Lieutenant Ken Hale charged down the passageway. As a Marine, he was normally pretty easy to distinguish amongst the ship’s complement. His armored bulk and the gauss rifle in his hands set him apart from the ship’s naval ratings in their void suits as he ran past them. That he was running toward whatever the sailors were running from marked him out as part of the ship’s defense force. He ran just ahead of the rest of the Marines, marking him out as their leader.
Sailors pressed against the bulkheads to make way for the Marines. A sailor stumbled around a corner, her left arm missing from the elbow down, blood gushing out with each heartbeat.
Hale raised his rifle and sidestepped the corner. He knelt against the bulkhead and pulled the stumbling sailor to the deck.
“Yarrow, stabilize her,” Hale said.
“On it, sir.” The medic knelt beside the sailor, pulled tubes from a thick gauntlet on his left forearm and jabbed them into ports on the sailor’s neck armor. The sailor mumbled and tried to squirm away from Yarrow, a spray of blood staining Hale’s armor. The medic unceremoniously set a knee against her sternum and held her flat. He whipped a cone-shaped bandage from a pack on the small of his back and pressed it against her bleeding stump. The bandage tightened around the wound, darkening as it filled with blood.
“Hush, sailor. You’re getting the good stuff,” Yarrow said.
Sergeant Torni stabbed a knife hand at a pair of unharmed sailors watching the ordeal. “You and you! Take her to med bay!” she barked.
The sailors nodded emphatically and carried the wounded sailor away.
A banshee’s scream echoed through the passageway.
“I guess we’re going that way, aren’t we?” Standish said. The Marine squeezed his rifle butt against his shoulder and crouched slightly.
“Correct. The better question is why we’re still standing here,” said Steuben, the alien Karigole advisor, from the back of the squad of Marines.
“The XO said something about an update,” Hale said, “but I’m not getting anything from her now.”
A thunderclap rocked the ship and the deck lurched beneath their feet.
“That was the forward rail battery,” Orozco said. The gauss carbine in his enormous hands looked like a toy compared to the heavy cannon he normally carried. Firing projectile weapons was dangerous enough on the ship, and given the weight of firepower his preferred weapon carried, it would have been more dangerous to the crew and ship than any enemy they encountered. “Why didn’t the other battery fire?”
Another high-pitched scream echoed down the passageway.
“You get three guesses, and the first two don’t count,” Bailey said, emphasizing her words with a snap of chewing gum. The squad’s sniper had traded her normal weapon in for a carbine that she held against her chest.
“We’re going to the rail battery one. Follow me,” Hale said. He stood and ran down the passageway.
Natural light streamed through ragged gaps in the hull over their heads. Hale felt the chill of freezing air creep into his suit. He knew he should’ve stopped and set his armor for void combat to compensate for the thin atmosphere, but that would take time that he—and the Breitenfeld—didn’t have.
A sailor ran around a corner at a T-junction and tripped himself up as he tried to change directions. He slammed against the bulkhead and looked down the passageway he’d come from.
“No! No!” The sailor raised his hands in front of his face. Something flew through the air and slammed into the sailor, crushing him with the snap of bone and armor.
Hale skidded to a stop and raised his rifle. The dead sailor was entwined with … another sailor, both bloody and broken. The deck vibrated against his feet as heavy footsteps pounded down the passageway.
“Ready a Q-round,” Hale said. The quadrium rounds could disable the Xaros drones for a few precious seconds, enough to get close and finish them off. Hale heard Standish power up his gauss rifle and load one of the precious munitions into his weapon. “Steuben, hammer?”
“I have it.” The Karigole pulled a handle with a thick cylinder attached to the end, a pneumatic bolt that could crack the Xaros drones and destroy them.
“If you have to use a high-powered shot, go single—”
The pace of heavy footsteps increased and what came around the corner wasn’t a Xaros drone. A hunched-over, armored behemoth with gangly arms that ended in sharp claws tinged red with blood swung toward the Marines. Its arms swept wide, gouging the bulkhead. Its face, an armored wedge with two slits for yellow eyes and exposed flesh around its mouth embedded atop a bull neck, leered at the Marines. Its jaw distended and it shrieked loud enough to activate the sound dampers in Hale’s helmet.
“Standish,” Hale said.
Standish fired his Q-round with a flash of silver from his muzzle. The round thumped into the creature’s chest and electricity arced from the impact. The monster took a step back and thrashed its arms against its body. Its claws pried the Q-round from its chest and hurled it against the deck. It looked at Standish and growled.
“At least I managed to piss it off,” Standish said.
The monster charged, looping strides that would reach the Marines in seconds. Hale switched his rifle to SHOT and sent a burst of pellets the size of marbles into the monster. The rounds hit and stopped it dead in its tracks. Gauss fire from the rest of his Marines punctured its armor, splattering gray blood against the deck and bulkhead. It fell to its knees and reached for Hale, the arm stretched out, the claws scything toward Hale’s face.
A strong hand grabbed the carry handle on the back of Hale’s armor and jerked him back, the claw tips missing his visor by a hairsbreadth. Hale felt his feet leave the deck as Steuben tossed him back like a rag doll. The Karigole stepped forward and swung his hammer into the monster’s forehead.
The pneumatic bolt cracked the skull and drove a six-inch spike into whatever brain matter lay beneath the obsidian armor. The monster collapsed against the deck, its limbs twitching.
“This works just fine,” Steuben said. He wrenched the spike free and tapped the hammer against his thigh to knock away clinging viscera.
Hale scrambled to his feet and aimed his weapon at the fallen creature.
“What the hell is it? Some new kind of Xaros?” Bailey asked.
“It isn’t disintegrating.” Torni kicked the creature’s arm, her armored boot clanging against the armored limb.
“Howled like a damn banshee,” Orozco said. “Low-power shots didn’t do much to stop it. We go high power and that should take them down faster.”
“We miss with a high-power shot and the round will go through three decks before it stops,” Hale said. “Shoot those banshee things in the face until they stop moving. That work for everyone?”
“Sir, you’re my kind of Marine,” Bailey said.
Another banshee howl set Hale’s nerves on edge. “That’s coming from the rail battery,” Hale said. He opened a channel to the bridge as they ran down the corridor.
“XO, this is Hale. The boarders are not Xaros. I repeat, not Xaros. Q-rounds are ineffective but they will go down to massed fire. Pass that on to the other defense teams,” Hale said.
“Hale, we need you in rail battery one ASAP. We need that gun back in the fight and we’ve lost communications with them,” Ericcson said through his helmet’s IR.
“Almost there. What about video? Can you see what’s in there?” Hale asked. He stopped at a corner and glanced down the passageway leading to the main entrance of the battery. The double doors were shut, warning lights spinning above the frame. Blood stained the manual locking handles on each door.
“Video is down too,” Ericcson said.
Hale looked at the entrance controls embedded in the bulkhead as smoke wafted up from the panel and the reek of ozone mixed with the iron tang of spilled blood.
“Torni, can you bypass the damage?” Hale asked his head enlisted Marine. Once the squad’s tech expert, she’d stepped up to fill Gunnery Cortaro’s position after he’d lost a leg on Anthalas.
Torni flipped a panel up and shook her head at the mess of burnt-out circuits. “No chance. Someone fragged the whole system, sir. Looks like we either blow down the doors or open it the slow and painful way,” she said, nodding toward the dogs, the circular handle in the middle of each door. She looked up at the thin strip of lighting where the ceiling met the doors; the strip flickered twice every few seconds. “Extra slow, something tripped the emergency locks.”
“Blow the doors in,” Hale said.
“That’ll kill whoever’s still in there,” Orozco said.
“Orozco, Steuben, on the doors. Our suits should be strong enough to overpower the locks. Open them just enough to get us in,” Hale said. He stepped back, took a knee and readied his weapon. The Marine and the Karigole grabbed the dogs and twisted, the pseudo-muscles built into their armor laboring against the emergency brakes.
The doors cracked open slowly, revealing darkness within the rail gun battery. Twenty sailors manned the cannons, but the space beyond was silent. Hale switched on his infrared filter to look through the six-inch and widening gap and saw a pair of sailors lying on the deck in pools of blood.
“Frag it?” Bailey asked. She slipped a grenade off her armor and hooked a finger around the pin.
“Not yet, there might be—stop!” A blood-caked gloved hand slid into view at the edge of the doors.
“I’ve got him.” Yarrow stepped forward and reached for the hand, just as a clawed hand snapped out of the darkness and clamped onto Yarrow’s shoulder. The banshee snatched Yarrow off his feet and pulled him to the door. Yarrow managed to get his hands up and slammed them against the doorframe, his augmented strength barely able to match the banshee.
The banshee’s face thumped against the opening, teeth snapping at Yarrow.
“Shoot it! Shoot it!” Yarrow screamed.
Hale felt like his feet were stuck in wet concrete as he struggled forward. He brought his rifle up, but Yarrow’s body blocked his shot. Trembling with exertion, Yarrow was losing the battle against the monster’s grip, its claws digging into his armor.
With one hand, Steuben reached out and slapped Yarrow’s right arm from the door. With the other, the Karigole brought his short sword down and hacked into the banshee’s wrist. The blade embedded with a wet thunk. The banshee’s howl changed and it let Yarrow go. The banshee jerked its hand back and the blade went with it. The hilt and flat of the weapon slammed into the sides of the open door, jamming the banshee’s hand in the opening. The arm reached toward the Marines and slammed back against the door, like a wolf struggling against a trap.
The third strike broke the blade. Pieces clattered to the deck as the banshee’s footfalls echoed away from the door, its screams fading away.
Yarrow rolled onto his hands and knees and scrambled away from the open door.
“Anyone else not like these things?” Standish asked.
“Where’d it go?” Torni asked.
Orozco stuck his carbine into the opening. “Looks like it went down the ammo elevator…blood trail goes that way at least.” The Spaniard beamed the footage from the camera on his carbine to Hale.
“Get the doors open enough for us to get through,” Hale said. “It went to the armory and we have to go after it.” He flipped open the control panel on his gauntlet and sent commands to seal the armory.
“Can we bring in some backup?” Standish asked. “Maybe Elias and his armored super-friends? Bet they’d love something like this.”
“They’re all in their travel coffins. By the time they get here it’ll be too late. What’s in armory bay three, Standish?” Hale asked.
“A bunch of inert kinetic rounds for the rail cannons … and that giant omnium reactor we found on Anthalas.” Standish ran over to the dogs and helped Orozco twist it open. The doors lurched open another few inches and Hale saw the elevator platform to the armory, the plating ripped aside like it was made of tissue paper. He tried to open a channel to the XO, which stayed open for a second before cutting out.
Yarrow grabbed the dog Steuben was on. The medic glanced at the broken blade and then at Steuben, the alien’s mouth twisted in a snarl as he worked.
“Hey, thanks for saving me and not cutting my arm off to do it,” Yarrow said.
Steuben grunted and managed to move the door another half inch.
“You are welcome, young one,” Steuben said. “I believe Gunnery Sergeant Cortaro is still angry over the loss of his leg, or suffering some manner of post-traumatic stress. Corpsman Yarrow, what is a pendejo?”
“Ugh,” Yarrow said. “Sorry about your sword.”
“Lafayette will fix it,” Steuben muttered.
“We’re good,” Bailey announced and squeezed through the opening. Orozco shook his head at the slight woman, and the barrel-chested Marine opened the doors wider.
Bailey peeked down the exposed shaft. “Blood trail goes all the way down,” she said to Hale.
Hale joined her at the edge. The twenty-foot descent ended on the armory deck. Gray smears of blood against the exposed machinery of the lift.
“Damn thing’s like a croc,” she said, “and we’ve got it wounded and cornered.”
“Sir,” Torni said, “you see this?” Hale turned around and found Torni poking through the door control panel. A half-dozen mutilated crewmen lay dead along the bulkhead near her. Torni knelt next to a dark skinned crewman and opened his hand, revealing a circuit board.
“That’s Master Chief Hutchinson,” Torni said. “He must have tripped the emergency locks. Trapped that thing in here.”
“That was a good idea, how?” Standish asked.
Torni reached up and closed the dead sailor’s eyes. “It must have got in before they could secure the doors. The gunnery team were as good as dead. He locked himself in with it to keep it from going anywhere else.”
“We’ll give him the respect he’s earned once this thing’s dead,” Hale said. “When we’re down there, don’t shoot the omnium reactor.” Hale emphasized the last words.
“Knew we should have kept that thing on the flight deck,” Bailey said. “But MacDougall and Lafayette’s precious little toy just had to go someplace designed to withstand a battle.”
“Flash bangs now, complaining later,” Hale said. “Combat circle the whole way down, call it out when you see the target.” The lieutenant took a flash-bang grenade from his belt, designed to overwhelm an enemy with enough noise and light to shatter human eardrums and temporarily blind whoever was unfortunate enough to get a good look at the explosion. Hale pulled the pin and tossed it down the shaft; his four Marines followed suit.
Hale turned away and tucked his face into the crook of his arm. The deck rumbled as a ripple of nonlethal explosions boomed. He stepped into the opening the banshee made and fell. The walls blurred past as he worked the anti-grav linings along the soles of his boots to keep his descent under control. The linings flared as he neared the deck, but he still hit hard enough to jar his bones from his feet to his skull.
Marines and Steuben landed in a circle, their weapons humming with energy. The flash bangs had scorched the ground around them, and there was no sign of the banshee.
Hale looked around and saw pallets of gauss ammunition for rifles and every caliber of weapon on the ship. Large containers for the three foot long rail cannon munitions took up nearly half the armory and were evenly spaced like trees in an orchard. The containers were taller than Steuben, and the banshee.
Against the far bulkhead, a purpose-built container housed the omnium reactor.
“I don’t see it,” Torni said.
“Negative here,” Orozco said.
“Who wants to go wandering around the maze of ammo cans?” Standish asked. “Hey Mr. Monster…come out and play.”
Steuben slid his helmet’s visor up to the top of his head and breathed deeply. “I smell it,” he said. He pointed his rifle toward the reactor.
“Keep a 360. Don’t let it sneak up on us,” Hale said.
Steuben led them through the forest of containers—some open and bare, most locked shut. Droplets of gray blood left a trail down a row, joined by a smear every few feet. Steuben raised a fist to signal a halt.
Steuben’s double set of nostrils flared. “Something’s not right. The trail continues but—”
A container’s doors burst open and slammed Steuben off his feet. The Karigole flew into Orozco and the two went down in a heap of limbs.
The banshee stepped out of the container and swiped at Hale. He brought his arms up and managed to block the worst of the blow that hit him like a mule’s kick. He had a brief sensation of flying before impacting against the graphene-reinforced steel of a container.
White flashed across his eyes as he fell to the deck. He tried to get up, his vision swimming as his arms and legs seemed to want to do anything but what he needed. The flash of gauss rifles brought him back into focus. His Marines were fighting and they needed him.
The banshee had its back to him, one claw wrapped around Standish’s neck, hoisting him into the air. Standish drew a pistol from a holster on the small of his back and unloaded on the banshee’s face. The creature roared in pain and tried to turn away from the assault.
Hale got to his feet and ran at the monster. He twisted his wrist twice and his bayonet snapped out of his gauntlet. Hale drove the blade into the banshee’s armored back. It roared and dropped Standish, swinging its arm around with enough force to turn Hale into pulp.
He ducked under the strike as the blow knocked a dent into a container. The banshee tried to whirl around to get at the bayonet still embedded in its flesh and took Hale around with it.
Hale propped his feet against the banshee’s back and fired his anti-grav linings. The blade broke free and took a bloody chunk of flesh with it as Hale propelled away from the beast. It fell to its knees, pawing at the gaping wound on its back.
Hale skidded across the deck and got back to his feet.
Torni and Bailey unloaded on the banshee, shot blasts impacting like hammer blows. The banshee struggled to its feet, bleeding from dozens of pellets that pierced its armor. The banshee stumbled against the open container it had used to ambush the Marines. For a split second, Hale had a very bad idea.
“Cease fire!” Hale commanded and ran straight at the reeling banshee. Bailey and Torni complied just as he leapt toward the banshee and triggered his grav linings, accelerating him like a missile. Hale’s shoulder slammed into the banshee and knocked it into the container, his momentum carrying him with the monster. He fell against the floor and looked up to see the banshee’s glowing yellow eyes staring at him from the rear of the container. It snarled, then shook its head as it screeched, sending bloody spittle into the air.
Hale felt a grip on his ankle and he was yanked out of the container. He rolled across the floor and saw the container doors slammed shut. Steuben braced himself against the doors as Torni and Bailey slapped their hands against the locks and pneumatic bolts slid home, trapping the banshee within.
The doors shuddered as the banshee rammed into it, but they held. It punched against the walls, leaving rounded dents with each blow.
“Torni, we good?” Hale asked as he got to his feet, his bones aching.
“Cuts and bruises, nothing serious,” she said.
“Nothing serious?” Standish wheezed from the side of the container, his helmet off and an ugly ring of bruises blooming around his neck. Yarrow, at his side, rolled his eyes and pressed a finger against the side of Standish’s neck.
“Ow!” Standish slapped Yarrow’s hand away.
“He’s fine, sir,” the medic said.
Orozco handed Hale back his gauss rifle. “Sir, that was either the dumbest or the bravest thing you’ve done in weeks.”
The banshee roared within its new cage.
“Think it’ll hold?” Torni asked.
“All ammo pods are designed to hold explosive munitions. That thing’s strong, but not strong enough to bust out of there … I think,” Hale said. A flurry of blows shook the container.
“What’re we going to do with it? Teach it to play fetch?” Standish asked.
“That’s above my pay grade,” Hale said. He opened a channel to the bridge. “XO, this is Hale. Threat neutralized…and we’ve got a prisoner.”