Dekker’s Dozen #006
A relic from a bygone and era of space travel, the battle scarred capital-class cruiser might have been the flagship of some grand fleet before her death. Now, she bled flotsam into the vacuum through open fissures and poorly cobbled together cold welds used to fuse hull fragments as the behemoth crept near the space station.
It couldn’t be a pirate ship. The ugly vessel possessed no atmosphere; it was a ghost ship, crewed by the damned. The dead craft likely came in support of the zombified scientists.
The massive, hellish cruiser rolled ever so slightly as it closed the distance, a sure sign that it intended to berth at the airlock. The monstrous cruiser was nearly the same size as the research station.
“This doesn’t change the assignment,” Dekker stated sharply, his voice even more urgent. He checked his personal oxygen tank again. “It merely stresses our timetable. Radio check every ten minutes. You each have your assignments, find that DNIET weapon. Move out!”
Dekker discharged his blaster. The brilliant beam slammed into the chest of an infected scientist further down the hall; it burned though his chest and knocking him off his feet. Another, closer, zombie snarled and charged.
Vesuvius had drawn a blade with each hand and leapt for it. With a whirling attack her first blade severed the horned protrusion on the fiend’s head. The second blade took the head. She wanted to feel remorse for the victim—it had once been human, but no time remained to think about that. Her own life, and perhaps the lives of billions of others, hung in the balance. Should the DNIET device fall into wrong hands, many would certainly perish.
“Come on, this way,” Dekker briefly consulted the map affixed to the wall. He noted the docking bay locations and escape pods.
They rounded a corner, sprinted down a hallway, and spotted the docking bay entry. Dekker ran through it and collided with an infected scientist; they both fell to the floor. The beast screeched with surprise and Dekker rolled through the tumble, he came up on one knee and fired before Vesuvius could even reach the door.
She stepped over the dead, female sentry, breaking the curls of smoke that wafted up from her chest. “Not really your type?” she joked dryly.
“No,” he returned. “She wouldn’t stop making bad jokes. You know how that gets on my nerves.”
Vesuvius winked at him. “There’s the airlock.”
Dekker nodded and clicked on his communicator. “We’re at the supply ship. About to check it out.” He checked his timer—it was close enough to the scheduled check-in.
“Been on level B for two minutes.” Nathan’s voice. “These things are everywhere! Just a heads up, some are more resistant to lasers than others.”
“Understood. Over and out.” Dekker went to the access panel and activated the door switch.
The airlock, mostly useless since the oxygen recyclers had been destroyed, hissed as the seal broke and the doors slid aside. With incredible speed a trio of black-eyed zombies poured through the door and leapt upon them. These three seemed stronger than the scientists; they were probably the supply ship’s crew—the original zombie spore carriers.
Dekker leveled his blaster and fired. A laser burned through the crewman’s clothing and smoldered against his chest. It screeched in rage—a much different sound than a cry of pain; it clubbed Dekker across the face, knocking him across the floor.
Vesuvius kicked her first assailant with a heel to the face and knocked it over while she drew her blades. She turned to face the next opponent when a heavy blow caught her in the midsection. Vesuvius doubled over in pain and quickly found herself on her back as her attacker landed another fierce stroke.
She looked up in time to see the first wounded brute climb to his feet. Focused on Vesuvius, the trio didn’t notice Dekker who sideswiped them with a cargo loader. He smashed them against the opposite bulkhead, snuffing out whatever shadow of life they held onto.
Dekker ran to Vesuvius and extended a hand to her. She took it and rose to her feet, then made a choking motion and pointed to the air cylinder clipped at her hip. The cylinder hung crumpled; a pinched crack in the metal hissed and vented the contents.
“Don’t worry, Vees. I got you.”
But there was no mistaking the worry on her eyes.
* * *
Guy hovered over Corgan as the Rickshaw Crusader drew closer to the sensor anomaly. “It could be an unlisted asteroid or something benign that’s causing the sensor shadow, right?”
“Well that’s the point, isn’t it?” Corgan asked. “Making sure that it isn’t a something.”
Guy retorted with a childish look on his face. He believed further surveillance was the right call, even if he didn’t think it likely had any threat to the mission; but he did wish he’d been assigned to the station, instead. For safety’s sake, Matty and Britton both sat in the gun turrets.
Dialing in the visual display on the sensor readout, Guy thought he recognized a distinct shape, even at this distance. “Corgan, what does this look like to you?” He traced a finger over the darkened form to outline the edges.
The pilot leaned back and glanced at the visual feed. He almost fell out of his chair as he scrambled to grab the ship’s internal comm unit. “Matty! Britton! Stay sharp!”
Guy leaned back and strapped himself into his chair. “I hate being right.”
Corgan punched the engines and accelerated towards the object on a vector that gave him both attack and defensive options.
“Wait, you’re flying towards it?”
“Yup,” he flashed Guy a maniac grin. “It could be pirates… who knows. One thing’s for sure, we need to get closer to know anything for certain.”
Guy swallowed hard. The ship grew dramatically on screen. “It’s definitely an old, pre-war battle cruiser, Class G.” Pre-war ships remained deadlier than any other variety. Following the Intergalactic Singularity War that birthed the chain of Mechnar conflicts, Krenzin influence grew and convinced the young Mother Earth Aggregate to limit armaments and downgrade the MEA navy’s destructive capacity. Many of Earth’s pre-ISW ships had been hijacked and used as raider vessels. “There’s no transponder signal so I can’t pull a name or detailed specs.”
Corgan exhaled in relief. “It’s a G point five, actually.” That would make it a Class G with upgraded armor extra weapons systems and a redundant shield array; The G-and-a-half was the heaviest classification possible: flagship grade. They didn’t make them any bigger than this.
Guy gripped the armrests of his seat and looked at him queerly. Corgan didn’t even glance at the sensor readouts, which incidentally had very little data to display. It almost seemed like the ship was cloaked, except that they could see it through the visual scope.
“I know this ship.” Corgan, an avid history fan had studied the wars of all previous generations, but especially the ISW. “See that? The power is completely off.” The cruiser loomed large enough to see it with the naked eye. “No running lights, nothing. That’s why it could never be found after its disappearance decades ago: there were no readings to trace on any sensors. I think we just stumbled on a ship that salvagers have sought for decades,” a huge grin spread from ear to ear. “It’s the battleship Salvation.”
Less confident, and much less curious than Corgan, Guy cringed in his seat while Corgan piloted their comparatively diminutive Class C alongside the behemoth’s side. With no response from the Salvation, Corgan took the Rickshaw Crusader down to the battleship’s launch bay and piloted their craft inside. The Crusader measured nearly four-thousand square feet; the Salvation had to be measured in acres.
“What are we doing?” Guy asked nervously.
“Solving a mystery,” Corgan replied. He looked at the timer that ticked down, recording the Dozen’s approximate air supply. “We’ve got over two hours before their supply gets critical. Let’s get a little info and then report back.” Corgan activated an infra-red failsafe beam that remotely powered and controlled the Salvation’s bay doors. He remotely closed them and pressurized the hold. Magnetic docking feet clamped their transport to the deck floor despite the zero-gravity.
“C’mon.” He called out to the two gunners, “Let’s check it out.”
Donning the remainder of the air-supply masks, they outfitted their own weapons and scoped out the docking bay. Everything was quiet as death.
Corgan used their IR feed to activate a diagnostic tool panel on the bulkhead wall; the rest of the ship remained pressurized and undamaged—it just had neither air nor power. “Let’s make our way to the command bridge.” He strapped a floodlight to his head and activated the interior door controls: the last thing he could grant a power override to via the Crusader‘s IR beam.
The others shrugged, not wanting to squelch Corgan’s enthusiasm. They followed their pilot through the dark corridors, powering up personal lights of their own.
Bodies floated in random places; they’d died in contorted poses but the old, sterilized air did little to promote decay. Without power, the Salvation had no internal gravity field, but the Investigator’s boots had magnetic controls that kept them grounded.
Britton had once been a medical scientist before joining Dekker’s crew. He examined the first few intact bodies; they appeared humanoid but where definitely synthetic: Mechnar. “It looks like something fried them. My guess is that the rest of the crew suffocated. Well, except for maybe these ones.” He pointed to the nearby bodies of crewmen who’d either been dismembered or shot; blackened, unoxygenated blood pooled in spherical droplets in zero-g or formed symmetrical blots upon nearby walls where the natural electromagnetic attraction of the blood cells’ atoms pulled the clots against the wall. The dead humans wore the uniforms of the pre-MEA military. “We’re inside a mass grave.”
Corgan paused briefly in respect. “This way. I know the layout.”
Within a few minutes he’d navigated them via the shortest possible route. The main control room was equally dead: more murdered humans and fried Mechnars. Corgan rotated a dead body that floated in anti-grav environment; the body was covered with cyborg implants. Several similar units floated nearby. “I guess these second generation units like we found at Osix must’ve existed during the ISW, too? Just another thing the MEA didn’t disclose to prevent mass panic, I suppose.” He and Britton examined it a little further.
“Probably ran out of raw materials and had to turn on people,” Guy suggested. “The early tech purges of the ISW probably limited their supplies. That might’ve demanded a hybrid creation?”
Corgan nodded. It made sense, at some level.
At the primary computer ops station they found a shriveled, cyborg-Mechnar body tethered to a data jack by the cable protruding from his skull. The hybrid’s skin had burned black and bubbled with deep, red pustules and preserved by the antiseptic air.
Britton looked him over. “Electrocuted, maybe? It looks like his blood actually boiled to the surface. Eerie.” Britton unplugged the body and floated it off to the side.
As soon as he’d been unjacked, a large panel began to flash red, glowing slightly. The investigator’s stood and looked at it, dumbfounded.
Matty spoke first. “A giant flashing red button? We all know that you’re just dying to push it, Guy.”
“Well, I guess you’ve all got me pegged.” Guy slapped the switch. Nothing happened for three seconds, and then everything suddenly powered on with a gentle hum. In unison, the floating bodies crashed to the floor, lights flickered awake, panels came alive, and the computer ops station began scrolling a list of data commands as it rebooted systems.
“I think we just commandeered a derelict Class G cruiser!” Corgan’s excitement suddenly faltered when the massive view-panel displayed an equally large ship bearing down on them. It appeared to correct course as the transponder signal flared to life. It veered away from an intercept course with the science station and turned unmistakably towards them.
“I’d bet we can be read by scanners now!” Corgan leapt forward and activated the cruiser’s shields. They activated just in time to catch the barrage of laser fire. The Salvation shuddered violently under the assault. “There’s hardly any power, yet! Batteries have to bank some power; shields are under ten percent! We won’t survive much more until the reactor core is fully engaged.”
The ghost ship pressed in further. Its gnarled visage looked like something Satan would have dreamt up for space travel, and it appeared just as deadly, too. The devil-ship might have been ripped open at random junctures, but the laser turrets belied the apparent damage as it unloaded another salvo on the Salvation.
Matty dove into one of the pilot couches and pointed to the navigation station. He shouted for Britton to take a post. “We’ve got to get out of here! Get me some FTL coordinates!”
“What about our guys on the station?” Guy protested, trying to coordinate the laser banks. There wasn’t enough juice yet to do anything more than wishfully point the impotent bow gunnery bank at their attackers.
“We’ll hafta come back for them! We won’t survive more than the next few seconds here! Coordinates?” Without exact, plotted directions in all dimensions they risked being pulled into a gravity mass, or piloting their craft through a star or planet. Because of gravitational dynamics and electromagnetic fields, the risk was immense.
“We don’t have enough time! That system isn’t online yet!” Britton yelled.
“Then we gotta jump blind,” Matty yelled flatly as he punched the controls, gambling with everyone’s life: theirs, plus their friends on the station. They felt a slight whine as the giant Thumper engines warmed up for the momentary, random jump. They detonated their propellant force: a controlled, nuclear explosion that rocketed them into FTL. The crew felt the distinct “thwump,” and then the battleship Salvation was gone.
* * *
Dekker and Vesuvius were tied together at the hip, quite literally. They’d rigged a splice into Dekker’s air tube and tethered her into his air supply.
“We’ve got to control our breathing, try to make this one air tank last as long as possible.”
“That shouldn’t be too hard,” she quipped. “You already know how you take my breath away.”
Dekker gave her a wry look. “We’ve still got a job to do. Let’s search this freighter.”
“It’d go quicker if we split up.” Vesuvius grinned. “Alright. I’ll watch your back. But you know how I get jokey when my life is on the line.”
“I’m the same way,” he admitted. “Might be because we’re getting a little less oxygen than our brains require. It knocks down inhibition.”
“Does it now?” Vesuvius gingerly rested her hand on Dekker’s muscular shoulder.
Dekker paused. “We’ve gotta keep looking.” He handed her his blaster and drew his frag pistol before pressing forward with his search. “I don’t think you’ve got room for the katana and we don’t want to accidentally cut my airline, too.”
Vesuvius glanced around. “This freighter’s a large C-class: maybe twice the size of the Crusader. There can’t be too many places to search.”
* * *
“One thing is for sure,” Corgan tapped the slowly crawling output meter on the reactor. Life support was operational now, but the charging rates from the fully depleted systems were dreadfully slow. “We’re going to need more bodies to properly crew this thing.”
They’d survived a microjump and been dumped out of FTL in the reaches of a neighboring system. The maneuver was a little like punching the throttle and jetting blindly through a busy vehicular intersection: eventually you would hit something, but they’d been lucky so far.
Matty and Britton trained their weapons on the Shivan prisoner they’d pulled from their cargo hold. “That,” Guy interjected, “and the Crusader isn’t big enough to take on whatever that ugly skeleton ship is by itself.” He glared menacingly at his stumpy shivan prisoner. “If you want to live, you need to help us.”
The shivan looked like a squat, stout humanoid. Slightly shorter than the investigators, he appeared tall for a shivan which were normally thick and muscled, as one expected from residents of heavy gravity planets. His forehead sloped back sharply above his brow line, giving some credibility to the vulgar nickname “flattop” that many crassly used to reference their race. His hair ended in a widow’s peak which gave way to the long ash-grey skin of his forehead. With a guttural accent he said, “I will help you, but I expect to receive my pay: the same pay they promised when I consigned myself to the ship you destroyed.” He jotted down a figure and handed it to Guy.
“There’s that entrepreneurial shivan spirit we hoped we could count on.” Guy looked over the figure and managed some loose math based on exchange rates. “That’s doable. It’s steep, but manageable.”
“We have a contract, then. My name is Gr’Kah.” He bowed with a standard shivan greeting.
Britton lowered his weapon and stepped over to the computer ops console. The red light flashed again and the screen stopped scrolling. It displayed two words. “Execute, SHIP?”
Guy noticed the display and shrugged to him. “Push it I guess?” He looked to Corgan for any advice from the history buff.
Corgan shrugged too.
“Let’s just hope execute means ‘run’ and not ‘murder,'” Britton tapped the activation panel.
The computer screen went black and the giant viewscreen at the command center’s front blinked off and then on, adding a small heads up display in the upper right corner. The HUD displayed a simple green circle.
“SHIP active,” a calm, feminine, computerized voice came from the Salvation’s speaker system. The green HUD formed a dialogue icon when it spoke. “Calculating galactic time. Updating chronos. Refreshing diagnostics and checking logs.”
The investigator’s stood dumbstruck for a moment. “What is SHIP?” Guy asked.
“Shipboard Helpful Intelligent Personality. I am at your service.”
“What happened here? How and why did the Salvation disappear?”
“The battleship Salvation experienced a system-wide shut-down sixty-two years ago as part of an integrated failsafe against new Mechnar hijacking methods.”
Corgan asked the relevant question, “SHIP, what is the limit to your intelligence?”
“Singularity is impossible; I am hardcoded against self-awareness via the same hardware device which transmitted the virus to the Mechnar hacker who attempted forcing singularity upon me. It is impossible for Salvation to belong to any enemy force or to become an enemy force.”
“Which includes what?”
“Given both the absence of human command and the attempted manipulation of my programming, my entire core was deactivated during a random Faster Than Light jump. The probed port received a ‘corrective feedback’ signal of one hundred kilo amperes at three hundred and twenty coulombs, fifteen hundred megajoules of power and program corruption codes were transmitted along all shortwave, known Mechnar frequencies; The Salvation prohibited itself from reactivation for sixty-eight hours.”
“Leaving you nothing more than an airtight husk to contain and smother hybrid hijackers.”
“Are you battle ready?”
“At minimal capacity, yes. All systems at twenty-five percent and gaining. Threshold for non-vital systems reached—offensive systems now drawing power. Estimated time until full capabilities achieved is twenty hours.”
“And you can provide additional support and guidance to maintain remote operability of this battleship, correct?” Corgan asked.
“So long as there remains at least one human commanding this vessel, I may assist in limited guidance and operability.”
“Are you restricted by Asimovian governance?”
“Negative. SHIP is allowed to fire weapons upon living entities if so directed.”
“Guys,” Corgan said, checking the timer against the estimated oxygen levels of their comrades. “I have a plan.”
* * *
Nathan had the search effort organized into three teams. The main group of four covered the main hallway of B deck, which primarily included the hallways of the residential level in the science station. Branching off, teams of two peeled off and checked the adjacent scientists’ quarters located on either side of the corridor.
The hallway team quickly suppressed any opposition from any side. Nathan checked his air supply, and then the power cells on his blaster. They batteries would probably last about the same length of time. He scowled and fired a round into the infected humanoid that sprinted around the corner. The zombie seemed to speed up as it absorbed the blast.
Cursing, he fired another and watched the dark spots on its skin as they seemed to shimmer, briefly glowing as it absorbed the next beam. It seemed to get a brief burst of power as it absorbed the energy. Nathan took careful aim as the beast shrieked and dove forward.
Nathan’s blast erupted inside the beast’s open mouth. The creature halted and dropped to the floor, carried forward only by its momentum. “Shaw. You and Rock are up.” Nathan pointed to the main cafeteria doors.
Rock leveled his heavy gun and kicked the door panel. It slid open effortlessly. A brief burst of laserfire and the two began their brief search.
“Got a dead member of the freighter crew,” Shaw called out, tossing the visitor ID badge into the hall. “He’s face down with a knife in his back.”
Nathan joined them. It was a clue significant enough to risk lightening the hallway force. “He must’ve been killed before the infectious outbreak.”
“Whaddaya think? Probably knifed by one of his own after they stole the DNIET?”
“Most likely. Let’s look around.”
Rock stepped through an archway that led into the galley. He squeezed the trigger once and dumped a dozen high intensity energy bursts into the groaning sentry at a prep station. The monster collapsed upon the corpse of another uniformed member of the supply crew. “I found it!” he shouted. “I got the DNIET!”
A very relieved MacAllistair responded on the channel. “You might have just saved the lives of billions!” He audibly sighed.
Nathan and Shaw joined him seconds later as they felt the station rumble under the power of the ghost-ship’s docking tethers. Time had nearly run out and their private party was about to get much more crowded.
The DNIET device had been poorly hidden beneath a collection of wash rags. The deactivated contraption looked almost identical to the prototype they’d seen inside MacAllistair’s quarters.
Shaw kicked the older, dismembered corpse over with a toe; his wounds had bled out days ago. Attached to the worker’s hip was an empty knife sheath. “I think the zombie killed him… at least they’re not the brain eating variety.”
“It killed him instead of infecting him?”
“Maybe there wasn’t time… or maybe he was immune. Heck, maybe he just didn’t like him!”
“Nathan to Dekker,” he activated the comm unit. “We’ve got it! Someone stashed the DNIET in the kitchen.”
“Perfect,” Dekker’s voice crackled in his earpiece. “We’ll meet at MacAllistair’s in a few minutes.”
By the time they’d extracted themselves from B deck, Vesuvius and Dekker had already caught up with them. Nathan looked questioningly at the two warriors tethered to the remaining air tank.
“What happened there?” he asked.
Dekker shrugged, not wanting to waste air on explaining the awkward situation.
“You know us. We just wanted to find ways to bring us closer together,” Vesuvius said. “Our therapist said we needed less alone time.”
Nathan chuckled. “That was my first guess.”
They arrived at MacAllistair’s door. The door had been forced open and the lock system suffered significant chemical scoring. Some kind of acid had burned through the controls.
“What? This must’ve just happened!”
The dozen rushed inside MacAllistair’s billet with weapons drawn. Scouring it intently Jamba shouted out, “It’s empty… wait,” he yanked an old blanket from its place and uncovered the original DNIET prototype, where the doctor had hidden it.
Dekker pulled up the paranoid old scientist’s video feeds. MacAllistair had been patched into the security surveillance systems; that’s how he’d found the team in the first place. “There. He’s inside the central operations center. Bunch of goons got him tied up.”
Looking at the feeds closely, he watched a cadre of horned, zombified troops pour into the station from the massive ghost ship which berthed against them; they moved in an orderly manner and seemed to act with intent and purpose. These were a much more intelligent breed it seemed; their horns had grown longer, too, and were more pronounced.
Dekker turned his attention back to MacAllistair. Another zombie appeared to interrogate him; the beast appeared as both intelligent and in command. A kind of knobby growth covered the leader’s skin and his horn had split into two prongs; several misshapen offshoots made it more resemblative of a reindeer antler than a unicorn spike. It apparently didn’t like MacAllistair’s replies and began beating the scientist with his crooked, mangled fists.
“We gotta rescue him,” Dekker sighed, not too enthused about the prospect, especially given his personal history with the doctor.
“You know, we’ve got both DNIET units. We could just stay here,” Vesuvius offered, analyzing the bleak situation with cold, precise logic.
“Yes, but that’s not who we are. Besides, we’re just waiting for the air to give out at this point. We might as well go out on our feet and with guns in our hands.”
She nodded her reluctant agreement.
Dekker turned to his crew. “Give us a head start. You guys gather up whatever research looks most valuable and then come for us. Bag the prototype up—we don’t want even MacAllistair to know we have it.” He yanked a heavy pack from among the scientist’s belongings for them to stow it. “Give us no more than five minutes. If we have to blow the DNIET units and go out with a blast, I’d prefer we all did it together.”
Nathan acknowledged and then began rummaging through the scientists research while Dekker and Vesuvius darted to the central hub.
* * *
Beading sweat stung his eyes as it trickled off his brow. Dekker peered around the corner; he spotted the raiders inside the central control terminal. While MacAllistair had unlocked it the last time they’d gone through it, the invaders had merely wrenched their way through it with organized, brute force leaving the passage jammed open.
Dekker waited a few seconds more. He could hear MacAllistair’s groans as the attackers ground the scientist’s face against the floor.
“This can all be over, just as soon as you tell me where the device is.” The deformed creature spoke in a very human voice.
“I—I told you! It was stolen from my laboratory. I don’t know where it is,” MacAllistair whimpered.
“Really? I should hope that you are lying; we will find it should that be the case—it can’t have left. Once it is discovered you’ll be useless to me.”
“That’s enough!” Dekker yelled, rounding the corner. He trained his pistol on the leader while towing Vesuvius. “He’s telling the truth. Now let him go.”
The horned, zombie leader grinned wickedly at the tethered investigators. “And I suppose you are the one who stole it then?”
Dekker surveyed the scene. Only the leader and one other were present; the other creature stood guard at the far door which Nibbs had unlocked earlier. The sentry tried to inconspicuously flank them. “Maybe I am. Who, and by that I mean, what, are you?”
It grabbed the scientist and jerked him to his feet. He put a hand on MacAllistair’s air mask, fingering it as if threatening to unmask him. “We are children of the apothecium!” He shook his head like a buck flaking pre-rut velvet. A golden dust cloud momentarily hung before dispersing.
“Do you see our seed? Once he breathes this in, the spores will root in his lungs, spread to his nervous system, and make him one of us!” The apothecium-fiend’s voice dripped with pure villainy. “Now give me the device or I will unmask him!”
“No.” The word fell out like a cold diagnosis; bitter and hard—he left no room to negotiate. Dekker squinted, his eyes dared his enemy to call his bluff.
The horned leader shrieked and ripped the mask from MacAllistair’s face. He kicked the scientist to the ground and turned to challenge Dekker.
The flanking minion rushed Vesuvius.
She blasted him in the chest with the laser pistol but it didn’t slow him. Not wasting a moment she hurled it at her assailant’s head.
He ducked and came back up, grinning at his own cleverness. Recognition came too slowly and Vesuvius’s blade separated head from body.
Dekker brought a heavy, double-barreled flak-caster to bear and unloaded a cartridge of shrapnel into the central demon. The impact knocked it to the floor. Dekker stepped forward and kicked the monster onto his back.
It lay writhing in mixed pain and mirth. “It is too late for your friend,” it cackled.
“I didn’t figure you’d recognize it,” Dekker looked down on his enemy with cruel eyes. “There’s no oxygen in this air. MacAllistair isn’t breathing anything.” He said it somberly—his boast reminded him of their dire straits.
The other members of their team quickly filed into the room. “Sterilize his face and breather unit before you put the airmask back on MacAllistair,” Dekker barked the order. “He’s got airborne contaminants on his skin.”
Ahmed carried their medical pack as the backup medic to Britton. He calmed the blue-faced MacAllistair and cleaned his face with a chemical wipe before replacing the mask.
“You’ll never escape! Even now, hundreds of apothecium drones scour the station! I command a larger force than you interlopers!”
Suddenly a flash of light flared on the observation screen. Guns blazing, the Rickshaw Crusader, and a G-Class Battlecruiser burst out of FTL travel; the capital ship dropped a Shivan Intercepter from its bay. The sudden eruption of colored laser fire blazed across the view screens.
“We’re done here,” Dekker stated. He pointed his remaining barrel at the enemy commander and unloaded the second cartridge before chambering two new rounds.
Nibbs jumped over the communications console as soon as he could reach it. Looking over his shoulder he spotted incoming horned drones. “Someone lock that door up!”
“I’m on it!” Rock shouted. He tossed the DNIET into MacAlllistair’s lap and blasted the override device they’d used earlier to hack their way in. The doors slammed shut just before the zombies could reach it. “They’ll crawl up our rear-end if we’re not careful,” he shouted, pointing to the rear door. The damaged, metal skin jammed it ajar.
Nibbs opened a channel to all the three ships. “You guys got a plan?”
“Something like that,” Matty’s voice came from the Rickshaw Crusader.
Guy broke into the radio feed. “Sorry. We’re such bad babysitters. The Shivan got out, but we think he’s helping? At least, he’d better, for what we’re paying him.”
Gr’Kah’s Interceptor spun a corkscrew attack loop, evading a bursting defensive salvo from the enemy; he unloaded a barrage of laser fire. The emerald blasts ripped away hull and girder from the behemoth ghost ship. “Does this one ever shut his mouth?” Gr’Kah questioned.
“I got the plan.” Corgan’s voice. “I’m in the cruiser. We’ll pull you aboard and jump to FTL. How soon can you get to the escape pods?”
Dekker looked to his guys for an analysis.
“They’re on C deck,” Nathan told Dekker. He glanced at the internal sensor array. “The bay is clear, but the whole way there is overrun with these new, tougher drones.”
Dekker scanned the map, observing the invader’s blips. His oxygen starved brain tried to find a viable way down.
On screen the Crusader and the Shivan rolled into a joint attack on the enemy cruiser. Jumping nimbly between the massive bursts of return fire, they ripped open a new section of hull; the force of the discharges vented bodies and shrapnel in a cloud of galactic flotsam. The Crusader cleared the cloud and burned the gases off like vapor as it passed through the engine wake. Gr’Kah’s Interceptor flew too close; it caught a piece of debris and caromed away, plunging downwards. The investigator’s felt a dull impact as the Interceptor collided with the station.
“We’ll be away in a few seconds,” Dekker claimed. The sudden fall inspired him.
“Rock,” he ordered, “Blast open the central grate to the air supplier. Knock it all out, right down to base!”
Rock jumped onto a table-like console and unloaded the heavy guns. Lasers slagged the flooring and shredded through the fan assembly that had impotently circulated the dead air for days now. It clattered to the floor far below and opened the giant tubular chasm which spanned all three decks.
“That leads to the air recyclers down on C deck,” Dekker explained.
“But that’s a fifty meter fall!” MacAllistair moaned, still winded.
“Belts off everyone!” Dekker ordered.
“Is a thirty second delay long enough?” Nibbs asked.
“Perfect. Everyone ready to jump?”
MacAllistair stood at the edge of the deep hole, too dumbfounded to speak. Nibbs remained at the console nearest the blasted aperture; they’d strung all of their belts together to tie Nibbs to Rock.
MacAllistair clutched the reclaimed DNIET device tightly enabling the Investigators to free up their gun hands. Shaw kept the original prototype slung across his back in the dark bag. He looked almost as skeptical of this escape as MacAllistair did.
“On three,” Nibbs said. “One. Two. Three!” he yelled just as zombie drones poured through the far door.
The eight jumped in tandem with Nibbs staying above. Just as the belt yanked Nibbs backwards, he slapped the activator and killed the station’s gravity.
All the apothecium drones left their feet: disoriented and out of control. The Investigators’ momentum plunged them towards their destination, gracefully setting them against the wreckage on the bottom of the shaft.
They waited a few seconds for the gravity to reactivate. Nibbs used the spare seconds to unstrap himself from the gunner. “The emergency bay is just past the main engineering plant.”
As soon as the gravity reengaged they were back on their feet with guns blazing. Zombies poured from every possible juncture while the Investigators sprinted for the pods. The chaos became a silent blur as oxygen-starved blood pounded through their ears.
With no offensive capabilities, MacAllistair simply ran. Something struck him across the back of his skull and he fell to the floor. His vision swam and he clambered across the floor in a panic, just trying to get into the escape modules. Rock yanked him to his feet.
“I dropped it! I lost it,” MacAllistair screamed at Rock.
The gunner turned to the swarm that pressed forward. “It’s too late, Doc. It’s gone!” He jammed MacAllistair into an escape pod and ejected them both into space. “Don’t worry; we’ve got all your research saved.”
As the egg shaped container jetted away from the station MacAllistair sighed heavily. “That’s okay. I’m thinking I should destroy it, delete everything. It’s far too dangerous a technology to be released.” He paused introspectively. “I didn’t create it to be a weapon… only after I’d completed it did I realize it could be used that way.”
Rock consoled him with a pat on the shoulder. Their escape pod shook as the Rickshaw Crusader yanked their pod into its holding bay.
* * *
Corgan stood resolute at his lonely post on the Salvation’s command deck. “SHIP, concentrate all fire on that enemy cruiser, but keep us shielded as much as possible from their main offensive battery by positioning us so the science station obstructs their field of fire.”
“Understood,” SHIP confirmed. The heavy cannon batteries on the starboard side shook as they fired discriminatingly; the brilliant rays blasted a swath of destruction deep through their enemy’s armor. The damage looked worse than it probably was.
Apparently, the enemy vessel didn’t bother shielding itself. It didn’t worry about pressure leaks and hull breaches. An opponent had to whittle the entire craft down to pieces in order to defeat them. It truly was a ghost ship; it could continue its dread mission until it had been ripped apart down to the last weld.
The enemy ship, still attached to the station, fired its thrusters and pivoted the entire outpost in order to bring her guns to bear on the Salvation. Corgan directed SHIP. “Bring us around and put the enemy to our bow. Let’s present the slimmest profile possible. Drop power to the rear shields and concentrate all allocated shield power forward so we can survive this.”
Corgan sighed with relief when he saw the five escape pods jettison from the station. The Crusader zipped wild loops as it retrieved the others. He allowed himself a momentary grin of triumph.
The ferocious shaking almost knocked him from his feet as the enemy guns unloaded on the Salvation. Its weakened shields held, but the barrage yanked Corgan from his reverie. “SHIP, use our starboard stabilizers to strafe us back into the station’s blind spot!”
Salvation took another violent burst from the zombie ship’s guns. Alarm klaxons wailed and warnings splashed across the screens of empty stations.
A garbled message came over the radio waves, Dekker’s voice. “We’ve got to decontaminate. Set us up in the Crusader’s cargo hold as soon as possible.”
“Will do.” Matty’s voice.
“One other thing,” Dekker ordered, his voice sounded weak. “We have to destroy the station. No survivors. They’ve still got a super weapon onboard. Lost it at the last second. Can’t let em have it.”
A few seconds of silence followed.
“You follow that?” Matty asked Corgan.
“Yeah.” Corgan’s brain screamed at him, searching for solutions that didn’t necessitate ramming the Salvation through the station’s reactor core. His eyes flicked to the warning signs and dwindling gauge levels. The nearby navigational console tracked their position in three dimensions and provided real-time compensation for their FTL coordinates. “I got it,” Corgan reconfirmed. “You locked down yet?”
“SHIP, at current speed, spin us on our central hard-point and reverse thrust. Put our tail end right up against that station and shift our shields to compensate!”
“This is a dangerous maneuver. Confirm action?”
As soon as he’d spoken the word, the floor bucked for a second; Corgan had to take a step to maintain his balance before gravitational systems compensated in the shift. Corgan jumped over to the navigational controls.
His eyes watched the distance meter scroll down rapidly. The enemy ship rolled around; their guns would come to bear on them in seconds and they couldn’t survive another barrage at such close range without a full shield charge.
The distance dropped to terminal numbers and Corgan slapped the FTL drive ignition as the enemy guns cleared the station that obstructed them. The massive Thumper drive system shot the Salvation into FTL, detonating a thermo-nuclear explosion directly behind them; the blast ripped through the science station and everything in it, igniting the stations’ reactor core. Its eruption shredded the void which the Salvation had just cleared via FTL; flames engulfed the demon-ship and the blast force eviscerated it at an atomic level.
* * *
The battleship Salvation orbited Earth. Outside, a blur of activity took over. Supply ships and maintenance crews crawled around the intimidating cruiser. The Rickshaw Crusader patrolled the ship, discouraging any with ill-intentions.
Over the course of two days the Dozen had systematically moved their entire headquarters onto the Salvation. Dekker took his time responding to the MEA’s demands for information regarding the long-lost ship which agitated his government liaison to no end. Dekker put him off under the pretense of writing accurate reports for the most recent MEA assignment; truthfully, an accurate response proved difficult to assemble—but the Salvation had enough firepower that he felt no compulsion to respond to the underwhelming forces making demands.
Finally, with a civilian-owned, heavily armed battle cruiser orbiting the planet, the Dozen could be ignored no longer. His MEA contact opened a video channel; adjacent to him sat The Pheema himself—current Chief Magnate of Earth.
Dekker grinned and accepted the video conference. The Krenzin diplomat smoothed the fur on his arm, a sign Dekker took to mean that he’d disturbed the Chief Magnate’s proper sensibilities. “Greetings. This is Dekker,” he said with a grin, kicking back in his chair as if this meeting was just another in a string of trivialities.
Ruffled by the improper display of decorum, The Pheema focused the camera entirely on himself. “I demand your report, in full and at once!”
“Hello, Chief Magnate,” Dekker. “I’ve been preparing my report until just now.”
“I prefer my Krenzin title. Please address me as The Pheema.”
Dekker leaned forward. “That, I will not do. I respect my home and her government, the MEA, regardless of how screwed up it can be at times. By extension I will respect the office of Chief Magnate. But I hold no regard for a religious-philosophical system practiced by an alien race while humanity—Jerusalem aside—is denied the freedom to practice her own religions.”
The Pheema sneered. “I remember your father. I knew him before my ascension: when I assisted the previous Pheema prior to the assassination of the Krenzin Parliament. You are much more obstinate than he, and far ruder.” The leader’s words dripped with derision. “I was there that night; I saw the riots. It is a shame that the galaxy has lost the last of the Watchmen.”
“I guess you’re just gonna hafta get used to being wrong, Chief Magnate. I am the last of the Watchmen.” Dekker nodded, stood, and angrily severed the connection. He decided to let the planet think they’d insulted the most offensively capable mercenaries in system as they sat on Earth’s doorstep.
Seconds later The Pheema resent the call request. Dekker let appeal linger unanswered for a few long seconds before he put it on screen. Enraged, the Pheema spit curses in his foreign tongue.
“What is to stop me from revoking every credential you and your investigators hold? I will have you all sent before tribunal!”
“What’s stopping you is the fact that I have so much dirt on the MEA that you’d never survive it going public; also, I have the most heavily armed ship within the closest eight sectors. I have forty eight heavy laser batteries trained on your headquarters right now! So, I want to know, did you call me just to exchange verbal pleasantries or were you hoping for an acknowledgement on the existence of DNIET?”
The Pheema smoothed the hair on his arms and also his face and neck. “Please, proceed.”
Dekker gave an abbreviated summary of the encounter at the space station and the rescue of Dr. Abe MacAllistair; he omitted all information about the original prototype. The Dozen didn’t even let that slip to MacAllistair, despite his remorse over his creation. “The DNIET device was not recovered. It was destroyed along with our attackers and the space station. We did, however recover the scientist, Dr. Abe MacAllistair, and his original research.”
The Pheema smoothed his fur again. “Well, that will have to do, apparently. This technology is vital to MEA interests. Please turn him over to us immediately.”
“See, we’re about to have a problem again. I don’t believe that you can demand such a thing. He’s not a convicted criminal nor is he recognized for war crimes—so it’s up to him if he returns. Here, I’ll let him speak for himself.” Dekker beckoned for MacAllistair who stepped into range of the camera.
“Hello, Mister Chief Magnate.”
The Krenzin rolled his eyes at the researcher.
“I really would prefer to remain aboard the Salvation. I feel safer under the protection of Dekker and his crew. Anywhere else I might go, my life could be in jeopardy.”
“Fine,” The Pheema resigned. “But your research is the property of the MEA through which your experiments were funded. All research materials and data are our property. We expect their surrender immediately.”
MacAllistair looked at Dekker and shrugged. “It’s gone.”
“I destroyed it,” MacAllistair stated quite truthfully. “While I floating in the escape pod and waited for rescue I realized just how deadly a weaponized DNIET could become. It doesn’t take much imagination to see past its transportation capabilities. I incinerated my research—all of it, along with all my written materials.”
The Pheema fumed with rage. It would probably go unnoticed except to those trained in Krenzin physiology, but the Chief Magnate could barely hold himself in check. “That is grand theft, Doctor. It could be judged as high treason!”
“Well, if you’re threatening to put me on trial, good luck getting me to return to Earth.”
This was getting him nowhere. The Pheema wrung his hands. “On to the matter of the derelict you’ve obviously claimed for yourself…You do not hold the proper licenses and permits to scavenge for wreckage. It is your duty to turn the property over to the—”
“No.” Dekker interrupted him with a flat, resolute answer.
He tried to compromise. “Then the MEA demands the dismantlement of all weaponry, should you continue refusing to turn over the ship and property which you have illegally obtained.”
“I don’t think so,” he replied. “And I don’t think you guys want to try taking it from me, even if you could. I’ve had hundreds of volunteers, many of them MEA secessionists, already come aboard and learn basic, capital-ship weapons systems.”
“Are you seceding from Earth? That’s treason!”
“I love my home and my people too much to leave it! But sometimes that means stepping back enough to protect it. And maybe Earth isn’t my home anymore… maybe it’s where humanity came from.”
The Pheema bit his lower lip in frustration. “Then where does this leave you, investigator?”
“At the MEA’s service, as always. Just don’t expect my services to come cheap. Mouths to feed, laser batteries to charge, you know how it is. I remain in the service and defense of Earth. How to do that is something you and I apparently won’t agree on. When I’m needed, though, I’ll be here.” Dekker severed the connection.
The Pheema didn’t call back.
* * *
Prognon Austicon sat inside his dark den while his Shivan guest reclined beside him. Gr’Kah set the DNIET device on the ornate table between them and took a long pull off the opiate laced hookah pipe the two shared.
The terrorist’s hideout had always been perfectly hidden below the sands. While the ancient, alien ship had been sunk below the dirt for longer than any human knew, very few knew its location, and that’s how Austicon liked it: his own secret fortress. Although the other-worldly decorum left much to be desired by way of aesthetic taste, he’d managed to update it to his own macabre, eccentric tastes.
“That is really an intriguing tale of daring and escape,” Austicon laughed. “If you were not here with me, now, I would hardly believe it.”
Gr’Kah chuckled, but squinted as if he had a headache, though he was too proud to acknowledge it. “I am just that good—my benefactor. All was engineered perfectly by me, faking damage so I could crash land inside the station and steal the device you hired us to retrieve—come on, you can admit I’m a genius.”
The Shivan took a long, deep pull of the pipe. He coughed as the smoke exited his lungs. Gr’Kah squeezed his head and pushed against his brow as a shrill proximity alert sounded.
“Problems?” Austicon asked, rising to greet his guest.
“No. Just an odd feeling, a bad headache I suppose.”
“I thought Shivan physiology prohibited that—something your dense build and whatnot protecting your nervous system? Sounds like an anthropomorphism to me.” Austicon opened the door and saw his guest in.
A wiry framed man entered. He was skinny, too skinny to be healthy. Skinny sat down on the couch adjacent to the Shivan and took a long pull on the hookah.
Austicon locked his entrance and joined them, standing between the two. He addressed Skinny. “Word from the Right Hand, I assume?”
“Yeah.” Agitated, he turned and scowled at Gr’Kah. “Who’s this?”
Gr’Kah kept a hand pressed against the internal pressure forming on his brow and squinted at the intruder. He extended the other hand in the traditional earth greeting, attempting to introduce himself.
“Oh, he’s nobody,” Austicon stated nonchalantly. He pulled a pistol from inside his vest and fired six rounds into the Shivan at point blank range. He lowered the gun to his side and let the smoke curl from the barrel as it cooled. “So? What word?”
“The next phase in the Seven’s plan is nigh. They want to begin seeding the apothecium on human occupied worlds, outposts, and settlements. But, and they were very specific: leave Earth unspoiled.”
Skinny took another pull from the pipe and slumped back. He blew heavy, blue smoke down his chest. He pointed to the machine on the table. “Hey, isn’t that the thing The Pheema’s been ranting about? Some kinda transporter device that eats suns.” He rattled off a list of expletives as he leaned forward to examine it. “Yeah. This is it, isn’t it? Ya know, they think it was destroyed along with the station!”
“Yes, I know that.” Austicon confirmed. “This is the DNIET weapon.” He raised his gun and emptied seven more rounds, this time into Skinny’s head.
Austicon confessed his plan to the dead. “But the Red Tree cannot have it!” His voice dripped even more sinister, the demon within him boiled to the surface more strongly than usual. No more was the old archaeologist in symbiosis with her, she’d asserted herself as the foul avatar, Baal Dione.
“The Verdant Seven wishes to crush humanity, to enslave and corrupt them—to dominate and harvest the bodies for their own end. I will accept nothing less than the total consumption of their souls and destruction of their species! My will shall reign supreme—far above the Seven!”
* * *
The Pheema sat in his quarters. For all his power, his impotence in the face of Dekker and the loss of DNIET perturbed him greatly. He stewed in his frustration.
A gentle rap disturbed his door. Soft, feminine hands. The entry creaked open, revealing an old woman. She was an important dignitary and member of the banking community, true. More importantly, she brought news from the Arbolean Council.
She didn’t have to say anything. The Pheema knew the Verdant Seven were upset by his failure; retrieval of the DNIET was vital to their plans.
“I know their ways,” he stated. “If we cannot have satisfaction, then we shall have vengeance. But the Left Hand is too personally invested in this case.” The Pheema paused, working through his thoughts. “Tell the Seven that I have the perfect units for that job. Revenge will come soon.”
The old woman silently bowed her head. Just as she came, she disappeared.
The Pheema grinned. Perhaps as much as even Austicon, he would enjoy seeing, causing, ordering the death of last Watchman. They didn’t make me the Right Hand of the Verdant Seven for my meekness. My vengeance will inherit the Earth.