Year 2152, Day 117, Hour 0800
Klimovsk Service Pistol, a.k.a. Klim, semi-automatic pistol issued to Sol Coalition forces which is capable of holding several types of ammunition simultaneously. The Klim integrates into the personal tech of each soldier, allowing for ammunition selection, assisted targeting, and safety measures for crowd control. Although the variety of ammunition available is nearly limitless, it includes: standard projectiles, gravity nets, armor piercing rounds, incendiary rounds, and slag rounds. The last of these shred upon impact, releasing a liquid core of metal and corrosive chemicals.
“Lieutenant Maker, reporting for duty, sir.” Maker snapped a salute and kept her eyes straight ahead, waiting for the inevitable instruction to relax. An old-fashioned clock, one that still made a tick-tick sound, sat on the shelf at the back of the office. It was sixty-eight ticks before her new commanding officer spoke.
“You have a bronze star, Lieutenant. It says so in your file, but I don’t see it on your uniform.”
The Major had been hunched over his desk when she came in, so Maker hadn’t gotten much of an impression aside from broad shoulders in his grey field jacket and a shining bald head. The question threw her off guard. “Er, no sir. I wasn’t aware that dress uniform was required today. Sir.” She resisted the urge to shrug.
His tone was mild as he continued, “VK10 was a hell of a mess. Aren’t you proud of what you accomplished there?”
“Not really, sir.” The words were out before she could think about them, and Maker winced. Given that the circumstances under which she was put in for consideration of a medal, the appropriate response should have been: sir, yes, sir, always proud to serve the Coalition, sir. The Major was expectantly silent, and still hadn’t asked her to relax, and Maker was compelled to fill the awkward silence. “I was just lucky to live through it, sir. We all were.”
“Lucky General Batma called that retreat and air strike, you mean. I hoped you thanked the other team on the ground. Who was that?” The question was casual, but Maker had been down that road before. With Yardley and countless soldiers and crewmembers. With the SIS. With Ben-Zvi after the woman cornered her during her last week aboard the Pershing. In the four years since VK10, she had gained a great deal of practice at dodging questions.
“I’m not sure what you mean, sir,” she answered carefully.
“Huh. Well, must be my mistake.” The creak of his chair was loud in the small office. “At ease soldier.”
Maker relaxed – but only so much. Her stance widened and her hands went behind her back. She turned her gaze to the Major, but she still felt wary. It had been a long time since anyone had brought up the mysterious Team Leader from VK10. Having the commanding officer of one of the premier Special Forces units do so made her extremely uneasy. She had come to the conclusion that Team Leader was part of an elite group of soldiers. Having one of his comrades digging into the official story put out by the Coalition about VK10 made her paranoia start dragging a chair in front of the proverbial door and boarding up windows.
The Major was stocky, built like a space ship sized version of Paul Bunyan. His complete lack of hair did nothing to soften his weathered face or the muscles straining the undershirt that was exposed by a loose jacket. His sleeves were rolled up to mid-forearm, revealing more muscles and thick tattoos. She thought she could make out a skull, and at least one burning Culler corpse.
“The last translator that worked with my Raiders didn’t last long. Neither did the one before that. So if you want to make it through this assignment, follow three simple rules: do as you’re told, forget what you see, and don’t shoot any friendlies.”
“I can do that, sir.” Maker wanted to insert a joke about premature firing, but the Major’s expression advised her against it.
“It’s harder than it sounds.” He tapped a few commands into his tablet and Maker’s bracer vibrated quietly. “That’s your duty roster. You have a Specialist that will be partnering you – try not to piss him off. The soldier outside will show you to your bunk.” Maker saluted and picked up her duffle from where she had dropped it by the door. “Welcome aboard.”
Twelve weeks later.
“Hey, lobster mouth.”
“Please don’t call me that,” Maker said absently. Her partner slash guard ignored her, as he always did, and continued to bounce a tennis ball against the closed door of the communications room. The hollow bong, bong, bong had been irritating for the first few weeks, but she was beginning to think it had burrowed into her subconscious. Like weevils in flour.
“Doesn’t it make you wonder what’s wrong with you?”
“What’s that, Gormann?” She asked, because if she didn’t he would start thumping the ball louder until she was ready to snatch it out of the air and shove it down his throat.
“Only one in a hundred soldiers can speak Culler, and less than 1% can understand it better than the translation software.”
She sighed, backing up the recording she was listening to and pausing so that she could finish the familiar conversation without losing her place. “That is true.”
“So what’s messed up in your head that you are so good at this?”
“A real question for the ages, Gormann. Hopefully future scientists will discover the answers to this mystery.” Her sarcasm had no noticeable effect on him. “Was there anything else you needed? Any other conversation topics burning a hole through your tongue?”
“So how about that Keres Legion?”
“What?” Maker was caught off guard by the change in topic.
“Rumor has it they are the best of the best – real badasses.”
“Are you looking for a new hero to pin up over your bed, Gormann?” Maker tried to remember everything she had ever heard whispered about the Legion. It had occurred to her, more than once, that they were probably connected to the Team Leader from VK10, but she didn’t know that for sure. And if she did, which she never would, she wouldn’t share that with Gormann or anyone else.
“Nah, but I thought maybe you knew something. No one seems to know where their soldiers come from or how they are selected, just that they are better at killing Cullers than anyone else. But…you were on the Pershing, right?”
“With about four thousand other people,” she snapped. “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
Gormann was quiet for a minute, and she could feel his gaze on her face. “You want something for that headache?”
Maker realized she had been rubbing at the sides of her head, right behind her ears. Although the recordings weren’t as grating as live Culler speech, a few hours of them were all it took for the beginnings of a migraine. “I’m fine, thanks.” Gormann, despite his complete lack of tact and extreme prejudice, was a decent partner and a good soldier. He could decrypt Culler data just as fast as any software and was far better at adapting to changes in ciphers. He didn’t have any strange food habits or obnoxious bodily odors, which was a noteworthy benefit in the small office they were assigned. Although he called her rude slurs almost as often as her actual name or rank, he was never malicious about it.
“You get those a lot, probably you should see a doctor. A lobotomy might help.”
“I think it has more to do with the screeching, shrieking, and tennis balls I’m subjected to all day, but thanks.”
Gormann shrugged, and Maker went back to the file she had been reviewing. It was recorded just a few hours earlier, before her shift began, during a Culler interrogation. Maker tried hard not to think about what occurred to get her those files. The Raider ship had the latest in stealth, undetectable to technology when running silent. Unless the Cullers looked out their windows, they would never see the Special Forces unit approaching. A half dozen times while she had been assigned to the Raiders they had gone quiet, sneaking up on enemy cargo stockpiles, transfer points, and smaller ships. The combat squad moved out, and the ship crew waited in subdued tension until they returned, sometimes with a prisoner, sometimes with technology. Often to the accompaniment of explosions and laser cannon fire. Anything they brought back had to be decoded, translated, and analyzed. She and Gormann did the first two, the Major and his tactical officer did the last one. That combined with the routine interception and decrypting of Culler deep-space transmission kept her busy. As far as postings went, she could have gotten worse. Most military translators were stationed on the front lines. Assisting a captain under fire from a Culler destroyer or following a ground forces company into battle was far less appealing to her than sitting in a quite office with an annoying co-working and performing transcription. She could deal with the occasional, or frequent, headache.
The forceful questions of the specialist who had questioned the prisoner were followed by computer conversion to the alien language, the shrieks and clicks of the Culler, and then the stilted voice of the on-board translation software.
How long will it take to maintenance the ship?
Die human. Filth under my claws.
Not long. Short. Three weeks.
How many of your kind are on the maintenance station?
*a wet, retching sound and celery being snapped into pieces. Screams.
Twelve hundred of us!
Maker paused the recording again and removed the headphones that covered her ears to block out distractions. Gormann had set down the ball and was typing away at his station. An undulating wave of pain washed against the base of her skull, lapping against her brain and making her close her eyes and take a deep breath until it receded.
“This one has a lot of errors,” she said. Maker tried to remember if the file had been flagged ‘actionable’ but couldn’t recall. After a few weeks, they had all begun to run together for her. Gormann rolled over to her console, knocking his chair into hers and cramming her up against the wall. She slouched down and leaned her head back as he worked, checking for file discrepancies and running the software against her translation. Maker could hear the sounds of the Culler replaying in her head, and what the creature had meant:
Ordered to kill filthy humans – by my talons!
Not long, but too short for you. Three days.
There are many of us.
“You sure it is three days, not weeks?”
“Yeah,” Maker answered tiredly. Her shift was only half over, but she was already looking forward to a lukewarm shower and her tiny, cramped officer’s quarters. Gormann was tapping away at something, which Maker ignored. Her assignment to the Raiders would be up in another two months, and then she was due for R&R and a possible relocation. She hoped wherever she ended up next had a better hot water system.
“What’s this custodian thing? You mean like the bots that clean ships?”
“It’s a title,” she squirmed down trying to find a comfortable position – unsuccessfully. “Like a cross between a mechanic and an MP. I haven’t heard it in this exact context before, but I’d guess those twelve Cullers – I have no idea where the software came up with twelve hundred – are doing ship maintenance and keeping an eye on it until the crew returns. Or a new crew is assigned. Or whatever.”
Maker cracked open one eye at the blasphemy, one she hardly ever heard. Not many soldiers followed one of the old faiths, and if they did they were fairly discreet about it. Turning the other cheek wasn’t overly popular with the Coalition, and fasting was strictly prohibited for soldiers in active service. The combination made devotion challenging. Gormann was still reviewing data and pulling up the ship comm directory on his bracer.
“XO here,” the soft voice of the Executive Officer filled the office and caused Maker to sit up so quickly she nearly lost her seat.
“XO, I need the Major down here.” Maker stared at Gormann as he spoke over the comm. The Major did not come down to the fifth circle of hell where she processed what amounted to paperwork. Ever.
“This better be important, Gormann,” she warned. The meaning was at odds with her sweet tone. Maker knew what she was really saying: the Major just got back from a mission and is asleep and if you have me wake him up for anything less than a fucking bomb under his bed I will gut you. The XO was concise.
“Maker found something.”
Ten hours, two meetings, and not nearly enough sleep after that and Maker found herself suiting up in her combat armor. Gormann sat on the bench next to her, his helmet in his hands as he lectured, “Stay behind me. Keep your weapon low and don’t fire unless I say so or there is a Culler fogging up your faceplate. This is a quick, in-out thing. Nothing is going to happen to you as long as you follow orders.”
“Gee,” Maker said. She was attempting to be funny, but her voice came out strangled. “If I didn’t know better I would think you cared, Gorm.”
She clicked closed the last fastening at her neck, reminding herself that her shoulder didn’t hurt. It was just her imagination that was making it throb. Just her paranoia, trying to barricade itself in the storage room of her mind, which was shouting how very wrong things could go. Just the memory of a grinding beak and the ground of a far-off planet shaking under her boots that was telling her she wasn’t prepared for this. Whatever it was that made Operators good material for sneaking behind enemy lines and slaughtering Cullers, she was pretty certain she didn’t have it. Her test scores proved it. Maker took a deep breath and lifted her head, reaching for her helmet. Gormann was standing directly in front of her. He was tall, lanky with muscle, and more intimidating in his armor than she would ever admit.
“You get jacked up, I get jacked up,” he said seriously. “That’s the Raiders.”
“I’m not a Raider,” she responded. The Major entered the locker room, snapping out the order to leave.
“True. You got some crap that is more inspiring?”
Unbidden, she recalled a hot cavern and a scared boy with a broken back. “Everyone goes home.”
“Sappy. It suits you.” Gormann grinned and Maker frowned. They both locked their helmets into place and followed the squad to the insertion ship – really not much but a stripped down transport that would barely fit them all standing up. Its only weapon was a rear-mounted torpedo launcher. Everything else about it was designed to be inconspicuous, dark, and unnoticeable. “Remember,” he said quietly over the proximity comm, “stay behind me, lobster-mouth.”
Maker waited with the Raiders, pressed close and tight in the hold of the transport, for the XO to contact the Major that it was safe to depart. The minutes stretched, bodies shifting around her, while the Raider ship drifted out of ISG and into proximity of a frozen rogue planet.
“We have chatter,” the XO’s voice came over the comms in the transport.
“Patch it through,” the Major responded.
Several soldiers flinched, some gripped their weapons, as the high-pitched grate of Cullers was transmitted directly to them. None felt it more keenly than Maker. If an average enlisted described the sound as frost being crushed against the wall of a freezer, Maker thought it sounded like two glaciers rubbing against each other. With a screaming baby rabbit trapped between them. And it seemed to get worse every time she had to listen to it.
“We good, Maker?”
It took her a moment to focus on the Major’s words over the rattle of alien language. “Yes, sir. The ship is under routine maintenance. It- wait.” She closed her eyes to block out the expectant and mildly disgusted looks of the Raiders. “They’re moving it.”
“What? You said three-”
“Shh!” Later Maker would realize she had hushed a superior officer – a man with tattoos of burning skulls and the skills to kill a chitin-armored alien with his bare hands, if necessary. At the time, she was too busy trying to make sense of the communication. “It’s…they’re taking the ship for an evaluation. Using sublight engines only. Looking for a mechanical issue…I think…’You take these two and find out what the issue is or I will have your plates’. ” She waited another moment before opening her eyes, only to find every helmet turned towards her. Maker’s spine straightened. “There are three of them on board. They are powering up engines now.”
“Major,” the XO interrupted. “We have a heat bloom on sensors.”
“You are telling me three of those slimy bastards are operating a Class Red?” The Major was staring at her hard, his helmet under his arm.
Maker swallowed. She hadn’t realized that they were after one of the largest types of ships in the Culler fleet. “Yes, sir. They aren’t maneuvering or planning to use weapons. Just spool up the sublights a few times to find a problem. They don’t need much of a crew.”
“Sir, we’ve always known that their ships-“
“Shut it, Gormann.”
“Shutting it, sir.”
The Major’s eyes narrowed on Maker, but he spoke to the XO, “Get me within a million clicks – same trajectory. We’ll suckle up and walk over.”
Maker nodded, along with everyone else, but her breath was coming fast and she could see spots of light at the corners of her eyes. It was a risky move, but one she knew the Major had performed before. Theoretically, it could be done at any time, with any two ships, even in ISG. The path and speed of the target ship was calculated precisely, then a second ship would eject a transport, or any object, using a pressurized release of atmosphere, to propel the transport to the first ship. No fuel or active energy was expended, so it was nearly indiscernible from background space. The transport would shoot toward the target ship, perfectly aligned to come alongside it. If calculated correctly, the transport would uses back thrusts of atmosphere to slow it and match the target’s speed. Then a magnetic grappler would be extended to tether the two ships. If running silently, the Cullers wouldn’t see the Raiders unless they crawled out onto their own hull and looked.
If calculated incorrectly, the Raiders would have a nanosecond before mass times acceleration equaled enough force to splatter them on the enemy ship like juicy bugs on a windshield. The plan allowed no room for error, but that wasn’t what had Maker’s heart in her throat.
The Major wanted to do a walk. In deep space, moving at a few hundred million miles an hour, he wanted her to use a carabiner to secure herself to a wire no more than a half-inch thick and pull herself across the distance between two ships. Maker forcefully pushed away the images of bodies floating against a dark sky, the Pershing in the background.
The narrow area in the rear of the ship was sectioned off from the cockpit with a heavy blast door. Maker did not envy the pilot tasked with getting them into position. The soldiers lined the walls, buckling heavy-weight straps across their chests and slipping their boots under metal loops on the floor – to keep their legs from kicking anyone during abrupt launch and slow-down. Another row of soldiers stood back to back down the center of the hold. A half-wall extended from the floor up to the middle of their helmets, providing the illusion of support if anything went wrong. If she stretched out her arm, she could have touched the woman across from her. Maker wrapped her fingers tightly around her harness and tucked her head down against her chest.
“Three, two, one.” There was a rush of air, her ears popped. Despite the shock deflectors lining the ship, sudden force slammed into her body activating the kinetic absorption of her suit and helmet. It was all that kept her brain and other organs from battering against her skull and ribs like eggs in a blender. Information was broadcast across her tech, but Maker kept her eyes stubbornly closed so that she wouldn’t vomit. It took nearly an hour to reach the target. The pilot hit the reverse thrusters. For just a moment – one instant – Maker was weightless. The ship had no artificial gravity or any other non-essential system that might give away their position. Without it, the juxtaposition of two opposite forces allowed the natural effects of space to lift her gently against her harness. Weightless. One easy, free breath.
Then she was slammed back into place and the ship kicked slightly with the firing of the magnetic grappler. There was a jerk, and then another before the movement smoothed out. Maker opened her eyes and her tech furiously projected data that she had delayed. Location, layout assumptions for the Red Class ship, medical status all scrolled quickly to catch up to the present moment. She blinked, trying to absorb information and not think about the next task.
The Major unstrapped and walked to the rear. “Parallel across in fireteams.” A number flashed across Maker’s display – three. She and Gormann would be in the middle of the group. It was standard procedure since the translator and the tech Specialist were sensitive targets. “Short-range, direct comms only. Go in five.” He latched onto a hand hold and hit the release for the hatch. Five. The rear of the ship disengaged with a hiss of atmosphere that came over her proximity comm, splitting horizontally across the center and opening to reveal black space and the dull, saturated green hue of the Culler ship. Four. The dull silver cable stretching from the Raider transport to the enemy hull looked delicate. Too delicate for its intended use. Three. The Major clipped his line onto the cable and another soldier stepped forward behind him to do the same. Two. They both walked backward as far as their lines would allow, pulling them taunt and facing their target in a crouch. One. They ran, the magnetic locks on their boots giving friction to the motion and providing force. As one they flew out of the end of the ship, momentum propelling them down the line. Within a few meters of the grappler they grabbed on and walked, hand over hand, the rest of the way.
Another pair of soldiers unstrapped and clipped on, following the Major’s example. Maker felt sick. “Hey,” Gormann’s teasing voice on a direct comm snapped her to attention. She swung her head around from where she had been staring out into space.
“What?” The black, opaque surface of his helmet reflected a similar image of her own helmet back at her.
“You’re pretty small. If you want, I could just toss you across.”
“There’s an idea,” Maker muttered. The second team was leaping off the deck. Her mouth was dry and her heart was beating too fast. “Or – how about I kick you in the ass and we see how far you get?” Her voice was weak, there was no way Gormann couldn’t hear how scared she was. She wished Kerry was there. He at least was prepared – capable – of working with Special Forces. Maker could barely walk from her cabin to the mess without stumbling. Five.
Gormann chuckled, unharnessing them both. Four. “Can you reach that high, short stack?”
“Short stack?” Three. Her legs were shaking as she got into position, snapping her line onto the grappling cable and walking backward to give herself room. Two. “Watch it, Gorm, I’ll think you like me if you keep up the sweet talk.”
“We can’t have that, eh, lobster mouth?” He shut down the comm line. One.
Maker pushed off against the metal floor grates, her magnetic boots giving her the illusion of gravity. Gormann ran beside her, but his legs were longer and he grabbed her arm and yanked her with him as he leaped into space. She had been a stride behind. Her momentum pushed into his and slid them both down the cable. Her breath was loud in her helmet. No sound travelled through the vacuum around them, and the silence was disorienting. She looked down. Her feet were loose and floating above nothing. The blackness was resolute, eerie even with the few steady dots of distant stars. Maker pulled her head up quickly rather than think about how small and isolated she was. Light from the open transport behind her, glowing red to protect night vision, cast her shadow and Gormann’s onto the side of the Culler ship. One monstrous figure, with four legs and two arms, rapidly shrank as they drew closer. She grabbed the cable too soon, slowing them both abruptly and straining her arms uncomfortably. The walk, dangling like a child on the galaxy’s most dangerous monkey bars, was slow.
Ahead, the Major and his partner had popped open an exhaust port. Team two was waiting to haul Maker and Gormann off the line. She released her carabineer and fell to the floor; her legs refused to support her weight. Gormann landed easily and continued in a smooth motion towards the hull of the ship. His equipment was out and he was working on making them an opening as another Operator hauled Maker to the side to make room for the next team. Once all twelve soldiers were crammed into the shallow space, boots the only thing making certain no one floated away, Gormann hit the last command and the vent opened.
Quickly, they all filed in, keeping low, weapons out. Gormann fell into line beside her. The vent closed a second behind the last team. The moved in a two-by-two line, silent. Over the proximity comm, the only sounds Maker could hear were the soft step of mag-boots against the metal alloy of the Culler ship. Twice more, Gormann moved to the front and opened the path before them. Then they were inside the Red Class.
Static electricity charged the air, making tiny blue sparks if Maker’s gloves brushed against her legs. A corridor opened to either side of them. The floor was no longer metal, so Maker shut off her boots, but a low-E gravity field kept her secured to the ground. The texture under her feet was not quite soft, but it still had a give that was unfamiliar after so long on ships and space stations. It felt like soil. All of the surfaces were the same dark, blotchy green-grey as the exterior of the ship. Data panels at random intervals glowed a soft yellow, providing the only illumination. It was eerily disorienting. Her tech popped up a map, the potential layout shifting to match what the squad’s sensors were relaying. A mild headache, which hadn’t gone away since her last duty shift, was threatening to grow into something agonizing. Medical stats alerted her that her adrenaline was high, her pulse faster than normal. No shit, Maker thought. Her breathing still hadn’t calmed down when the Major waved the group forward.
Briefing for the mission had been eye-opening for Maker. Since she had been assigned to the Raiders, they had one objective: infiltrate a Culler ship and activate a tracking device, then retreat without alerting the enemy. Maker did not need the Major to confirm it to know that they had not been successful. Each time the Raiders had gone out, they had returned with injured, dead, and damage to their transport. This mission was different. Based on Maker’s translation, the ship they were going after had a skeleton crew. Less than that. Three Cullers. It was the best opportunity the Raiders would ever get. It was why the Major had brought Maker along. Although Gormann could get them through doors and security measures, the Major didn’t trust that the translation software would pick up warnings or even simple directions as quickly and accurately as Maker could. More than once they had set off a terminal security alarm, mistaken a recording for a live Culler, or taken a wrong turn down a corridor.
They moved slowly, checking sensors and recalculating routes often. Occasionally, the data panels would flicker out or a door would open or closed as they passed by. Twenty minutes after entering the ship, Maker paused in the middle of a corridor. Her spine went cold. A whisper, far and faint, scraped against her ears. “Major,” she whispered into a direct comm. There was no need to speak softly, the sound couldn’t carry outside her suit, but fear had a grip on her throat. “We need to get out of sight.” The Major stopped, holding himself still for a moment, then motioned the group into a side junction. Gormann quickly went to work on the door controls, syncing up a handheld terminal with the alien tech. It only closed partially before it jammed, emitting a low sound.
Gormann reset and tried to close it again, with the same results. Maker could feel sweat beading up under her armor as he made a third attempt. Sensors picked up the heat signature of a Culler only seconds before its steps came over the proximity comm. The Raiders took up defensive positions, hugging the wall and the partially closed door, weapons ready. The language, muffled and quiet, broke the tension for Maker – but not for the other soldiers.
Electrical overloads. They wouldn’t like it in this condition. I will not release a ship that –
The footsteps paused, and Maker held her breath. Gormann was closest to the opening and he braced his Klim and aimed.
Malfunctions everywhere. The crew can’t repair it. They aren’t good enough to eat!
Gormann tensed his legs to stand, and Maker broke protocol. “It’s leaving!” she whispered into the proximity comm. The group tensed further, but held fire. After another few moments and more clicking, high-pitched comments on the operations of the ship, the Culler moved on. She sagged back against the wall, sliding down a few inches but stopping herself before it would be noticeable. Her head was pounding harder than her heart. The Major’s helmet turned toward her, but he said nothing. After a full minute he ordered them to move again.
Two corridors later they entered a large, high-ceilinged room and she was nearly shot when an automated message began, startling the squad and causing the soldier in front of her to swing around looking for the source of the Culler words. Gormann stepped in front of her, deflecting the weapon long enough for Maker to translate. “Safety message,” she said, “Sublight engines are spooling up.” Even as she spoke the quiet thrum of the engines could be heard, the tone higher than what she was used to on a Coalition ship. The message continued. “Radiation levels are going to rise. There are two shielded chambers.” She pointed to niches on either wall. Neither were large enough for the entire squad.
The Major used hand signals to split the group; teams one through three went one direction and four through six the other. A tone sounded, a blast door dropped over the niche, and then the kick of sublight engines had Maker stumbling. The others were more prepared, or more agile. Probably both, Maker thought. They only swayed in place. The ship shuddered and shook, jolting forward roughly. Gormann and another soldier fell against the wall. Maker dropped to the floor. Abruptly, the motion stopped and another tone sounded as the door opened. Across the room, the other niche had malfunctioned, opening only a few inches. Gormann immediately hooked up his tablet. After only a few minutes, it became obvious that it would take time to get the door open. Time they didn’t have. Gormann’s tech was useless, it would be brute force that would get the job done, but not quick enough. The Major had a quick, direct conversation with the trapped soldiers, and then he motioned for his group to move forward. Maker had to swallow her objections. She knew some of the soldiers in that group, had eaten lunch with one of them the day before. Logically, the order made sense. The second group would get the door open and secure a return route, which would give the Major more time to locate the target and set the device. It was in keeping with the Coalition’s policy of sacrificing the safety, and even lives, of soldiers for the greater good. The mission was always more important that the six, or a hundred, or a thousand.
They had nearly reached their destination, and Maker’s headache was spawning black blossoms at the edges of her vision. The Major called a halt and they crouched down behind a low wall to listen. Two Cullers were on the other side. They argued about the problems with the sublight engines and agreed that the ship should be turned around. One more burst to test the issue and then they would take it back to the maintenance base. Maker alerted the Major. He ordered her to contact the second group and request a distraction. She opened her comm line, and promptly bit her tongue. It took precious seconds to close out the long-range communications signal, and during that time half of her tech was shorted out. The electrical fields in the air were thicker than they had been at the edge of the ship, and jumped onto the path of least resistance – her open line and armor suit filled with metallic threads and conductive circuitry. Her ears were ringing and the black spots in her vision tunneled for a moment, forcing her to sit down or fall down. Gormann caught her before she made any noise, and the Major looked back expectantly.
Maker tried to make a motion that she had failed, tried to waive Gormann off, but her hands seemed slow to respond. She pulled up a proximity comm, hoping that it would still work, but before she could open it the ship trembled and an alarm sounded. The Cullers shrieked, the sounded jumping around in Maker’s helmet and stabbing straight into her brain.
“Comm range,” she finally managed, “down.” She was breathing heavily, trying to blink her vision back to normal and listen to the aliens. “An exterior hatch opened, they’re losing atmosphere.” The Cullers moved off at a loping run, and Maker knew that they were trying and failing to communicate with their third crew member – the one which had noticed the malfunctioning door. “Clear.” The Major was moving before she spoke, already having realized the Cullers had left the room ahead. His team and team two secured the chamber while Gormann half carried her to the terminal in the center of the floor. It was a wide cylinder, tapered at the top at least two meters over her head. A thick bundle of biotechnical cables descended from the ceiling into the terminal, surrounded by a waterfall of silvery plasma.
“Your tech isn’t transmitting medical – can you stand?” Gormann’s voice was low through the proximity comm. At her jerky nod, he released her to connect his tablet to the terminal. Maker reached out one shaky hand to the terminal to brace herself and glanced at the display. Her blood was pounding so hard her eyes seemed to throb to the bass of it, making her vision pulse. Little sparks of electricity burst where she touched the screen, and an automated recording began.
“It’s a selection menu, for maintenance,” she said quietly.
Gormann paused in his typing. “Is there anything for local, physical access?” No sooner had he stopped talking than the automation moved to a new set of instructions.
“Just above your left foot, there is a removable panel.”
Gormann crouched down and pulled out his service knife. He slipped the blade into a wide notch and the panel fell open, revealing more of the biotechnical cables and a shallow pool of plasma. From his pack he removed a white plastic square, about the size of Maker’s fist. He tapped a rhythm on the surface, and it opened flat into a small tablet.
“One minute.” The Major was watching down the corridor where the Cullers had gone, clearly ready to move on. Gormann finished entering commands into the small device and closed it back into a cube. His arm was just long enough to reach past the cables and tuck it out of sight in the liquid. He quickly resealed the panel and stood.
The Major didn’t respond but lead them back the way they had come, in double time. Maker could barely keep up with the group and listen to the automated warnings. The Culler ship was having multiple malfunctions. Exterior ports were opening and closing, and the sublight engines were inoperable. They crossed back through the radiation chamber without seeing the other group, and were nearly to the vent entrance when an explosion rocked the ship. Maker was knocked flat on her back, with Gormann landing on top of her. It knocked the wind out of her, and she lay stunned for a several moments even after he rolled to his feet – gun ready. She sat up and scooted back against a wall, leaving sparks in her wake. The static was growing worse. Two soldiers emerged from the vent access, dragging a third.
“Report,” the Major commanded, lifting the ban on proximity comms.
“Sir,” their leader coughed. “We ran into two Cullers. One is dead, we tossed it out. The other dragged off Johanssen and closed the passage between us. We moved to secure the grappler, but there was some sort of electrical discharge. Sir, our transport is gone.”
Maker stared, disbelieving. The automated message continued, assuring the crew that sublight engines would hard reset in ten minutes. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Not Johanssen getting captured or the two soldiers that were charred and in pieces at the other end of the vent. They had no way off of the Red Class.
“Team up,” the Major barked. “You,” he pointed to the injured woman, “you’re with me. Secure your lines to each other and prepare for a free-float. We’ll wait for the Cullers to leave, then our ship will pick us up on a sensor sweep and come get us. Move.”
“Sir, Johanssen-” Gormann cut himself off before the Major’s helmet could even turn. He knew what Maker knew, what the Major didn’t have to say.
“Secure the translator.”
Maker was higher priority, more valuable than the other soldiers. Only one percent of humans could do what she could do. The Major was acting exactly how the Coalition recommended – sacrificing one for a greater goal. Maker was not interested in being a part of that.
“We have ten minutes,” she blurted. “Until the engines restart and they move back to base. We can-”
“Tie off to your partner, Lieutenant,” the Major said flatly. “Don’t let these good soldiers die for nothing.”
“Nothing?” She could hear the panic in her voice, the incredulity. A free float. That was how the Major was planning to save the rest of them – to save her. He was willing, the Coalition was willing to sacrifice Johanssen on the minuscule chance that their ship would do a thorough sensor sweep after the Red Class left, locate them in millions of square kilometers of deep dark, and pick them up before anyone’s suit malfunctioned or they were hit by the debris of their own destroyed transport. She stood up, pushing against the wall to gain leverage. Her right hand came upon a data panel, and it gave under her fingers a bit, sending little shocks through her system. Gormann was working on the vent, trying to make certain it would close seamlessly behind everyone.
“You get jacked up, I get jacked up,” the Major stated. It was the Raider oath. It meant that they would die for each other. It meant that each of them knew that they had agreed to sacrifice themselves for the Coalition. That they would die if it meant the mission could be successful. That they wouldn’t want their team to take unnecessary risks – to jeopardize success for them. It didn’t matter if the Major liked it. Didn’t matter if he agreed that the risk was unnecessary or that the mission was worth one of his people. He was following orders.
Maker could feel the panel through her glove, feel the commands for opening the door behind her. She knew the layout of the Red Class, could see it on her display. Somehow, she could hear the muffled, distant calls of the Cullers that were still alive. One that was vainly reaching out to communicate, the other that had Johanssen. “Bullshit.” Gormann glanced over his shoulder, but Maker kept her eyes on the Major; he was closest to her and still three meters away. He was moving even before the door began to open. The suddenness surprised her, and she fell backward. As soon as her hand left the panel it started to slide shut. She barely had enough time to move her boots out of the way.
Maker crawled, shaking, on her knees for several meters. Waiting to hear Gormann open the door and the Major yelling at her. Her comm, her burned out broken comm, wouldn’t transmit or receive anything but proximity contacts. Stupid, stupid, she repeated in her head. She wasn’t sure if she meant the Coalition or herself. The muffled language of the Cullers was growing closer, louder, so she picked herself and started a light jog. She had to backtrack twice, moving further away before she realized and corrected herself. The automated voice spoke up every minute, reminding her of the countdown, reminding her that if she didn’t make it back to the Raiders and their plan to float in open space, she would be stuck in enemy territory. Injured. On a Red Class Culler destroyer. She pulled out her Klim, toggling through the ammunition for a gravity net. She couldn’t see her own medical stats, but her hands were shaking. She didn’t want to hit Johanssen by mistake.
Speak! Where is your ship!
Screams of pain followed the clear words, and Maker threw herself around a corner, gun first, looking desperately for the enemy. It was a dead end. Three doors, one on each side and one in front of her, were all closed. The screams started again, and more shrieking, grating questions. She couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. Maker took one step and fell forward, her gravity boot sticking to an exposed metal grate. She gripped her Klim tightly, but one arm flailed out, trying to find purchase. The tips of her fingers brushed across an access panel, shocking her and shorting out her ammunition controls. The door on her left opened. A Culler, chest open and eyes black, turned to face her. Maker had the barest impression of a suited and armored soldier, blood dripping from his chest. She fired.
The gravity net missed, swirling and tumbling past the alien to slap against the wall and slide to the floor. The Culler jumped at her, and she turned her head from upraised talons, firing a second time. There was a shout over her proximity comm and the alien collapsed on her. Maker blinked, breathing hard and not quite certain that she was still alive, or that the Culler was not.
“Your aim is for shit, Maker.” She looked up at Johanssen, swaying where he stood and clutching his side where fresh blood was dripping. “Didn’t the Major tell you not to shoot anyone?”
Maker squirmed out from under the body, noting that the automated voice declared they had four minutes until engine restart. “It’s harder than it sounds.”
Johanssen insisted on dragging the Culler partially back into the room and crushing its neck and lower jaw a few times by closing the door. He hoped that when the body was found, the death would be attributed to malfunctions. They ran. Maker was ready to pass out by the time they reached the vent. The rest of the team was gone. Muffled whispers of Culler language were faint and far away as she followed Johanssen into the small space and sealed the access panel behind them. He used his med kit while they moved, sealing his wounds and dulling the pain. His suit was still working, and he flooded the kinetic gel. On contact with air it hardened permanently. He would have to be cut out of his armor, but it created a barrier between his skin and a vacuum. The automated countdown had less than a minute left when they jumped off the ship, lines secured to each other. Maker’s tech was still fritzing. Her sensors flickered in and out as the Red Class spooled up its engines and shot off. The sudden movement and tide of radiation washed over them both, jostling them and sending Maker into a spin until Johanssen reeled her in by their combined lines.
“Your tech isn’t working?”
“No,” Maker responded. The gentle turn the floated in was making her dizzy, so she closed her eyes. She was probably going to die there. In space. Tied to a man that she had only spoken to a handful of times. She giggled. “I got a bad shock.” The giggles broke into laughter. She had risked her life, all their lives, and the mission – just so she could die with her eyes closed and her stomach queasy. It wasn’t funny. She couldn’t stop laughing.
“I’ve got the others on sensors. About one kilometer away.” He stopped speaking, and after a long moment Maker was able to take a deep breath and get herself under control. “The Major wants me to make it clear to you that there will be repercussions.”
“Assuming we all live.” That thought sobered her. She wasn’t dead yet, and Maker wanted to keep it that way. Until the next breath. And the next. She gripped Johanssen’s arm tighter.
“Gormann wants to…” Johanssen rearranged them awkwardly until they were facing each other, his hands free to reach the comm module on her lower arm. He physically linked his to hers, and although her sensors remained out of commission, a voice came in clearly.
“You aren’t very good at following orders, short stack.” Maker replied, but Johanssen shook his head to let her know it hadn’t gone through.
“She says you’re an ugly bastard,” Johanssen replied for her.
“Nah,” Gormann’s voice was easy and teasing, just like they were back in their shared office. “Well yeah, but that doesn’t change the facts.”
Maker responded, and Johanssen relayed, “She says you need to get out more – without your suit. Or oxygen.” Maker glared, frustrated, but unable to do anything. A little part of her did recognize the good deed Johanssen was doing by taking her mind off of their situation.
“Cut the chatter.” The Major’s voice sliced through the conversation, bringing it to a complete stop. No one spoke again, until their air recyclers were nearly exhausted and Maker’s suit was starting to lose the battle against the cold of space. Her vision was blurry and blood that she hadn’t noticed before had dried and crusted on her ears and neck, making them itch.
“Maker. Everybody goes home.” Gormann was quiet and serious, his words not a question but a statement. She thought she opened her mouth to reply, but maybe she just closed her eyes.
“Yeah,” Johanssen said. “She says yeah.” She blacked out shortly after that, her last thoughts of the two soldiers that had been caught in the explosion of the transport and the pilot who was still on board. Not everybody.