Authors: Mark Wayne McGinnis
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Alien Invasion, #Exploration, #First Contact, #Galactic Empire, #Military, #Space Opera, #Space Exploration, #Science Fiction
Rain poured down from above. Somehow the suit’s visor compensated for the torrent of water and her vision remained crystal clear. “So what did you want to show me, Jack? The weather is getting pretty bad.”
Jack pointed in the direction of a half-walled circular structure. Time and the elements had left the dark block walls worn and eroded. Then Boomer saw the droid. Half buried in the gray sand, it looked similar to her own droid, Dewdrop.
Jack nodded, as if anticipating Boomer’s next question. “Part of the problem here. All the feeding and caregiving droids that serviced this habitat are like this … inoperable.”
Boomer stopped in front of the droid and knelt down. She used her hand to wipe sand away from its buried lower, triangular-shaped torso. It was facing downward, toward the ground. She carefully slid her hands beneath its body, and flipped it over onto its back. Startled, Jack reached his hand out, touching Boomer’s shoulder, and coaxed her to back away. They stared down at the open cavity on the droid’s now-exposed torso. The droid had deployed a plasma weapon in that small open cavity on its chest area. Boomer thought of Dewdrop, who had a similar hidden cavity, with a weapon configured inside it—just like this one. She peered up at Jack, then at the droid. “This droid’s been in a battle … look, there’s scorch marks all over it.”
Jack looked nervous; unlike Boomer, he wasn’t the slightest bit familiar with combat situations. “Come on, we should now return to the portal.”
But Boomer was no longer looking at the droid—or at Jack, either, for that matter. All her attention was focused on the figure standing atop one of the toppled pillars—less than fifty feet away. Dressed in white, from head to toe, the material of his garment whipped behind him in the stormy wind. The surrounding darkness flashed white when lightning streaked like jagged tree branches across the sky. In that bright instant, Boomer saw two similarly dressed figures standing close behind the man on the pillar.
Jack looked down, scared and ready to run. Boomer was more curious than scared. Why weren’t those men showing up on her HUD, she wondered. Where were their life-icons?
The man on the pillar jumped down and, along with his three companions, headed directly for them. Jack grabbed Boomer’s arm and pulled. “We need to get out of here … right now!”
Boomer knew she was well equipped to handle herself. The battle suit was nearly impregnable and she had plasma weapons integrated at both her wrists. She readied herself for possible action.
Jack moved behind her as the first of the men drew close. He was dressed, she imagined, like an Arabian nomad would be dressed; most of his face was veiled—only his eyes and long hair were left uncovered.
“Stop right there,” Boomer commanded into the roaring wind, holding out her wrist, prepared to fire.
She watched the man’s eyes. When he moved it was quick as lightning. He now stood inches from her. When he lifted his hand and touched her visor, her battle suit began to retract, segment by segment, back into the small SuitPac on her belt. She turned to see Jack lying on the ground … he looked dead.
, Open Space – Near Jefferson Station
was scheduled to depart in forty-five minutes. Jason, sitting in his ready room, alongside recently promoted Commander Perkins, his XO, was doing a final review of the onboard roster. Perkins, a man in his mid-thirties, was preppy looking, his straight blond hair usually perfectly combed. Jason found his second-in-command something of a do-gooder … everything by the book. It had caused conflicts between them in the past, but in the end, Jason figured his XO was a good balance for his own shoot from the hip style of command.
“So this is it … this is final?”
“Actually, not quite, sir. One final inbound shuttle is entering the flight deck now. Last minute additions … including your new petty officer, who’s assigned to Boomer.”
From what Jason understood, the
, for the first time that he was aware of, had a full crew complement.
“So we have two thousand and forty,” Perkins said, looking at his own virtual notebook. “The bulk of security forces consists of thirteen hundred and fifty specially-trained, highly lethal, men and women, from a hybrid Marine, Navy SEAL contingent; they are commonly referred to as
. There’s also the non-officer onboard crew, consisting of six hundred men and women, mostly brought in from recently decommissioned ships.”
Jason was well aware of the latter fact. He’d lately been inundated with requests from other fleet commanders who were looking for new posts for their best people. With the long Craing War over, a thing of the past, ships were being decommissioned, their crews retiring, either back to Earth or to homes on other planets. Without a present war to engage in, there simply wasn’t the need for such a large military presence.
“We have sixty-five officers spread out across multiple departments,” Perkins added.
“A lot of people,” Jason said. He’d reviewed the list numerous times and it still seemed like an overwhelming number of crew on board. His largest command responsibility to date.
“And that’s just the
’s crew. The armada includes three light Craing cruisers and nine heavy Craing cruisers. That’s roughly another two thousand.”
Jason was being hailed via his NanoCom. He gestured for Perkins to hold tight.
“Go for Captain.”
“You still have a place for me?” Billy Hernandez asked.
“You, yes … your stinking cigars, no,” Jason said, glad to hear his friend’s voice. “So what happened? Got tired chasing zombies?”
“Something like that. Um, Cap … I’m here with Lieutenant Garret. It seems there’s no room here for this old sea dog.”
Jason checked the time. “I’ll be right down, I need to make a quick stop first … try not to get your panties twisted into a knot.”
* * *
Jason exited the DeckPort on Deck 7—where the ship’s security forces barracks were situated. He found Lieutenant Garret’s office; Billy stood in the center of a group of men nearby. Jason tapped his knuckles on the lieutenant’s open hatch and entered the compartment. Garret was seated at his desk, reviewing a virtual notebook. Without looking up, he said, “Just take a seat … be with you in a moment.” Jason instantly didn’t like the man. Stocky, with broad shoulders and an extreme flattop haircut, the ruddy-faced lieutenant looked near to Jason’s age.
Jason remained standing and waited for Garret to look up. Eventually he did.
“Oh! Pardon me, sir. Didn’t see you lingering there.”
Jason checked his watch. “I don’t have a lot of time so I’ll make this short and sweet. Hernandez will hold a leadership position here.”
“With all due respect, sir. Billy … as well as your other men including Jackson and Rizzo … is not trained at the same high level as my Sharks. I can work Rizzo and Jackson into shape … but not for leadership roles. This isn’t a good fit for Hernandez.”
“Is that so?”
“Aye, sir. I realize you two go way back. You’re friends and all. But—”
“Stand up, Lieutenant. You’ve already disrespected me once. Don’t disrespect me again.”
Garret made a face, hesitated a second, then slowly rose to his feet. He made a nasally sound—a quick huffing noise through his nostrils.
“You’re a real tough guy … I can see that, Lieutenant.” Jason glanced back through the hatch at the growing crowd watching them from the barracks. “Tell me. Are you as tough as your men … your Sharks? Or are you just a big talker … a blow hard?” Jason checked his watch again. He had ten minutes to get back to the bridge.
“Look. I’m sorry if we got off on the wrong foot, Captain. I guess, I’m just not used to being micromanaged when it comes to my men.”
“Yeah, well things are done differently on my ship. Keep in mind, they’re not
men any longer, they are mine. But I’m going to give you an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is. I noticed you have a gym and a sparring ring set up here.”
“Sharks are rarely idle … you’re free to come down and use it, sir. Perhaps we can put a program together for you. Get that waistline of yours tightened up a bit.”
Jason knew his middle wasn’t quite as firm as it had been several months ago, but it hadn’t yet reached the point he needed to loosen his belt a notch either.
“Get yourself into that ring. Don’t change your clothes, don’t remove your boots,” Jason ordered.
“Yes, you … right now.”
There it was again, the nostril snorting. This time, a smirk came along with it. “No problem, Captain.”
Garret came around his desk and walked past Jason, keeping his eyes locked on Jason’s. Apparently, their heated discussion hadn’t gone unheard. All Sharks in that section of the barracks, easily one hundred men, plus a few women, made an open space for the lieutenant to walk through. There were hoots and hollers and pats on his back as Garret moved through the crowd toward the gym. Jason held back a moment and waited for Billy to join him at his side.
“What exactly are we doing here, Cap?”
Jason looked at his watch again. “I have six minutes. You want a place here, among these men?”
Billy nodded. “Sure.”
“Show Garret what an old SEAL has left in his tank.”
“Yeah, you sure?”
“We’re burning daylight here … I’m sure.”
Jason watched Billy head off between the Sharks, boos and insults following him. The gym was not large enough for everyone to enter so Jason had to muscle his way in between big, muscular bodies. The ring was a hexagon—the ultimate fighting-type configuration—used for mixed martial arts: boxing, karate, wrestling, Sambo, Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and judo, and of course standard military close combat training, to give a few.
Garret was standing in the middle of the ring, warming up—dancing around like a prizefighter. On the other side of the ring, Jason spotted Rizzo, and Sergeant Jackson, the enormous African-American Army Ranger who’d also served on
Again, Jason checked the time. He had about two minutes before the
was scheduled to enter into an interchange wormhole … he needed to get back on the bridge. He reflected on the last time a ship entered that area of space and the subsequent loss of the
… and his father along with it.
The two men fist bumped and looked toward Jason. The surrounding tightly packed Sharks, one hundred or so, went quiet. They too watched Jason. He looked at Billy and nodded once.
Garret threw the first punch, while Billy was still partially turned away. His fist connected with the side of Billy’s head, and Billy went down onto all fours. It appeared to shake his Cuban friend. Garret didn’t wait for Billy to regain his wits. Using the rigid toe of his left boot, Garret kicked Billy in the ribs, then, with the heel of the other boot, he kicked down at the back of Billy’s head. The crowd groaned in sympathy to what must have been an agonizing blow. Now sprawled flat on his stomach, Jason saw Billy blinking his eyes, trying to clear his head. Smiling and striding around Billy’s prone body, Garret slapped at his fellow Sharks’ outstretched hands. Big mistake, Jason thought. Billy got back to his feet and staggered a bit, but back was Billy’s confident smile.
Jason waited for what he suspected was coming. What he himself would do. Billy ratcheted his upper body around in a quick, fluid motion and, like a released spring, his lower body uncoiled—delivering a powerful, spinning back kick that connected directly with Garret’s solar plexus. Now, as Garret doubled over, Billy, half-stepping to the side, delivered a short heel-stomp to the back of the man’s left knee. Garret let out a high-pitched yelp and began to fall backward. Billy, anticipating it, finished him off with a solid uppercut to the chin. His dead weight flopped down to the mat, unmoving.
It took sixty seconds for Garret to come around. Jason crouched over his prone body and watched his face, waiting for Garret’s eyes to blink open, the haze to clear.
“Listen to me, Lieutenant Garret. You now report to Lieutenant Commander Billy Hernandez. He outranks you and I expect you to show him the proper respect … respect you failed to show me. I advise you not to underestimate my men again. Any one of us could have laid you out flat … including me.”
Jason stood and handed Billy a small gray box. “Here are your new collar bars—these men now report to you.”
Pharlom Attack Marauder, Planet Trom, Skies Above Cammilon City
Hanna was right—the plasma blasts most certainly were bringing unwanted attention in their direction. Leon took a quick look out of the open hatch and saw five Pharloms … no, six … from different locations around the flight deck, heading their way. All were armed with projectile rifles.
Leon scooped up one of the weapons, dropped by the dead creature on the delivery scout’s deck, and handed it over to Hanna. He grabbed the second one for himself, still keeping a firm grip on the plasma pistol in his other hand.
“This way … keep up!” he yelled, already moving outside the hatch.
Hanna stayed close on his heels and together they ran toward a rectangular opening on the deck—surrounded on three sides by a thick metal railing. The first to reach it, he didn’t hesitate heading down a recessed, wide-tread stairway. Gunfire rained from above; shrapnel ricocheting around them prompted Leon to hold back and reach for Hanna’s hand.
“Keep going!” she barked, swatting his hand away and passing him on the stairs. They descended to a lower level and hurried forward into what he figured was a parts depot for the vehicles above. Running flat out now, they headed forward toward the bow. Leon spotted an oily reflection but didn’t have time to warn Hanna. Her front foot upon hitting the patch of grease skidded out from under her, sending her sprawling sideways. She went down hard, Leon with her. Together, they slid across the deck, plowing into metal shelving. Leon whacked his head on a protruding metal flange—some kind of replacement mechanical part. Lying on his back, blood came away on his fingers as he probed the open gash above his right ear.