Authors: Casey Calouette
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Military, #Space Opera, #Action & Adventure, #General
“Wake up, Grace, you missed breakfast,” Vito said. He handed William a ration bar and a plastic pipe section for a cup. “You feeling well? You look a bit off.”
“I overslept?” William sipped the chill water. He felt warm and tired.
“A bit, everyone is out searching the wreckage.”
William nodded and finished the cup.
He stood up and grunted.
Vito gave him a questioning look. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, just sore.”
Vito nodded and held the flap open.
Outside the sun was warm and the wind nonexistent. Overhead, the clouds whipped as they collided against the warmer currents from the south. William raised a hand to his brow and looked out. The snow had melted all around exposing even more wreckage. Men poked, walked, hauled, and slid all around.
William stepped out and took in the shore. Vito walked silently next to him. They passed Kerry, who carried a bundle of wires trailing behind him like a dead snake. Xan lugged a large box with a display screen.
“Mr. Grace!” Tero called out as he ran up. He held out a large brown box of socks.
“I never thought I’d be so excited to see a box of issue socks,” William replied with a dim smile.
Vito shook his head. “Not yet.”
William nodded. He pried back a metal plate and looked into a sophisticated pumping array. He dropped it loudly and focused on the next bit of wreckage. The pair investigated each mangled piece of wreckage. He found himself sitting more often. His knee was both cold and hot all at once.
Sebastien jogged up at an easy lope. “Mr. Grace, do you have a moment?”
William nodded and sat up from an empty methane tank. “Lead on.”
“I’ll keep poking about,” Vito said as he detoured to a hull section.
Sebastien began to run.
William struggled to keep pace and stopped, barely walking.
“Is something wrong?” Sebastien asked.
William shook his head and set his chin downwards. The pair plodded on until they rounded a black gravel point. His leg ached as they passed the five kilometer mark. Beyond lay even more wreckage and a piece of the ship’s spine.
Sebastien waved his arm in an arc. “It looks like most of it ended in the water, but there’s even more wreckage farther down the coast and more back on the plateau here.”
The ship’s spine was stiff and slightly bent. The honeycombed core was nearly impossible to destroy. It had to handle the shock of entering the atmosphere and blinking out again a few moments later. A task most starships would crumble under.
“Do you see what’s missing?” Sebastien asked with a slight smile.
“Damn near everything?” William replied.
Sebastien pointed to the end of the spine. “What was latched on there?”
William squinted. His eyes felt warm and scratchy. Then he saw the giant hydraulic clamps. Open. “Oh…”
Sebastien nodded with a wide smile. “The orbital assault pods made it out.”
William looked up for a moment and then back to Sebastien. “But we’ve got no comms.”
“No, well, not yet. If we do we’ve got orbital support.” Sebastien replied with a bit of a cocky grin. “Those little buggers are running silent now, each one ready to slide a nasty little package over the horizon.”
The orbital assault pods were small satellites that carried a payload of ceramic coated warheads. They were fast and designed to live in low orbit for a very brief time. They had enough fuel to keep them on station for a few months. For now they would silently orbit, awaiting instructions.
“So what do we need?”
Sebastien nodded and stuck his hands into his pockets. “An orbital commset that works, or a broadcast station somewhere that Xan can tap into.”
William felt a bit better, though he dreaded the walk back. “Well, shall we?”
* * *
Halfway back William crumbled. When he opened his eyes next, Vito stood over him cradling his head. The cool water was spilling down his neck as he tried to sip. He burned with fever.
“Doesn’t the Navy get inoculated?” Berry asked.
“Everyone does, for every drop,” Vito replied.
“Then what is it? Some alien bug?” Selim asked.
“I don’t think so,” Vito said.
“What about the patches?” Crow said.
“Maybe, but something doesn’t seem right.”
“He was limping,” Sebastien said.
Vito tossed the cup. He slid down William’s pants and recoiled backwards. The skin just above William’s knee was a black dimpled patch of rotting skin. In the center of the wound was a gash like cracked mud. A slight red tint grew on the edges of the crack with a fierce red burning near the skin.
“Sweet Jesus,” Eduardo said.
“What is that?” Berry said.
“That is gangrene,” Vito said simply.
William closed his eyes and drifted into darkness.
He dreamed of his father. They were sitting in a tunnel playing with toy horses. The eyes of the horses glittered and rolled as the pair slid them along the dusty floor. Men walked past and saluted his father.
His father spoke, but he couldn’t remember the words. He knew he didn’t like it. He didn’t like the tunnel or the machine that bored into the rock. It was loud. Loud everywhere. The machine went up and out, boring farther near the surface. All he could taste was stone.
But still his father came down and they played with the worn horses. Then the sounds stopped and he had to leave.
* * *
Berry walked out from the tent, giddy with anticipation. He’d been waiting for a moment to seize upon a change of pace. He’d be damned if he was going to follow the fools to the needle. He had his own plans with his own men.
The meaty-sweet smell of gangrene hung in his nostrils. He trekked towards the supply pile and found Grue sorting through wreckage. “Find Nur and James.”
“Because I fucking told you.
” Berry yelled back. He walked back down towards the second tent and poked his head inside. It was empty, everyone else was in the other tent. He popped the release and watched it deflate slowly. The stakes slid out from the damp soil easily. The wind rustled and lifted the shell as the last bits of air finally drifted out.
“What are you doing Corporal?” Crow asked. He stood with his arms on his hips.
“Taking matters into my own hands,” he replied and began to fold up the tent. His heartbeat was racing. This was the critical moment.
“Stand at attention, Soldier,” Crow snapped back.
Berry stood slowly, but not to attention. “The civilians were signed on to the ship—they have no legal contract binding them to any of this. They’ve requested my assistance.”
Crow looked back with a strange look on his face. “It’s called desertion.”
“I’ll not abandon them if they want to go their own way. They requested my help.”
They stood and looked at each other in the wind. Sebastien stepped out and walked over.
“Mr. Villeneuve, we’ve got a deserter,” Crow said.
“No ship, no contract, the civilians want to go their own way and have requested my help,” Berry said again.
Sebastien looked back and crossed his arms. “I think not.”
Grue returned with James and Nur. The group stood by Berry and listened.
“Grue, James, you signed on to a ship, and with no ship, you aren’t signed up with anyone,” Berry said with a sweep of his arm to the wreckage.
“That’s right!” Grue stammered, out of breath.
Sebastien looked to Crow and back to the tent behind him.
Berry saw the moment and seized it. He reached down and grabbed the handle of the collapsed tent and began to drag it. Grue and Nur grasped on and tugged the awkward bulk.
“Negative,” Sebastien said. “We are not splitting up.”
“This is our right, we’ll split the rations and supplies, but we need a tent,” Berry said.
Crow shifted on his feet. “You’ll get no power. Find your own damn reactor.”
Berry bared his teeth like an animal in a mock smile. It was agreed and they didn’t even know it, down to only the bartering. “I’ll talk with that Midshipman once he’s awake, we’re just one less thing for you to worry about now.”
Sebastien dropped his hand onto the holster at his side. “Drop the tent.”
Berry continued to drag the bulky mass. Nur and Grue strained while James lagged behind, unsure of what to do. “Mr. James, if you please.” He locked his eyes onto James and watched as the quiet man grabbed a corner. “You’re not going to shoot a civilian?”
“No, but I’ll have no problem shooting you.”
Berry released the front of the tent and it dropped slowly. “Is that how it is now, Marine? An argument doesn’t go your way so you shoot it?” He stooped down and grabbed the forward edge. “Tell that Midshipman I’ll barter this with him.”
Berry had an audience now. Most of the survivors were watching as the bulky tent moved a few hundred meters away. Sebastien held his hand over the cover of the holster, resting his palm on the top.
Berry turned and gauged the distance before setting it down in a slight bowl. “All right boys,” he said, turning to his crew. “Let’s get to work.”
* * *
William opened his eyes. The room was dark. The crashing of waves shook the ground beneath him. He could still see the glittering eyes of the horses slowly recede in the darkness. Only a small piece of the light strip gave any light. For the first time he noticed the smell, that rank animal odor from too many men in too small an area.
He felt fine. His knee was sore, but the soreness was different. He could feel a patch on his neck: the priceless, precious patches. His fingers danced down his soiled shirt and found a heavy dressing sitting over the top of his knee. He pushed gently and was rewarded with raw pain.
He closed his eyes and listened to the waves as he drifted back to sleep.
William woke as the morning grew. Around him the men were tossing and turning while one man went outside. William sat up slowly.
“He’s awake!” Avi called out.
The room sprang to life with the sounds of nylon and fabric moving. All eyes were on him. He blushed and felt rather sheepish.
“Vito? Where’s Vito?” Kwesi asked.
“Outside,” replied a voice.
“Go get him!” Kwesi shouted back.
“He’s pissing, and heard you by now. Relax,” Crow said. He climbed out of his sleeping bag and scooted over to William.
“I, uh, well. How long was I out?” William asked.
Crow smiled. “About two weeks.”
William took a deep breath. “That bad?”
Crow nodded. Others around the room nodded as well. “You had a nasty bit of gangrene, even the nanites couldn’t stop it.”
“So what did you do?”
“We had to do some surgery,” Vito replied as he stepped back into the tent.
William wiggled his toes. He could still feel them. His mind wandered to amputation.
Around the room sat most of the survivors. William looked around and did a quick head count. The room was crowded. Too crowded. Four men were missing: Berry and his crew.
“Where do we stand?” William asked.
Crow ran a hand through his growing stubble. “We’ve found a lot of useful things.”
“We’re welding some pontoons onto a piece of decking.” Xinhu’s eyes glowed with excitement.
“Supplies? Food?” William asked.
Vito shook his head. “Not really.”
“Someone help me up, please. I’d like to see this boat. And I really have to use the bathroom.”
Vito and Crow helped him hobble outside.
The snow was completely gone, showing mostly bare gravel. The second tent was a few hundred meters away. On the beach basked a set of large fuel tanks with a section of perforated alloy decking on top. Assorted sheeting, pillars, tubes, and struts lay on the beach above the high tide line.
Further down the beach lay a second craft. It was smaller and cruder. Lashings of power wire and plastic tubing held the tanks together. William had a hunch what had happened.
Vito noticed him looking at the other craft. “There was a bit of a legal battle.”
“Legal battle?” William asked. He slid his arms off his supporters and stood gently on both legs.
“Always a lawyer somewhere,” Sebastien replied as he walked out of the tent and rummaged through a collected debris pile.
“Grue and James are both contractors, signed on to the ship. So they decided no ship, no valid contract,” Vito said.
“What about Berry and Nur?” William asked. It wasn’t unheard of for civilians to leave when the terms weren’t satisfactory. But this was different, it wasn’t like the ship was stuck in repairs.
“Deserters,” Crow spat.