There was a sudden slap of acceleration and the familiar churning of internal machinery as the Kingfisher ripped its way back into reality. Infinite swirling gas clouds of luminous blue and green gave way to the familiar blackness of normal space. The surrounding stars were gone, eclipsed totally by the light of the gas giant ahead; all streaks of muddy cream and barren browns. After a moment, the view started to rotate, as the Kingfisher began spinning along its axis, providing the crew with false gravity.
The planet was Martingale VI, according to the Terran star charts, but this was not Terran space. Out there, the R’Dokken lurked, swimming in their filthy oceans, swimming and fucking and plotting.
Soon, all they would be doing was bleeding.
“Hop complete,” Mopsy announced pointlessly. Nobody responded.
Keigh chewed on her bottom lip, and pressed her fingertips together.
“Scan for traffic,” she said absently in the direction of comms, not even bothering to check who currently occupied the console.
This was an extermination mission. Somewhere in high orbit of the planet below tumbled a stricken R’Dokken mining vessel. The Kingfisher had picked up its distress call, the idiot creatures hadn’t even bothered to scramble it. Perhaps they thought themselves far enough into their own space to be safe. Or perhaps they wanted help so badly they would even accept it from the humans.
Keigh smiled grimly. The prey was not even aware it was being hunted.
“I’ve got something,” said the woman at comms. In a flash Keigh remembered her name; Carline White.
“What is it?” the captain asked, her smile growing in anticipation.
“It’s definitely the R’Dokken ship, sir. Her calls have got a little less panicked, I guess they’ve managed to stabilise themselves, but from the chatter they still can’t get themselves moving.”
“Has anyone responded to their mayday?” Hennis asked from beside Keigh. Keigh didn’t like Hennis, he looked like a rat, and smelt strange. He was also dangerously ambitious.
“I can’t tell for sure, sir,” White said guardedly. “If someone has, it can’t have been with a promise to help; otherwise there’d be no reason to keep broadcasting.”
“Keep checking,” Keigh said. There was no reason to suspect an ambush; no-one knew the Kingfisher was in R’Dokken space at all, let alone here. Still, the hideous creatures were not without their low cunning, it was best to be on your guard.
Without warning a wave of pain engulfed her head. She gasped in shock, felt herself tumbling from her chair. Her knee hit the deck; hard, but the jolt was just a droplet in the ocean of agony swallowing her mind.
“Get her up here!” she heard Hennis yelling from very far away. It was the last thing she heard. Then her sight fled as well, and all she had left was white noise, black light, and red pain.
Jessa lay awake on the bed, staring at the ailing strip light on the ceiling. Harlan dozed fitfully beside her. The powerful sedatives and terrible memories mixing in his head made him murmur, and occasionally spasm. The medical machines above him purred and hummed and whispered, monitoring his condition, assuring her that everything was fine.
She didn’t trust a single one of them; not with him. And so she had laid there for two days, watching her husband slowly recover. Or stabilise, anyway; Jessa doubted he would ever really recover. Every now and again he would wake, for longer periods each time; and they would have brief, semi-lucid conversations. He never mentioned what had happened, and she chose not to press it.
The only times she permitted herself to leave his side, other than to answer the call of nature, was to answer the call of her.
She smiled harshly to herself. Either one shit, or the other.
As if on cue, the comm chimed.
“Doctor Lambert, we need you up here.” It was White. “The captain’s collapsed again.”
Jessa lay there for a few seconds in silence, weighing up her options. Eventually one of Keigh’s episodes might prove fatal. How much better for everyone if she waited here?
“Doctor?” White’s voice came again, thick with urgency.
Jessa sighed, and carefully stood. Without bothering to acknowledge the summons, she took one last look at her husband, and stepped from the sickbay.
Geiss was waiting for her outside. His face held its usual expression of casual disregard, but it was a little flushed, and his chest was heaving slightly. He had run to find her.
“Not another house call?” he asked, grinning.
“I was about to say the same to you,” she replied curtly. In the last two days Geiss had been a near-constant unwanted companion, following her around like an infuriatingly arrogant puppy. He kept proclaiming that it was in an effort to ensure her safety. Perhaps he even believed it himself, but Jessa was very much aware that her well-being was nowhere to be found in the equation.
“Hardly very charitable, Doctor,” Geiss said, feigning indignation, “Here I am, busting a gut to take you under my wing; and all you can do is turn round and bite my head off.””Quite the pair of contortionists, aren’t we?”
“You don’t seem to realise how vulnerable you are right now. And who knows how long our resident fascist’s little junta will last.”
Jessa hadn’t told him of Harlan’s success. She hadn’t dared to, for fear of tipping off Keigh. Plus, she really couldn’t care less if she kept Geiss in the dark. Let him sweat. He was bound to survive all this, his trademark smirk still firmly in place. Screw him.
“We best be off, shouldn’t we?” Geiss prompted.
Jessa rolled her eyes. “Shouldn’t you be in engineering?”
Geiss’ grin widened. “I’ve left Deveraux in charge. Decent little engineer, especially for a frog. Plus, you should see the way she waggles her arse when she’s cleaning the coolant tubes.” He raised his eyebrows and whistled appreciatively.
Jessa’s impatience grew. She didn’t have time for this idiotic exchange.
“Fine then. Just stay out of the way.”
She span on her heels and strode down the corridor, Geiss in tow; off to heal her dictator.
Harlan opened his eyes. His wife was gone, but the bed beside him was still warm, and ruffled from her weight. He had felt his servos whirring to keep him safe as they dropped from hyperspace.
They had arrived at their destination. And, if all went to plan, help would be waiting out there.
He could just wait here, and allow his system to yield to the drugs that were flowing through it, whispering soothing suggestions of sleep. He could lie here a few minutes longer, let himself be rescued. Just a few more minutes…
No. Shaking his head violently in an effort to clear it, Harlan sat upright. The effort sent waves of unpleasant sensation through what remained of his arm, but the drugs rendered the sensation uncomfortable rather than agonising. He would not wait here to be saved like some fairytale princess in an ivory tower. If there was going to be a rescue, he was going to be part of it.
And he knew exactly how.
Standing slowly from the bed, he began to extricate himself from the web of sensors and drip-feeds attached to the stump of his severed limb. An alarm began to sound, but a quick stab with his remaining index finger silenced it. Once he was free he began gradually walking from the room. Step followed step followed step. His knees shook, his vision swam in and out of focus. If Jessa could see him now he would be in so much shit. He could imagine her indignation at his folly. Hero complex, she would call it. She always did have more love than sense.
His legs buckled, and he fell forward, only just managing to grab the door frame and pull himself back up.
Truth be told, in this condition he didn’t think it at all likely that he could go through with what he had in mind.
But his friends were counting on him. Time to prove he could be relied on. Wincing with every step, Harlan staggered out into the corridor.
Keigh had apparently recovered by the time Jessa reached the bridge. Flanked by her navbots, she was leaning forward in her chair, head resting on interlocked fingers, attention absorbed by the viewscreen. Jessa followed the girl’s gaze down the long bridge. There, surrounded by lazily tumbling asteroids, she saw Keigh’s target; a drifting R’Dokken ore-hauler. In shape it was not dissimilar to the trading junk whose crew they had butchered a week earlier; a long, flattened tube of dark red, tapering from bow to stern. The vessel’s front was a snub-nosed cone, marred towards its bottom by a loading bay exposed to space. It was an ugly gash of a mouth that gave the ship the appearance of some endless hungry organism, forever travelling the void in search of prey. The illusion was reinforced by the ebony support struts which split up the vessel’s smooth hull like ribs; rising to meet a thick black spine which ran along the ship’s length, curving over the indescribably complex shape of its hop drive as it did so.
Keigh stared fixedly at the vessel as if the sheer force of her will and her hatred could burn it out of space. A thin line of crusted blood ran from her left nostril. Jessa thought she could see the slightest tremor in the girl’s limbs. She made no move to help. Until she was ordered, she couldn’t bring herself to restore her captain to his callous, murderous glory. It was dangerously close to breaking her Hippocratic oath, but God only knew how many sentient lives would be lost on the defenceless alien vessel if the captain wasn’t dealt with.
Finally, Keigh turned towards her.
“It hurts,” she said quietly, and suddenly the insane, brutal captain was sheared away, and there was simply a child in pain.
“OK,” Jessa said softly, “It’s OK.”
She walked over to her patient’s chair, and knelt down. From there the tremors were more obvious, Keigh was shaking, as if she was cold, or had just finished crying. Indeed, she was sniffling quietly, puffy eyes cast down at the floor. Jessa took an antiseptic wipe from her medical bag, used it to clean off the blood trail above Keigh’s lip, and left the child with it to use as a makeshift hankie. The shuddering died down at Jessa’s touch, so she kept her right hand on Keigh’s arm as she worked.
“What’s the problem?” Hennis asked curtly from the seat beside Keigh’s, craning his head to watch as though he could possibly understand what Jessa had to do.
Jessa ignored him. Turning around, she pulled a scanner from her bag, flicked it on, and placed it against Keigh’s temple. The device began chirruping happily as it considered.
“I asked you what the problem was,” Hennis said, with a hint of threat.
Jessa glanced at him contemptuously before returning her attention to her scanner.
“I’m not really a fan of flash diagnoses,” she said, “But most likely it’s probably acute hippocampus fatigue; or maybe adrenal gland overload; the whole glucocorticoid thing.”
She looked back up at Hennis, grinning harshly at his blank face.
“Oh, you didn’t follow? Then why don’t you shut the hell up and let me work?”
Hennis snorted, but made no reply.
The scanner beeped smugly as it finally decided on a diagnosis. Jessa frowned at the green diagram that congealed on the mechanism’s screen. Sucking thoughtfully at her teeth, she considered the verdict. It wasn’t good. Bright dots peppered the curve of Keigh’s cortex; points of neurone fatigue where her mind had crumbled under the constant see-sawing between two sets of memories. There were more of them since the last time, and they were larger as well. Jessa could almost see them growing, fractionally but relentlessly chipping away at the surrounding tissue. It was little wonder Gabe had apparently withdrawn, allowing a scarred, terrified Keigh to break the surface. His every thought must be agonising, an inferno of pain accompanying every action he forced his daughter to take.
But even with his self-imposed exile, the two of them had days at the most, and their condition was far beyond anything Jessa knew how to treat.
“Sir?” came White’s voice from Comms, “I’m picking something up.”
The pinpricks of light on the scanner display flared briefly.
“What is it, White?” Keigh asked; the scared child’s sniffling replaced by a madman’s precision. Gabe had returned. Absently, he picked the scanner from his temple, and dropped it.
Catching it before it hit the floor, Jessa cursed Gabe silently for his abrupt return. Dammit, didn’t he realise what he was doing to his own daughter?
“It’s a signal from the ore-hauler,” White said, answering Gabe’s question. “Clear channel, and in English. They’re demanding that we assist them.”
Hennis snorted loudly.
“Typical fucking ‘pedes,” he sneered. “’We demand you save our lives, feeble Earthmen!’”
“How did they see us?” Geiss asked under his breath, from the back of the bridge.
“The same way we can see them, I’d imagine, if that’s not too complicated for you,” Hennis responded, not turning from the view-screen.
Geiss ignored him. “Hey, Vance,” he called. Vance was the current helmsman, nervously making endless tiny course corrections to evade the surrounding rock. “What magnification we on right now?”
“Er,” Vance glanced momentarily downward, “Twenty.”
Geiss smirked. “So I ask again, Mr Hennis. How did they see us?”
“Fair point,” Hennis responded acidly, “No reason to suspect a space-faring race might have developed binoculars.”
Geiss gave a sigh of exaggerated patience. “Let’s go through this step by step, shall we. Number one, their scanners or up, or they wouldn’t have seen us coming. Number two, they have comms, or they couldn’t have called for help.”
Jessa saw where this was going.
“And their thrusters must be working, otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted long in this rock field.”
“So they have scanners, comms, and manoeuvres,” Geiss concluded. “And it just happens that they’ve lost their engines and hopper?”
He paused for effect.
“This is a set-up.”
“Ridiculous,” the captain spat. “How could an insect lay an ambush?.”
The look on Hennis’ face made it clear he too thought the idea ludicrous. But he must have decided it was worth considering.
“Vinga, scan that vessel again; full spectrum. Then I want increased radius sweeps. If those fuckers are so much flipping is off through the portholes, I want to know about it.”
“Full spectrum sweep, aye,” Vinga said, hunched over her console, her face lit oddly by its flashing, spinning displays. “Well, that ships covered in power spikes like Christmas lights, but it’s all back up systems, like we figured. And the drives show nothing, same for the hoppers, so-“
She froze; a rabbit in the headlights of the scanning console.
“Sir” she gasped urgently, “That thing hasn’t got a hop drive!”
“What the hell, Vinga?” Hennis replied, “I can see the damn thing from here.”
“It’s a fake!” Vinga said, the strain in her voice raising its pitch. “There’s no power! None! Even with it off – shit, even with it wrecked, there’d be- Jesus, captain, it’s a trap!”
As if on cue, the green glow bathing the Scanning Officer’s face ran crimson.
“She’s powering her main drive!” Vinga exclaimed. On the view-screen, Jessa watched the R’Dokken vessel swing ponderously away, its now glowing stern turning to face them.
Hennis leapt to his feet.
“Vance” he bellowed, “I want delta off, now!” He reached down and toggled a switch on his chair arm. “This is Lieutenant Commander Hennis. All crew to battle stations. Gunners; I want that ore-hauler in pieces. And prepare for zero gravity.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than Jessa felt her stomach lurch in protest as the Kingfisher stopped rotating. The magnetic plates in her ship boots automatically kicked in to keep her anchored, but the contents of her medical bag began slowly floating away.
Keigh, of course, had not been wearing boots, but the white-knuckled, furious grip of her father kept her in her chair.
“I want these monster’s dead!” she screamed, in a tone that might have sounded petulant were it not so chilling.
“We got them, Captain,” Hennis assured her. “Whatever that ship has planned, we can handle it.”
“For Christ’s sake, you prick!” exclaimed Geiss. “If that ship has no hopper; that means she’s intra-system! Which means somewhere out there is-“
“Contact!” Vinga called out. “Two vessels; R’Dokken signatures. Shit; they’re behind us!”
“What?” Hennis coughed, “On screen!”
The image on the view-screen split in two, the right side still showing the fleeing ore-hauler, the left now showing a pair of R’Dokken gunboats, squat, ugly vessels with heads like termite nozzles; bristling with weapons. They span and weaved as they raced from their hiding places amongst the asteroids.
“Why the fuck didn’t you see those two before?” Hennis spat, rounding on Vinga.
“They must have been powered down, and shielded by the rocks,” she said.
“How did you not see this coming?” Hennis responded angrily.
“Does it matter?” Jessa said. “We have warships inbound! We can point fingers later.”
“Assuming we have any left,” Geiss pointed out. “They’ll need me in engineering”. He turned and retreated from the bridge as fast as his footwear would allow.
“Why aren’t we attacking?!” Keigh whined. No-one answered.
“I should be in sickbay,” Jessa said, trying to keep an eye on the rapidly closing gunboats whilst she collected together her fleeing medical supplies.
“You stay where you are,” Hennis told her, “I won’t have the captain relapsing.”
“I’m not going to stand by while-”
“I’M NOT GIVING YOU AN OPTION!” Hennis screamed, panic and terror clear in his eyes and face. “Mopsy, she seeks to abandon your captain. Don’t let her leave!”
Mopsy rolled obediently forward, stopping between Jessa and the bridge hatch.
“What are we going to about those gunboats?” Vance asked, “Right now I’m just chasing this ore-hauler.”
The Kingfisher began to shudder slightly as its main batteries started firing. Jessa watched occasional burst of blue plasma appear to streak toward the gunboats. But most of the batteries were firing on the ore-hauler. Following orders, but not common sense; the approaching gunboats were a much bigger problem than a retreating mining vessel.
The two warships made the point by opening fire. The muzzles of their guns began to strobe as thousands of tiny scarlet projectiles raced across the view-screen, obscuring the pattering of fire from the Kingfisher.
A moment later, the bridge began to shake; the booms of impact hits ringing out in time with the lurches.
“We’re taking hits!” someone announced unnecessarily.
“Shit,” Hennis hissed. He flicked his comm-switch again.
“Gunners; leave the ore-hauler, concentrate all fire on those gunboats.” He left the channel open. “Vance; give me combat manoeuvres.”
“I’ll try,” Vance said, “But anything too violent and the asteroids will get us before the ‘pedes do.”
The violent shivers of the incoming fire slackened slightly as Vance sent the Kingfisher into an unpredictable corkscrew, constantly changing its direction and radius. The gunboats were approaching less quickly now, as they were forced to start evading the incoming fire. Jessa watched with satisfaction as one of them was hit; knocked sideways by a blue explosion; its hull glowing white with heat and venting water. The stricken vessel regained itself, and rejoined its wingman, but its torrent of fire had become a trickle. The staccato drumbeat of explosions against the hull had become the occasional thump, and the gunboats were maintaining a more respectful distance, where their manoeuvrability and faster fire rate might outstrip the Kingfisher’s ponderous cannons.
“Why aren’t they dead yet?” Keigh complained, her voice reedy and loud. “I want the monsters dead right now!”
“We’re doing our best,” Hennis said, trying to be soothing, although he sounded nothing of the sort.
“Now!” Keigh repeated, letting go of her seat to thump her fists against its arms. “Now now NOW!” The force of her blows sent her floating upwards, but she ignored it, still screaming, faster and faster, “Nownownownownownownownow-“
Suddenly her whole body splayed outwards, blood bursting from her lips to fly in crimson teardrops across the bridge. Spasms wracked her small frame; her limbs began to flail wildly.
For a moment the crew watched, stunned, totally unable to process what was happening.
Jessa recovered first, leaping onto the captain’s chair, hooking her legs under its arms, and grabbing the thrashing Keigh by her left ankle. She kept a firm enough grip to stop Keigh wrenching herself free, but she held her wrist loose, providing a cushion against the spasms rather than a barrier.
Hennis jerked into action, reached to help.”No!” Jessa said. “You grab her too, and she’ll just do herself more damage. This way I can stop her colliding against anything.””And how long does she stay up there?” Hennis demanded. The three navbots drove themselves into a tight triangle around the captain’s chair, but Jessa did her best to ignore them.
“Until I’m convinced I can pull her down without her breaking her limbs against the bulkheads,” she replied, refusing to be intimidated.
Captain, the ore-hauler’s getting away,” Vance said, “I can’t keep up with her while I’m dodging all this incoming.””Let it go,” Hennis said, “We can hunt it down once we’ve fucked the gunboats.”
Vance nodded, and began furiously hammering at his console. The image of the ore-hauler shrank from the screen, engulfed by the two gunboats. Jessa watched as the damaged alien vessel pitched sharply downwards to avoid scraping one of its three radial tail fins on an asteroid. In the process it ran straight into a burst of plasma from the Kingfisher. The screen was filled with a silent white explosion, which faded to reveal an expanding cloud of metal and water vapour where the gunboat had been.
The bridge crew cheered; it had been a long time since they had anything to celebrate.
“Gunners; finish off that other gunboat,” Hennis said. “I don’t want any more scratches on the hull.”
“Sir!” Vinga said suddenly, “The ore-hauler has changed vector; zero-six-five-slash-zero-four-niner.”
What?” Hennis said. “Get her back on screen; right now.”Jessa felt Keigh’s struggling beginning to die down. Soft moans and whimpers escaped her lips.
The view-screen split again, the fleeing ore-hauler once more appearing on the right-hand side, silhouetted against a gigantic asteroid spinning half-heartedly in the middle distance. It had indeed changed its heading, now it was moving upward and to the far right of the screen.
“Where the hell is it going?” Vance asked.
Things finally fell into place.
“It isn’t going anywhere,” Jessa exclaimed, “It’s clearing a flight path!”
The huge asteroid in the background of the view-screen seemed to fractionally increase the speed of its rotation. As it spun, it revealed something upon its surface. A R’Dokken space station. It was huge, spread out across the rock like a twisted spider-web of thick red metal. Flak cannons and missile silos studded the station; clouds of defence drones wheeled overhead like ovoid flies.
The crew had only seconds to recognise the structure for what it was before two dozen R’Dokken fighters launched from the jaws of its docking bay, insect-like ships with two snub-nosed cones at the bow attached to a trio of stabiliser fins. They were followed by four gunboats, and a pair of assault transports, likely crammed with alien warriors.
For a moment, no-one on the bridge spoke, each crewmember attempting to process their situation. Then the view-screen burst into action as the space station opened fire, thousands of glowing red projectiles silently streaking towards them.
“Mr Vance; get us the hell out of here!” Hennis ordered. “Turn about; one gunboat is a better bet than half the fucking R’Dokken navy. Gunners, concentrate on the original gunboat and the fighters; we’ll try to outrun everything else. Cottontail; I want a hop calc now.”
“Such a manoeuvre is impossible within this asteroid field,” Cottontail informed him dispassionately.
The Kingfisher lurched violently; the first impact from the station’s flak.
“Then find the closest point outside the field and calculate the hop from there!” Hennis shouted desperately.
“To what destination?””Fuck; any destination! Vance; make sure we get there.”
“Do my best.”
The station began to recede as the crew attempted their escape, but the fighters kept growing as they raced toward their target.
“Here they come!” Vinga called. Jessa watched the lead fighter explode in blue fire and red metal, but those that followed began to spit white hot plasma. She tore her eyes from the battle, ignored the shaking as the vessel was hit again and again, tried to focus on her patient.
Keigh had stopped struggling; stopped doing anything, other than whimpering softly, the occasional perfect globe of saltwater escaping her cheeks. Gently, Jessa pulled her down, and held her to the floor.
“Keigh?” she whispered softly. “Keigh, can you hear me?”
“Yes, doctor,” the girl sniffled. “It hurts.”
“I know,” Jessa breathed. “Would you like something to make it better?”
“Yes please,” Keigh said quietly.
Jessa began to rummage around in her bag’s remaining contents, hoping what she was searching for was still there, and not floating somewhere above their heads. Eventually her fingers closed on a syringe, which she pulled out and placed between her teeth. Another few seconds of searching, and she found a small phial of sedative. Using her knee to hold down Keigh by her dress, Jessa pierced the phial cap with the syringe, drew out the liquid, and reached for Keigh’s arm. She was worried the navbots would object, but the robots remained still as she slowly slid the metal needle into Keigh’s arm. A moment’s pressure; and Keigh went limp against the deck. This was their one chance; with Keigh asleep, and their demented former captain with her, the crew might finally be able to regain control of the ship.
If only she had the faintest idea how.
Jessa was thrown sideways from another impact, more violent than the others; she only just managed to keep hold of Keigh. Sparks began to fill the air; she heard someone swear in pain from across the bridge. She couldn’t stay like this, she needed her hands free. Reluctantly, she handed the sleeping Keigh over to Flopsy.
“Defend your captain,” she said softly.
“For fuck’s sake, people!” Hennis shouted, running forward to hover over Vance’s shoulder as though it might somehow speed up the vessels escape, “Take out that forward gunboat; before she zeroes in on the bridge!”
A moment later a storm of plasma was launched towards the R’Dokken gunboat, which began wheeling through the incoming ordnance, firing seemingly at random.
“What the hell is she doing?” Vinga asked.
“Running interference,” replied Geiss, striding back onto the bridge; “She’s firing at the asteroids.”
“What are you doing back up here?” Hennis demanded, looking back at the engineer.
Geiss shrugged dismissively. “There’s damage all over the ship; lifts are out, corridor’s blocked. Devereaux will have to cope; I can’t get to her.”
The deck rocked from another strike a moment later, not the sharp slap of an energy impact, but the jarring shudder of metal scraped by stone. The gunship kept firing, each blast sending shards of rock spinning in all directions; smashing into other asteroids in a chain reaction, or slamming against the battered, buckling hull of the Kingfisher.
Klaxons screamed across the bridge.
“Hull breach!” said an ensign Jessa didn’t know. “Deck 4; asteroid impact. Nanos are responding.”
“I can’t dodge all this rock,” Vance said, staring at the screen as though his gaze could sweep the stone aside, “Can’t we use the cannons to clear a path?”
“And make it worse?” Hennis snapped.
“Captain, the fighters have us surrounded!” Vinga said.
“We’ve lost engine three!” came another voice.
“Captain, we need some orders down here,” said a gunner over the comm., “Who are we supposed to FUBAR first?”
“OK, I want…,” Hennis hesitated a moment, “Captain?””She’s out,” Jessa said over her shoulder.
“It’s your moment to shine, rat-boy,” Geiss grinned.
“Shut up!” shouted Hennis. “Vance, keep going. Gunners, I want you to target the, erm…”
“Hennis!” Vinga gasped, “Two fighters on collision course!”
“Open fire!” Hennis shouted in panic.
Someone switched the view-screen to display two fighters racing towards them, side by side. The leftmost disintegrated in a hail of plasma from the Kingfisher. The second ship was hit too; one stabiliser fin was shorn clear off, sending the ship into a careening spin. For a heartbeat, Jessa thought the fighter would tumble away to join the asteroids.
Instead, the spinning vessel grew to fill the screen.
There was a deafening explosion as the fighter cannoned into the Kingfisher amidships; the scream of tortured metal mixed with the cries of terror and pain, and the roar of escaping atmosphere. Despite their boots people were knocked from their feet. Crewmen began to cartwheel past Jessa’s face; not all of them were still alive. Globes of blood, some horribly large, began to collide with the bulkheads, or the deck, or with Jessa. Out of the corner of her eye she saw an ensign she had once had lunch with. He was stood bolt upright as though at attention, his head above the nose shorn clean away. Zero-g and his boots kept him standings, whilst tendrils of artery and brain unfolded from his open skull like sea anemones.
Instantly Jessa’s medical reflexes kicked in, the smell and sight of blood and bone cutting off her fear and flooding her with determination. But the sheer scale of the suffering around her baffled her ability to respond.
How could she possibly choose who to help first?The decision was made for her when Vance’s console exploded spectacularly, flinging him backwards from his seat. He burbled a scream as he careened into Jessa, hitting with something more akin to squelch than slap. His arms wrapped round her automatically, she had to allow her knees to buckle to avoid injury. As her spine reached horizontal, her feet still safely in her boots, she stared into the ruined eyes of the man on top of her.
Only the name on his shipsuit would have allowed her to identify him as Vance. His face was a welter of blood and bone. Breached veins spat red bubbles, his ruptured eyes leaked yellow liquid, and he screamed mad agony into her face. She had to fight the urge to vomit. Instead she rolled him aside, allowed his boots to find purchase again, and grabbed for her bag.
Even as she reached for the e-stitch she knew she was too late. Vance’s clothes were awash with red stains, which were expanding every second. He began spewing blood and bile through his screams. Jessa grabbed his head fiercely, feeling him struggle against her grip, and forced it to the side. She rammed her fingers inside his mouth, holding his jaws open with her other hand, and began furiously working to keep his airway clear of vomit. “Get me a medical team!” she bellowed to anyone who would listen. Again and again he flailed his arms against her, trying to free himself, as if she were the cause of his pain. Her own suit was now heavy with blood.
As she fought hopelessly to save Vance’s life, Geiss ran to the ruined conn. He thrust himself underneath, and busied himself with the smoking mass of wires beneath.
“What the hell are you doing?” Hennis asked him.
“Hot-wiring the conn,” the engineer replied. “Give me two minutes.”
“We haven’t got two minutes!” Hennis whined.
“Then fucking FIND THEM!” Geiss shouted. “You wanted to fuck over everyone between you and the captain’s chair; you sort this sodding mess out.”
Finally something shook loose from Hennis’ skull.
“Vinga?” he said, his fear seemingly gone, “Report.””Nine fighters are out of it,” she replied, “The others are providing a screen for the gunboats and transports.”
“We still have forward momentum,” Geiss put in, “If we can get past that other ship-“”All gunners, hit that forward gunboat,” Hennis ordered. “And the nearby asteroids if you have to; let’s give this arsehole a taste of his own medicine.”
After a moment he added: “And put it on-screen. I want to watch this fucker fry.”
The view-screen obediently showed the gunboat, still was backing away and blazing fire into the rock around the Kingfisher.
Suddenly there were explosions and plasma traces everywhere. The gunboat pilot had only seconds to recognize his danger; he was still turning into his first evasive wheel when his prow detonated. Smaller explosions ran down the ship for a moment before the whole craft blew apart.
“Good shooting!” Hennis crowed. “Geiss, how we doing?”
“It’ll be faster if I’m not interrupted.”
“What about the hull; I thought I heard a breach in here.”
“That was over the comm,” Gallagher said, “Guess lost a gun-deck in the collision.”
“Vinga, what about the enemy?””We’re well out of range of the station, sir; and the other vessels can’t break to attack without leaving those transports open. We might get out of this yet.”
All of this might as well have been background static to Jessa. All she could focus on was the man dying in her arms. Furiously she worked, sealing opened arteries, stitching the gashes from debris that covered his frame.
It made no difference. The internal damage was phenomenal, he was haemorrhaging everywhere.
“Where the fuck is that team?” she shouted.
The only person to respond was Vance. With one last cry of hopeless agony, he twisted in Jessa’s grip, and died.
Jessa did the only thing she could. She let the cadver float away, and began searching for her next patient.
Geiss whooped loudly.
“I got it!” he shouted, “Where to?””We’re already headed the right way,” Hennis told him, “Just give some evasive manoeuvres.”
Jessa looked up briefly, over a crewman’s dislocated shoulder that she was shoving back into joint. The enemy vessels were accelerating hard, after them, but surely they were nearly outside the field. And with a hop already calculated…
Then the lights went out.
“What the fuck?” Hennis gasped. “Report!”
“We’ve lost main power!” someone responded; Jessa couldn’t tell who. “Back-up’s not responding either, all we’ve got left’s the EBG.”
Pale blue lights flickered into life around them. Everywhere Jessa could see faces darkened by shadow and defeat.
“Reports coming in from all gun-decks,” a crewman said, “They’re trying to jerry-rig some generators for the plasma cannons, but right now we have no weapons.”
“Or engines,” Geiss said, his voice muffled from beneath the conn. “I still got thrusters, but even if I can ride our inertia out of this field, we can’t hop. We’re dead in the water.””Sitting ducks,” Vinga snarled. Then she returned her attention to her console.
“Hennis, the enemy vessels are closing.”
“How?” Hennis said, his voice clogged with angry confusion, “How could they possibly hit main and emergency power?””They couldn’t,” Geiss insisted, still working under the conn, “The systems are deliberately kept separate for exactly that reason.”
“Unless it was sabotage,” Jessa said coldly. Grimly she strode over to the conn, grabbed Geiss by the leg, and pulled him roughly out from underneath the console.
“Hey!” he exclaimed. Without gravity to add friction, she yanked him out harder than she had intended. As the came clear of the conn his forehead collided with the console.
“Ow! Shit, Jessa, what the hell?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Hennis demanded.
“Oh come on,” she replied, “This was obviously a set-up. How else did the R’Dokken know we were coming?””Well it sure as fuck wasn’t me!” Geiss protested, “Why the hell-“
“Hennis!” Vinga cut the engineer off, “Those assault boats are closing to dock. Starboard ‘lock D-4.”
“Get security down there,” Hennis said, before turning back to Jessa.
“Now what the fuck is this about?”
“Geiss has been screwing us all along. He alerted the R’Dokken, and sabotaged-“
“-And sabotaged the engines. Couldn’t get to engineering? I should’ve smelled your bullshit from the start. What did you do, Geiss? Plant a bomb? Is Deveraux dead? And how many along with her?”
“You crazy bitch!” Geiss shouted, rounding on her, “I’ve spent weeks trying to keep you safe! I just crawled under a sodding burning console to try and get this tin can out of trouble, and this is what I have to show for it? Fuck you.”
He made to leave.
“Navbots?” Hennis said icily. “This man stands charged with treason. Defend your captain.”
Obediently the machines rolled forward to block Geiss’ path.
“The R’Dokken are through on D deck!” Gallagher said, “Security’s getting the crap kicked out of them!”
“Get some more men down there!” Hennis said, “Security, engineers; anyone you can scrape together. And set up barricades along all routes to the bridge.”
He turned to face Geiss. In the wan light his leering grin seemed positively demonic.
“At least we have time for one more execution,” he said.
“Fuck you!” Geiss said again, his desperation obvious in his voice. “Even I’d wanted to, how the hell could I have tipped the ‘pedes off?”
Hennis glanced at Jessa, eyebrows raised.
“A good question. Doctor, you seem to be council for the prosecution. I’m sure we’d all love to hear an explanation.”
“D Deck no longer transmitting!” Gallagher put in. “Remaining security guards are re-organising on B Deck.”
“Shit, that’s us,” Hennis said, “I want anyone in here whose armed to guard the door.”No-one moved.
Reluctantly, half a dozen crewmen sloped to the hatch. Three walked through, and the others took what cover they could, training their guns at the hatchway; awaiting the end.
“I still want to know what’s going on,” Hennis said.
“It’s very simple,” Jessa said, glaring at Geiss with contempt. “After you found that transmitter on Harlan; he told me he’d managed to get a signal out; call for help. Geiss was the one who slapped it together, he must have set it to a R’Dokken frequency; it let them set this whole scenario up.”
For a moment Geiss didn’t respond to the accusation. Then, suddenly, he doubled up with laughter. He seemed to be trying to say something, but he couldn’t get it out, his entire body was shaking with mirth.
Hennis was furious. “Stop fucking laughing!” he shouted. “Did you do this or not. I swear to God, Geiss, I’m not going to need the navvies for this one; I’ll rip out your spine myself.”
Geiss kept giggling. After a few moments he calmed down a little. He reached out and leant against Cottontail for support, sucking in air in long, loud breaths.
“I’m –hah!- I’m sorry,” he said, grinning from ear to ear, “It’s just so funny; you are so fucking well and truly fucking fucked.”
He looked straight at Jessa, his eyes glistening.
“Just how stupid do you think I am? The transmitter I gave your hubby had a tiny explosive device inside, just powerful to gut its workings. I couldn’t take the risk it would be traced back to me; so I had to make sure I activated it as soon as the call for help went off. I was monitoring the transmitter that whole time.”
His smile grew grim.
“In the end I had to blow the device as Harlan was being dragged aboard by security. You get me, Jessa? Harlan never used my transmitter!”
Jessa stomach heaved.
“You’re saying-?””I’m saying that if Hennis and his Nazis found a transmitter on Harlan when it came aboard; it wasn’t mine.”
Finally some lingering thread of compassion switched off his smile.
“I didn’t call the R’Dokken,” he said, almost gently, “Your husband did.”
At that moment the intercom chimed on.
“This is Second Officer Summers to all crew,” came Harlan’s voice. Each word stabbed Jessa like a knife through her windpipe. “Our guests are about to reach the bridge. I suggest everybody surrenders immediately; we all know how the R’Dokken feel about taking prisoners. I guarantee no-one will be hurt.”
The intercom clicked off.
No-one spoke for a moment. Jessa felt sick. The world around her seemed to be twisting slowly in and out; she had to squeeze her eyes shut to avoid collapsing. It felt as though gravity had returned, that she was falling, and would be falling forever.
But she didn’t have the luxury of self-pity. From outside the bridge a barrage of fire broke out; the characteristic crack of the crew’s Gorgons, and the strange high pitched whine of R’Dokken weaponry.
The enemy had arrived.
“So,” Geiss said conversationally, “What do we do now?”
“I don’t know about you,” Hennis snarled, drawing his pistol and checking the chamber, “But I’m going to blow so many holes in those fuckers they have to swim home in their own blood.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Geiss said, grabbing a jagged-ended metal tube as it spiralled slowly past. He looked at it appreciatively. “Better than harsh language, anyway.”
He glanced at Jessa.
“What about you, Doctor. You joining us for operation Get Eaten Alive?”
Jessa couldn’t meet his gaze. “Geiss, I want to… er, I need to say-“
“Forget it,” he said, grinning. “If I was dumb enough to marry an alien spy, I wouldn’t be able to grasp simple logic either.”
Jessa felt her anger surge at Geiss’ insensitivity. But then, he was right, wasn’t he? She needed her anger; hell, she deserved her anger.
But she had a better target than Geiss.
Without a word, she pulled a small, jet black cylinder from her bag.
“Hah!” Geiss barked. “I thought this pipe was shit; but you’re going after the ‘pedes with lipstick?”
Instead of replying, she flicked the switch at the tubes base. The opposite end suddenly erupted into a crackling red haze.
“This is a VFE-scalpel,” she told him, “If you tried to use it as lipstick, you’d slice your face off. I’ll take it over your penis-compensator any day.”
The gunfight outside ended with an abrupt scream. A moment later, a beam of fierce yellow power punched through the door. It travelled slowly downward, leaving a trail of molten, sparking metal.
“Plasma cutter,” Geiss said. “Company’s coming.”
He looked around the bridge. Jessa did the same. The few crewmembers still able to stand had, like them, scavenged whatever debris they could use as weapons. Their terror was obvious even in the blue half-light.
“Is this it?” Geiss asked doubtfully.
“Not exactly,” Hennis said. “Navbots; defend your captain.”
There was a whine of servos as Mopsy and Cottontail rumbled toward the increasingly damaged door, stopping just out of range of the plasma cutter’s beam. Flopsy set Keigh gently down under the captain’s chair, and swivelled to face the hatch, its huge hands opening and closing in preparation.
“Everyone ready?” Hennis asked, staring along the barrel of his pistol.
Geiss was the only one to reply. “'Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door’” was all he said.
“Is there any chance you’re going to shut up?” Hennis snapped.
“Not the best last words I’ve come across,” Geiss replied. “How about you, Jessa, what are we putting on your tombstone?”
“If Harlan shows, no-one touches him,” she said coldly, tightening the red haze of her scalpel into a long, thin blade of energy. “He’s mine.”
At that moment, the door exploded inward, and the enemy were upon them.
Four streaks of plasma flew simultaneously; and Jessa had only the faintest glimpse of a R’Dokken’s ugly helmet before it detonated, spraying yellow blood across the bridge. For a moment it seemed that the recoiling corpse might block the door, but the next alien through simply snaked itself around the first, its legs pushing it forward with horrible speed, its strange weapon firing in all directions. Jessa watched as a crewman was caught in one of the invisible blasts; screaming with agony as his body first twisted, then somehow imploded. She saw Flopsy and Mopsy grab the intruder and rip it noisily in half, showering themselves with ichors.
Then the aliens were everywhere, and there was no time to watch, or even think. Jessa’s world became an endless tunnel of hacking and stabbing, of screams and blood and gunfire. A R’Dokken reared up in front of her, and she thrust her improvised weapon deep into its armoured face. There was a blood-curdling screech of hate and pain, and the alien was gone.
Her legs became tangled in someone’s severed arm, and she lurched forward, feet scrambling furiously until the magnets in her boots regained their purchase. By the time she was steady again another alien was upon her. Its tentacles rippled toward her, each one tipped with dozens of variously sized blades, rotating or vibrating or sawing the air. She tried to turn and run, but the creature grabbed her with two of its forelegs, pinning her arms to her torso. Screaming in terror, she struggled desperately to escape, but she could not break free, could not use her scalpel.
The blades reached for her face. Jessa stared with terrified loathing into the green, expressionless eye of her killer’s helmet.
Suddenly its eye burst open in a cloud of blood and viscera. The alien let her go as it thrashed in its death throes, the metal fist of Cottontail still protruding from the helmet’s ruined eye-socket.
“Thanks,” she murmured, inspecting her rescuer as it removed its hand from its victim’s body.
The robot was in bad shape; its chassis was badly buckled, its face barely recognisable as the rough human sketch it had once been. One track was all but gone, and its wide panelled chest was a mess of melted metal and sparking components.
With the immediate danger passed she risked a glance around her at the raging melee.
It was obvious that the battle was already lost. Mopsy was almost impossible to see under a swirling layer of R’Dokken, endlessly stabbing and ripping with their blades, two more leaping onto the machine with every one it swatted clumsily away.
Flopsy stood immobile in the centre of the bridge, its head melted clean away, its hands yellow with R’Dokken blood, the child it had died to protect cradled still unconscious between its treads.
The sound of Gorgon fire was gone, now only the weird screech of the alien weapons rent the air. And there was something else, just discernable above the clamour of battle; a low incessant hissing. It wasn’t until the scent was already in her nostrils that she recognised her danger. Gas! Jessa knew she should panic, but it was already too late, the gas was winding its way around her brain, crushing it in velvet. Her limbs grew heavy, and her head seemed to be inflating. Woozily she watched a R’Dokken, clinging to the deck above, push off with its front half to lash out at Hennis; puncturing him with a half dozen armoured legs before dragging him screaming to the ceiling, and its waiting knives. Another alien used the gun it carried in two tentacles to blast one man from his feet, whilst using the third to slice Gallagher’s leg off at the knee.
Then her vision fled her. Dropping her scalpel to the floor, she closed her now useless eyes, and drifted happily away.