Back | Next


Written by M. T. Reiten
Illustrated by John Ward



The ketones of grilling meat flooded the corridor, despite the laboring air scrubbers. I pulled my head back into the passenger compartment and tossed the reader onto my bunk. I opened the stowage locker and lifted my military issue pressure suit off the rack.

"You better suit up, kid," I said.

Hicks, a freshly promoted infantry sergeant, lay on his bunk, his viewer glasses tuned to reflective silver. At first I thought he was sleeping, but his thick jaw muscles flexed as he chomped on his ever-present gum. Not the fluoridated Chiclet that came in standard rations, but a fat cube of gourmet bubble gum exported from Earth.

"Hey, kid. Get your gear on. Something's happening." I stepped into the back of my suit and it closed around my legs and hips. I shrugged into the torso, worrying about what might be going wrong.

Traveling supercargo was normally a cushy set of orders. I almost felt guilty not getting charged for leave. I had spent my time with a reader, catching up on the latest journal articles and some of my favorite fiction, spy thrillers and pre-contact historicals. Hicks had spent the trip on his wearable system, playing what he called tactical and strategic simulations. Computer games.

"I didn't hear the alarm, sir." Hicks blew a big pink bubble. It snapped insolently.

"Do you smell anything?" I asked.

Hicks sniffed and then swung his legs around to sit up. He stared at me like a mirror-eyed cyclops. "Barbecue."

"The only meat on this ship is the crew."

Hicks was at his locker in the next instant, gearing up like a professional. I shouldn't have been surprised. Only contracted military personnel and a few select diplomats and scholars could travel into League space, exempt from the sanctions. Even though the kid hadn't impressed me so far, we were all professionals.

"What's going on, sir?" he asked as he settled his helmet onto his shoulders.

"I don't know." But that was the first thing we'd been drilled to do if anything strange happened. Suit up. I activated the intercom display on the bulkhead.

Instead of the pilot's face or the wait symbol, I saw the dimmed interior of the cockpit in the screen. Harsh white light streamed from the corridor through the opened cockpit hatch. We were still in i-space, so the hatch should have been kept closed. Shadows passed across the background, glistening and slick like oil stains.

A figure, bald headed with pale skin, moved toward the pilot's station. He leaned in to the navigation controls, coming into the intercom's focus and allowing me a good look. A clear gummy polymer coated his hawk-like face. He clawed into the polymer at his neck and tore it open, exposing his mouth. "Adjust trajectory," he said with a thick Dromed's World accent.

"Doomsday fanatics," I said, stabbing off the display before he looked down and saw my image.

Doomies had control of the ship. They wore emergency pressure suits, the disposable kind. League technology.

"I thought we took care of those bastards." Hicks frowned and reached for the clasps on the chest plate of his suit. An E-mag carbine should have been there, but our small arms traveled on the troop ship. He still wore his viewer glasses. The frequency of his gum chewing had increased from a lazy bovine pace to an open-mouthed gnashing. "What now?"

"We go to ground and work out a plan. Into the hold."

He nodded and followed my lead. We went to the number three airlock near our quarters and climbed down, leaving atmosphere and pseudo gravity. The hold was huge and dark. Our helmet lights were useless. The brigade's equipment hung in shadowed racks, like shells in rifle magazines, except they were tanks and bulldozers rather than cartridges.

The heavy transport, Marie Celeste, was over 99% cargo space and filled the spherical tunneling sheathe that the monopole drive produced, a vast bubble that skirted the laws of physics for a maximum volume with a minimum surface area. The scant habitable area was a long corridor, like the spine on an expanded puffer fish, leading from the cockpit at the front to the monopole drive at the rear in engineering. Crew quarters, support systems, and access ways to the hold were spread evenly down the arc of the spine. We had to assume the positive life support areas had been compromised.

The number one airlock sat closest to the cockpit, and it was in fact a shorter straight-line distance through the hold than along the corridor. As we maneuvered between the stowed machinery, I came across the brigade's engineer support vehicle. The rear hatch hung open and construction tools floated randomly about the back. The hatch had been sealed during our last inspection two days ago.

The Doomsday fanatics had been hidden in the hold and broke in to our equipment.

I grabbed a hammer out of the mess. "Get a weapon."

"Got one." He had already taken a large screwdriver. The shaft was nearly as thick as a crowbar. He slashed twice and made a practice thrust. "It'll work."

We pulled our way to the number one airlock. After we cycled through, I climbed up, opened my visor, and poked my head out to scan the corridor. I saw and smelled the carnage just outside the cockpit entrance.

The navigator's body lay against the open cockpit hatch. A hand laser dangled from his lifeless hand. His face had been squashed into an unrecognizable concave mass of blood and pinkish brain. Three dismembered bodies, each coated in a gummy transparent film, had sprawled on the deck. Large charred gouges still smoked in their chests. Plastic wrapped fingers and arms had been sliced off and littered the corridor. But the burned bodies all had shaved heads and pasty-white skin and didn't wear crew uniforms.

"I'll get eyes on the cockpit," Hicks said.

I grabbed his arm to stop him.

"Sir, it's my job. Let me do it. Unless you have a better idea." He crept forward after I released him.

I felt useless in those agonizing minutes, hanging back in the airlock. As an engineer, I oversaw the construction of roads and landing zones for our bases. My last serious infantry training had been seventeen years ago at the academy.

Hicks came back, carrying the hand laser. "There are three of them at the controls. They seem to know what they're doing. No living crew."

"How'd they get in?"

"There's a big hole in the hatch. You can't see it from here." Hicks held up his hands forming a circle with his fingers the size of a dinner plate.

The Doomsday fanatics had the punch. The short-range cavitation tool was standard equipment on the engineer support vehicle and it could put holes in about anything if enough charges were expended. That explained what happened to the navigator. One half charge at two feet.

"Couldn't catch everything they were saying, but one Doomie talked about changing trajectories." He checked the battery life on the hand laser. "I can drop them."

"I'm sure you could," I whispered. "But test fire the laser first."

He aimed away from me, sighting on an empty locker, and depressed the trigger. Nothing happened. "What the—?"

"Security keyed to crewmembers only."

Some of Hicks' confidence left him. He slumped against the bulkhead, but kept a grip on the hand laser. "Maybe we could signal for help?"

I shook my head. The Marie Celeste had a huge displacement, so that meant slow going in imaginary space. She also took a long time to build velocity in real space, nearing light speed before tunneling up. The rest of our brigade hadn't even lifted yet in the swifter troop transports. They would depart Dromed's World two weeks from now and arrive at our destination three days before we did. No chance of anyone within range to hear our transmission.

"We rush them then." Hicks drew the screwdriver from his cargo pouch.

"Wait. You said they were talking?"

He nodded. "But I couldn't make out most of what they were saying."

"But they had the hoods peeled back?"

"All three did. They must think they've got complete control of the ship."

"Good. Those League suits are single use. If they broke the seal, they're worthless. I've got a plan that might not get us killed." I made a mental list of what we'd need. "Strip a good sized piece off a body and meet me in the airlock."

I returned to the hold to gather additional tools. Hicks waited for me in the dim light of the evacuated airlock. He was chewing his gum and toying with a patch of tough polymer when I got back.

We wedged the hold side hatch open with a pair of titanium crowbars. Industrial staples took care of the physical interlocks on the hatch, so the computer would think it was closed and safe. I needed a way to override the atmosphere sensor, but I couldn't find a gas cylinder. But our suits had buddy umbilicals, so I played out the short length of hose from my hip. I motioned for the patch of polymer and the kid slapped it in my hand. I sealed the sides the patch over the gas sensor and the nozzle of my buddy umbilical.

"Cycle it," I said.

"Yes, sir." He pushed the cycle button and the inlet valve opened up. "I've got flow."

I eased open my umbilical, conscious of the gauge readings on my suit. The polymer patch ballooned up partially like the bubble gum the kid still gnawed on. I hoped it would read close enough to ship's atmosphere to fool the computer. "Let me know if it stops."

After a few seconds, Hicks said, "The flow is off."

"Open the inner hatch."

Hicks initiated the opening sequence. I felt vibrations through the bulkhead as restraining bolts withdrew, but nothing happened. "Open it manually."

"The mechanism is open all the way, but the door is stuck." He pushed on the hatch. "If the hinges were on this side we could just break them off."

"The hinges are on the other side because of the pressure differential." The pressure differential, I thought angry with myself. I tried to slap my forehead, but smacked my helmet visor instead. I had been so clever, that I had forgotten basic physics. The atmospheric pressure from the crew compartments kept the inner hatch of the airlock firmly in place, so there was no way it could accidentally open and vent to vacuum. "Oh, God, I'm stupid."

"How's that, sir?"

"I don't design spaceships. I direct soldiers with bulldozers. I should just stick to what I know best."

"And that is.?"

"Big hammer technology. If it doesn't work, hit it with a bigger hammer." But the Doomies had the punch, the biggest hammer in the brigade's inventory.

"I'm all about that, sir." Hicks flashed me a goofy grin with too many teeth. "I'd just slap some Synth-Tex putty on the door and blow it. But we don't have any explosives."

He was right. Ammo went on a different ship, and, as tempting as it was, we were better off without live rounds or explosives. A main gun round would be suicidal even if we could get a tank off a shipping rack. What did we have? I knew the equipment my engineer section carried. Burning a hole through the hatch with welding equipment would take too long and flying sparks would be obvious. Perhaps a hydraulic jack? That would be slow too, and the Doomsday fanatics would notice a steady loss in pressure. We needed something fast and dramatic.

"So we don't try to push the hatch open. We pull it in." I maneuvered around the braced open outer hatch and exited the airlock. I launched myself at the nearest rack of vehicles.

The second one down was the commander's mobile HQ. The boxy command track had a winch on the front capable of hauling a twelve ton hunk of armor out of a ditch. I played out several hundred feet of carbon rope and launched myself back to airlock number one.

We attached the rope to several points on the crew-side hatch. I had the kid operate the winch. He gingerly took the slack out of the line, following my hand signals and somewhat curt directions.

I moved away from the outer hatch, pressing myself against the slight curve of the hold bulkhead. "Give it all she's got."

The line vibrated as it snapped completely taut, seeming to blur into four separate ropes under the light from my helmet. I felt the jagged creak of shredding metal through my palms. The rope went limp as light poured through the airlock. The inner hatch slammed into the cargo-side hatch, but it held open. Bits of trash tumbled into the hold on the rushing wind trying to fill the immense space. Instantly I recognized them as severed fingers. Alarms flashed red in silence.



After a minute of tense waiting, we squeezed into the airlock. The crew-side hatch had buckled, blown out, and had wedged firmly behind the cargo-side hatch, but there wasn't much damage to the airlock otherwise. We climbed into the corridor. I held the hammer ready and the kid had his screwdriver poised like a bayonet. Our shadows leaped around us, cast in black from the red glow of the alarms.

We stepped over the remains in the corridor, tumbled around by the explosive decompression. The hatch to the cockpit had a large hole with precisely dimpled edges, the signature of a punch. Hicks booted the hatch open and charged in.

The darkened cockpit was a triangular shaped room, more like a multimedia suite than the control center for a spaceship. Large viewer screens lined the forward bulkheads, displaying statuses and course projections. The crew stations were empty.

The three Doomies had scrambled to the door with the dinner plate sized hole in it. Two had collapsed just inside the holed hatch. Freeze-dried blood crystals lined the corners of their bluish lips. The last one still tried to pull the peeled hood back over his face. He lay on the deck, fingers clasping at the torn seam beneath his chin, vainly trying to pinch it together. The ragged seam bubbled with escaping gas. His mouth gaped fish-like and his eyes had rolled back as hypoxia set in.

Hicks plunged the screwdriver into the fanatic's carotid. Blood welled up beneath the polymer coating as he pulled the steel shaft free.

"What the hell?" I demanded.

"I was doing him a favor," Hicks said seriously. "He'll be too brain damaged for good intel. He'd die slow anyways."

The Doomies hadn't removed the corpses of the crew, only shoving them aside. I saw the captain's body wedged beneath a control panel. The punch had mangled him badly. I recognized him from rank on the sleeves.

"We need to figure out where they were going with our equipment." I walked to the pilot's station. Everything was clearly labeled and color-coded on the wrap-around screens. I found the course plot, a cartoonish representation of i-space travel.

I had thought it would head back to Dromed's World, where we had just completed a two year mission bringing the rebelling human outpost under control. The Doomsday cult, despite nihilistic beliefs, could resurrect their uprising with the brigade's weapons. But the Doomies hadn't shifted the course one-eighty degrees. If I correctly remembered the captain's explanation of the navigation screen, the Marie Celeste was headed deeper into League space toward the nearest inhabited planet. That didn't make sense. None of the League members would need the archaic weaponry we used. Humans weren't allowed on League planets, except under contract.

"You've traveled supercargo before. Can you fly this thing?" Hicks asked.

"It's supposed to be straight forward. Aside from approaching a planet in i-space." I had listened to the crew's conversations over meals. In i-space, gravity wells were repulsive. It took expert piloting and well programmed computers, to enter a system shedding velocity, and not overshoot. "I'm not sure how they planned to pull this off."

"The bastards are going for a kill, not a theft." He held up a piece of crumpled paper with the squiggles of ornate calligraphy that he had pulled from a Doomie's body. "It's his message to God."

The kid was right, I realized with a shock. In imaginary space, planets were repulsive. But if a ship tunneled down into real space at a hefty fraction of c, the relativistic mass would suck the planet and the ship together. A guaranteed collision requiring less skill than billiards to line up. We humans had already killed two planets with kinetic bombs during the Spider War, and that was why humanity was under sanction. Destroying another inhabited planet, now that we knew the rules, would end it for all of us. Extinction.

"Then we'll have to turn this ship around." I sat at the pilot's station. "Just need to find a help menu."

I discovered a flight checklist, half-complete, which was almost as good as a help menu. I read through the steps and pulled up the appropriate screens. I only had to key in the coordinates of the destination and the drive would alter the ship's course. Dromed's World was the only safe set of numbers I could recognize on the checklist. We'd at least get within range to signal for assistance from the task force that had relieved us. There were standard ship-to-ship maneuvers to drop us back into real space. I entered the coordinates into the computer and pushed the pilot's seat back.

"Too easy, sir. Too easy." Hicks popped a bubble, which sounded like a whip cracking over the suit-to-suit radio.

Nothing happened.

A flashing yellow message appeared at the top of the pilot's screen. Engineering Bridge Manual Override.

"It's not over yet," I said without enthusiasm.

"That means you can't steer it from here?"

"No, I can't. At least one bad guy survived at the other end of the ship. Must have taken control when we decompressed the ship." I stood up and gripped the hammer. "It's time for your plan."

"Yes, sir," he said. "Follow me."

We ran down the long bowed corridor. The sensation of running uphill was unsettling. The galley, storerooms and crew quarters had automatically sealed. They would remain shut until the corridor was repressurized. We slowed as we reached the aft end of the ship. The hatch to the drive room had a punch hole through it. No way to lock us out. We ducked into airlock number four.

"How many punches are there?" Hicks asked.

"Only one. Don't know how many charges are left."

"So they've got the punch down here." He slugged me in the chest plate. "Take your hits on the armor. It can take serious damage before failing. We don't have face shields, so the visor is the weak point. You know what to do to stop this ship. I don't. You need to stay alive. Are we on the same freq?"

I nodded.

"We go in. I break left and you break right. Don't hang in the door. Those plastic wraps the smegheads got won't stop a hammer. No hesitation. Bang bang."

I could only see my own warped reflection in the steely gaze of his glasses. Adrenaline made my hands tremble. "A simple plan executed in a bold, audacious manner."

"Amen, sir. Time to close with the enemy." He scrambled up the ladder out of the airlock.

I followed him. We approached the punctured hatch cautiously. Through the hole, I saw movement.

Hicks kicked the hatch open and rushed into the drive room, breaking to the left. I followed, but went right. The far bulkhead housed the spherical monopole drive.

Only one Doomie stood at the engineering controls. The polymer layers distorted his snarl and wild eye glare. He held up the punch, like a miniature jackhammer, and aimed at the kid. The wide muzzle flashed and Hicks flew backwards to bounce off the bulkhead. Shards of dull armor plate scattered over the deck.

I lunged at the Doomie, swinging the hammer. He moved fast in his lightweight League suit. The punch turned toward my midsection. The crushing weight hit me on the chest before I could connect. My face struck my visor and the back of my head cracked against the helmet as I slammed into the opposite bulkhead. Everything had a reddish cast to it. My ribs creaked as I fought to suck a breath into my emptied lungs.

The Doomie brought the punch directly up to Hicks' faceplate. But nothing happened. Charges depleted. He tossed the punch to the deck and picked up the dropped screwdriver. He thrust the sharp tip into Hicks' crystalline visor. The center of the visor crazed white, and the screwdriver broke through forming a small hole. Glittering dust blew away from the kid's helmet.

I struggled to my feet, still unable to draw a breath. I had lost the hammer, but I dived at the Doomie before he could stab again. I blacked out for a second from the pain in my chest after I hit him with my shoulder. The next thing I saw was the pasty-skinned bastard standing over me as I lay on my back. The screwdriver was in his hand pointing at my face, cocked back and ready to thrust.




My hammer seemed to appear from nowhere, barely slowed by smashing across the back of the Doomie's head. The fanatic leaned to the side and fell flat.

Hicks stood over him. A big pink wad was stuck in the middle of the cracked faceplate. His glasses looked like they had fallen off, but were stuck against the back of the bubble gum, reinforcing the hasty seal on his visor. He had to turn his body sideways to see around the blockage in his helmet.

"You still alive, sir?" He extended a hand to help me up.

I stood slowly with his assistance. I staggered to the engineering controls, a scaled down and Spartan version of the cockpit. I keyed in the coordinates to return us to Dromed's World and untoggled the override switch. The drive shifted course this time. Relieved, I turned toward Hicks and managed to speak. "How much oxygen do you have left?"

"Some." His suit was battered. Only the edges of his chest plate remained attached. He pointed at the makeshift patch on his visor and gave me a sidelong glance. "I don't know how long this will hold though."

"Let's fix the damage we've caused and get some atmosphere back in here."

"Yes, sir."

"Sergeant," I asked as we started back to airlock number one. "Once we do that, think I could try a chunk of that gum?"

"If we make it through this, sir." He stumbled beside me. "I'll give you a whole pack."

The damage to the airlock turned out to be worse than I had first estimated. The titanium crowbars had punctured the cargo-side hatch and bent the latching mechanism. The airlock required shipyard level repairs.

I caught Hicks gasping when we climbed into the corridor. "What's your air reading?"

"I thought we'd be up to pressure by now."

Cursing, I snapped my buddy umbilical to Hicks' suit. After the pressure sensor stunt I had pulled earlier, my gauges read low too. Since we couldn't bring the corridor back up to atmosphere, the crew compartments remained sealed off. I maneuvered Hicks to airlock two and secured him inside, where he could properly repair his visor.

I clambered back to the cockpit and hooked up to the pilot's secondary life support while settling in the seat. The weight of my suit shot pain through my ribcage. By taking shallow breaths, the pain faded to a throb and I could assess my situation.

At least five days to get in range of the command cell at Dromed's World and coordinate a rescue from i-space. I considered adjusting the controls to increase our velocity, to speed our return, but only for a second. Anything beyond changing course exceeded my knowledge base. Bodies of crew and Doomies were scattered through the ship with pieces floating in the hold. I should gather the remains, but the investigation team would have me on charges if I disturbed anything not vital for our immediate survival. And Hicks was confined to the airlock until he fixed his suit. If he could fix it.

"Are you doing okay, sergeant?" I asked through the suit-to-suit radio.

"Yes, sir." Hicks reply lacked the hollow chewing-on-the-microphone sound, so I knew his helmet was off. Tinny game music played in the background. "Got the gum off my viewer glasses and they still work!"

I settled in to monitor communications, pulled up a writing program on the armchair screen, and began drafting an award recommendation for Hicks. Headquarters wouldn't let me submit it until after the inquiry, but I figured that I should capture the sergeant's actions in writing while the events were fresh in my mind. Before he reminded me that he was still a kid in spite of what we'd been through.

* * *

Back | Next