan grimaced. The two were brothers. Less than two years apart. And both suffered from the same affliction—only Declan had managed to stay sober longer, and more consistently, than Brody. The slightest little bump in the road was enough to send him on a bender for a few weeks. Holidays were particularly bad. He’d fall off the wagon, and Declan would always be there to pick him up.
“I need you back on the Revenant. I need the reactors online, and I need you to make sure those drives are fully operational. We are a long, long way from home. I’ve got no idea what condition the slide-space drive is in, and without a quantum drive, this thing is just a hunk of junk.”
“I can’t go back there.” Brody was almost in tears.
“I’m sorry. I really am. It was a helluva thing you went through last year. I can’t imagine losing my wife like that. But you’ve gotta pick yourself up and keep moving forward. I think your mind is just fucking with you.”
Brody was quiet for a long moment. “It’s my fault.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s my fault.” He said it firm and angry. Guilt ridden.
“What are you talking about?”
“I was drunk. We got into a fight about it. Said some pretty harsh things. She stormed out. Next thing I know, the police are calling, telling me there’s been an accident.”
“That doesn’t make it your fault.”
“But it is. Had I not been drinking, we wouldn’t have gotten into a fight. She wouldn’t have left.” Brody grimaced. “Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could change things. Take back my last words.”
Declan watched Brody break down.
“I’m telling you, I saw her on that ship. She was rotten and decomposing. I don’t want to see her like that.”
“Have you listened to what you’re saying? It sounds crazy.”
“I can’t explain it. I’ve been all over the galaxy and I’ve seen a lot of weird shit. But I ain’t never seen nothing like this. That ship’s fucked up—it plays with your mind, and I ain’t going back on it.”
Declan sighed, resigned to the fact that Brody wan’t going back on the Revenant. “Why don’t you go back to your cabin and sleep it off? You’re no good to anybody in this condition.”
Brody was an emotional wreck. Tears were streaming from his eyes. He pushed up from the chair and listed back toward his cabin, bouncing off the bulkheads.
Mitch’s voice crackled over the comm system. Declan couldn’t make out what he was saying. His speech was broken and choppy. The line was filled with static.
“Hey, boss. I think yo… nee…to come s… this.”
“You need to come see this.”
“What is it?”
“It’s easier if… sho… you.”
Declan got the gist of it and headed back to the Revenant.
He met up with Mitch in the cargo hold. “What the hell are you doing screwing around down here?”
Mitch had an ear-to-ear grin on his face. “Wait till you see what I’ve got.”
He led Declan to several storage crates. He flipped open the lid of one of them. An almost blinding aura beamed out of the crate. It was packed full to the brim of glimmering artifacts, jewelry, and other treasures.
“It’s all pure trilontium.”
Declan’s jaw was slack, and his eyes were wide. He stared at the treasure in awe. “Are you sure?
“My dad was a jeweler. I grew up around trilontium. Plus I ran a scan. It’s 100% pure.”
Trilontium was one of the rarest precious metals in the galaxy. Ounce for ounce, it was a thousand times more valuable than gold. The treasure in these crates was worth more than the Revenant.
It looked like platinum, but with a blueish tint, and was luminescent.
“Does anybody else know about this?”
“No. I thought I’d tell you first. I don’t care how many ways we split this, there’s more than enough to go around. See all these crates?” He motioned to a dozen that spanned the cargo hold. “They’re all full.”
Declan’s eyes lit up with excitement. This was going to be the biggest score the gang had ever made.
“We can have this loaded onto the Zephyr within a couple hours. Screw trying to fix this ship. We can just get the hell out of here.”
“I’m inclined to agree with you.” Declan grinned.
He transmitted over the comm line and had everyone meet in the cargo hold. Their eyes bulged at the sight of the treasure.
“Is that what I think it is?” Jaxon asked.
“New plans,” Declan said. “We’re taking the trilontium and getting off this ship.”
“Fine by me,” Mitch said.
“Hang on a minute,” Zoey said. “This ship has strategic military value. We can’t just leave it out here.”
“You’re welcome to stay and fix it yourself.”
Violet surveyed the treasure. She picked up a statue from the crate and held it up. Her inquisitive eyes studied every intricate detail. “This is Numarian.”
“I don’t give a shit where it came from,” Jaxon said with a grin. “It’s ours now.”
Violet set the statue back down, and stepped away from the crate. Her eyes were full of concern. “We might want to leave this just as we found it.”
“What?” Declan said.
She looked a little shaken up. Her voice had a slight tremor. “This is Numarian.”
They all stared at her blankly.
“So?” Declan said.
Violet glared at him, incredulous. “Am I the only one familiar with the legend?”
“Oh, that’s nonsense,” Declan said.
“What legend?” Mitch asked.
“I can’t believe you, of all people, would be superstitious,” Declan said to Violet.
“Out with it,” Mitch said. “What is she talking about?”
“She’s talking about the curse,” said 8-Ball.
“Alright, enough of this voodoo nonsense,” Declan interrupted. “I don’t want to hear anymore talk about this. I don’t need you two filling people’s heads with fear and doubt.”
He eyed Violet and 8-Ball. “We’re going to load this on to the Zephyr, and we’re going to take our clients to Alpha Ceti 7 and finish the job we started. Unless, of course, you want to stay here.”
Violet’s face tensed.
“Start moving these crates to the airlock,” Declan said.
Jaxon grabbed one end of a crate, and Mitch grab the other. Their faces went red, and the veins in their necks bulged. The two could barely lift it.
“We need a dolly, or something,” Mitch said, gasping for breath as he set the crate back down.
“I don’t care how you get it there, just do it,” Declan said.
Mitch went to look for a dolly, or a cart—anything that would make moving the heavy crates more efficient.
“How are we going to handle the Brody situation?” Jaxon asked. “I mean, he’s not here. He’s not contributing. I don’t think he should get his share.”
Declan grimaced. It was a bold thing for Jaxon to ask.
“If he contributes to the success of this endeavor, he’ll get his fair share. If he doesn’t, he won’t.” Declan said. “That goes for all of you.”
Declan may have been a lot of things, not all of them good, but he was fair. And that was one of the reasons his people followed him.
He stormed over to the crates, grumbling something about how managing this crew was like herding cats.
“Violet, can I speak with you for a minute?” Zoey asked.
The two stepped aside.
“Were you able to find any system faults with the ship?”
“I scanned everything. There are no viruses in the operating system. Diagnostics doesn’t detect any mechanical faults in either the reactor or the engines. Yet neither will come online. Right now, the ship is functioning off reserve power cells. That’s enough to give limited lighting and run the atmosphere processors, but that’s it.”
The emergency lighting flickered again.
“As far as what’s causing the intermittent power outages, it’s difficult to say. Chasing down electrical gremlins in a ship this old is next to impossible. Could be bad wiring, corroded terminals, any number of things.”
“You don’t think this is just an electrical issue, do you?”
“I’d rather not say what I think.” Violet measured her words, eyeing Declan.
“Did something happen? Have you seen something… Odd?”
Violet hesitated. “Let’s just say, I’m ready to get off this ship.”
Mitch returned with a cart. He, Jaxon, and Declan hefted a crate, grunting and groaning.
“You know, this is going to go a lot faster if you all pitch in and help,” Declan said.
“There’s a freight elevator we can use to take this to the upper decks,” Zoey said.
They loaded the crates onto the cart and wheeled them up to the airlock. It took two trips to move all the crates.
As they were unloading the second round of crates in the hallway by the inner airlock hatch, a thunderous impact shuddered the ship.
Dozens of smaller hits pinged against the hull. The sound reverberated throughout the ship.
“What the hell is that?” Mitch asked.
“Are we under attack?” asked Jaxon.
“No,” Zoey said, listening to the rumble. It sounded like a hailstorm. “Meteorites.”
Another massive impact rattled the hull.
Zoey raced into the airlock and peered through the view port in the outer hatch. Her eyes went wide at the sight. A large meteorite was tumbling through the nebula, barreling straight toward the Zephyr.
It was twice the size of the small craft.
The giant space rock plowed into the Zephyr, tearing it to shreds. The ship exploded in a blinding fury. Twisted metal and debris showered out as the meteorite bowled through the craft. The explosion rocked the Revenant, knocking Zoey, and the others, to the deck.
She climbed back to her feet, and the others staggered into the airlock and crowded around the viewport. They all looked on in horror.
The Zephyr was gone.
Mangled bits of wreckage spiraled out into space.
“That’s just fucking great!” Jaxon slammed his fist into the bulkhead.
Declan stared, slack-jawed. His knees went weak, and a wave of despair rushed over him.
“Brody was on the Zephyr, right?” Mitch’s face was somber.
Declan’s head fell into his hands. His soul ached, and the lump in his throat burned. But he held the tears back. Brody wasn’t perfect, but despite his sins, he was blood.
“This ship doesn’t want us to leave,” Violet said in a grim voice.
“Oh, give me a break,” Jaxon said. “It’s bad luck. That’s all. Nothing supernatural about it.”
“There’s a lot of unexplained shit out there,” 8-Ball said. “Ain’t nothing surprises me anymore. I know I ain’t the only one that’s seen funky shit happening on this ship.”
Nobody seemed ready to volunteer stories, but there was a grim acknowledgment among them. Something strange was happening.
Declan pulled himself together. He pushed the pain into a dark corner and stood tall. It would certainly come back to haunt him later, but he didn’t have time for wallowing now.
He took a deep breath, and did what any good leader would do. He rallied the troops to action. “Look, we’ve got one priority. That’s to get this ship operational in the next 40 hours,” Declan said. “Mitch, Jaxon… quit screwing around and shore up that hull. With as spotty as this ship’s electrical system is, all it would take is for one of those containment hatches to spontaneously open and we’re all in deep trouble. Especially if it were to happen in the middle of a slide-space jump”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Mitch said. He patted Declan on the shoulder. “I’m really sorry, man.”
Mitch nodded to Jaxon and they strolled down the corridor.
“Violet, I want you and Zoey to go over the ship’s control systems one more time,” Declan said. “Then check it again after that.”
“Aye, sir.” Violet’s concerned eyes examined him.
“We could try calling for help,” 8-Ball said.
“Who knows how long it would take for the signal to reach New Earth? If Customs, or the UPDF, did respond they’d confiscate the ship and I’d be arrested, along with several other members of this crew. Not an option. And they are certainly not going to help you liberate your beloved captain.”
8-Ball sighed. Declan had a point.
“I’ll be in the captain’s quarters if anyone needs me.” Declan spun around and headed down the corridor.
“What are you going to do there?” Violet asked.
Violet chased after him and grabbed his arm. Her eyes burned into him. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
Declan jerked his arm free. “I think it’s a great idea.”
In the CIC, Violet and Zoey ran another diagnostic.
“I don’t understand,” Violet said. “Everything checks out.”
“Why aren’t the reactors responding?”
“I’ve analyzed every line of code. There are no viruses, no mechanical failures. By all rights, they should work.”
Zoey looked at her curiously—there were millions of lines of code. It was obvious Violet had an above average level of intelligence.
The emergency lighting flickered. It was eerie. The three of them exchanged a nervous glance.
“So, I take it you and Declan are a couple?”
Violet crinkled her brow. “Why would you say that?”
“I just got that vibe.”
“No. Me and Declan. No way.” She was adamant. But Zoey could see through her protests. She had seen the way Violet looked at him. Maybe they weren’t a couple, but Violet had feelings for him. That was for certain.
Zoey decided not to pry. She moved on to more pressing subjects. “Tell me about the Numarian curse.”
“It’s just a myth,” Violet said, trying to downplay it.
“You seemed awful spooked about it down in the cargo hold.”
Violet was silent a moment.
“The way I heard it, the Numarians were slaughtered,” 8-Ball said.
“They were a primitive society, known for their wealth and abundance,” Violet said. “Marauders invaded and did the whole rape, pillage, and burn thing. They killed the king’s family and took his treasure. Somehow he survived and put a curse on the treasure. Legend has it that the marauders met with an untimely demise shortly thereafter. In all this time, the treasure has never surfaced. Though many have gone looking.” She paused. “I’ve read numerous accounts of sailors stumbling across the treasure, only to meet with misfortune.”
Zoey looked at her with skepticism.
“Like I said, it’s probably just a myth. No one has ever been able to find any remnants of the Numarian culture.”
“That’s because they were destroyed,” said 8-Ball.
“If that is the Numarian treasure, how did it get aboard this ship?” Zoey asked.
Violet shrugged. “I don’t know. But I found this.” She pulled up a static-filled surveillance video. It was just a short clip. “This is the only video I could find.”
The clip showed a man hunched over the command console in the CIC. He was probably doing the same thing they were—trying to figure out how to get the ship running. He was dressed in civilian clothes. A few minutes later, another man came up behind him, grabbed his head, and slit his throat.
Blood poured out of his neck as his body collapsed to the deck. The attacker just stood over him, holding the blood soaked knife. He turned and left the CIC.
Zoey caught a glimpse of the attacker’s face. He looked a lot like the man they found in the toilet stall.
The video turned to static, and the clip ended.
“That clip is dated six months ago,” Violet said.
“They must have stumbled across the ship like we did,” 8-Ball said.
“Why did they turn on each other?” Zoey asked.
Violet arched an eyebrow at her.
Deep down inside, they all knew why—the crew had gone mad. And it had something to do with this ship.
In the captain’s room, Declan’s lustful eyes ogled the bottle of McMillan scotch. He pulled off the top and smelled its rich aroma. A fruity and sweet toffee flavor. He closed his eyes and inhaled, infusing his lungs. He could almost taste it.
10 years. It was a long time. Just one drink wouldn’t hurt. His brother had just gotten killed. He deserved at least a sip, he thought. Just a small little reprieve from the pain of life.
Not two, or ten, or the whole bottle.
He had age and wisdom behind him now. He could stop at just one. Maybe two. Sure, two wouldn’t hurt. Three at the most.
That would be a respectable amount. He could pour out three glasses, then throw away the rest of the bottle before he had the first sip. That would surely limit his intake.
But this scotch was too good to throw out. And they certainly weren’t making any more of it.
No. It would be a sin to throw it out.
He could control himself, he thought.
He poured a glass and watched the amber liquid swirl around as it rose to the top. It was much more than a single shot.
He picked up the glass and held it to his lips. He sniffed the aroma again. He was about to slug it down, but he stopped himself. He set the glass back down on the counter and eyed it some more. He was so tortured he was almost sweating. How much willpower did he really have, he wondered?
Across the ship, Jaxon and Mitch were fully suited up. They used the adjacent hallway as an airlock, and had loaded in their repair gear. There were a couple of tool boxes and a dozen metallic roles the size of paper towels.
“I can’t believe we’re stuck on this rust bucket,” Jaxon said.
“I can’t believe Brody’s gone.” Mitch’s face was bleak.
“I wouldn’t get too bent out of shape about it. It’s a six way split now.”
Mitch looked at Jaxon in disbelief. “Seriously?”
“Brody always was an asshole anyway.”
“That’s Declan’s brother, man!” Mitch shook his head.
He pressed a button on the bulkhead, opening the hatch. Air rushed out of the compartment. The two entered the area of the breach. A gouge about a foot wide carved its way through several sections of the hull. Its edges were sharp and nasty. You could see straight through to the nebula outside.
“We need to sand these edges flush, then we can start patching,” Mitch said.
“I’ll grab the sander,” said Jaxon.
He headed back to the tool box. He lifted the lid—snakes slithered about the container. Jaxon shrieked as he sprang back, eyes wide.
“What is it?”
Jaxon looked again at the tool kit—nothing but an assortment of tools. No snakes.
“It’s nothing,” Jaxon said.
He knelt down and grabbed the sander. He moved to the bulkhead and began to sand down the rough burrs where the metal warped inward. Amber sparks showered as the sander ground the metal smooth.
Mitch took the metallic role and peeled off a strip that was about 2 feet long. It was like a giant roll of tape with an adhesive on one side. He affixed it to the bulkhead, covering the damage.
The material was soft and pliable. It was made of a photosensitive alloy that hardened when exposed to a certain spectrum of UV light. When fully cured, it was harder than composite steel.
Mitch ran a special UV wand over the material. The tape cured and bonded to the bulkhead. He repeated the process over and over again as they inched their way down the damaged bulkhead.
Jaxon began obsessing on insignificant details, slowing the process. He was grinding the burrs down to perfection.
“Hurry up, man,” Mitch said. “It doesn’t need to be perfect. Just focus on the big protrusions. We’ve got another 45 minutes of oxygen before we have to recharge the unit.”
“Why don’t you sand them yourself.” Jaxon glared at him.
“I’m just saying. This ain’t a beauty contest.”
Jaxon threw the sander down. It clanked against the deck. He stormed into the next compartment, and sealed the hatch behind him.
“Hey, what the fuck, man?”
Mitch marched to the hatch and tried to open it. But it wouldn’t budge. He pressed the access button on the bulkhead a few times, but it didn’t work.
“This isn’t funny. Open the hatch, Jaxon!”
There was no reply.
“I’m serious, man. Open the hatch right now!”
He banged his fist against the hatch. Still no response from Jaxon.
“Violet, do you copy? Violet, are you there?”
Nothing but static crackled over the comm line.
“Can anybody read me?”
Mitch trotted down the corridor to the far hatch. It was sealed shut as well. He was trapped in this compartment with 41 minutes of oxygen remaining in his suit. And he knew the meter probably wasn’t accurate.
Walker watched as Malik and Saaja were escorted into the detention center.
Malik’s face was grim, and his eyes looked even darker than usual.
“957,” Lu said.
“There are 500, 2 person cells in this detention block. They’re almost at capacity. Those two make 957.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m good with numbers, and I count as they come and go.”
“Okay, I went to basic with one of the guards. He tells me the count, and also keeps me supplied.” Lu took another drag off the joint. “It was 954 after they took the main course to the galley. Then you came in, plus those two, makes 957. They’ll use the strong as forced labor. The weak and sick will be eliminated, or used for experiments.”
“What kind of experiments?”
Walker surveyed the bulkheads, looking for weaknesses. There was a poster of a naked Decluvian pinup queen stuck to the wall. As far as Decluvians went, she wasn’t bad looking.
“Unless you’ve got a plasma torch, you’re not getting out of here.”
“What’s the size of the crew?”
“There’s 623 operational crew members and 2112 Terrestrial Infantry. But most of them are on the ground right now.”
Walker pondered the numbers.
“What are you going to do, take on the whole ship by yourself?”
“Yes.” He was dead serious too.
Lu chuckled for a moment. “I like you. Optimistic. Good sense of humor.”
But Walker wasn’t laughing.
It wasn’t long before two armed guards came for Walker. One of them kept his weapon aimed at Walker as the other disengaged the containment beam. They motioned for him to exit the cell.
“It was nice knowing you,” Lu said. “Sure you don’t want a hit?” He offered Walker the joint.
Walker stepped out of the cell and one of the guards cuffed him.
The two guards were arguing about something, but Walker couldn’t understand what they were saying.
Lu translated. “They’re debating whether or not to kill you now, or wait till they get to the galley. That way they won’t have to carry you.”
One of the guards snapped at Lu, telling him to shut up.
“Seems the Emperor personally requested you be added to the menu,” Lu said. “Making friends in high places.”
The guards marched Walker into the corridor and headed toward the galley. Walker was going to be an appetizer, or an entree—maybe even dessert. None of which sounded appealing.
There were only two guards. He could probably take them, he thought. But with his hands cuffed behind his back, it would limit his ability to fight.
He was restrained with hinged, high security, double locked cuffs. If he had some time, and a shim, he could get out with ease. Slam a pair of double locked handcuffs against a hard surface a few times, and the double lock will release. Then it’s possible to shim the spring-loaded mechanism. If you know what you’re doing, you can be out of a pair of handcuffs in a few minutes. And Walker knew what he was doing.
You didn’t just sign up to become a Reaper, go to boot camp, and get your badge. If you were enlisted, you did 8 weeks of recruit training. If you were officer material, you did 13 weeks at Officer Candidate School. Then you had to pass your physical screening test and get accepted to the program. Less than 6% of applicants were admitted. Once you had your Reaper contract, you attended Basic Space Combat Training at the Naval Special Warfare Academy. Roughly 80% of candidates failed to graduate on their first attempt. After graduating, you went through another 2 years of special ops training. One of those special ops schools was focused on how to survive and escape POW situations. Reapers were taught how to circumvent almost every restraining device and technique.
But these alien cuffs were something he had never encountered before. They were made out of some type of composite material. The old steel handcuffs with a simple chain were easy to break. Lock up the chain and apply enough torque, and the connectors would shear off. The stronger the metal, the more brittle, the easier it would snap. High quality handcuffs were easier to get out of than the cheap ones.
Walker wasn’t going to be able to shear his way out of these. The design, and the composite material, was too strong. But halfway to the galley, his wrists were starting to burn. The oil in his skin was having a reaction with the alien composite material. Wisps of smoke were wafting from the metal. It was disintegrating. The cuffs were designed to restrain Decluvians—not humans.
Walker stretched his fingers around and rubbed them over the hinges. With any luck, the oil would weaken the hinges enough for him to snap the cuffs in half.
When they reached the galley, the cook was bitching up a storm that Walker was still alive. He didn’t want a mess in his galley.
The yellow skinned guard put the barrel of his rifle to Walker’s head. The cook hollered even louder.
Walker’s wrists were burning from the reaction to the handcuffs. He hoped the oil from his skin had weakened the hinges enough, because it was now or never.
The yellow guard lowered his weapon and got into a heated discussion with the cook. Walker didn’t understand a word of it. But that was just fine, he didn’t need to. The guard was distracted just enough for Walker to make his move.
He twisted and torqued his wrists, snapping the hinge. With lightning speed he jabbed an elbow into the blue guard’s nose. He could hear the bones crumple. Green blood oozed down the Decluvian’s blue skin.
Walker snatched the rifle away from the dazed guard and blasted away before the yellow guard could react.
A brilliant glowing blue projectile launched from the barrel like a tracer round. It was some type of ionized thermal plasma projectile. It smacked into the yellow guard, spraying chunks of yellow body parts everywhere. Green blood scattered the galley. The cook had a conniption fit and took cover.
Walker spun the weapon around and blasted the other guard. The blue bastard erupted into a sloppy mess. Walker was covered in green slimy Decluvian blood.
Then he took aim at the cook, unloading a torrent of bullets in his direction. It was pure chaos. Pots and pans and utensils were blasted to pieces. Appetizers, soups, and entrées splattered the walls.
A bullet ripped through the cook’s skull, scattering his brains. Other culinary specialists streaked from the galley in terror.
The Emperor wasn’t going to have his victory feast after all.
“We’ve got a little problem,” Violet said. She hunched over the display on the command station.
“What is it?” Zoey asked.
“Our orbit is decaying faster than I thought. We’re going to spiral into the planet within the next 6 hours. We need to either find a way off the ship, or get it operational.” Violet surveyed the grim faces of Zoey and 8-Ball.
“We’ll head down to the reactor room. See if we can figure anything out,” Zoey said.
“I’m going to find Declan,” Violet said. “I think I know what’s causing this.”
In the captain’s quarters, Declan was mesmerized by the glass of scotch. It looked so inviting. He picked it up and brought it to his lips once again. But he couldn’t bring himself to slug it down. He moved to the sink and poured it out. He grabbed the bottle and poured the rest of it down the drain.
He felt nauseous. It was a priceless bottle of scotch. There were maybe a handful left in the galaxy, if any at all.
He reached into his pocket and thumbed his recovery chip. He felt the raised lettering that read one moment at a time. This was certainly a moment.
A knock on the hatch shattered the silence.
Declan waited a moment, but no one entered.
“I said, come in.”
He marched to the hatch and opened it—there was no one there.
He peered down the hallway, first to the left, and then to the right. He caught a glimpse of someone turning the corner. It looked a lot like…
The figure was gone in an instant.
Declan stepped into the corridor and called out for his brother again. “Brody, is that you?”
Declan jogged to the end of the hallway.
He knew Brody had been on the Zephyr when it was destroyed. But maybe he’d come back to the Revenant before the explosion?
Declan turned the corner and caught a glimpse of Brody again at the end of the hallway. There he was, plain as day, staring back at him.
Brody disappeared down another passageway.
Declan ran after him.
He kept chasing the ghostly figure through the maze of passageways, until he found himself standing on the precipice of a hundred foot drop. He was in the cooling tower over the primary heat exchanger.
Brody was on the other side of the chasm. There is no way he could have gotten over there. It wasn’t humanly possible.
Declan was about to take a mindless step forward when Violet called his name. He caught his balance just in time, clinging on to a protrusion on the bulkhead.
“What are you doing?”
Declan was dazed. “Nothing. I thought I saw… Brody.”
“That’s not possible.”
“I’m telling you, he was right here.” Declan looked back across the cooling tower. The apparition was gone.
“It wasn’t Brody. I’ve seen visions too. Impossible things.”
“What if Brody wasn’t on the Zephyr when it was destroyed?” Declan was clinging on to hope.
“You and I both know he was.”
“You’re not going to start in on me with that Numarian curse crap, are you?”
“I know it sounds ridiculous. But I’m telling you, as long as that treasure is on the ship, we’re doomed.”
“I think you’re letting your imagination get carried away.”
“You were about to step off a cliff chasing your nonexistent brother.” Her eyes burned into him.
Declan grimaced, not wanting to admit she was right.
“You know me. I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in hokey religions, or magic, or any of that supernatural nonsense.”
“You’re not really suggesting we flush 3 trillion credits worth of trilontium out into space, are you?”
“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.”
Declan’s face tensed.
“You know something’s not right here.”
He sighed. He had to agree with her. “That wasn’t the first time I’ve hallucinated on this ship.”
“I think we all have.”
“Let’s get everybody together,” Declan said. “We need to make this decision as a team.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Make a command decision.”
“You really think the ship is going to magically start working once you get rid of the treasure?”
“Anyone in possession of the treasure will meet with their doom.”
“Folklore and legend.”
“Well, when we all end up in a pile of twisted debris on the planet, you tell me how much of a myth it was.”
Declan looked back across the cooling tower one more time. There was still no sign of Brody. He peered over the edge at the machinery below. He’d be a grease spot on the deck if it weren’t for Violet. Maybe he should listen to her?
“Where’s Jaxon and Mitch?” Declan asked.
“They’re working on the hull.”
“They’re not going to be happy about this.”
“Find them,” Declan said. “I’m going to go up to the airlock.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Toss out the trilontium, I guess.”
Violet smiled at him. “You know, you might be a decent human being after all.” Her doe-eyes gleamed at him.
He chuckled. “Careful. Don’t go ruining my reputation.”
Mitch was still trapped in the passageway between section 167 and 174. Both of the hatches remained shut. It was clear Jaxon wasn’t coming back to release him.
The oxygen meter on his heads-up display read 22 minutes. If he had to guess, it was probably more like 15.
Mitch tried to squeeze his head through the gaping wound in the exterior hull. Despite its size, he could only fit his head and shoulders through. There wasn’t enough room to get the center locking ring of his suit through the opening. It didn’t matter how he twisted or contorted. He just wasn’t going to fit. And he didn’t want to get too aggressive about trying. One of the jagged edges could easily catch and rip the material of the suit. Then he’d be in a whole new world of trouble.
He wiggled his head and shoulders back into the corridor. Then he marched to the toolbox at the opposite end of the hallway. He rummaged through the container and found a laser cutter.
For a moment, he thought about cutting his way through one of the sealed hatches. But that could compromise the integrity of the entire ship.
Mitch walked back along the damaged bulkhead until he found the widest gap. He pressed the tip of the laser torch against the bulkhead and began cutting a wide arc. Sparks showered out into space. The beam melted the thick composite alloy with ease. Droplets of molten metal wafted out into space and cooled almost instantly.
After a few minutes, he had carved out a nice sized opening. The semicircular piece of metal was hanging by a thread. He kicked it loose, and it tumbled off into space.
Mitch activated his magnetic boots, then shimmied through the opening in the hull. He took the laser cutter with him, just in case.
He held on for dear life until he could affix his boots to the outer hull. If he lost his grip, he’d be tumbling into space for the rest of eternity.
His boots clamped tight against the outer hull, and he stood tall. He took in the wondrous view once again. It was quite a sight. He started marching forward toward the next airlock. He would try them all until one of them opened.
The metallic boots made his feet feel like they weighed 50 pounds each. It was like walking through knee-deep mud. You’d lift your feet and they’d clanked right back down again. It was better than drifting away into space. But it didn’t take long for your legs to start burning.
Mitch was heaving for breath. He wasn’t exactly in the best shape. Sweat beaded on his forehead. He was down to 17 minutes of oxygen left.
He kept plodding toward the next airlock, stepping over the ridges and valleys in the ship’s design.
Mitch had made it about 20 yards when another meteor shower hit. Small golf ball sized rocks pelted the hull. They were hard to see coming through the foggy haze of the nebula. They would appear at the last minute, and Mitch would try to dodge out of the way. They clinked and clamored against the hull.
The magnetic boots kept him from being as nimble as he could’ve been. He did his best impression of a run, zigging and zagging and dodging and weaving.
His heart was about to punch through his chest. He swore if he made it out of this alive he was going to get back into the gym. Hit the treadmill, ride the bike, do the elliptical. Whatever it took to get himself back into shape. He had let himself go and he wasn’t happy about it.
He took shelter behind a ridge.
Meteors were pouring down now.
He crammed into the enclave, hoping the shower of rocks would pass soon. The ridge just barely gave him enough cover.
The space rocks slammed into the hull, pulverizing into dust and tiny pebbles. Even a small one could kill you, traveling faster than a bullet.
Mitch started to contemplate where the best place to get hit would be. A shot to the head would kill you instantly. That would probably be best. If you were going to die, might as well get it over with quick. A shot to the chest might prolong things, unless you were lucky enough to get hit directly in the heart. A shot in the arms and legs would drag things out too much. You’d probably live for another 10 or 15 minutes while you bled out.
That would be the worst place to get hit by a meteor, Mitch thought. Excruciatingly painful and embarrassing. He’d be the butt of endless jokes if he went out that way. Did you hear about old Mitch? Yeah, he took one in the nads.
Yup, Old Meteor Mitch, they’d call him.
He glanced at his HUD. 15 minutes of oxygen left—which probably meant 10.
Declan dragged the crates into the airlock. He grunted and groaned and damn near threw his back out pulling them across the deck and over the lip of the inner airlock hatch.
He stood up and wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve.
“What you planning on doing there, Chief?” Jaxon scowled at him. He stood in the corridor about 20 feet away. He was a towering hulk of a man.
“Just doing a little housecleaning, that’s all.”
“You wouldn’t be planning on throwing those out, would you?” Jaxon’s menacing eyes fixed on Declan.
“I know, on the surface, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But I think there’s a good reason for it.”
“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Skipper.”
“You planning on stopping me?”
The two squared off for a moment.
Jaxon charged Declan. He looked like a ferocious beast. His angry face twisted up, and he snarled. He was like a freight train barreling down the hallway. He slammed into Declan, knocking him from his feet.
Jaxon crashed down on top of Declan. His cinder block of a fist reared back, and he hammered Declan in the jaw.
Declan’s molars carved into his cheek. Blood spewed from his mouth, splattering across the deck. That was just the first hit. Several more followed in rapid succession.
Each hit was like two—first was Jaxon's fist, and second was the back of Declan’s skull mashing against the deck. Jaxon kept pummeling him with brain jarring, skull crushing blows.
Pinned to the ground, Declan reached up and dug his fingers into Jaxon’s eyes. The big oaf screamed in agony. It gave Declan enough leverage to worm out from underneath Jaxon.
Declan grabbed the lid from one of the crates and ripped it from its hinges. He smacked the plank over Jaxon’s head as he stood. Wood snapped and splintered.
Jaxon staggered for a moment. But it only seemed to piss him off. He was seething now and breathing through his mouth. His teeth were like the fangs of a ravenous beast. His head was down, and his dark eyes were partially occluded by his brow. He looked utterly, and completely, insane.
He charged at Declan once again.
The skipper dropped down and ducked under just as Jaxon swung a right cross. He felt Jaxon's fist graze the top of his head. Declan knelt down and scooped up a sharp shard of wood. It was the closest thing to a knife he was going to get.
Jaxon spun around to face Declan. The two squared off again. Jaxon almost seemed like he was enjoying this.
Declan’s eyes surveyed the big hunk of muscle. He had fought side-by-side with Jaxon in plenty of bar fights. He’d never seen the man lose.
“Jaxon, just calm down. There’s a reasonable explanation why—“
Jaxon had no intention of listening. He charged Declan again.
The skipper sidestepped.
Jaxon clotheslined him. His arm was like concrete. It caught Declan right in the throat.
The skipper felt his windpipe collapse. His back smacked the deck, knocking the wind out of him.
Jaxon wound up and planted his boot right in Declan’s ribs. He heard them snap. The pain shot through Declan’s torso. Each breath was agonizing.
Jaxon kicked him again in the gut.
Declan squirmed in pain, still gasping for breath.
The big meathead towered over Declan’s helpless body. Jaxon was an ex Special Forces killer. Operational detachment X-ray. X Force, as they were often called. A good way to start a fight was to ask who was tougher, Reapers or X Force. Each outfit had their own reasons why they were the most elite combat force. They were both the crème de la crème of special warfare, each with their own particular specialties. Declan didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this fight.
Jaxon knelt down and snatched the wooden shard. His deranged gaze surveyed the pointed fragment.
Declan tried to climb to his feet.
Jaxon reached down and grabbed Declan by the throat, and slammed him against the bulkhead.
“Hey, buddy. I can see you’re a little upset.” The words came out harsh and raspy as Jaxon squeezed Declan’s throat.
Jaxon’s soulless eyes blazed into Declan. Jaxon was never a particularly warm or friendly person, but the man Declan had once known was gone. This wasn’t Jaxon anymore. His mind was unhinged. There was no compassion. No remorse. No empathy whatsoever.
Was it the ship that caused him to snap? Was it the curse of the Numarian treasure? Had he just spent too long in space?
Declan knew the answer. It was all the more confirmation he needed to get the treasure off the ship. How long would it be before the others went batshit crazy as well, he thought? How long before he lost his own mind? He was already hallucinating.
“Look, why don’t we just take a minute and sort this whole thing out like reasonable adults?” Declan said, trying to smile.
Jaxon's empty eyes stayed fixed. There was going to be no reasoning with him. There was going to be no negotiation.
Walker pilfered every magazine and thermal grenade he could find on the two Decluvian guards. He took a tactical vest from one of the guards to store the extra ammunition.
Stripped of the Saarkturian battle armor, Walker was wearing nothing but his skivvies. He stole a pair of pants from the guard. But the boots were useless. Decluvian feet, with their three toes and an opposable digit, weren’t even close to human feet.
Walker pulled on the pants and stepped into the corridor. He shot out the security camera that loomed overhead. He continued down the hall, heading toward the detention center.
The Decluvian crew seemed unprepared to deal with a situation like this. Walker advanced down the corridor, blasting out security cameras and putting holes in any crew members that threatened him. Most turned tail and ran.
Unlike a conventional weapon with a magazine that held 30 rounds, the plasma rifles fired projectiles the size of toothpicks. Each magazine held 500 rounds. It was a hell of an advancement over the weaponry the UPDF possessed.
Soon the hallways would be flooded with security personnel. Walker stormed through the corridors as fast as he could, hoping to beat the security details that were most likely being dispatched.
It was complete pandemonium as Walker blasted his way through the hallways. As he approached the detention center, he rolled a thermal grenade around the corner. The two guards in front of the detention center tried to dive out of the way, but the blast incinerated them. The hatch was blown to shreds.
The corridor was filled with smoke. Alarms blared, and klaxon’s sounded. Walker sliced through the haze to the detention center. He opened fire at the dazed officers behind the command station. Within seconds, they were piles of mush on the floor.
He cleared the room and dashed to the console. He tabbed through the display screen and deactivated the containment beams.
Nearly a thousand prisoners were now free. They spilled out of their cells. Walker grabbed the dead guards’ weapons from the deck and tossed them to Malik and Saaja as they emerged.
“Remind me never to underestimate you,” Malik said.
“Yeah, what he said,” Lu added.
“We’re not out of this yet,” Walker said. He marched back toward the entrance.
Security forces were taking positions at both sides of the corridor.
Walker threw a grenade in each direction.
The Decluvians were reluctant to use grenades, or anything heavier than a plasma rifle. They didn’t want to damage an exterior bulkhead. But Walker didn’t give a shit. Let the hull get breached—it would almost be worth it to see those slimy bastard’s sucked out into the vacuum of space.
The blast rocked the ship. But it didn’t rupture the exterior bulkhead. It was enough to set the security forces reeling back on their heels. It had taken out several of them. Malik and Walker were blasting at the rest.
Lu was right. There were hardly any terrestrial infantry on board. Just a handful of security forces, and half of those were now lifeless on the deck.
Behind Walker was almost a thousand hungry and pissed off refugees. They had seen their own world destroyed. Their loved ones killed. They had nothing left to lose. And they wanted revenge.
They flooded into the corridor. Some of them were immediately gunned down. But there were too many of them. Soon the refugees overtook the security forces—stripping their weapons and shooting them with their own rifles. It was like a dam had burst. Angry refugees flowed throughout the hallways, exacting revenge on every Decluvian in sight.
“Brilliance,” Lu said with a mischievous grin on his face. “This is sheer brilliance.” He took in the chaos with absolute glee. His big eyes were red and glazed. He was totally baked.
Refugees were finding escape pods and jettisoning themselves into space. Others were too caught up in the act of revenge to even think about escape.
“If we want to get out of here, we better grab an escape shuttle before they’re gone,” Lu said.
Walker arched an eyebrow at him.
“Hey, I ain’t gonna stay here. They want to send me to the mines, or worse.”
The hallways were filled with haze and rioting refugees. Lu led them through the labyrinth of corridors to one of the many escape shuttles. Lu opened the hatch and Malik and Saaja filed in.
“I can’t leave Bailey,” Walker said. “I’ve got to find him.”
“This may be your only chance,” Malik said.
“I know.” Walker’s face was grim. Bailey was part of the squad, as far as he was concerned. He was more than that. He was family. And Walker never left a man behind.
Walker and Malik shook hands.
“Get yourself to safety,” Walker said. “Thank you for everything. I hope we meet again someday. And not on the battlefield.”
Saaja hugged him. She kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear. “Take care of yourself.” Her dark eyes were pensive. She owed her life to Walker. It didn’t seem right to just leave him there.
“You sure you don’t want to get out with us?” Lu asked.
“Good luck, my friend.” Lu hopped into the shuttle and closed the hatch behind him.
Walker dashed down the corridor toward their berthing compartment. He hoped Bailey was still there.
The last of the meteors blasted against the hull. At least, Mitch hoped it was the last of them. He poked his head over the ridge. It seemed clear.
5 minutes of oxygen left.
He was on the port side of the ship. He barreled as fast as he could toward one of the airlocks. It was like trying to run with superglue on your feet. The magnetic boots clanked and clamored against the metal hull.
But you didn’t want to get too much lift in your stride. Too much separation and the magnetic boots might not be able to grasp the hull. Then you’d be in a world of hurt.
Mitch finally reached the airlock and flipped open the fairing to access the keypad. Now what was the goddamn code? He had watched Zoey punch it in, but he didn’t pay it much attention.
He knew it was a string of four numbers that were all the same. He started with 1111 and worked his way down. By the time he got to 3333, he remembered the code was 0000.
He had a minute of oxygen left, if he was lucky.
The outer airlock hatch opened. It seemed to move agonizingly slow. He was starting to get a little lightheaded, probably re-breathing his own CO2. He climbed inside and closed the hatch. Then pressurized the airlock. He was on the opposite side of the Revenant from Jaxon and Declan.
Mitch took off his helmet and filled his lungs. It was a sublime sensation. He wiped the sweat from his brow and grinned. He deactivated his magnetic boots, then opened the inner airlock hatch.
He stepped into the hallway and headed toward the CIC. He was going to give Jaxon an earful.
He staggered through the corridors and caught a glimpse of Jaxon and Declan by the starboard airlock. Jaxon still had Declan pinned against the bulkhead.
At first, he thought maybe they were just having a small disagreement. That thought soon vanished.
Jaxon reared back and stabbed the knife-like splinter of wood into Declan’s abdomen. The wooden blade punctured his skin, slicing through muscle and fascia. Jaxon angled the blade upward through the inferior aperture of the rib cage, puncturing the diaphragm. The tip of the blade incised the right ventricle of Declan’s heart.
Jaxon pulled out the wooden blade. A torrent of blood flowed from Declan’s thoracic cavity. The wooden shard was stained red. Jaxon’s face was crazed. He plunged the makeshift weapon back into Declan’s abdomen several times. It made a sucking, sloshing sound with each retraction.
Declan gurgled and gasped. The color drained from his face. Blood dripped down his torso and splattered on the deck.
Jaxon pulled out the makeshift knife for the last time and released his grip from Declan’s throat.
The skipper’s knees went weak as the life drained from his body. He slid down the bulkhead, leaving a smear of blood behind. His body crumpled on the deck.
“It’s a 5 way split now,” Jaxon mumbled as he towered over Declan’s body.
Mitch was horrified. His eyes were wide and his jaw was slack. He was frozen stiff. He wanted to scream but couldn’t make a sound. He couldn’t believe what he had just seen.
Jaxon’s psychotic gazed turned to Mitch. The big, hulking killer charged down the corridor.
Mitch turned and ran. He dropped his helmet and sprinted down the corridor. He rounded a corner and pumped his legs as fast as they would go. He was already worn out from marching across the outer hull. His heart thumped, and his quads burned. He ran hard, moving forward toward the CIC.
Jaxon was twenty paces behind him, and closing in.
Mitch dashed for the ladder to the next deck. He sprang up the rungs, but Jaxon grabbed his ankle. Mitch stomped a heel in Jaxon's forehead, tumbling the big lug to the deck.
Mitch climbed to the next level and took off running. He zigged and zagged through passageways, trying to lose the crazed hulk.
Jaxon sprang to his feet and scaled the ladder. The corridor was empty when he surfaced, but he could hear the clanking of Mitch’s boots against the deck as he ran. He took off, following the sound.
Mitch glanced back over his shoulder. Jaxon was out of sight.
Mitch opened a hatch and ducked into a compartment. His heart was thundering. His pulse throbbed in his temples. His chest heaved for breath.
He was in a small crew compartment. It was as good a place to hide as any, he figured. He peered out through a small viewport in the hatch, looking to see if Jaxon had followed. But the hallway was empty.
He backed away from the viewport and surveyed the compartment. There were three bunks on each bulkhead—each had a privacy curtain. There was also a small storage closet. Life aboard a destroyer was certainly not for the claustrophobic. You lived and worked on top of one another. And the majority of the crew had to hot bunk it (sharing a bunk with one, maybe two other people in rotation).
He glanced back through the viewport one more time. He caught a glimpse of Jaxon trudging down the hallway.
Mitch backed away and climbed into one of the lower bunks and pulled the privacy curtain shut. It was a tight squeeze, especially with the upper and lower torso assembly of the space suit. The central locking ring was flush with the ceiling of the bunk.
He tried to steady his breathing. He felt like he was going to hyperventilate. Lying in the bunk felt like being inside a coffin.
He was breathing so loud, he worried Jaxon would be able to hear him out in the hallway. Slow, deep breaths, he told himself. Breathe in, hold it, breathe out.
Mitch clutched onto the laser cutter. He figured it would be his last line of defense. He couldn’t hide in this compartment forever. He needed to warn the others. Let them know that Jaxon had completely flipped his lid.
With his fingertips, he tugged on the privacy curtain so he could peer around and see the hatch. His heart jumped into his throat as Jaxon's face appeared in the viewport.
Sweat covered Mitch’s body. His heart was racing. He heard the dreaded sound of the hatch opening, and the heavy footsteps of Jaxon as he entered the compartment.
Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.
The meathead stopped in the entryway and surveyed the compartment.
Mitch lay perfectly still, hiding in the narrow bunk.
Jaxon stepped farther into the compartment.
Through the gap in the curtain, Mitch could see Jaxon’s boot clunk against the deck. He heard the metallic scraping of the rings as Jaxon pulled the curtain back on the top bunk of the opposite bulkhead.
Jaxon grumbled at the empty bunk.
Another curtain pulled open, revealing nothing.
It sounded like the curtain of the bunk right above him.
Mitch was sure his bunk was next. He gripped the laser torch, ready to flick it on. He didn’t really know what it would do to a person, but it was better than nothing. There was no way he could stand toe-to-toe with Jaxon. He wouldn’t last one punch.
He could hear the heavy rumble of Jaxon's breath. He was like some kind of wild beast. Mitch thought he was doomed.
But he got lucky.
Jaxon turned around and stomped his boots out of the compartment.
Mitch breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the hatch slide shut behind Jaxon. But he dared not move. He stayed still for another 10 or 15 minutes. Then he peered around the curtain—everything looked clear.
He stepped to the hatch with caution. Mitch pressed his face against the glass and scanned the hallway—there was no sign of the lunatic.
Despite the hallway appearing empty, he was filled with trepidation at the thought of opening the hatch. His finger loomed over the button.
He finally pushed it, and the hatch slid open. He leaned his head into the corridor, looked both ways, and listened.
It was silent. Just the hum of the life support system. It was spooky.
The emergency lighting flickered.
Mitch crept into the hallway, his boots lightly clanking against the deck. He cringed at the sound. He tried to tiptoe down the passageway, but that didn’t really work. His boots still made noise.
He made it to the end of the corridor—still no sign of Jaxon.
Mitch turned the corner and sprinted to the ladder. He climbed to the next deck and dashed toward the CIC.
Jaxon lurched out of the shadows, tackling him. The big hulk was on top of him. His demonic eyes glared at Mitch. He growled and stabbed the bloody splinter of wood down.
Mitch clutched the laser torch and jammed it against Jaxon. He switched it on, and a brilliant flash emitted from the nozzle.
It blazed through Jaxon’s flesh before he could stab Mitch with the shard.
Jaxon twisted away, falling off of Mitch. He screamed out in agony.
Mitch could smell the pungent oder of seared flesh. He sprang to his feet and ran for the CIC. He didn’t look back.
Jaxon lay on the ground clutching his wound. It felt like the sting of a thousand hornets. There was no blood, as the laser had cauterized his flesh instantly.
The beam had passed through Jaxon's rib cage, missing his vital organs. It was a narrow hole through his torso. He could stick a pencil in the wound and push it clear through to the other side, if he was so inclined.
Mitch’s blood pumped. He ran as hard as he could. He flew into the CIC and mashed a button on the bulkhead, closing the hatch behind him.
Zoey, Violet, and 8-Ball gazed at him with wide eyes.
Mitch leaned against the hatch, panting. “Just FYI. Jaxon’s lost it.”
“He killed Declan. He’s out of his mind.”
A wave of horror washed over Violet’s face.
Jaxon slammed against the hatch. The boom reverberated through the CIC. He kept pounding into it. He could slam into it all he wanted, but he wasn’t going to get through. If he kept it up the only thing he was going to get was a broken clavicle, or a dislocated shoulder.
Zoey activated the security video from the corridor. They watched as Jaxon rammed into the hatch a few more times, then he finally gave up.
He looked into the camera and grinned. It was a terrifying, soulless grin.
He disappeared down the hallway, which was even more terrifying. Who knew where he was going, or what he was going to do? The idea of a maniac lurking out there in the darkness was unsettling.
Zoey scrubbed back through the surveillance video. She stopped on a frame that clearly displayed Jaxon's face. She programmed Jaxon's information into the facial recognition software. Then she instructed the ship’s security system to scan and track his whereabouts.
If the system worked properly, they would have a good idea of where Jaxon was at all times. But there were plenty of dark nooks and crannies aboard the ship were Jaxon could evade detection. And the system hadn’t been updated in over 25 years, so it was far from flawless.
The video feed followed Jaxon as he made his way toward the airlock. Then the feed turned to static.
“What the hell?” Zoey grumbled.
Violet wiped the tears from her eyes. She fought them back with everything she had, but they kept flowing. She tried her damnedest not to become a total basket case, but soon she broke down in jerking sobs. Her feelings for Declan ran deep, even though she had been reluctant to admit it.
Zoey put her arm around Violet, trying to comfort her.
Mitch staggered toward the command console. He looked at the display of the ship’s trajectory. Their orbit was decaying rapidly. “We’ve got 4 hours until we’re a steaming pile of dog shit on that planet.”
“We’ve got to get every piece of that Numarian treasure off this ship,” Violet said.
“I’m with you on that,” 8-Ball said. “That shit’s cursed. I got bad vibes the minute I set foot in this joint.”
Zoey nodded in agreement.
“And you think the ship is going to magically start working once we dump 3 trillion credits worth of treasure overboard?” Mitch asked.
“Yes,” they all answered in unison.
“Well, given the circumstances, that all sounds perfectly reasonable,” Mitch said. “Jaxon always was kind of douchey, but he never would have done something like this.”
“There’s a weapons locker a few sections aft of here,” Zoey said. “With any luck, it will still be stocked up.”
“I’m not particularly inclined to go back out there with that lunatic running around,” Mitch said.
“Suck it up, you candy-ass,” Zoey said. “You just want to wait in here to die?”
Mitch frowned. “I guess, we all gotta die sometime, right? Might as well go out on your feet.” He grinned at Zoey lasciviously. “Unless you want to get horizontal?”
She scowled at him. “I’d rather die first.”
8-Ball’s face tightened. He seemed to be getting a little bent out of shape that Mitch was flirting with her. “Let’s focus. I say we go waste that fucker.”
8-Ball glanced at the display on the command console. It was still full of static. There was no way to tell if Jaxon was in the hallway.
Eddie put his ear to the hatch and listened. The steady rumble of the ventilation system filled his ear.
“Get ready,” 8-Ball said, his finger hovering over the button to open the hatch.
Mitch gripped the laser torch, ready to zap anything that moved.
Violet pulled herself together, and she and Zoey got ready for a fight.
8-Ball pressed the button.
Please don’t let that big son-of-a-bitch be on the other side of this hatch. It was a silent prayer 8-Ball said to himself. He didn’t care who was listening, or who answered.
The hatch slid open, and the hallway was empty. And for that, 8-Ball was thankful.
The team crept into the corridor, and Zoey led the charge. They weaved their way through the labyrinth of passageways, finally coming upon the weapons locker.
Zoey entered the standard security code, 0000, and opened the cabinet. Their eyes lit up with glee.
There were several RK 909 carbines and magazines full of ammunition. There was a plethora of thermal grenades and proximity mines. There were tactical swords and knives.
They stocked up on weaponry like kids in a candy store. Magazines jammed into mag wells. Charging handles clacked.
“Lock’n load,” 8-Ball said with a grin.
Mitch grabbed a few thermal grenades.
“Go easy with those,” Zoey said. “We’re on a space ship. Try not to blow a hole in the hull.”
“No worries, Sugar. I’ll be careful,” Mitch winked.
“Let’s get to the airlock and ditch the treasure first,” Violet said.
They snaked through the network of passageways, sweeping and clearing the corridors with textbook precision.
The electrical system was growing more erratic. The lights were flickering at more frequent intervals.
The team climbed down the ladders and crept through the shadows.
Jaxon could have been lurking anywhere.
They finally reached the starboard side airlock. Declan’s bloodied corpse lay mangled in the corridor.
Violet’s heart stammered at the sight. She knelt down beside his body, crestfallen.
Declan’s blank eyes were staring at the ceiling.
Violet reached her hand down and gently pulled his eyelids shut. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
To complicate matters, the crates of trilontium were gone.
“Let’s split into two person teams and sweep the ship,” Violet said. “Mitch, you’re with me.”
“We’ll take the starboard side. Zoey, 8-Ball… take port. Stay in contact. We’ll meet aft, and move deck by deck.”
“What if we run into Jaxon?” Zoey asked.
“Take him prisoner. Find out where he moved the trilontium.”
“And if we can’t take him prisoner?”
“I’m not going to cry about it if he should meet with a sudden terminal condition. ”
Zoey and 8-Ball moved down the corridor. They leapfrogged their way through the labyrinth of passageways, checking compartments as they went along. It was a tedious process. Section by section, they cleared compartments, moving aft toward engineering.
In one of the crew compartments, Zoey found a hand written journal. It was lying on the deck next to a pen. It was an extremely antiquated way of keeping track of events. She flipped through the pages. The last entry was dated March 4th, 2357—25 years ago.
“I don’t think now is the time to catch up on your reading,” 8-Ball said.
“Hang on a minute.”
The pages were yellow and stained. It was the journal of Petty Officer 3rd Class Karl Burns. Zoey flipped back a few days and began reading.
Wednesday, March 1, 2357: we encountered a distress signal, and Captain Dean decided to render aid. If I were captain, I would have left the ship alone. We’re not a rescue ship. We’re not the Planetary Guard. We’ve got enough troubles of our own. But that’s probably why I’ll never be a captain. I’m just not officer material. I know it’s the law of space, and all, but it seems risky to stop and take aboard crew and cargo that you know nothing about.
Zoey flipped forward to the next entry.
Thursday, March 2, 2357: There was a sole survivor from the Mary Celeste. She was a young woman found in a state of extreme psychological distress. From what I heard, they could only get bits and pieces of the story out of her. She claimed the crew had gone mad and attacked one another. Seaman Wilson tells me a dozen crates of trilontium were brought on board with her. That can’t be true. I think it’s all bullshit. Wilson says she’s pretty good-looking. But I haven’t seen her yet.
Zoey turned the page.
Friday, March 3rd, 2357: Yesterday was really strange. The ship was stuck in some kind of quantum fluctuation. The official calculations say it only lasted a few minutes. But I swear, it felt like months. It was like the whole ship was frozen in time. When we finally emerged from slide-space, we were well outside of any charted sector. I thought this was it—I thought we were really never going to get out of slide-space. Nobody seems to know where the hell we are right now. At least, they’re not telling any of us.
Saturday, March 4th, 2357: Just when I thought shit couldn’t get any stranger in space, Petty Officer Paul Curran flipped out and stabbed six enlisted men in the 2nd deck mess hall. I’ve known Paul since Jr. High. We went through basic training together. I can’t fucking believe it. He was such a nice guy. I’m in shock. The Master-at-Arms had to shoot him to keep him from killing a seventh victim.
That was just the first part of the day. By the afternoon. Three more incidents occurred on board. I don’t know what is going on. A lot of people are saying something about a curse. I don’t buy into all that nonsense. But I’m not sure what else explains it.
I’m beat. Gotta get some shut eye. Will try to write more tomorrow, if I can. I tell you, when I get out of the Navy, I’m going to write a book about this shit. You just can’t make this stuff up.
That was the last entry in the journal. Zoey set the book down on a bunk. Her heart was filled with dread. She wondered what became of Petty Officer 3rd Class, Karl Burns?
The sound of weapons fire echoed throughout the corridors. The ship was still in disarray. By this point, there were more refugees roaming the halls than there were crew. Dead bodies littered the deck, both human and Decluvain. Emperor Tyvelon had locked himself in the CIC. It was practically impenetrable. He flew into several tirades about the incompetence of his crew. He ordered a battalion of terrestrial infantry to return to the ship. Walker didn’t have long. The revolt would soon be squashed.
He crept through the maze of passageways to the berthing compartment. He opened the hatch and scanned the room. Bailey was gone. Walker’s heart sank.
A bullet ripped past his ear. It impacted the bulkhead beside him, leaving a crater 12 inches in diameter with a flaming core.
Walker spun his weapon around and released a burst of fire down the corridor.
The blast took out a Decluvian warrior. His body flopped to the deck in a slimy mess. His comrade fired back. Blue streaks flew down the hallway, crackling through the air.
Walker ducked into the compartment for cover. He whipped his weapon around the corner and fired several rounds, taking out the remaining Decluvian. Green blood painted the bulkheads.
Walker stepped back into the corridor. He screamed with frantic desperation. “Bailey?”
There was no response.
Walker pushed through the hazy passageways, calling out for Bailey. But he heard nothing.
He weaved his way through the chaos, stepping over bodies and taking out random enemies that lurked in the hallways.
Suddenly, Bailey’s faint bark filtered through.
“Bailey?” Walker yelled.
He sprinted in the direction of the dog’s bark.
A few moments later, Bailey came running through the haze and almost tackled him with joy. He was bouncing up and down and panting.
Walker chuckled and pet him. “Alright, boy. It’s going to be okay. We’re going to get out of here.”
Walker took off down the corridor and Bailey followed. He scoured the passageways, but every escape portal was empty. The shuttles had all been used. The only way off this ship was to steal a vessel from the flight deck, or use the damaged vehicle they came in on. And that was going to be no easy task.
Walker found himself close to the reactor room. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. And the odds of getting off the ship were slim. If he could damage the carrier’s propulsion, that would be one less combatant in the attack against New Earth.
The hatch was sealed, and there was no getting inside the reactor room. The reactor techs had locked the compartment down.
Bailey barked at Walker, then ran away down the hall.
Walker chased after him.
Bailey led him to a compartment and pawed at the hatch. Walker peered in through the viewport—Bailey had found the armory. Row after row of weapons and munitions. Bailey had caught the scent of the explosive ordinance.
He may not have been a trained tactical explosive detection dog, but that didn’t keep him from picking up on the odor. He had been around Walker long enough to know when he needed heavy firepower.
The hatch to the armory was sealed shut as well. Walker could slam into it all he wanted, but without the key code, it wasn’t going to budge.
UPDF ships had emergency escape hatches in all critical compartments. Walker hoped that the Decluvian military followed the same protocol.
Occasionally the emergency hatches were tack welded shut. But more often then not, they were freely accessible. Walker made particularly good use of these hatches when he was aboard the USS Vandal. The gunners mate was an obnoxious little runt who was fond of keeping his horde of beer that he had stolen locked up in the armory. There was a six week stretch in the Zeta Akunus sector where supplies ran short, and nobody could get their hands on a cold beer. Walker felt obligated to liberate the gunners mate’s stash and dispense it among the Reapers who had been doing special ops on Cronophitos. They had certainly earned it.
Walker moved to the neighboring storage compartment. The outer hatch wasn’t locked. He pushed into the compartment, and scanned the area. He found a 3’x3’ emergency hatch and crawled through into the armory. Bailey jumped through after him.
The armory was a smorgasbord of destructive implements—plasma rifles, grenade launchers, and dehydration weapons that would turn you to ash. Walker found several magnetic grenades with timers.
They were black disk-shaped objects with a small conical point on one side, presumably to focus the blast energy. The controls and display were on the rim. They were about the size of a donut. Walker grabbed a few and stuffed them in pouches on his tactical vest. He opened the main hatch to the armory from the inside and peered into the hallway.
The chaos was settling down. Most of the refugees had evacuated from the ship via the escape shuttles.
Walker snuck through the corridors to the reactor compartment. One of these magnetic grenades would take out the hatch nicely. A few more placed on the reactor cores in this carrier would have propulsion problems, not to mention the area would be contaminated with radiation.
But Walker was going to have to hurry. The first transport of Decluvian warriors was returning to the ship. It was a massive bulky transport containing a full company of troops. It lumbered into the bay and set down on the flight deck. The back ramp lowered and Decluvian warriors streamed out like ants from a mound that had just been kicked.
The lights in the corridor flickered. Zoe and 8-Ball crept aft toward engineering. The barrels of their RK 909s swept the hallway.
At the far end of the passageway, muzzle flash illuminated the darkness. The thunderous report of gunfire echoed off the bulkheads. Zoey could hear bullets rip past her ear. She slammed her back against the bulkhead and took cover behind a support brace.
8-Ball took cover on the opposite bulkhead.
Bullets zipped down the corridor, sparking and ricocheting off the bulkheads.
Zoey angled her weapon around the support brace and squeezed the trigger. She fired a short burst into the darkness and ducked back behind the brace.
She and 8-Ball took turns blasting at the muzzle flash at the other end of the hallway. The smell of gunfire filled the air. Zoey’s ears were ringing from the deafening echo of the firefight.
Jaxon kept firing back at them.
8-Ball leaned around the support frame and blasted off several more rounds. Before he could lean back for cover, one of Jaxon's bullets ripped through his shoulder. Blood spewed from the wound. The impact twisted 8-Ball around. Two more bullets punctured his back. 8-Ball cried out in agony.
His body smacked against the deck, blood oozing from his wounds.
Zoey’s eyes went wide. The color drained from her face. She screamed out in terror. “8-Ball!”
She arched around the brace and fired down the hallway. Her finger squeezed the trigger, and she let out a primal roar. She didn’t let up until the magazine was empty and the bolt locked out.
She flung her back against the bulkhead taking cover once again. She pressed the mag release and the magazine clattered against the deck. She jammed another one into the mag well and blasted off a few more rounds.
“8-Ball, talk to me,” she screamed.
“Hang in there.”
Eddie needed immediate medical attention, or he was going to bleed out right there on the deck.
The gunfire ceased.
Smoke wafted through the hallway.
Zoey edged her head around the support brace. Muzzle flash lit up again at the other end of the corridor. She snapped her head back out of the way.
Her heart was about to tear through her chest. She needed to get to 8-Ball—and soon.
The commotion had drawn the attention of Mitch and Violet. They came running up a connecting corridor, emerging just behind Zoey’s position.
Mitch saw that 8-Ball was down. Without a moment’s hesitation, he dashed toward 8-Ball.
Gunfire erupted, filling the hallway with bullets.
Zoey blasted back down the corridor, trying to provide cover.
Mitch swooped down and grabbed Eddie by the collar. Bullets snapped past his head. With adrenaline coursing through his veins, he pulled 8-Ball to safety in a connecting corridor. A trail of blood streaked behind him.
Zoey fell back into the corridor after Mitch. She tossed her weapon down and started first aid. With her palms, she applied pressure to Eddie’s largest wounds. Within seconds, her hands were covered in crimson blood.
“Get a med kit,” Zoey yelled. “There’s one on the bulkhead in each section.
Mitch took off down the corridor. Violet stood guard at the corner. The gunfire had ceased, but Jaxon was still out there, somewhere.
Mitch returned a few moments later with the med kit.
Zoey dug into it and grabbed a pair of scissors. She cut away the layers of Eddie’s SK-2. The material was thick, and cutting through multiple layers was time-consuming. Every second counted.
“Just hang in there, Eddie,” Zoey said. “I’m not giving you permission to die yet.”
Once the wounds were exposed, Zoey scrounged for the GS gel in the med kit. It was an expandable biopolymer foam that was extremely useful in plugging gunshot wounds and other punctures. It contained advanced regenerative compounds as well as an analgesic.
She put the nozzle into his wounds and squeezed out the gel. Within moments, it expanded and filled the gaping wounds. It stopped the bleeding. But Eddie had already lost a lot of blood. His pulse was weak.
“We’ve got to get him to the med center,” Zoey said.
Mitch and Zoey hefted Eddie off the ground and carried him to the nearest elevator. It wasn’t the most ideal way to transport a wounded victim, but there was no time to waste. They raced him to the med center and set him atop a gurney.
Zoey wasn’t sure what condition the center was going to be in. The rest of the ship had been so dodgy, there was no telling if anything was going to work in the med center. But the facility had its own backup power supply that would take over in the event of a failure of the ship’s emergency power. Dual redundancy.
She ran a diagnostic imaging scan on 8-Ball. It was a miracle he was still alive. He had major trauma and was going to need extensive surgery. Far beyond basic field care. Eddie had a punctured lung, and a ruptured spleen. His shoulder had been turned to hamburger meat.
He was going to die without the assistance of an experienced surgeon. The robotic assisted med pod would guide the operator through most procedures. But this was way beyond Zoey’s skill level.
Zoey squeezed Eddie’s hand. He lightly squeezed back. Her eyes were brimming. “You’re living up to your name.”
“Always behind the eight ball,” he murmured.
“I’m going to put you into quantum stasis. It’s the only thing I can do.”
“Don’t forget about me in there,” he mumbled.
Zoey wheeled him over to the device. Mitch and Violet helped transfer him to the stasis chamber. It was a large apparatus with a central enclosure. It looked like a magnetic resonance imaging unit. The stasis chamber was a narrow tube.
The device was similar in concept to the slide-space drives. It had its own field generator. But its function was vastly different. Zoey really didn’t know how, exactly, it worked. Something about suspending the subject in a quantum superposition. It was like hitting the pause button on life. Once in stasis, Eddie would stay exactly as he was, until removed from stasis. Then time would progress normally for him.
The devices were obscenely expensive. There was usually only one aboard each ship. You’d find them in hospitals, major trauma centers, and sometimes in the homes of the ultra rich.
It was hard to say what the long-term effects were from an extended time and quantum stasis. Alteration in cognitive functioning, mood, and memory loss were all possible side effects. But in a life or death situation, it would buy you some time.
Zoey sealed the pod and activated the device.
It was a long shot, but if they could get the Revenant functioning and avoid disintegrating upon entering the planet’s atmosphere, maybe Eddie had a shot. She’d have to find a qualified surgeon and get him aboard the ship somehow.
It seemed like a pipe dream.
“3 hours remaining until X2997365 becomes our permanent home,” Violet said.
“You mean, our grave,” Mitch replied.
Violet frowned at him.
“I say we hunt that son-of-a-bitch down and kill him,” Zoey said.
“What’s that really going to accomplish?” Violet said. “We’re all going to be dead in 3 hours anyway.”
“At least I’ll have the satisfaction of pulling the trigger,” Zoey said. “I figured you’d be the first person who’d want to put a bullet in that bastard.”
“I’m trying to disconnect my emotions.”
“Good luck with that.”
“Emotions are clouding my judgment,” Violet said. “I’m going to check the reactors, see if I can find any logical explanation why they are not functioning. Keep looking for the trilontium.”
Violet grabbed her assault rifle. “And believe me, if I see Jaxon. I’ve got a bullet with his name on it.” She smirked and marched out of the med center.
Mitch and Zoey were silent for a moment.
“Sorry about 8-Ball,” Mitch said, solemnly.
“That was pretty brave what you did. I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“Hey, I’m full of surprises.”
The two shared a somber grin. There was another long silence between them.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
“How can you think about food at a time like this?”
“I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I get kinda shaky and cranky when I don’t eat. There’s gotta be something in the galley. Some canned food? MREs?”
“You’re going to eat a 25-year-old MRE?”
“If we’re all going to die, I want to die full.” He shrugged. “You gonna join me?”
“I’m going to stay here and keep a watch on 8-Ball.”
“Okay. It’s no biggie. I can go by myself.” He was trying to convince himself as much as he was her. “Do you want me to bring you back anything?”
“No. I’m fine.”
“If you change your mind, just hit me up on the comm link.”
The lighting in the med center stayed solid, but the corridors were still flickering. Mitch poked his head into the hallway and crept out with caution. He kept his rifle ready as he stalked through the passageways.
Zoey locked the hatch behind him.
Across the ship, Violet reached the reactor room. There were four toroidal shaped reactor cores that contained the plasma within a magnetic field. They were Hughes & Kessler Fusionmax 9X™, with a Helieomax® configuration, containing 75 superconducting magnetic coils, and a neutral beam injector.
Fusion had come a long way in the last 300 years. Smaller, more efficient reactors that consumed less power at startup, with higher output. These reactors only needed a 38.2 megawatt draw to initiate a critical reaction, after which they were self sustaining. Not bad for 25 year old technology. The modern Q-Core reactors were even more efficient.
Violet ran another diagnostic at the command console. Once again, the system checked out fine. She tried to initiate the startup sequence. But there was no response.
She figured the reactors weren’t able to pull the needed power from the reserve cells. Maybe if she could reduce all of the other power drains, the reactors could pull the required megawatts. The only way to reroute power was from the CIC.
Violet activated her comm link. “Zoey, do you copy?”
After a few moments, Zoey’s voice crackled back over the static-filled line. “Any luck?”
“What if we divert all power to reactor startup?”
“I’ve tried shutting down all nonessential functions. It still wasn’t enough.”
“I mean, shut down essential functions as well. Life support. Gravity generation. Emergency lighting.”
“And what if the atmosphere processors don’t come back online?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Violet said. “We’ll hit the planet surface before we run out of oxygen.”
“I’m going to head back to the CIC. Meet me there and we’ll attempt a system reroute.”
“Roger that. Any sign of Jaxon?”
“Knock on wood, no,” Violet said.
“Get back here safely.”
Violet was about to start back when she heard something clatter in the darkness. It sent a shiver down her spine. She grabbed her weapon and spun around toward the direction of the sound. She looked down the barrel of her rifle, scanning the darkness.
“Mitch? Is that you?”
There was no response.
She crept toward the sound. It was emanating from behind some vertical piping near the port bulkhead of the compartment. Her heart thumped as she drew near. It almost launched out of her chest when something jumped out at her from the shadows.
Max screeched and scampered across the deck.
Violet breathed a sigh of relief.
She slung her weapon and knelt down to pick up the cat. “What are you doing down here? I’ve been looking for you. You know it’s not nice to scare people like that?”
Max meowed and gazed at her with his big green eyes.
She carried Max out of the reactor room and into the corridor.
In the med center, Zoey pulled up the video feed from the reactor room. It was distorted and full of static. The image flickered on and off. She saw Violet exit the compartment and step into the hallway. She switched the video feed to follow her.
Jaxon stepped out of the shadows behind Violet.
Zoey screamed at the display.
It distorted and turned to static. Then the video dropped out completely.
Zoey shrieked into the comm line, trying to warn Violet.
Thousands of Saarkturians gathered far and wide. They lined the streets outside the royal palace. Every screen throughout the empire displayed the event. Prince Valinok’s coronation was mandatory viewing, under penalty of death—though it wasn’t actively enforced.
All traffic was stopped. No other events were allowed to coincide with the ceremony. Everyone who was anyone personally attended. Members of the senate, celebrities, star athletes. There were festivities leading up to the coronation, and parties planned afterward. And there were a slew of murders.
Davvel scurried through the streets of downtown Fonesia, clinging to a briefcase. He wore sunglasses to throw off the facial recognition trackers. You couldn’t go anywhere in Saarkturia without being identified and tracked. And since Davvel was on the list, it was in his best interest to remain anonymous.
Most facial recognition software tracks several distinct markers. The distance between the eyes, the width of the nose, length of the jaw, etc. You can paint geometric shapes on your face to throw off the trackers, but it looks rather obvious in public. The glasses Davvel wore had special beam projectors in the frame that put out a spectrum of light that was invisible to the naked eye, but was disruptive to the trackers.
So far, he hadn’t been detected. But that didn’t make him any less nervous. He kept glancing over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. He could hear his heart thumping in his chest, and his body was covered with a thin mist of sweat.
Nobody paid him much attention. Everyone was preoccupied with the coronation.
He dashed from the busy sidewalk into the lobby of the Erlineer building. It was a towering skyscraper—one of the tallest in all of Saarkturia. He nodded to the security guard at the front desk and strolled to the main elevators.
“Not working on a holiday, are you? I’d hate to have to report you,” the guard said with a chuckle.
Davvel smiled. “No work. Left something in the office.”
“You’re secret is safe with me, Mr. Calzzer.” said the guard, calling after him.
Davvel didn’t know who the hell Calzzer was. But he was thankful the guard had mistaken him. Thousands of stodgy Saarkturains in suits worked in the Erlineer building. Accountants, financial planners, attorneys. They all looked the same.
The building was mostly empty. The coronation was a national holiday. Davvel pressed the button, and the elevator rushed him up to the 57th floor. He stepped off the elevator and headed down the hall to the law offices of Zulaart & Associates. The name was etched into the glass double doors.
Davvel swiped his keycard and stepped into the lobby. He moved through the prestigious law firm to Mr. Zulaart’s office. It was spacious and well appointed. Floor to ceiling panoramic windows gave an unobstructed view to the royal palace.
Zulaart was dead. In what would later become known as the Night of the Crystal Saber, Rylon had orchestrated the deaths of several key senators, military leaders, and prominent opponents. Anyone who had voiced opposition, or even modest concern, over Prince Valinok’s ascension to the throne was brutally murdered.
Zulaart had been preparing the legal filings to stop the coronation. Saarkturian law prohibited a minor from assuming the throne. An elected steward, accountable to the senate, was to rule until the Prince reached the age of majority. There were many who were concerned about the Prince’s ability to effectively lead Saarkturia. And the Decluvian alliance had ruffled many feathers in the senate. After the Night of the Crystal Saber, Rylon had little opposition. And those who harbored doubts, kept it to themselves.
Davvel had eluded the Crystal Saber. But he was on Rylon’s list. He wouldn’t live for long. But he still had one act of defiance left in him.
Davvel set his briefcase on the desk and unlatched it. He pulled out a device and attached it to the window. It had a central suction cup and robotic laser arm. It cut out a perfect circle in the thick glass. Davvel removed the disc-shaped piece of glass and set it aside.
Davvel took components from the briefcase and assembled them. Before long, he had a sleek Suvex MSR .300 sniper rifle. It had an Absolute Black™ coating that absorbed 99.973 percent of visible light, giving it an eerie void-like appearance. It fired polymer cased sub-sonic smart rounds. The loudest sound that would emanate from the weapon was the trigger—and that was a barely audible click. Once the target was acquired in the sights, it was almost impossible to miss. The guided smart bullets had lethal accuracy up to 2000 meters.
Davvel poked the barrel through the hole in the window. 500 yards away was the palace balcony. After the coronation, the new King would step out and address his people. It would be the perfect opportunity for Davvel to cut short Valinok’s reign.
Walker fixed the magnetic grenade to the reactor room’s entrance hatch. He pressed the button and the display illuminated. On the right side of the display screen there were two up and down buttons that let you adjust the timer duration. But without being able to read the Decluvian language, he had no idea how long he was setting the timer for. And he had no idea what units the Decluvian’s used to measure time. How long was a second? How many seconds were in a minute. Did the Decluvians even have minutes?
The UPDF still based time on a 24 hour clock. It was a holdover from the old days of Earth. On a star destroyer in deep space, the concept of day and night was an artificial one. And the length of a day varied from colony to colony, depending on the speed of the planet’s rotation. Some of the colonies had 48 hours of daylight, and 48 hours of night. Some went for months with only darkness. It was simpler to maintain a universal calendar across all Federation planets.
Walker pressed a button and watched the units of time increase on the display. Most modern civilizations used a decimal based numerical system. Walker watched the Decluvian characters scroll through the display. It seemed the they were using a base ten system as well. Walker added what he thought was roughly thirty seconds to the timer. It would be enough time for him to take cover around the corner.
He armed the device and ran down the corridor with Bailey. He kept count as they hid behind the bulkhead of an adjoining hallway.
Within 30 seconds the device detonated. The thunderous explosion rumbled through the corridor. Smoke filled the air.
Walker advanced down the passageway. The hatch was torn to shreds. Shrapnel had killed two reactor techs. Their bodies lay eviscerated in a pool of green goo and guts. Two other dazed reactor techs were staggering to their feet.
Walker filled them with plasma rounds. The Decluvains splattered against the bulkheads.
There were two reactor cores that powered the Korvectus. Walker cleared the compartment, making sure there were no more Decluvians hiding in nooks and crannies. He moved to the far side of the massive toroidal cores and affixed a grenade to each one. He set the timers to what he figured would be about 5 minutes.
While fusion reactors don’t have the same risks of melting down, the interior components of the toroidal cores become contaminated with deadly amounts of radiation. If all went as planned, Walker was going to have to get away from this section of the ship, and stay away for the next 100 years.
Walker placed the last device and emerged from behind one of the cores. Bailey snarled and growled. A full platoon of Decluvain warriors had flooded into the compartment.
But they didn’t dare fire a plasma weapon at a reactor core.
Walker ducked behind some piping coming off of the reactor. He grabbed another mag grenade and set it to one unit of time, and hovered his finger over the arming switch. “I know you slimy bastards can understand me. Clear out of this compartment, or I’ll detonate the reactors now.”
“What do you hope to accomplish?” the platoon leader said. “This is one ship. Thousands more are traveling to your colonies as we speak.”
“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear. Clear the compartment. Now.”
The platoon leader’s face tightened. Then he motioned for his troops to pull back. They drained out of the compartment into the corridor.
There were four minutes remaining on the timers. Walker had bought himself a little time, but not much. He scanned the compartment and caught sight of a small escape hatch on the far bulkhead behind the reactors. He dashed to the hatch and swung it open. It led to the primary heat exchangers.
Bailey jumped through, and Walker followed after him. He sealed the hatch behind them.
An explosion in the reactor room would be enough to take out the neighboring compartments. Walker needed to get farther away. He weaved through the heat exchangers, heading aft.
A Decluvain leapt from behind a pylon, tackling him to the deck. The two struggled over Walker’s weapon.
Bailey sunk his teeth into the orange Decluvian’s leg. He kicked the dog away, and Bailey charged back for more.
This guy was strong. He was about the same size as Walker, but Decluvian muscle fiber was much stronger, pound for pound, than human. He ripped the weapon from Walker’s grasp. Then he slammed the stock down, aiming for Walker’s skull.
The butt of the rifle smashed the deck as Walker rolled out of the way.
Bailey lunged for the orange bastard’s throat.
Walker sprang to his feet.
The Decluvian whipped the rifle around and took aim at Bailey. His finger squeezed the trigger.
Walker leapt for the barrel, pushing it aside as it fired.
The bullet ripped passed Bailey and ruptured a pipe. Steam rocketed out.
Walker struggled with the Decluvian over the rifle. He had to be careful. He knew Decluvian skin could become poisonous. For that reason, he didn’t want Bailey biting the alien anymore. “Bailey, stand down.”
Bailey took a few steps back, but kept growling. He bared his sharp teeth and snarled. His brow furrowed, and his eyes were filled with rage.
Walker tried to hold onto the weapon, but the Decluvian pulled the weapon around and slammed Walker into a piece of machinery.
The impact rattled Walker’s bones.
The Decluvian stripped the rifle away, and took aim.
There were less than 3 minutes on the explosive timers.
Mitch’s stomach rumbled. It was loud enough to echo through the corridor. It would’ve given away his position in a critical situation.
If the ship were operational, he knew the best place to eat on board was the Chief Petty Officer’s mess. But it wasn’t like there was a Culinary Specialist grilling up filet mignon on this abandoned rust bucket. If he walked into the CPO’s mess and saw something like that, it would be a hallucination. He’d be fine with that as long as he felt full afterwords, he thought.
An operational Avenger class destroyer was pumping out roughly 6400 hot meals a day—most of that was from food synthesizers. But nothing beat a real, fresh meal. The Avenger class had onboard agro-stations that grew fruits and vegetables. The genetics lab grew perfectly marbled slabs of beef from bovine cells. But none of those processing systems had been functional in the last 25 years aboard the Revenant.
Mitch ducked into the general mess, located on the deck below the hangar bay. He cleared the compartment, and moved to one of the food synthesizers. Rows of them lined the serving area.
They were about the size of a vending machine, and had a diverse menu. They could reproduce just about anything. Proteins, carbs, macro and micro nutrients, and flavoring components were all stored in powdered form. They had a shelf life of up to 45 years. Once you made your selection, the ingredients were mixed and hydrated. The final food item was 3D printed and heated.
Mitch activated the device and thumbed through the menu options. His eyes went wide at the sight of cheese pizza. How could you screw that up? When pizza’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, it still doesn’t suck.
He made his selection and within moments the machine rumbled to life. Nutrients were sent to the mixing chamber, then pushed through the actuator valve and out the spray nozzle. A few minutes later, he had a piping hot personal pizza, printed in four wedges.
It looked and smelled like real pizza. Gooey mozzarella. Tomato sauce with oregano, garlic, parsley, onion, and basil. He pulled it out of the synthesizer and took a seat at one of the mess tables.
He bit into it and burned the roof of his mouth. He was so hungry, he didn’t care. It tasted pretty damn good, and Mitch was a bit of a pizza snob. His favorite place in the whole galaxy was Pete’s Pizza on the corner of 57th and Kemal Street in Nova York. Now that was real pizza. Handmade dough and fresh ingredients. That kind of thing was hard to find. Most everything was synthetic these days.
Mitch scarfed the pizza down in a matter of moments. It settled the rumbling in his stomach. He thought about getting another pie, but he had kind of made up his mind when he was running along the exterior of the Revenant that he was going to get himself back into shape.
No. No more pizza, he thought.
That lasted for a fleeting second. Then a more prescient thought took over. This might be his last meal. Might as well go for broke.
He ordered another pizza from the synthesizer. He inhaled the first few bites. But as he pulled the stringy cheese away from his lips he realized it wasn’t cheese—he saw long, milky white worms.
Mitch spit the half chewed bite out of his mouth. The pizza looked moldy and rotten, covered with slime and these insidious worms that were notorious aboard space going vessels.
His stomach roiled. He felt like he was going to hurl—the sour acidic feeling lurched up in the back of his throat. He coughed and spit and pulled out a long stringy worm that had wriggled its way down his throat. He tossed the nasty thing on the ground and it twisted and squirmed.
The color drained from Mitch’s face.
When he glanced back at the pizza, it was perfectly normal.
He stared at it, slack-jawed.
It was like the ship was fucking with him. Whatever was happening, Mitch had lost his appetite.
He pulled himself together and stared at the pizza for a moment just to make sure it had all been a hallucination.
Mitch grabbed his weapon from atop the table, and started back for the corridor. He noticed the crates of trilontium at the far bulkhead. He wondered how he had missed seeing those when he first walked into the room. Was he hallucinating again?
He stepped to the bulkhead and opened a crate. Inside was the luminescent treasure. At this point, it was hard to believe what he was actually seeing.
Real or not, he was going to roll them to the airlock and expel them from the ship. He grabbed the cart and pulled it into the corridor. It was going to take two trips.
Mitch rolled the carts of trilontium to the port side airlock. He almost herniated a disc trying to get the heavy crates off the cart.
Then he pushed the cart back down to the mess hall and loaded up the second round of crates. He was sweating up a storm and huffing and puffing by the time he dropped them off at the airlock. But he wasn’t going to be able to get them off the ship just yet. He needed to grab his helmet that he dropped when he saw Jaxon stab Declan.
He trotted down the corridor and picked up the helmet that was still resting on the deck where he had dropped it. It was by the ladder to the next level.
Jaxon emerged from around a corner. He had a demonic look in his eyes, and a large serrated blade in his hand.
Mitch ran back down the passageway.
Jaxon chased after him.
Mitch heaved for breath, and his quads burned. He ran as hard as he could. Faster than he’d ever run before, or so it seemed. He dared not look back. Jaxon was gaining ground.
The airlock seemed like such a long way away. Running in the bulky suit was less than ideal. Mitch kept waiting for a shot to ring out. He thought at any minute he’d feel the sting of a bullet puncture his back. Jaxon must have run out of ammunition during the last fire fight. Or maybe he just liked the sport of chasing Mitch down?
Zoey grabbed her rifle and darted out of the med bay. She twisted through the corridors toward the reactor room with her weapon in the firing position. She swept through the ship and rounded a corner by the reactor compartment. Violet’s motionless body was on the deck.
Zoey cautiously stepped toward her. She knelt down beside Violet and checked her pulse—she didn’t have one.
There was a puncture wound in Violet’s back. Blood oozed from the wound, but not as much as Zoey would have expected. Something was different about the blood as well. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. It almost seemed synthetic.
Zoey rolled Violet over, and put her ear to her chest. Violet had no respiration or heartbeat.
A moment later, Violet’s eyelids opened and she gasped for breath. Then she sat up.
Zoey lurched back, her eyes wide with shock. Was she hallucinating again?
No. She wasn’t hallucinating at all.
“Holy shit, you’re a fucking robot?” Zoey said.
“I prefer the term bio-synthetic humanoid,” Violet said.
“But synthetics were outlawed?”
“If by outlawed, you mean slaughtered and driven from the colonies, then yes.” Violet had a slightly snarky tone.
Zoey stared at her in disbelief. “But you have feelings? Or, are those just simulated responses?”
Violet glared at her. “I think and feel just as you would.”
“Sorry. I’m fascinated. I’ve never met a synthetic before. I mean, a bio-synthetic humanoid.”
“You probably have, and you just didn’t know it.”
Zoey was astonished. “How many of your kind are there in the colonies?”
“Obviously more than you realize.”
Violet tried to stand.
Zoey helped her to her feet. “Are you okay?”
“I’ve had some minor damage. I had to shut down and reroute some essential processes. But I’m functional. Similar to your immune system, my nanotechnology will repair my components.” Her face turned grave. “Where’s Mitch?”
“He went to the mess hall.” Zoey grew concerned. She activated her comm link. “Mitch, do you copy?”
“Little busy at the moment.” He was huffing and puffing as he barreled down the corridor—Jaxon wasn’t far behind. Mitch sprinted as fast as he could. When he reached the airlock, he mashed the button as he entered—the hatch slid shut behind him just as Jaxon arrived.
The big hulk put a hard shoulder into the hatch, but it didn’t budge.
Mitch grinned and flipped Jaxon off through the viewport.
Jaxon snarled back at him.
Mitch twisted on his helmet and sealed it. Then he opened the outer airlock door. The atmosphere in the airlock rushed out of the hatch. There was no way to open the inner airlock hatch with the outer hatch open. It was a safety protocol and there was no way to circumvent it—and that’s just what Mitch was counting on.
Mitch accessed the control panel on the bulkhead and turned off the artificial gravity within the airlock. The crates lifted off the deck, and so did he.
Jaxon was pounding on the hatch and frothing at the mouth. His face was red, and the veins were bulging in his forehead and neck. It looked like his eyes were about to pop out of their sockets.
Mitch attached the retractable safety cable to his suit. The suit had replenished 30 minutes worth of oxygen while recharging during the downtime. More than enough time to get the job done. He hoped that once he got the crates of trilontium off the ship that Jaxon’s psychosis would cease. It was likely wishful thinking.
Jaxon glared at him through the viewport. He held up a magnetic grenade so that Mitch could see it. Then he affixed it to the hatch and set the timer. He grinned through the viewport and ran down the hall.
Mitch pushed the crates out into space. One by one, they tumbled into the nebula, disappearing into the green fog. He couldn’t believe he was pushing 3 trillion credits worth of treasure overboard. All because of a supposed curse.
The timer ticked down—10 seconds.
Mitch pushed the last crate out, then turned back to the inner airlock hatch.
Mitch pushed off the hatch and launched out into space. A second later, the hatch exploded. The blast rocketed him farther into space. Twisted metal and debris showered out. Searing hot shards of metal sprayed in all directions. Just one small piece of shrapnel would be enough to puncture his suit and vent out his remaining oxygen.
Mitch tumbled into the nebula until the safety cable reached its maximum length. It jerked him to a stop. At least he wasn’t going to be lost in space forever. He could pull his way back to the ship. But the tumbling mass of debris was heading straight for him.
A huge chunk of the hatch barreled through space and slammed right into him. The impact knocked Mitch unconscious. He was dangling in space like a dead fish on a hook.
Air was rushing out of the Revenant.
Jaxon clung onto a ridge on the bulkhead. The sucking wind lifted his feet off the ground. He was hanging on for dear life, parallel to the deck.
The vacuum of space was sucking all the oxygen out of the Revenant. Hurricane force winds whistled through the corridors.
Klaxons sounded throughout the ship, warning of a hull breach.
Zoey and Violet had reached the corridor that led to the airlock when the blast hit. They were instantly knocked off their feet and pulled down the hallway.
Zoey latched onto a ladder. Violet tumbled by, and Zoey reached out a hand and grabbed her. Violet’s inertia almost dislocated Zoey’s shoulder.
Jaxon's grip was slipping. He lost his grasp and tumbled toward the airlock. He managed to latch onto a twisted chunk of metal at the demolished inner airlock frame, saving himself at the last minute.
Loose debris was flying through the air. Something as simple as a clipboard or a pen could be a lethal projectile.
Zoey tried her best to hold onto the ladder with one hand, clasping Violet’s wrist with the other. But she wasn’t going to be able to hang on forever.
Walker batted the barrel aside, and kicked the alien in the nuts. He hoped he had a pair.
The Decluvian winced and doubled over. It seemed he had balls after all.
Walker grabbed him and forced him into the jet of steam venting from the pipe. The steam burned the Decluvian’s delicate skin, melting his face off. He flopped to the deck, screaming in agony. What was left of his skin was blistered and peeling. His eyes were liquified, his lips burned away, his features eroded.
Walker put a bullet into him to end his suffering.
“You alright, boy?” Walker asked as he knelt down to Bailey.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
They raced through the machinery, past coolant pumps, storage tanks, turbine generators. They reached the hatch at the aft end of the compartment.
Walker peered through the viewport in the hatch. It was the ship’s power distribution center, which routed energy to the various systems. It was mostly an automated system and had one guy at a command console in the center of the compartment.
Walker opened the hatch and rushed into the compartment. He blasted the Decluvian at the console, then he secured the hatch behind him.
A few moments later, he felt the thunderous rumble of the blast in the reactor room. The entire ship thundered and shook. The force knocked Walker to the deck.
Then the entire ship went dark and silent. The rumbling of the engines stopped. The hum of the life support system dissipated. The constant drone of background noise that could be heard aboard any starship vanished.
It was pitch black in the compartment. Walker couldn’t see his hands in front of his face.
Bailey whimpered. He didn’t really like the absolute darkness.
But a moment later, the auxiliary power kicked in. Emergency lighting illuminated the compartment.
Alarms blared, and klaxons sounded.
Walker peered through the viewport into the previous compartment. It was a disaster. Smoke and twisted wreckage littered the room. It was highly radioactive.
Walker backed away from the hatch and weaved through the power distribution center. He pushed into the outer corridor. The forward hallways had been sealed automatically to contain the radiation.
Walker headed aft and climbed a ladder to the next deck. As he reached the landing, he was greeted by plasma rifles and two angry warriors. They stripped his weapon and slammed him against a bulkhead.
Bailey growled and barked.
“Shut him up, or I’m going to put a bullet in the little mutt’s head.”
“Easy, boy,” Walker said.
“I’d kill you right here, but the Emperor wants to handle that personally.”
Two plasma bolts rifled down the corridor. Before Walker realized what happened, he was covered in green Decluvian blood. Their heads exploded, and their bodies crumpled to the deck.
Walker’s eyes snapped down the hallway to see Malik, Saaja, and Lu. They scurried toward him.
“You didn’t think we were going to leave you all by yourself, did you?” Malik said. “Just didn’t seem right.”
Walker grinned. “That’s the second time you’ve saved my ass.”
“I’ve got a plan,” Malik said with a devious glint in his eyes.
Lu stripped the gear from one of the warriors and suited up in the Decluvian battle armor. He marched Walker, Malik, and Saaja toward the flight deck at gunpoint without so much as a second glance.
All of the escape shuttles had been jettisoned. They were going to have to blast their way out through the front door.
The team took cover behind some maintenance equipment at the edge of the flight deck.
“This is your plan?” Walker asked, eyeing the decrepit Saarkturian gunship they had flown in on. “We’ll never escape in that thing. We don’t even know if the quantum drive will work.”
“No, not that.” Malik pointed to the armored troop transport. “That.”
“Do you know how to fly that thing?” Walker asked.
“But I do,” Lu said.
“It doesn’t look incredibly fast,” Walker said.
“It doesn’t have to be,” Lu said. “It’s heavily armored. Plus it has a slide-drive.”
The bulky troop transport was 50 yards away. It was a long run, without any cover. Walker pulled a grenade from his tactical vest.
“What’s that for?” Malik asked.
Across the deck, a flight crew was loading ordinance onto a gunship.
Walker heaved the grenade. It pinged across the deck and rolled to the crew loading the ordinance. They dove for cover, but nothing was going to save them. The thermal grenade detonated. The flash was blinding. It caused a secondary explosion among the ordinance, blossoming in an amber glow. The deafening blasts sent shards of metal and shrapnel streaking through the air. Part of the deck and the near bulkhead were demolished. The entire ship rumbled. Smoke and haze filled the flight deck.
“Go! Go! Go!” Walker yelled.
The team took off running toward the troop transport. Walker could hear the screams of wounded Decluvians. His nostrils filled with the acrid smell of the burning debris and seared Decluvian flesh.
Bullets whizzed through the air as a few Decluvian warriors fired from across the deck.
Walker and the others dodged the bullets and ran up the ramp of the transport. Lu closed the ramp behind them. The hydraulics whirred and the hatch locked shut.
The Decluvian’s kept pelting the ship with small arms fire. But it was no match for the heavy armor plating of the transport. The ship resembled a stout bulldog—thick and beefy and mean. It was like a flying tank.
Lu sprinted to the cockpit and slid into the pilot’s seat. He flipped switches and pressed buttons, powering up the system. The controls flickered to life. Indicator lights flashed. The system went through a series of preflight checks.
Lu flicked a switch and took control of the transport’s forward cannons. The turrets swiveled to life and took aim at the warriors across the deck. Lu squeezed the trigger and the plasma cannons erupted. It pulverized the Decluvians on the flight deck. Anyone left alive scampered to safety.
A light on the control display was flashing red. It wasn’t a good sign.
Lu’s face tensed. “They pulled one of the oscillating units for maintenance.”
“So?” Walker said.
“Electron acceleration is achieved by inducing a magnetic field—“
Lu looked confused. “I thought I was speaking in English.”
“The short version.”
“I can’t engage the thrusters without the oscillator.”
Wind whipped and swirled through the corridors. Debris tumbled through the air.
Max was sucked around the corner, careening toward the open airlock. He managed to grasp his paws onto the indentions in the deck. It was lined with molded, anti-slip rubber matting that was made up of thousands of small circular cutaways. Just large enough for a finger, or a paw.
Max dug his claws into the hard rubber.
Violet’s eyes went wide.
Zoey summoned all of her strength and pulled Violet up to the ladder. Zoey was about to lose her grip, but Violet managed to grasp onto the ladder in the knick of time.
Max was hanging on, despite the gale force winds. He was up the hall, maybe 15 feet away from Zoey. She climbed toward him, pulling herself across the ladder. Then she reach to the deck and latched her fingers into the circular depressions. They weren’t very deep—a half inch, at best. In this kind of wind, it wasn’t the most secure thing to hold onto.
Zoey let go of the ladder and brought her other hand to the deck. She pulled her way toward Max. She made it a couple feet, then lost her grip. The wind forced her back. She managed to dig her fingers into the depression and latch onto the deck. She was definitely going to need a manicure when this was all over.
A fragment of sheetmetal ripped free from the bulkhead. The sharp shard of metal hurled through the air like a javelin. It was heading right for Zoey.
She thrust her head aside, and the sharp fragment raced passed her, narrowly missing Violet.
It careened down the hallway and slammed into Jaxon's skull. Blood splattered. Jaxon tumbled out of the airlock into space. He toppled end over end, leaving a trail of blood droplets floating in space. Crimson orbs that quickly expanded and vaporized without atmospheric pressure.
Jaxon's body ballooned to twice its size. The lack of pressure isn’t enough to make a person actually pop. But let’s just say the expansion isn’t a pleasant sensation.
His eyes and mucous membranes almost instantly froze over. Nitrogen and other gases began to bubble in his veins. Within 10 seconds, he blacked out from hypoxia. It was probably for the best, because the decompression caused his lungs to rupture. It was all downhill from there.
Jaxon's body floated passed Mitch and disappeared into the hazy nebula.
Zoey was climbing toward Max. She was almost there—just a few feet away when Max lost his grip. The wind scooped him up and whisked him toward the open airlock.
Zoey reached up and caught him, pulling him in close, like a football. She dangled, clinging onto the deck with one hand, cradling Max with the other. Her fingertips were sliding out of the narrow depressions in the deck, and she couldn’t readjust her grip.
Mitch had regained consciousness and began to pull himself back to the ship via the safety cable. He glided through space with ease, but as he got close to the airlock, he had to fight the venting atmosphere.
Zoey’s fingertips slipped. She held on to Max as they were blown down the hall.
Mitch managed to pull himself inside the airlock and mashed the button. The airlock slid shut, and the gale force winds instantly stopped.
Violet crashed to the deck. Zoey and Max slid to a halt a few feet from the airlock. Her hands were cramped and aching from trying to hold on so tight.
Max meowed. It made Zoey smile.
Zoey staggered to her feet.
Violet ran down the hall and picked up Max and hugged him. Max was all she had left of Declan. She smiled at Zoey. “I am forever in your debt.”
Mitch sat on the deck, leaning against the bulkhead. He twisted off his helmet and took a deep breath.
Violet and Zoey rushed to him and helped him stand.
“You okay?” Zoey asked.
“Are you going to take care of me if I’m not?” He had a sly grin.
Zoey rolled her eyes. “Come on, let’s get to the CIC and see if we can get this ship powered up.”
Zoey and Violet marched down the hallway.
Mitch called after them. “So, I risk my life, save the day, get blown out of an airlock, and that’s all the thanks I get?”
The girls ignored him.
“That’s fair,” he said, dryly.
In the CIC, Zoey stood at the command console preparing to shut down all systems except for the reactors. In less than an hour, the Revenant would be making an uncontrolled descent to the planet. If the ship didn’t overheat and rip apart in the atmosphere, it was going to fall like a brick to the ground. Neither option seemed desirable.
“Hang on, I’m going to shut off the artificial gravity,” Zoey said.
Zoey pressed a button on the console’s touch screen. The three of them gently lifted off their feet. Then she shut down the atmosphere generator. The steady hum of the life support system came to a halt. She turned off the emergency lighting throughout the ship, except for the CIC.
“That’s everything,” Zoey said. “Let’s hope this works.”
She initiated startup procedures for one of the fusion reactors. They waited with baited breath, but the results were disappointing. The reactor wasn’t responding. “This doesn’t make any sense. We should have enough power to get the reactor to go critical.”
The lighting flickered in the CIC.
“I’m beginning to think it’s the ship that is cursed,” Zoey said.
“Don’t tell me I just threw overboard 3 trillion credits worth of trilontium for nothing?” Mitch said.
Zoey frowned, sheepishly.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Mitch floated around the CIC, grumbling in agony at the loss of a fortune. “Do you know what I could have done with that type of cash? I’d be debt free. I’d have fast cars. Faster women.” He glared at Violet. “This is all your fault, you know.” He mocked her playfully. “It’s the treasure… it’s cursed.”
Violet’s eyes burned into him. “It was a reasonable assumption. But, I’m inclined to agree with Zoey. It’s this ship. It’s sentient.”
“You’re not trying to say this ship is alive?”
“Is it such a stretch? There are millions of life forms in the universe. Not all of them have physical bodies. There are pure energy based life forms out there.”
“So, you’re saying this ship is possessed?” Mitch said arching a skeptical eyebrow.
“I don’t know,” Violet said. “What I do know is that something has the ability to cause hallucinations and to alter our cognitive function. It also seems to have the ability to control aspects of the ship’s functioning. That, to me, indicates some form of intelligence.”
Mitch didn’t want to admit it, but he knew she might be right.
A quantum distortion rippled through the ship. The bulkheads warbled. Time and space were momentarily displaced. Zoey felt her stomach turn.
Several more distortions followed after that.
The LRADDS display lit up. Klaxons sounded. A dozen red triangles appeared on the three-dimensional display.
“What is that?” Mitch asked.
“I don’t know,” Zoey said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. They’re not in the database of known enemy combatants. But whatever they are, they’re big.”
Just outside of the nebula, a dozen Decluvian super-carriers emerged from slide-space. This wasn’t their intended destination. But like so many other vessels before them, they had emerged in this sector under mysterious circumstances.
The Decluvian captain was likely trying to figure out where the hell he was, and how the hell he got here. It wasn’t going to take them long to probe the nebula. It was standard operating procedure. Any good captain would want an assessment of the surroundings.
Zoey knew that whoever was commanding this carrier group would send a recon team to make a threat assessment of the nebula. It was just common sense.
If these were hostile forces, the Revenant would be a sitting duck, Zoey thought.
Two Decluvian fighters streaked through the nebula. They raced along the length of the Revenant, then returned to their super-carrier.
No shots were fired. This was strictly an information gathering mission. But it wasn’t going to stay that way for long. As soon as they reported back that a UPDF destroyer was in the nebula, the Decluvians would unleash the full brunt of their assault. Zoey didn’t have to worry about burning up in the atmosphere anymore—the Decluvians were about to vaporize them.
It didn’t take long for klaxons to sound. The LRADDS display lit up. Two inbound nukes were approaching. They streaked across the star field, into the nebula.
The Revenant’s automated defenses weren’t online. The nukes rocketed through the haze, and the Revenant’s gun turrets did nothing. They should have identified and tracked the inbound threats. But running on emergency power, and with all systems shut down, the defenses sat lifeless.
The nebula wreaked havoc with the inbound missiles’ guidance system. One of the nukes narrowly missed the hull. But the other slammed into the starboard side, rocking the ship.
Zoey and the others were tossed about like ping pong balls in the CIC. Zoey crashed into the port bulkhead. She launched herself back across the CIC toward the command console. She flew through the air, and latched on to the control panel. She thumbed through the display screen and activated the gravity drive.
She crashed to the deck.
Mitch and Violet weren’t as prepared for the transition. There were grumbles and groans all around as they hit the deck.
The LRADDS display lit up again—4 more inbound nukes blasted toward the Revenant. The old destroyers were fortresses, but the Revenant wasn’t going to take many more direct hits.
Zoey diverted power to the starboard canons.
The Mark 25 turret guns lined the port and starboard sides of the Revenant. But it had been so long since they had been fired, there was no telling if they were going to work. Or if there was any ammunition left.
Zoey grumbled. “If this ship does have a consciousness, it better get its ass with the program, or we’re all going to die.” Zoey yelled at the Revenant. “You hear me, you big hunk of shit!”
A moment later, the Mark 25s came online and targeted the inbound nukes. Within seconds the staccato report of the cannons rumbled through the ship. The armor piercing rounds eviscerated the incoming targets.
The command console lit up, indicating the reactors were coming online. Zoey’s eyes went wide.
The ship switched from emergency lighting to standard illumination. The atmosphere processors restarted. Every essential system came back online.
Another alarm sounded—more inbound nukes. The LRADDS was dotted with flashing red triangles. All of them were streaking toward the Revenant.
“You know how to maneuver a star destroyer,” Zoey asked Violet.
“I’m familiar with multiple flight control systems.”
“Take the helm.”
Mitch’s face twisted up, wondering how Violet would know her way around a destroyer. “I thought you just knew how to fly junkers?”
“I may have omitted a few minor details about my background.”
“You didn’t know?” Zoey said.
“She’s a ro— I mean, bio-synthetic humanoid.”
Violet gave Zoey a slight smile.
“Violet, get us out of this nebula. All ahead full.”
Zoey couldn’t help but smile. She kind of liked being in command of a starship. Even if it was just a misfit crew of three, and a ship that may, or may not, be possessed.
The Mark 25s lit up again, targeting the new round of threats. The ship rumbled with cannon fire. The star field was filled with brilliant explosions as the turret guns destroyed the incoming nukes.
Violet engaged the drives, and the old ship lumbered forward breaking out of its perilous orbit.
“So, how much like a real woman are you?” Mitch asked.
“Identical in every way.”
Mitch had a lascivious glint in his eyes. “Good to know.”
“Not in this lifetime, Mitch.”
“Never say never.”
“Mitch!” Zoey yelled. “I need you at navigation. Plot jump coordinates.”
“Aye, sir.” He dashed to the tactical console. “Where to?”
“Polaris 5. It’s a research outpost in the Axorus sector. There are physicians there.”
“What about Alpha Ceti 7?”
“We get 8-Ball taken care of, then we go after Slade.”
The Revenant emerged from the nebula. There were even more enemy ships than initially displayed on the sensors. At least two dozen super-carriers.
Thousands of fighters launched into space. They swarmed like wasps. Within moments, they’d be on top of the Revenant.
“Do you recognize those ships?” Zoey asked.
“Decluvians,” Violet said.
“Who the hell are they?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know. We don’t want to stick around, and we sure as hell don’t want to get captured.”
“How are those jump coordinates coming?” Zoey asked.
“Just a few minutes.”
“By the looks of things, we don’t have a few minutes.”
The star field was ablaze with cannon fire. Thousands of tracer rounds streaked toward the Revenant. Zoey had no idea what kind of projectiles were hurtling through space at them. There were too many of them, and they were too small to target with the Mark 25s.
From the command console, Zoey took control of the weapons system. She targeted several enemy ships, and launched a barrage of nukes. Might as well leave them with a parting gift.
The first round of enemy cannon fire impacted the hull. The ship shuddered and groaned. Alarms sounded. Multiple sections of the hull had been punctured. They flashed red on the command console.
Zoey sealed off the damaged compartments.
“Coordinates plotted. It’s going to take a few jumps to get there.”
“Engage the quantum drive!”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea? The last time the ship made a quantum jump, it went missing for 25 years.”
“We’re going to go missing forever if we don’t.”
Mitch shrugged. “Here goes nothing.” He activated the slide space-drive.
The ship warbled and distorted, then vanished just before an ocean of cannon fire arrived.
More Decluvian troops were funneling onto the flight deck, towing heavy weaponry.
“What about the slide-space drive?” Walker asked.
Lu glanced over the flight controls. “It looks operational.”
“Jump us out of here.”
Lu’s eyes went wide. “From inside? That’s impossible.”
“No, it’s not. It’s been done.”
“Did anyone live afterwards?” Lu asked, incredulous.
Walker couldn’t answer that with any degree of certainty. He knew the USS Scorpion had jumped from inside a Saarkturian super-carrier. But he had no idea where, or if, they had emerged from slide-space.
“Just do it,” Walker commanded.
An RPG streaked across the flight deck and slammed into the transport. The ship quaked.
“Now,” Walker yelled.
Lu dialed in some quick coordinates. He entered the coordinates from memory. He wasn’t sure if they were accurate. If he was right, it would put them in a remote location and they wouldn’t emerge inside a star, or a planet.
Another RPG impacted the hull, shuddering the ship.
“Hold on to your asses.” Lu activated the slide space drive. In a brilliant flash, the ship vanished from the flight deck.
30 minutes later, they emerged in an empty star field. Walker breathed a sigh of relief.
Bailey wobbled a little, still not totally used to coming in and out of slide-space. But something else was wrong. He lay on the ground, whimpering.
Walker knelt down beside him. “What’s the matter, boy?”
Bailey was excessively drooling, and he looked out of it. His body began to shake with a tremor.
Lu craned his neck to see what the commotion was about. He knew instantly what was wrong. “Did he bite anyone?”
“He’s been exposed to the lipophilic alkaloid toxin in our skin.” Lu said.
“What’s the treatment protocol for that?” Walker asked.
“There isn’t one. It’s fatal, depending on the dose.”
Walker’s heart sank. His eyes filled. His mouth went dry and he had a lump in his throat the size of VY Canis Majoris. He couldn’t just stand there and let Bailey go out like this.
Lu adjusted the temperature aboard the ship. “The toxin works faster in higher temperatures.” Soon it was just above freezing.
“It’s a neurotoxin, right?”
Walker scanned his memory, trying to remember his toxicology training. “Lipid soluble toxins act on sodium ion channels.”
“They bind to sodium channels, keeping the membrane permeable,” Lu said, following along with Walker.
“What does that mean?” Malik asked.
“The toxin blocks the ability of nerve cells to communicate with muscles. The peripheral nervous system will shut down. His heart and vital organs will fail.”
“Unless we can introduce a sodium channel blocker.” Lu’s big eyes got bigger. He leapt out of the pilot’s seat and dashed to a storage compartment. He pulled out a medical kit and rummaged through the case. He grabbed a pre-loaded injector. “Xetrodomax.”
“What is that?” Walker asked.
“It’s a very effective pain reliever. One of the mechanisms of action is sodium channel blocking. It’s worth a shot.” Lu handed Walker the injector.
Walker dialed in a scaled back dosage and injected Bailey. The only thing he could do now was sit back and wait. He sat on the deck beside Bailey, gently petting him. Bailey lay motionless, whimpering. His breath was slow and heavy.
“Hang in there, Sergeant. I’m not giving you permission to die. You hear me?” Walker wasn’t the kind of guy to shed a tear very often, but he had to dry his eyes more than once. Bailey meant the world to him.
The transport drifted through space without the use of its general thrusters. They could jump from location to location, but they weren’t going to be able to maneuver.
Lu looked over the navigation display and tried to figure out where they were. “We are a long, long way from anywhere.”
A massive quantum distortion rippled through the ship. The bulkheads bulged and warbled. A proximity alarm sounded.
Walker’s whole body tensed. He wondered if the Decluvians had found a way to track them through slide-space?
A massive ship roared overhead.
Walker watched it’s endless underbelly pass over the view port. He saw the turret cannons swivel and take aim at the transport, which was dwarfed in comparison.
It didn’t take him long to recognize the ship. It was an Avenger class destroyer. He stood with his mouth agape as he read the name and call numbers on the side of the ship. It was the Revenant.
“Sir, I’ve got an unknown ship in this sector,”
Mitch yelled from the tactical console in the CIC. “We practically jumped in on top of it. Weapons are locked and ready to fire.”
“Looks like a Decluvian troop transport,” Violet said.
“Introduce them to the Mark 25s,” Zoey commanded.
“Aye, sir,” Mitch said. He was about to unleash the hot fury of the cannons on the transport.
Walker’s voice crackled over the comm link. “ “This is Lieutenant Commander Kurt Walker to the USS Revenant, do you copy?”
Zoey’s eyes widened. “Stand down! Do not fire!”
Mitch’s Finger hovered precariously over the button controlling the Mark 25s.
“Commander Walker, I must say this is a pleasant surprise.”
“Bryant, is that you?”
“What the hell are you doing aboard the Revenant?”
“It’s a long story,” Zoey said. “I’ll tell you all about it. You are cleared for landing on flight deck 1.”
“That’s going to be a bit of a problem. We have no thruster control.”
“Well, I guess we’ll have to land for you.” Zoey addressed Violet. “Maneuver in front of them and line the flight deck up with their trajectory. Match their speed, then slowly reduce. I’ll deactivate the artificial gravity on the flight deck until they’re inside. It may be a bit of a bumpy landing, but it will get them on board.”
Violet moved the Revenant in position, drifting through space at the same speed. She aligned the flight deck with the transport. It slowly glided into the bay. Violet watched on a video monitor and tried to bring the elevation of the deck up to match the Decluvian ship.
Zoe activated the artificial gravity, and the transport crashed a few feet to the deck. The Revenant rumbled, the sound echoing through the corridors. It was like dropping 250 tons of steel.
Walker and the others were a little rattled, but none the worse for wear. He peeled himself off the deck and scooped Bailey into his arms. He marched to the back of the transport and lowered the loading ramp. He marched down the inclination to the flight deck.
Zoey was there to greet him. Her eyes bulged at the sight of Lu—she had never seen a Decluvian before. Her body tensed as Malik and Saaja descended the ramp.
“Relax, they’re with me,” Walker said.
“This should be interesting,” Zoey said.
“We can exchange stories later. I need to get him to the med center,” Walker said, nodding to Bailey.
Zoey led them through the maze of corridors to the med facility. She ran a battery of diagnostics on Bailey. By that time, he was already starting to perk up.
“Blood work looks normal,” Zoey said. “Vitals are good. Either the shot you gave him worked, or this is one tough animal. Where did you find him?”
“That’s a shit hole,” Violet said.
“Tell me about it.”
“With the amount of poisonous creatures on that rock, I wouldn’t be surprised if this little guy has one hell of an immunity to neurotoxins.”
Walker raised an eyebrow at her, wondering how she knew about Thantos 6.
“I have access to vast amounts of planetary data,” Violet said, casually.
Walker sensed that something was different about Violet, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Bailey sat up and let out a weak bark. He looked up at Walker with big eyes that just demanded some affection.
Walker’s eyes were filled with relief. He pet Bailey and scratched his chin. “You’re going to be okay, Sergeant.” His eyes gleamed and a rare smile curled up on his lips.
Bailey barked again.
“It’s blind luck we found you,” Zoey said. “We were on our way to Polaris 5. I’ve got a casualty in quantum stasis that needs a real doctor.”
Mitch’s voice crackled over the comm system from the CIC. “I’m picking up another ship at the edge of sensor range.”
Zoey’s eyes filled with dread. “What kind of ship?”
“Looks like a UPDF Skylark.”
“Can you establish communication?”
“I’ve got a message coming through from Captain Slade,” Mitch said, perplexed. “Isn’t that who you’ve been looking for?”
Zoey grinned. “Yes, it is. Put her through.”
Walker had even more reason to smile.
Slade’s voice filtered through the comm system, bringing great comfort to both Walker and Zoey.
It wasn’t long before the Skylark hobbled to the Revenant and landed on the flight deck. Slade emerged with Logan and the squad of Marines.
Her eyes went wide at the sight of Walker, but she restrained her enthusiasm.
Walker and Zoey greeted her with a salute.
Slade returned the gesture. “Permission to come aboard?”
“Permission granted, sir,” Zoey said, grinning from ear to ear.
Slade’s big eyes met Walker’s. The energy between them was palpable. She wanted to fling her arms around him and crash into his lips and let him know how happy she was that he was alive. But a captain just doesn’t do those things on the flight deck.
She contained her emotions and spoke dryly. “I thought you were dead.”
“Nobody’s found a way to kill me yet,” Walker said, holding back a smile.
“That’s good,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “Keep it that way.”
Slade glanced around the flight deck in awe. She was well aware of the stories surrounding the Revenant.
“She may not be the Scorpion, but she’s better than nothing,” Zoey said. “Though, she does have a few minor quirks.”
Slade lifted a curious eyebrow. They all had a lot of catching up to do. And an invasion to stop.
I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please consider reviewing on Amazon—a simple “Loved it,” or, “Hated it,” would be appreciated.
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I'm just a geek who loves sci-fi and horror. I was abducted by aliens and forced to travel the galaxy as the official biographer of an evil galactic ruler. This is where I learned to hone my craft. Fortunately, I escaped and made my way back to Earth, and now I write about my adventures. I hope you enjoy!