For fans of The Edge of Tomorrow, Alien and James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series comes an explosive new space fleet adventure that will thrill science fiction and space opera fans worldwide. Jack Campbell, author of the Lost Fleet novels, calls it ‘a gripping read that moves at warp speed’.
Radio chatter filled my ears. Different voices, speaking over one another.
Is this it? I asked myself. Will I find her?
“That’s a confirm on the identification: AFS New Haven. She went dark three years ago.”
“Null-shields are blown. You have a clean approach.”
It was a friendly, at least. Nationality: Arab Freeworlds. But it wasn’t her. A spike of disappointment ran through me. What did I expect? She was gone.
“Arab Freeworlds Starship New Haven, this is Alliance FOB Liberty Point: do you copy? Repeat, this is FOB Liberty Point: do you copy?”
“Bird’s not squawking.”
“That’s a negative on the hail. No response to automated or manual contact.”
I patched into the external cameras to get a better view of the target. She was a big starship, a thousand metres long. NEW HAVEN had been stencilled on the hull, but the white lettering was chipped and worn. Underneath the name was a numerical ID tag and a barcode with a corporate sponsor logo – an advert for some long-forgotten mining corporation. As an afterthought something in Arabic had been scrawled beside the logo.
New Haven was a civilian-class colony vessel; one of the mass-produced models commonly seen throughout the border systems, capable of long-range quantum-space jumps but with precious little defensive capability. Probably older than me, retrofitted by a dozen governments and corporations before she became known by her current name. The ship looked painfully vulnerable, to my military eye: with a huge globe-like bridge and command module at the nose, a slender midsection and an ugly drive propulsion unit at the aft.
She wouldn’t be any good in a fight, that was for sure.
“Reading remote sensors now. I can’t get a clean internal analysis from the bio-scanner.”
On closer inspection, there was evidence to explain the lifeless state of the ship. Puckered rips in the hull-plating suggested that she had been fired upon by a spaceborne weapon. Nothing catastrophic, but enough to disable the main drive: as though whoever, or whatever, had attacked the ship had been toying with her. Like the hunter that only cripples its prey, but chooses not to deliver the killing blow.
“AFS New Haven, this is Liberty Point. You are about to be boarded in accordance with military code alpha-zero-niner. You have trespassed into the Krell Quarantine Zone. Under military law in force in this sector we have authority to board your craft, in order to ensure your safety.”
The ship had probably been drifting aimlessly for months, maybe even years. There was surely nothing alive within that blasted metal shell.
“That’s a continued no response to the hail. Authorising weapons-free for away team. Proceed with mission as briefed.”
“This is Captain Harris,” I said. “Reading you loud and clear. That’s an affirmative on approach.”
“Copy that. Mission is good to go, good to go. Over to you, Captain. Wireless silence from here on in.”
Then the communication-link was severed and there was a moment of silence. Liberty Point, and all of the protections that the station brought with it, suddenly felt a very long way away.
Our Wildcat armoured personnel shuttle rapidly advanced on the New Haven. The APS was an ugly, functional vessel – made to ferry us from the base of operations to the insertion point, and nothing more. It was heavily armoured but completely unarmed; the hope was that, under enemy fire, the triple-reinforced armour would prevent a hull breach before we reached the objective. Compared to the goliath civilian vessel, it was an insignificant dot.
I sat upright in the troop compartment, strapped into a safety harness. On the approach to the target, the Wildcat APS gravity drive cancelled completely: everything not strapped down drifted in free fall. There were no windows or view-screens, and so I relied on the external camera-feeds to track our progress. This was proper cattle-class, even in deep-space.
I wore a tactical combat helmet, for more than just protection. Various technical data was being relayed to the heads-up display – projected directly onto the interior of the face-plate. Swarms of glowing icons, warnings and data-reads scrolled overhead. For a rookie, the flow of information would’ve been overwhelming but to me this was second nature. Jacked directly into my combat-armour, with a thought I cancelled some data-streams, examined others.
Satisfied with what I saw, I yelled into the communicator: “Squad, sound off.”
Five members of the unit called out in turn, their respective life-signs appearing on my HUD.
“Jenkins.” The only woman on the team; small, fast and sparky. Jenkins was a gun nut, and when it came to military operations obsessive-compulsive was an understatement. She served as the corporal of the squad and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Blake.” Youngest member of the team, barely out of basic training when he was inducted. Fresh-faced and always eager. His defining characteristics were extraordinary skill with a sniper rifle, and an incredible talent with the opposite sex.
“Martinez.” He had a background in the Alliance Marine Corps. With his dark eyes and darker fuzz of hair, he was Venusian American stock. He promised that he had Hispanic blood, but I doubted that the last few generations of Martinez’s family had even set foot on Earth.
“Kaminski.” Quick-witted; a fast technician as well as a good shot. Kaminski had been with me from the start. Like me, he had been Alliance Special Forces. He and Jenkins rubbed each other up the wrong way, like brother and sister. Expertly printed above the face-shield of his helmet were the words BORN TO KILL.
Then, finally: “Science Officer Olsen, ah, alive.”
Our guest for this mission sat to my left – the science officer attached to my squad. He shook uncontrollably, alternating between breathing hard and retching hard. Olsen’s communicator was tuned to an open channel, and none of us were spared his pain. I remotely monitored his vital signs on my suit display – he was in a bad way. I was going to have to keep him close during the op.
“First contact for you, Mr Olsen?” Blake asked over the general squad comms channel.
Olsen gave an exaggerated nod.
“Yes, but I’ve conducted extensive laboratory studies of the enemy.” He paused to retch some more, then blurted: “And I’ve read many mission debriefs on the subject.”
“That counts for nothing out here, my friend,” said Jenkins. “You need to face-off against the enemy. Go toe to toe, in our space.”
“That’s the problem, Jenkins,” Blake said. “This isn’t our space, according to the Treaty.”
“You mean the Treaty that was signed off before you were born, Kid?” Kaminski added, with a dry snigger. “We have company this mission – it’s a special occasion. How about you tell us how old you are?”
As squad leader, I knew Blake’s age but the others didn’t. The mystery had become a source of amusement to the rest of the unit. I could’ve given Kaminski the answer easily enough, but that would have spoiled the entertainment. This was a topic to which he returned every time we were operational.
“Isn’t this getting old?” said Blake.
“No, it isn’t – just like you, Kid.”
Blake gave him the finger – his hands chunky and oversized inside heavily armoured gauntlets.
“Cut that shit out,” I growled over the communicator. “I need you all frosty and on point. I don’t want things turning nasty out there. We get aboard the Haven, download the route data, then bail out.”
I’d already briefed the team back at the Liberty Point, but no operation was routine where the Krell were concerned. Just the possibility of an encounter changed the game. I scanned the interior of the darkened shuttle, taking in the faces of each of my team. As I did so, my suit streamed combat statistics on each of them – enough for me to know that they were on edge, that they were ready for this.
“If we stay together and stay cool, then no one needs to get hurt,” I said. “That includes you, Olsen.”
The science officer gave another nod. His biorhythms were most worrying but there was nothing I could do about that. His inclusion on the team hadn’t been my choice, after all.
“You heard the man,” Jenkins echoed. “Meaning no fuck-ups.”
Couldn’t have put it better myself. If I bought it on the op, Jenkins would be responsible for getting the rest of the squad home.
The Wildcat shuttle selected an appropriate docking portal on the New Haven. Data imported from the APS automated pilot told me that trajectory and approach vector were good. We would board the ship from the main corridor. According to our intelligence, based on schematics of similar starships, this corridor formed the spine of the ship. It would give access to all major tactical objectives – the bridge, the drive chamber, and the hypersleep suite.
A chime sounded in my helmet and the APS updated me on our progress – T-MINUS TEN SECONDS UNTIL IMPACT.
“Here we go!” I declared.
The Wildcat APS retro-thrusters kicked in, and suddenly we were decelerating rapidly. My head thumped against the padded neck-rest and my body juddered. Despite the reduced-gravity of the cabin, the sensation was gut wrenching. My heart hammered in my chest, even though I had done this hundreds of times before. My helmet informed me that a fresh batch of synthetic combat-drug – a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline, carefully mixed to keep me at optimum combat performance – was being injected into my system to compensate. The armour carried a full medical suite, patched directly into my body, and automatically provided assistance when necessary. Distance to target rapidly decreased.
“Brace for impact.”
Through the APS-mounted cameras, I saw the rough-and-ready docking procedure. The APS literally bumped against the outer hull, and unceremoniously lined up our airlock with the Haven’s. With an explosive roar and a wave of kinetic force, the shuttle connected with the hull. The Wildcat airlock cycled open.
We moved like a well-oiled mechanism, a well-used machine. Except for Olsen, we’d all done this before. Martinez was first up, out of his safety harness. He took up point. Jenkins and Blake were next; they would provide covering fire if we met resistance. Then Kaminski, escorting Olsen. I was always last out of the cabin.
“Boarding successful,” I said. “We’re on the Haven.”
That was just a formality for my combat-suit recorder.
As I moved out into the corridor, my weapon auto-linked with my HUD and displayed targeting data. We were armed with Westington-Haslake M95 plasma battle-rifles – the favoured long-arm for hostile starship engagements. It was a large and weighty weapon, and fired phased plasma pulses, fuelled by an onboard power cell. Range was limited but it had an incredible rate of fire and the sheer stopping power of an energy weapon of this magnitude was worth the compromise. We carried other weapons as well, according to preference – Jenkins favoured an Armant-pattern incinerator unit as her primary weapon, and we all wore plasma pistol sidearms.
“Take up covering positions – overlap arcs of fire,” I whispered, into the communicator. The squad obeyed. “Wide dispersal, and get me some proper light.”
Bobbing shoulder-lamps illuminated, flashing over the battered interior of the starship. The suits were equipped with infrared, night-vision, and electro-magnetic sighting, but the Krell didn’t emit much body heat and nothing beat good old-fashioned eyesight.
Without being ordered, Kaminski moved up on one of the wall-mounted control panels. He accessed the ship’s mainframe with a portable PDU from his kit.
“Let there be light,” Martinez whispered, in heavily accented Standard.
Strip lights popped on overhead, flashing in sequence, dowsing the corridor in ugly electric illumination. Some flickered erratically, other didn’t light at all. Something began humming in the belly of the ship: maybe dormant life-support systems. A sinister calmness permeated the main corridor. It was utterly utilitarian, with bare metal-plated walls and floors. My suit reported that the temperature was uncomfortably low, but within acceptable tolerances.
“Gravity drive is operational,” Kaminski said. “They’ve left the atmospherics untouched. We’ll be okay here for a few hours.”
“I don’t plan on staying that long,” Jenkins said.
Simultaneously, we all broke the seals on our helmets. The atmosphere carried twin but contradictory scents: the stink of burning plastic and fetid water. The ship has been on fire, and a recycling tank has blown somewhere nearby. Liquid plink-plink-plinked softly in the distance.
“I’ll stay sealed, if you don’t mind,” Olsen clumsily added. “The subjects have been known to harbour cross-species contaminants.”
“Christo, this guy is unbelievable,” Kaminski said, shaking his head.
“Hey, watch your tongue, mano,” Martinez said to Kaminski. He motioned to a crude white cross, painted onto the chest-plate of his combat-suit. “Don’t use His name in vain.”
None of us really knew what religion Martinez followed, but he did it with admirable vigour. It seemed to permit gambling, women and drinking, whereas blaspheming on a mission was always unacceptable.
“Not this shit again,” Kaminski said. “It’s all I ever hear from you. We get back to the Point without you, I’ll comm God personally. You Venusians are all the same.”
“I’m an American,” Martinez started. Venusians were very conscious of their roots; this was an argument I’d arbitrated far too many times between the two soldiers.
“Shut the fuck up,” Jenkins said. “He wants to believe, leave him to it.” The others respected her word almost as much as mine, and immediately fell silent. “It’s nice to have faith in something. Orders, Cap?”
“Fireteam Alpha – Jenkins, Martinez – get down to the hypersleep chamber and report on the status of these colonists. Fireteam Bravo, form up on me.”
Nods of approval from the squad. This was standard operating procedure: get onboard the target ship, hit the key locations and get back out as soon as possible.
“And the quantum-drive?” Jenkins asked. She had powered up her flamethrower, and the glow from the pilot-light danced over her face. Her expression looked positively malicious.
“We’ll converge on the location in fifteen minutes. Let’s get some recon on the place before we check out.”
“Solid copy, Captain.”
The troopers began a steady jog into the gloomy aft of the starship, their heavy armour and weapons clanking noisily as they went.
It wasn’t fear that I felt in my gut. Not trepidation, either; this was something worse. It was excitement – polluting my thought process, strong enough that it was almost intoxicating. This was what I was made for. I steadied my pulse and concentrated on the mission at hand.
Something stirred in the ship – I felt it.
* * *
Kaminski, Blake and I made quick time towards the bridge. Olsen struggled to keep up with us and was quiet for most of the way, but Kaminski couldn’t help goading him.
“I take it you aren’t used to running in combat-armour?” Kaminski asked. “Just say if you want a rest.”
The tone of Kaminski’s voice made clear that wasn’t a statement of concern, but rather an insult.
“It’s quite something,” Olsen said, shaking his head. He ignored Kaminski’s last remark. “A real marvel of modern technology. The suit feels like it is running me, rather than the other way around.”
“You get used to it,” I said. “Two and a half tonnes of machinery goes into every unit.”
The Trident Class IV combat-suit was equipped with everything a soldier needed. It had a full sensory and tactical data-suite built into the helmet, all fed into the HUD. Reinforced ablative plating protected the wearer from small-arms fire. It had full EVA-capability – atmospherically sealed, with an oxygen recycling pack for survival in deep-space. A plethora of gadgets and added extras were crammed onboard, and Research and Development supplied something new every mission. These versions were in a constantly shifting urban-camouflage pattern, to blur the wearer’s outline and make us harder targets to hit. Best of all, the mechanical musculature amplified the strength of the wearer ten-fold.
“You can crush a xeno skull with one hand,” Kaminski said, absently flexing a glove by way of example. “I’ve done it.”
“Stay focused,” I ordered, and Kaminski fell silent.
We were moving through a poorly lit area of the ship – Krell were friends of the dark. I flicked on my shoulder-lamp again, taking in the detail.
The starship interior was a state. It had been smashed to pieces by the invaders. We passed cabins sealed up with makeshift barricades. Walls scrawled with bloody handprints, or marked by the discharge of energy weapons. I guessed that the crew and civilian complement had put up a fight, but not much of one. They had probably been armed with basic self-defence weapons – a few slug-throwers, a shock-rifle or so to deal with the occasional unruly crewman, but nothing capable of handling a full-on boarding party. They certainly wouldn’t have been prepared for what had come for them.
Something had happened here. That squirming in my gut kicked in again. Part of the mystery of the ship was solved. The Krell had been here for sure. Only one question remained: were they still onboard? Perhaps they had done their thing then bailed out.
Or they might still be lurking somewhere on the ship.
We approached the bridge. I checked the mission timeline. Six minutes had elapsed since we had boarded.
“Check out the door, Blake,” I ordered, moving alongside it.
The bridge door had been poorly welded shut. I grappled with one panel, digging my gauntleted fingers into the thin metal plates. Blake did the same to another panel and we pulled it open. Behind me, Kaminski changed position to provide extra firepower in the event of a surprise from inside the room. Once the door was gone, I peered in.
“Scanner reports no movement,” Blake said.
He was using a wrist-mounted bio-scanner, incorporated into his suit. It detected biological life-signs, but the range was limited. Although we all had scanners – they were the tool of choice for Krell-hunters and salvage teams up and down the Quarantine Zone – it was important not to become over-reliant on the tech. I’d learnt the hard way that it wasn’t always dependable. The Krell were smart fucks; never to be underestimated.
The bridge room was in semi-darkness, with only a few of the control consoles still illuminated.
“Moving up on bridge.”
I slowly and cautiously entered the chamber, scanning it with my rifle-mounted lamp. No motion at all. Kaminski followed me in. The place was cold, and it smelt of death and decay. Such familiar odours. I paused over the primary command console. The terminal was full of flashing warnings, untended.
“No survivors in bridge room,” I declared.
Another formality for my suit recorder. Crewmen were sprawled at their stations. The bodies were old, decomposed to the point of desiccation. The ship’s captain – probably a civilian merchant officer of some stripe – was still hunched over the command console, strapped into his seat. Something sharp and ragged had destroyed his face and upper body. Blood and bodily matter had liberally drenched the area immediately around the corpse, but had long since dried.
“What do you think happened here?” whispered Olsen.
“The ship’s artificial intelligence likely awoke essential crew when the Krell boarded,” I said. “They probably sealed themselves in, hoping that they would be able to repel the Krell.”
I scanned the area directly above the captain’s seat. The action was autonomic, as natural to me as breathing. I plotted how the scene had played out: the Krell had come in through the ceiling cavity – probably using the airshafts to get around the ship undetected – and killed the captain where he sat.
I repressed a shiver.
“Others are the same,” Blake said, inspecting the remaining crewmen.
“Best we can do for them now is a decent burial at sea. Blake – cover those shafts. Kaminski – get on the primary console and start the download.”
Kaminski got to work, unpacking his gear and jacking devices to the ship’s mainframe. He was a good hacker; the product of a misspent youth back in Old Brooklyn.
“Let’s find out why this old hulk is drifting so far inside the Quarantine Zone,” he muttered.
“I’m quite curious,” said Olsen. “The ship should have been well within established Alliance space. Even sponsored civilian vessels have been warned not to stray outside of the demarked area.”
Shit happens, Olsen.
I paced the bridge while Kaminski worked.
The only external view-ports aboard the Haven were located on the bridge. The shutters had been fixed open, displaying the majesty of deep-space. Maybe they wanted to see the void, one last time, before the inevitable, I thought to myself. It wasn’t a view that I’d have chosen – the Maelstrom dominated the ports. At this distance, light-years from the edge of the Quarantine Zone, the malevolent cluster of stars looked like an inverted bruise – against the black of space, bright and vivid. Like the Milky Way spiral in miniature: with swirling arms, each containing a myriad of Krell worlds. The display was alluringly colourful, as though to entice unwary alien travellers to their doom; to think that the occupants of those worlds and systems were a peaceful species. Occasional white flashes indicated gravimetric storms; the inexplicable phenomenon that in turn protected but also imprisoned the worlds of the Maelstrom.
“Your people ever get an answer on what those storms are?” I absently asked Olsen, as Kaminski worked. Olsen was Science Division, a specialised limb of the Alliance complex, not military.
“Now that is an interesting question,” Olsen started, shuffling over to my position on the bridge. “Research is ongoing. The entire Maelstrom Region is still an enigma. Did you know that there are more black hole stars in that area of space than in the rest of the Orion Arm? Professor Robins, out of Maru Prime, thinks that the storms might be connected – perhaps the result of magnetic stellar tides—”
“There we go,” Kaminski said, interrupting Olsen. He started to noisily unplug his gear, and the sudden sound made the science officer jump. “I’ve got commissioning data, notable service history, and personnel records. Looks like the Haven was on a colony run – a settlement programme. Had orders to report to Torfis Star . . .” He paused, reading something from the terminal. Torfis Star was a long way from our current galactic position, and no right-minded starship captain would’ve deviated so far off-course without a damned good reason. “I see where things went wrong. The navigation module malfunctioned and the AI tried to compensate.”
“The ship’s artificial intelligence would be responsible for all automated navigational decisions,” Olsen said. “But surely safety protocols would have prevented the ship from making such a catastrophic mistake?”
Kaminski continued working but shrugged noncommittally. “It happens more often than you might think. Looks like the Haven’s AI developed a system fault. Caused the ship to overshoot her destination by several light-years. That explains how she ended up in the QZ.”
“Just work quickly,” I said. The faster we worked, the more quickly we could bail out to the APS. If the Krell were still onboard, we might be able to extract before contact. I activated my communicator: “Jenkins – you copy?”
“We’re on the bridge, downloading the black box now. What’s your location?”
“We’re in the hypersleep chamber.”
“Give me a sitrep.”
“No survivors. It isn’t pretty down here. No remains in enough pieces to identify. Looks like they were caught in hypersleep, mostly. Still frozen when they bought it.”
“No surprises there. Don’t bother IDing them; we have the ship’s manifest. Proceed to the Q-drive. Over.”
“Solid copy. ETA three minutes.”
The black box data took another minute to download, and the same to transmit back to the Liberty Point. Mission timeline: ten minutes. Then we were up again, moving down the central corridor and plotting our way to the Q-drive – into the ugly strip-lit passage. The drive chamber was right at the aft of the ship, so the entire length of the vessel. Olsen skulked closely behind me.
“Do you wish you’d brought along a gun now, Mr Olsen?” asked Blake.
“I’ve never fired a gun in my life,” Olsen said, defensively. “I wouldn’t know how to.”
“I can’t think of a better time to learn,” Kaminski replied. “You know—”
The overhead lights went out, corridor section by corridor section, until we were plunged into total darkness. Simultaneously, the humming generated by the life-support module died. The sudden silence was thunderous, stretching out for long seconds.
“How did they do that?” Olsen started. His voice echoed off through the empty corridor like a gunshot, making me flinch. On a dead ship like the Haven, noise travelled. “Surely that wasn’t caused by the Krell?”
Our shoulder lamps popped on. I held up a hand for silence.
Something creaked elsewhere in the ship.
“Scanners!” I whispered.
That slow, pitched beeping: a lone signal somewhere nearby . . .
“Contact!” Blake yelled.
In the jittery pool of light created by my shoulder-lamp, I saw something spring above us: just a flash of light, wet, fast—
Blake fired a volley of shots from his plasma rifle. Orange light bathed the corridor. Kaminski was up, covering the approach—
“Cease fire!” I shouted. “It’s just a blown maintenance pipe.”
My team froze, running on adrenaline, eyes wide. Four shoulder-lamps illuminated the shadowy ceiling, tracked the damage done by Blake’s plasma shots. True enough, a bundle of ribbed plastic pipes dangled from the suspended ceiling: accompanied by the lethargic drip-drip of leaking water.
“You silly bastard, Kid!” Kaminski laughed. “Your trigger finger is itchier than my nuts!”
“Oh Christo!” Olsen screamed.
A Krell primary-form nimbly – far too nimbly for something so big – unwound itself from somewhere above. It landed on the deck, barely ten metres ahead of us.
A barb ran through me. Not physical, but mental – although the reaction was strong enough for my med-suite to issue another compensatory drug. I was suddenly hyperaware, in combat-mode. This was no longer a recon or salvage op.
The team immediately dispersed, taking up positions around the xeno. No prospect of a false alarm this time.
The creature paused, wriggling its six limbs. It wasn’t armed, but that made it no less dangerous. There was something so immensely wrong about the Krell. I could still remember the first time I saw one and the sensation of complete wrongness that overcame me. Over the years, the emotion had settled to a balls-deep paralysis.
This was a primary-form, the lowest strata of the Krell Collective, but it was still bigger than any of us. Encased in the Krell equivalent of battle-armour: hardened carapace plates, fused to the xeno’s grey-green skin. It was impossible to say where technology finished and biology began. The thing’s back was awash with antennae – those could be used as both weapons and communicators with the rest of the Collective.
The Krell turned its head to acknowledge us. It had a vaguely fish-like face, with a pair of deep bituminous eyes, barbels drooping from its mouth. Beneath the head, a pair of gills rhythmically flexed, puffing out noxious fumes. Those sharkish features had earned them the moniker “fish heads”. Two pairs of arms sprouted from the shoulders – one atrophied, with clawed hands; the other tipped with bony, serrated protrusions – raptorial forearms.
The xeno reared up, and in a split second it was stomping down the corridor.
I fired my plasma rifle. The first shot exploded the xeno’s chest, but it kept coming. The second shot connected with one of the bladed forearms, blowing the limb clean off. Then Blake and Kaminski were firing too – and the corridor was alight with brilliant plasma pulses. The creature collapsed into an incandescent mess.
“You like that much, Olsen?” Kaminski asked. “They’re pretty friendly for a species that we’re supposed to be at peace with.”
At some point during the attack, Olsen had collapsed to his knees. He sat there for a second, looking down at his gloved hands. His eyes were haunted, his jowls heavy and he was suddenly much older. He shook his head, stumbling to his feet. From the safety of a laboratory, it was easy to think of the Krell as another intelligent species, just made in the image of a different god. But seeing them up close, and witnessing their innate need to extinguish the human race, showed them for what they really were.
“This is a live situation now, troopers. Keep together and do this by the drill. Haven is awake.”
“Solid copy,” Kaminski muttered.
“We move to secondary objective. Once the generator has been tagged, we retreat down the primary corridor to the APS. Now double-time it and move out.”
There was no pause to relay our contact with Jenkins and Martinez. The Krell had a unique ability to sense radio transmissions, even encrypted communications like those we used on the suits, and now that the Collective had awoken all comms were locked down.
As I started off, I activated the wrist-mounted computer incorporated into my suit. Ah, shit. The starship corridors brimmed with motion and bio-signs. The place became swathed in shadow and death – every pool of blackness a possible Krell nest.
* * *
Mission timeline: twelve minutes.
We reached the quantum-drive chamber. The huge reinforced doors were emblazoned with warning signs and a red emergency light flashed overhead.
The floor exploded as three more Krell appeared – all chitin shells and claws. Blake went down first, the largest of the Krell dragging him into a service tunnel. He brought his rifle up to fire, but there was too little room for him to manoeuvre in a full combat-suit, and he couldn’t bring the weapon to bear.
“Hold on, Kid!” I hollered, firing at the advancing Krell, trying to get him free.
The other two xenos clambered over him in desperation to get to me. I kicked at several of them, reaching a hand into the mass of bodies to try to grapple Blake. He lost his rifle, and let rip an agonised shout as the creatures dragged him down. It was no good – he was either dead now, or he would be soon. Even in his reinforced ablative plate, those things would take him apart. I lost the grip on his hand, just as the other Krell broke free of the tunnel mouth.
“Blake’s down!” I yelled. “’Ski – grenade.”
“Solid copy – on it.”
Kaminski armed an incendiary grenade and tossed it into the nest. The grenade skittered down the tunnel, flashing an amber warning-strobe as it went. In the split second before it went off, as I brought my M95 up to fire, I saw that the tunnel was now filled with xenos. Many, many more than we could hope to kill with just our squad.
“Be careful – you could blow a hole in the hull with those explosives!” Olsen wailed.
Holing the hull was the least of my worries. The grenade went off, sending Krell in every direction. I turned away from the blast at the last moment, and felt hot shrapnel penetrate my combat-armour – frag lodging itself in my lower back. The suit compensated for the wall of white noise, momentarily dampening my audio.
The M95 auto-sighted prone Krell and I fired without even thinking. Pulse after pulse went into the tunnel, splitting armoured heads and tearing off clawed limbs. Blake was down there, somewhere among the tangle of bodies and debris; but it took a good few seconds before my suit informed me that his bio-signs had finally extinguished.
Good journey, Blake.
Kaminski moved behind me. His technical kit was already hooked up to the drive chamber access terminal, running code-cracking algorithms to get us in.
The rest of the team jogged into view. More Krell were now clambering out of the hole in the floor. Martinez and Jenkins added their own rifles to the volley, and assembled outside the drive chamber.
“Glad you could finally make it. Not exactly going to plan down here.”
“Yeah, well, we met some friends on the way,” Jenkins muttered.
“We lost the Kid. Blake’s gone.”
“Ah, fuck it,” Jenkins said, shaking her head. She and Blake were close, but she didn’t dwell on his death. No time for grieving, the expression on her face said, because we might be next.
The access doors creaked open. There was another set of double-doors inside; endorsed QUANTUM-DRIVE CHAMBER – AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY.
A calm electronic voice began a looped message: “Warning. Warning. Breach doors to drive chamber are now open. This presents an extreme radiation hazard. Warning. Warning.”
A second too late, my suit bio-sensors began to trill; detecting massive radiation levels. I couldn’t let it concern me. Radiation on an op like this was always a danger, but being killed by the Krell was a more immediate risk. I rattled off a few shots into the shadows, and heard the impact against hard chitin. The things screamed, their voices creating a discordant racket with the alarm system.
Kaminski cracked the inner door, and he and Martinez moved inside. I laid down suppressing fire with Jenkins, falling back slowly as the things tested our defences. It was difficult to make much out in the intermittent light: flashes of a claw, an alien head, then the explosion of plasma as another went down. My suit counted ten, twenty, thirty targets.
“Into the airlock!” Kaminski shouted, and we were all suddenly inside, drenched in sweat and blood.
The drive chamber housed the most complex piece of technology on the ship – the energy core. Once, this might’ve been called the engine room. Now, the device contained within the chamber was so far advanced that it was no longer mechanical. The drive energy core sat in the centre of the room – an ugly-looking metal box, so big that it filled the place, adorned with even more warning signs. This was our objective.
Olsen stole a glance at the chamber, but stuck close to me as we assembled around the machine. Kaminski paused at the control terminal near the door, and sealed the inner lock. Despite the reinforced metal doors, the squealing and shrieking of the Krell was still audible. I knew that they would be through those doors in less than a minute. Then there was the scuttling and scraping overhead. The chamber was supposed to be secure, but these things had probably been on-ship for long enough to know every access corridor and every room. They had the advantage.
They’ll find a way in here soon enough, I thought. A mental image of the dead merchant captain – still strapped to his seat back on the bridge – suddenly came to mind.
The possibility that I would die out here abruptly dawned on me. The thought triggered a burst of anger – not directed at the Alliance military for sending us, nor at the idiot colonists who had flown their ship into the Quarantine Zone, but at the Krell.
My suit didn’t take any medical action to compensate for that emotion. Anger is good. It was pure and made me focused.
“Jenkins – set the charges.”
Jenkins moved to the drive core and began unpacking her kit. She carried three demolition-packs. Each of the big metal discs had a separate control panel, and was packed with a low-yield nuclear charge.
“Wh-what are you doing?” Olsen stammered.
Jenkins kept working, but shook her head with a smile. “We’re going to destroy the generator. You should have read the mission briefing. That was your first mistake.”
“Forgetting to bring a gun was his second,” Kaminski added.
“We’re going to set these charges off,” Jenkins muttered, “and the resulting explosion will breach the Q-drive energy core. That’ll take out the main deck. The chain reaction will destroy the ship.”
“In short: gran explosión,” said Martinez.
Kaminski laughed. “There you go again. You know I hate it when you don’t speak Standard. Martinez always does this – he gets all excited and starts speaking funny.”
“El no habla la lengua,” I said. You don’t grow up in the Detroit Metro without picking up some of the lingo.
“It’s Spanish,” Martinez replied, shooting Kaminski a sideways glance.
“I thought that you were from Venus?” Kaminski said.
Olsen whimpered again. “How can you laugh at a time like this?”
“Because Kaminski is an asshole,” Martinez said, without missing a beat.
Kaminski shrugged. “It’s war.”
“Give us enough time to fall back to the APS,” I ordered. “Set the charges with a five-minute delay. The rest of you – cállate y trabaja.”
Thump! Thump! Thump!
They were nearly through now. Welts appeared in the metal door panels.
Jenkins programmed each charge in turn, using magnetic locks to hold them in place on the core outer shielding. Two of the charges were already primed, and she was working on the third. She positioned the charges very deliberately, very carefully, to ensure that each would do maximum damage to the core. If one charge didn’t light, then the others would act as a failsafe. There was probably a more technical way of doing this – perhaps hacking the Q-drive directly – but that would take time, and right now that was the one thing that we didn’t have.
“Precise as ever,” I said to Jenkins.
“It’s what I do.”
“Feel free to cut some corners; we’re on a tight timescale,” Kaminski shouted.
“Fuck you, ’Ski.”
“Is five minutes going to be enough?” Olsen asked.
I shrugged. “It will have to be. Be prepared for heavy resistance en route, people.”
My suit indicated that the Krell were all over the main corridor. They would be in the APS by now, probably waiting for us to fall back.
THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!
“Once the charges are in place, I want a defensive perimeter around that door,” I ordered.
“This can’t be rushed.”
The scraping of claws on metal, from above, was becoming intense. I wondered which defence would be the first to give: whether the Krell would come in through the ceiling or the door.
Kaminski looked back at Jenkins expectantly. Olsen just stood there, his breathing so hard that I could hear him over the communicator.
The third charge snapped into place. Jenkins was up, with Martinez, and Kaminski was ready at the data terminal. There was noise all around us now, signals swarming on our position. I had no time to dictate a proper strategy for our retreat.
“Jenkins – put down a barrier with your torch. Kaminski – on my mark.”
I dropped my hand, and the doors started to open. The mechanism buckled and groaned in protest. Immediately, the Krell grappled with the door, slamming into the metal frame to get through.
Stinger-spines – flechette rounds, the Krell equivalent of armour-piercing ammo – showered the room. Three of them punctured my suit; a neat line of black spines protruding from my chest, weeping streamers of blood. Krell tech is so much more fucked-up than ours. The spines were poison-tipped and my body was immediately pumped with enough toxins to kill a bull. My suit futilely attempted to compensate by issuing a cocktail of adrenaline and anti-venom.
Martinez flipped another grenade into the horde. The nearest creatures folded over it as it landed, shielding their kin from the explosion. Mindless fuckers.
We advanced in formation. Shot after shot poured into the things, but they kept coming. Wave after wave – how many were there on this ship? – thundered into the drive chamber. The doors were suddenly gone. The noise was unbearable – the klaxon, the warnings, a chorus of screams, shrieks and wails. The ringing in my ears didn’t stop, as more grenades exploded.
“We’re not going to make this!” Jenkins yelled.
“Stay on it! The APS is just ahead!”
Maybe Jenkins was right, but I wasn’t going down without a damned good fight. Somewhere in the chaos, Martinez was torn apart. His body disappeared underneath a mass of them. Jenkins poured on her flamethrower – avenging Martinez in some absurd way. Olsen was crying, his helmet now discarded just like the rest of us.
War is such an equaliser.
I grabbed the nearest Krell with one hand, and snapped its neck. I fired my plasma rifle on full-auto with the other, just eager to take down as many of them as I could. My HUD suddenly issued another warning – a counter, interminably in decline.
Ten . . . Nine . . . Eight . . . Seven . . .
Then Jenkins was gone. Her flamer was a beacon and her own blood a fountain among the alien bodies. It was difficult to focus on much except for the pain in my chest. My suit reported catastrophic damage in too many places. My heart began a slower, staccato beat.
Six . . . Five . . . Four . . .
My rifle bucked in protest. Even through reinforced gloves, the barrel was burning hot.
Three . . . Two . . . One . . .
* * *
The demo-charges activated.
Breached, the anti-matter core destabilised. The reaction was instantaneous: uncontrolled white and blue energy spilled out. A series of explosions rippled along the ship’s spine. She became a white-hot smudge across the blackness of space.
Then she was gone, along with everything inside her.
The Krell did not pause.
They did not even comprehend what had happened.