Trial By Fire – Snippet 22

The structure and trappings of the fourth and final room were almost identical to the previous one. But here, there were telltale signs of use. A large object, akin to a narrow-necked inkwell with four radially symmetric depressions, had drifted into a corner of the room and floated there, unsecured. One cocoon-sleeping bag was neither fully open or closed, its lid hanging at an angle.

“This doesn’t look like any warship I’ve ever seen,” muttered Trevor as they moved back to the doorway.

Caine nodded. For a small craft, the design was too–well, indulgent: spacious sleeping compartments, sophisticated long-duration life-support recycling facilities, a comparatively roomy corridor, and of course, the tremendous fuel tankage capacity amidships. “No, I’d guess it was a recon vessel or a command nexus for drones on long-duration duty.”

“Recon,” Trevor asserted. “Otherwise, some of the drones which pranged the cutter should have gone offline when Hazawa knocked this hull out of action. Unfortunately, that doesn’t answer the most important question: how many crew were on board for the battle?”

“More important still, how many are left alive?”

Trevor shrugged. “No way to know that, but it has enough accommodations for four–which doesn’t make sense. Two crewpersons are enough to handle any of the missions this ship might undertake.”

“Military missions, yes. But what about paramilitary or civilian missions?”

“I don’t follow you.”

“What if your first comment was correct, that this ship wasn’t designed to be a military ship at all?”

Trevor looked around the craft again, as though seeing it anew. “Could be. Possibly a packet or a survey craft.”

“That’s what I’m guessing. Some kind of communications or research vessel, pressed into military service. Maybe it was even a civilian crew. Which might explain why we’re not seeing any of them.”

“Because they’re hiding?”

“Because they’re dead. If they weren’t used to military protocols, maybe they were operating without pressure suits when they got hit.”

“Interesting theory, but there’s still atmosphere and heat on board. So what killed them?”

“Maybe they were all in a chamber that depressurized; I don’t know. If any of the crew survived, why let us get this far in without trying an ambush?”

Trevor’s forced grin was visible through his visor. “Let’s go find out. Slow approach, no helmet lights.”

Caine silently counted off ten seconds as they drifted toward the opening at the end of the corridor. A faint glow within outlined large structures and confused silhouettes that resembled tangled spider webs. Trevor nodded to the handgun, pointed into the darkness, then tapped his helmet’s lights. Caine nodded, secured the weapon in a two-handed grasp, the targeting laser aimed just below the level of the doorway, poised to elevate swiftly to engage a target. Trevor aimed his helmet lights through the doorway, turned them on.

Cables hung down from the ceiling, draped across an object that looked like a cross between a chaise lounge and a bathtub: evidently an Arat Kur acceleration couch. Beyond the bathtub-couch was another, similar shadow, except its upper surface was made uneven by a distinctly lumpy silhouette. If that couch was still occupied, its occupant was no longer moving. Beyond that, and framed by other debris from the ruined bridge, the stars glimmered faintly through a transparent panel that was a match in size and shape for the opaque cockpit blister they had noted on their approach.

Trevor’s light swung slowly across the dense clusters of power conduits and narrower command cables that drifted in tangled spools and tentacles. “Looks like a convention of spider plants in there.” He snapped off the light.

“Looks like a tomb to me.”

Trevor nodded. “Yeah, I saw the silhouette in the far couch.”

Caine kept staring into the darkness. “Of course, another one might still be in there.”

“Possible, but why let us get so close? As you pointed out, the best time to ambush us was when we were moving up the corridor, trapped in a narrow space and without cover.”

Caine squinted into the darker regions where the wires were thickest. “Still–“

“Yeah, we still need to play it safe. But we’ve also got to finish checking out this bridge. Cover me.” Trevor swam into the room. His helmet lights swept back and forth across the clutter of cables and filaments like headlights roving along Spanish moss.

“Talk to me, Trevor.”

“Not much to talk about. I think this is a pretty large chamber, but I can’t be sure with this wiring all over the place.” Trevor drifted farther into the room, keeping his distance from the long, low Arat Kur acceleration couches and using the mass of cables for cover.

“What about the controls?”

“Can’t see anything from here. I’m going in to check out the first acceleration couch.”

“Hold it, Trevor.”

Trevor, already moving toward the long silhouette to his right, arrested his drift by grabbing a handful of cables. “Holding. What’s up?”

“I don’t think you should move directly to the acceleration couch. Use the cables for concealment, approach obliquely. That also gives me a clear field of fire if anything is lurking near the couches themselves.”

“Will do. Ready to start my move.”

Caine reangled the ten-millimeter until its targeting laser was painting a small, red circle on the nearest acceleration couch. “Go ahead.”

Trevor half rotated in space, swimming to the left and using handfuls of wiring to aid his progress–which halted suddenly. “Damn,” he muttered. His lights flickered through the sinuous shapes, painting shadow-snakes on the far wall.

“What is it, Trevor?”

“Almost got tangled. The cables are heavier in this part of the room, and I’m not seeing all of them. The helmet lights are too narrow-beam.”

Yes, it’s pretty dark where he is. Damn nuisance, too. Every other room in the entire vessel had some illumination, if only the emergency lights. But on the bridge even those were dark–

–Shit shit shit! “Trevor, kill your lights!”


“Kill your–!”

The ambush didn’t unfold the way Caine expected. No shot in the dark: not even that much warning. One moment, Trevor’s floating silhouette was resuming its forward motion, left hand tugging a cable he’d wrapped around his wrist for purchase; the next, there was a blinding sputter of blue-white sparks just above his handhold. Trevor bucked backward, suddenly rigid, immobilized by the electric current that had raced up his arm and into his body.

Out of the corner of his eye, Caine saw a darker shadow rise up from behind the second acceleration couch, the one probably occupied by an enemy corpse. He swung the ten-millimeter’s aimpoint over–but the shadow ducked down behind the couch again.

Tricky little bastard: a faulty wire, rigged as a trap. Probably command activated and probably dozens of other wires similarly rigged. And figuring that out has cost a precious tenth of a second. So think–fast.

Trevor’s paralyzed. Every second gives your enemy the opportunity to finish him off. The alien is probably armed, behind solid cover, and waiting for you to expose yourself. Meaning you’ve got no good options, except–

Caine snapped back the ten-millimeter’s ammo feed selector with his thumb: set for armor-piercing rounds. He grabbed his emergency’s suit’s safety lanyard, slammed the carabineer clip across one of the cruciform handles on the wall beside him. As the clip snapped into place, he brought up the gun, eyes tracking with the laser aimpoint. He thumbed the propellant switch over to maximum as the red circle jumped up along and above the couch, then up a short stretch of wall–

–keep that death-grip on the cable, Trevor. For just one more second–

Caine squeezed the trigger when the red aimpoint reached the cockpit blister. The ten-millimeter Unitech bucked savagely, although the report was muffled by his helmet. The smooth surface of the cockpit blister star-cracked but did not shatter. Caine swung the aimpoint back to the center of the radiate fracture lines and squeezed the trigger again.

He didn’t hear the second report, or rather, he couldn’t distinguish it. The cockpit panel blasted outward with a howl that swallowed the ten-millimeter’s feeble voice into the cacophonic cyclone of air, stray wires, and papers that maelstromed out into the vacuum of space.

Caine felt himself yanked in that direction, then yanked to an equally abrupt halt: the suit lanyard and carabineer clip squealed under the pull of his vacuum-sucked mass. But they held.

Trevor was still mostly motionless. The wrist-wrapped cable and tangled masses of wiring were holding him fast. However, the lump atop the second acceleration couch–a limp creature shaped like an oversized horseshoe crab-cockroach hybrid–went spinning out the breach in the cockpit blister. A moment later, a second, similar object, its outline made more vague by some sort of spacesuit, tumbled upward from behind the same couch, clutching frantically with six stunted ventral limbs. One of the rear limbs caught a slender wire, slipped, fumbled, clutched again–but weakly.

As the rush of air started to diminish, Caine raised the ten-millimeter, centered the red aimpoint on the struggling horseshoe-crab shape–

Nearby motion distracted him: Trevor had unwrapped his wrist from the cable mooring him in place. Caine’s breath caught. No, not yet! Grab another cable–just a few seconds more!

But Trevor’s movements were purposeful, even though they were unsteady. His left arm dangling, he rode the rapidly weakening current of outgushing atmosphere toward the jagged hole in the cockpit blister. As he swept over the acceleration couches, he simultaneously kicked downward and reached up with his good arm. His feet connected with the top of the second couch and pushed him up toward the horseshoe-crab shape. Trevor slammed into it and tried to get a firm grip, but the decompressive currents began tugging him away. He was pulled feet-first toward the hole, but his right hand found a length of cable and locked on–even as his left hand reached toward the alien. The creature’s multiple appendages grabbed it violently, then fought for purchase on Trevor’s suit and helmet, and, once secure, began to contract. Forcefully.