Authors: Chelsea Gaither
Copyright 2012 Chelsea Gaither
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without atmosphere was cold.
It stole more life than it lended. Beams from New Houston’s sun lanced through
USS Marel Sanders
’s front ports and tinted the interior graveyard
gray. The fire bled out of Adrienne Parker’s auburn hair. Her trembling hands
now resembled a corpse’s.
“Brace!” a voice screamed from the cockpit. Adrienne grabbed
the arms of her crash couch. The
was a claustrophobic shoebox for
supplies and personnel, and all fifty meters of it shook as enemy weapons fire
grazed their rear. Electric bolts blasted through cockpit and tiny hold,
playing over stacks of yellow medical boxes. The lights flickered. Adry’s heart
sank. Only Overseer weapons burned out electrical systems while they made holes
in things. It took all her willpower not to leap up and check her cargo, those
precious yellow boxes stacked six deep around her.
Beneath the lids sat four thousand glass vials in black foam
nests. The enzyme inside degraded too quickly in plastic, and like most
medicines it wasn’t DMS friendly. She’d packed the vials herself, twenty vials
to each foam flat and ten flats to a box. Totes of standard antibiotics and
vaccinations were netted to the bulkhead on the opposite wall, along with two
rad-field generators for emergency bandage sterilizations. Sixty boxes of
foodstuffs. Two hundred personal water filtration systems. Everything Digital
Matter Storage couldn’t handle. All fine targets for smugglers aching for a
buck, but not something that would attract an Overseer.
No. It was after the vials. This ship carried the first
widespread distribution of the Landry Enzyme. The game changer, world saver
they’d all hoped it would be. If it worked as advertized, it could end the
Overseers as a species. The aliens had to stop its spread.
Bad luck for her and the USMC. Their job, after all, was to
The invention of Jump Drive had allowed humanity to settle
distant worlds. Over the last two hundred years the so-called Rim Worlds had
grown from tiny colonies on distant stars to bustling centers of commerce. Most
of them had broken free of their parent nations over a hundred years ago,
though a few were still nominal members of their parent nations. The United
States had fathered no less than four worlds. These were the reason the Space
Force and Adry were here to begin with.
The Overseers arrived just over fifty years ago; they hit
the corporate colonies first and spread like some kind of disease. Planets with
national backing survived a little longer. They had more resources, support
from a stronger military. But it wasn’t enough. Of the US settled planets,
Foster and New Greenland were cinders populated only by slaves. New Houston and
Planet Gaga were hit every few weeks. Millions on millions were dead.
And unless they were incredibly lucky,
Adrienne, Captain Bob Harris and PFC Morgan were all about to join them.
Teeth gritted, she rode out the next impact. Let them
shoot. In the long run, it wouldn’t matter for the Overseers. They were doomed.
The Enzyme was Bryan’s idea, his life’s work and epitaph. Finishing it was her
revenge for their destroying him. If she died here, now, the SF would only
spread the enzyme through the galaxy in her memory.
But she still didn’t want to die in the next ten seconds.
“How long has the Overseer been following us?” She faced the
control chair. Captain Bob was tall and blond. Distant starlight glared
through his buzz cut. Pale ghost sweat poured down his brow.
“No way to know.” Fingers moved cat quick over transport
controls. The console design was bulk in olive drab. Nothing like the
chrome-and-cream civility Adry was used to. But shoebox or not,
was designed for war. Bob couldn’t have gotten his answers half as
fast in a Honda Sailor or Vacuro Sandman.
He flicked through the radar screen controls until their
follower was dead center. Bigger than the
, the alien vessel was
streamlined for atmo combat, an arrowhead shape with a rounded aft. “It must
have been coasting on atmospherics until we got here. Fang class, no shielding,
no backup…Give me a shot, Morgan.”
“No can do, sir. It’s in the hole.”
Harris cursed. The defense/offence, or def/op, hole was
created by bad weapons placement. Oh, the United States Marine Corp equipped
their transports with the best. The best was just designed for ground ops.
Terrestrial design bias didn’t work in space war. And out on the Rim of
explored space, most worlds couldn’t afford support craft designed for a
“We should have had cover when we left base,” Morgan said.
“We’re flying with our drawers down.”
“With Overseers gathering near New Houston, we’re lucky we
got transport at all,” Harris said. “I just wish the bastards hadn’t figured
out about the hole. Incoming!” He braced against the console. Morgan grabbed
his seat straps. Adry wasn’t as lucky. When the enemy fire hit, she bounced off
the bulkhead wall. Bob swore. “Subspace drive is down; Jump drive is going on
and off like it’s having a goddamn stroke. I need to route power out of the
inertial compensators before—”
For one instant g-force wrapped around Adry’s insides, a
giant hand squeezing her guts like a tube of standard-issue toothpaste. The
old-fashioned kind with obnoxious mint. Then the compensators came back up and
she could inhale again.
“Goddamn it, we’re losing her. Morgan!” Bob flipped a panel
off the rear control bay. “Start breaking procedures
, and do
whatever you can to get that sucker off our ass before it gets another shot.”
“Did we lose compensators?” She asked, breathlessly.
“No.” Bobby pulled several burned components out of the
hole. “Fast as we’re moving, if they had gone we’d be smears on the backdrop.
Please sit down, Dr. Parker.”
Morgan turned. “It’s got a lock, sir. I can’t shake it.”
“Hell. Switch with me.” Bob grabbed the side of the chair,
and Morgan half ran, half fell to the open circuit board.
Adry dropped back into her crash seat. The boxes of Landry
Enzyme stood around her like a yellow castle wall with netting motor. A shield.
That had been Bryan’s goal. But it took losing Bryan and Holton Station for the
Space Force to turn it from a chemical experiment to an actual thing. Now, if
their mission worked, millions of lives would be saved.
So please, God, let it work. Let it survive her.
The ship rocked with another well placed blast. Sparks flew
as the inertial compensators gave another hiccup, pressing bone against the
crash chair’s cushioning factor. If you were moving when compensators were on
the fritz, arms and legs could be ripped from sockets, fingers turned to
powder, necks snapped, bones ground to dust. And even if you were sitting
during a total loss, you might as well stand between your ship and an asteroid.
G-force would turn you into tenderized mush.
It was a race between the breaks, the compensators, and the
alien fighter on their tail. So when Morgan began screaming, Adry had her
safety straps half off before her brain started working. “What’s wrong?” she
“Thumb!” Morgan said. “Nothing!” Clipped tones belied that
last “nothing”. Figured. You could set a load of CF-29 in a soldier’s gut, and
if they survived the explosion they’d just ask for a stapler and their gun
back. She reached for the first aid kit.
“Parker, get your ass in that chair and don’t leave it.
That’s a direct order. Oh, goddamn it, sucker took out the Jump Drive.” Harris
ran frantically through the
switches. Without compensators, they
couldn’t use the subspace drive. G-force would be fatal. If they couldn’t Jump,
they were dead in deep space.
“Can you fix it?” She said.
Morgan met her eyes, his own dark as caramelized honey and
hopeless as a black hole. “I can try.” He looked a thousand years old.
You might as well have said no. Hell. I didn’t sign up
Adry thought. But that was a lie.
One Year Earlier:
Holton Station hovered in deep space, the most isolated
human outpost in the Rim. But it was still famous even in New York, both for
its engineering and the spectacle of its beauty. Adrienne couldn’t help but
gape, and she was no small-town girl, or Rim-world colonist, to be stunned by a
shiny building. She’d grown up in the mile-high towers of New York, worked
Beijing’s trio of space elevators while attending college, and had summered
twice in the sprawling space ports of Mars. And even to her, Holton was
Artificial gravity supported a u-shape of skyscraper dragon
teeth around a field of green. Of course, most of the city was façade. Behind
the first row of apartments and lab spaces was a warren of tunnels, support
structures and warship hanger bays. Holton was a military research station,
after all. But people had to live there, sometimes for years. No space or
procedure was wasted. If it could be done here, it was done beautifully. Case
in point: the water purification system. Pools of carefully selected plants and
algae removed toxins from the water, and glass-clear waterfalls oxygenated it.
Windows of six-meter thick blast-glass displayed the stars beyond, and
artificial sunlight fed the greenery sprouting in every possible corner.
But it’s cold,
she thought. Like silk flowers on a
receptionist’s desk. The first three hundred yards of the central thoroughfare
were a perfectly manicured lawn. Adults sat in benches under the green trees,
or on blankets spread over grass. There were no children. No birds. And because
Holton floated between stars, the nearest several million light years away,
there would never be real sunlight.
She continued down the space ramp, shaking her head at her
own hypocrisy. She criticized this for being constructed and unnatural? Genetic
surgeons like her rewrote biology. The nearest she got to “natural” in her work
was old fashioned thoracic surgery. Meat cutting. And she was good at it.
They’d given her the US Medal of Terrestrial Honor for her work during the New
York Needle collapse. Not that it’d been her choice to take lead in emergency
triage. Just her aching duty.
The papers had nicknamed her the Valkyrie. She had decided
if a patient would live, or receive a heavy dose of morphine and a quiet corner
in which to die. The memories haunted her. Row on row of bleeding bodies.
Sterilizing cloth bandages until the irradiating field generator broke. Running
out of medicines, her nurses collapsing after the first sixteen hours, her fingers
gone numb but she didn’t dare stop. The smell of burned skin, the ever-present
stink of blood. The first time she’d picked up a scalpel after the Needle
collapse, she’d vomited at the thought of cutting in.
People who could handle severe triage these days were rare.
They’d wanted her to keep going, and she’d gotten three offers she couldn’t
refuse. One from the UN, one from Martian Cosmopolitan Government, and one from
Holton Station. The decision had been easy. She’d spent too many nights
dreaming of injecting a syringe of morphine into a child’s arm while some
society barfly wailed about the shards of glass in her back. The universe wants
Adrienne Parker to work triage? Fine. She’d do it at war.
“Dr. Parker?” This male voice was attached to a tall blend
of Nordic sensibilities and East Indian grace. Tan skin, brown eyes, blond
hair. His hand, when she shook it, was soft. He wore a Major’s uniform.
“Dr. Landry, I presume.” She frowned. “I thought you were a
He laughed. It fit somehow with the rest of Holton.
Artificial. “Not hardly. Major Michel Landry. Mich when I’m off duty. I’m your
escort to my brother’s ivory tower.” His eyes darted down, and his smile turned
genuine. “Wow. I can’t remember the last time I saw a luggage bag. I mean, I
know DMS can’t store medicines or foods, but…damn, lady. Even we use it for
clothes.” He pointed at the chip on his lapel. It probably held six weeks’
worth of clothing and, knowing the Marines, a couple extra ammo clips. Not that
Digital Matter Storage could hold live ammo; Marines just never stopped trying.
“Could I buy that off you? There’s a real fad for retro around the station