Become a Fan
By George C Anderson
Saturday, August 06, 2005
Not rated by the Author.
My tribute to Star Trek II, the wrath of Kahn, which begins with the Kobiachi Maru.
Lt. Commander Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Van Leewyn stares transfixed at the tiny ballet of lights being performed for her by latest and the greatest in secure messaging.
A tiny slip of paper is slowly ‘materializing’ inside the transporter’s special receiver unit. The dancing pastel hues are so mesmerizing that, if she were alone, she’d turn off the cabin lights to get the full effect.
"That thing gives me the creeps. What if the Guardians could do that too?" asks Shane, Jackie’s second in command.
"This? The stupid thing doesn’t work without a receiver," Jackie replies. "The race that built the Guardians were way ahead of us technology wise. The fact that the Guardians can’t beam themselves wherever they please makes me think it can’t be done.
"Word is they have one on Starbase 24 that doesn’t need a receiver and it’s powerful enough to send objects over a hundred thousand miles."
"Slips of paper or functioning Nanobots?"
"That’s the kink. It still doesn’t work on animate objects."
"And there it is! I’m pretty sure we can’t memo a Guardian to death--unless we get real lucky and the slip of paper gets jammed in something vital," Jackie says.
Her fascination dissolves into dismay as a crude hand drawn heart appears on the memo. The message reads, ‘I heart U, XOXO, your secret admirer.’
"The latest and the greatest in secure messaging and the only thing I’ve gotten so far is a stack of these!" Jackie snarls.
"I know nothin’," Shane replies with a smirk.
"The hell you don’t! I’ll bet everybody on this ship knows but me. You men are bigger gossips than women will ever be.
"Men don’t gossip, they swap lies!"
"So what’s the latest?"
"My mom taught me that gentlemen don’t repeat rumors."
"Which makes you?"
"Ignorant. Who listens to their mother?"
"So who’s doing this?"
"Beats me. My guess is it’s somebody in command." Shane says, pointing to the bread box sized communications device, "Access to that foolish thing is restricted."
"Right! Like one of you guys couldn’t bribe a tech to do it." A statement that is so close to the to the truth that Shane tosses out a decoy.
"What if it’s the Captain?
"That jerk? It’d be my luck you’re right!"
Just then, the sound of bells and claxons loud enough to wake the dead erupt throughout the ship. It is the second time in less than an hour that battle stations has been sounded.
Shane shakes his head in disbelief.
"Speaking of jerks, if it isn’t battle stations it’s abandon ship! Is this guy drill happy or what? I don’t think I’ve gotten four hours of uninterrupted sleep since we left Starbase 9," Shane grumbles as he heads for the door.
"If they shave any more time off the action schedule they’ll have to replace the bells and claxons with ‘call to the post’." Jackie jokes as she rises to follow Shane.
The two officers step out of the office they share into the ‘Barn’. Neither is surprised to see that everybody is already suited up and moving out. The ‘Barn’ is a long, narrow corridor that runs the full length of the two and a half-mile long, half-mile wide carrier. The center of the Barn serves as home for the ship’s Internal Defense Force.
Like the stalls of a stable, the long corridor is peppered with companionways. Most of these companionways lead directly to the IDF’s battle station, the space between the Avenger’s inner and outer hulls.
Jackie and Shane assist one another in donning their equipment, doing their best to remain impassive as the angry troopers hustle past them. Most of the soldiers avert their eyes from their commanding officers but a few, those with a low threshold for nonsense, glare at the pair with barely concealed contempt as they rush to their combat stations.
"This sucks. If the captain’s idiot brother doesn’t knock it off soon there’s going to be a mutiny"
"Maybe it’s not a drill." Jackie comments as Shane helps her with her helmet. "We did battle stations less than forty-five minutes ago."
"It’s a drill. I think the idiots on the bridge are going to keep it up until they bag somebody." Shane replies in disgust. "We better shake a leg or we’ll get locked out." Jackie looks up and down the long corridor that runs the length of the ship and sees that it is already deserted.
"What cell did you win?" Shane asks.
"D – 5."
"Lucky you. I’m in A – 16."
"Tough break, you’d better get going. I can do the rest myself."
Jackie urges as she buckles on the heavy ammo pouch for her standard issue slug thrower that the ship’s Internal Defense Force used to repel boarders.
Shane heads aft at a trot while Jackie walks forward towards the bow. There is a companionway that will take her directly to ‘D’ deck just a few yards away.
Jackie enters the companionway and starts jogging in spite of herself. According to the action roster she still has two full minutes to reach her duty station but the captain’s relentless drive for continuous improvement and the crew’s growing resentment towards the ceaseless drills have caused the staff to start shaving the time allotments in an effort to improve the crew’s performance ratings.
This led to the crew taking shortcuts, such as sleeping with their armor on, causing command to shave even more time off the action schedule. Any crewmember that failed to reach their duty station before the airlocks between the sections were shut down was automatically invited to discuss their poor performance with the captain’s brother, the Avenger’s XO.
Jackie arrives at the airlock and groans. She had quickened her pace in hopes of catching up with the stragglers but there is no one ahead of her.
She steps inside the cavernous airlock and initiates the cycle. Not a heartbeat later a voice comes over her helmet speaker.
"Lockdown in ten seconds."
"Crap!" Jackie moans. Lately, ten seconds on the bridge is five seconds everywhere else. Coincidentally, it takes ten seconds for the airlock to cycle. If the boneheads on the bridge lock down the airlocks before the cycle finishes she’ll be trapped inside.
As an officer Jackie has an out. All commanding officers were responsible for making sure that their areas were clear of crewmen before reporting to their action stations. So far no officer had been caught in a lock out and Jackie definitely doesn’t want to be the first.
She paces back and forth by the exit door, thinking about what she is going to say in her defense when she’s called before the XO. The whole situation is preposterous yet here she is, the only one in her unit not at their duty station.
Jackie is mildly surprised when, after what seems like a brief eternity, the lock cycles open. She heaves a sigh of relief as she exits her would be prison, stepping into a dark, barren world that bears a strong resemblance to a coal mine.
The only light in this land of dancing shadows comes from the powerful headlamps built into each trooper’s helmet.
Everything on this side of the airlock is manually operated, a measure aimed at denying the enemy it’s primary objective of gaining access to the ships systems.
Jackie doesn’t get three steps from the airlock when the unit goes dark, it’s power cut off. It is not the ship’s power that the enemy is after. The liability lies within the miles of interconnected circuitry that makes the ship function. Destroy even a small percentage of these digital pathways and a habitat in space quickly becomes a floating tomb.
The troopers in section D – 7 snap to attention when they see their commanding officer exit the airlock. Still behind schedule Jackie returns the trooper’s salute without breaking her stride. She crosses to the entry hatch of section D – 6 and tugs on the handle, it spins freely. There was little point in locking down the hatchways between the cells. A foe that could burn it’s way through a foot thick hull plate in less than thirty seconds wasn’t about to be stopped by a locked hatch.
The moment Jackie crosses the threshold into the adjacent section she is blinded by five powerful headlamps. She raises her free hand to shield her eyes.
"Atten-hut!" Barks the squad leader the moment he sees that the person who is being blinded by his people’s curiosity is their commanding officer.
Jackie salutes the troopers and almost responds with the counter command ‘at ease’ but it was not until the squad leader had called his people to attention that she’d been spared from the glare of their headlamps.
She lets the order stand, sauntering past the now rigid troopers as she makes her way to the adjacent section. The squad leader can release them once she’s clear.
Jackie reaches section D - 5 and finds the hatchway is open, awaiting her arrival.
Half expecting to be blinded again she reflexively puts her hand out to shield her eyes but these troopers employ the proper protocol of looking out the side of their faceplates, keeping their headlamps averted from the object of their attention.
"Greetings commander." A voice says over Jackie’s helmet speaker. "It’s an honor to have you with us." The squad leader says.
Before Jackie can respond, the sound of a boson’s whistle issues over everyone’s helmet speaker.
"Attention all hands, this is the Captain. Long-range scan has detected ten Guardian mother ships on an intercept course with our battle group.
Let’s make those long months of training and drills pay off. All hands are to remain at their battle stations; this is not a drill. Captain out."
"Did he say ten?" asks Todd; the squad’s shoulder launched weapons specialist.
"Are not. We’ve got ‘em outnumbered five to one!" Sarah, the squad leader replies.
"You know what happened the last time ten Guardian mother ships converged on one spot." Jeff, the other gunner says.
"He’s right. The last time ten Guardians were in the same place at the same time, we had them outnumbered by twenty to one and they still wiped out the whole fleet!" Adds Aaron, the squad’s grenadier.
"That was then and this is now!" Sarah snarls.
"Back then we didn’t know what we were up against. This time we’re ready for them and we’re going to kick their butts all the way back to Andromeda."
"They’d still be in Andromeda if it weren’t for the idiot Supreme Council," Aaron snorts, bringing to the fore an issue that most people saw as the crux of their current plight.
Ten years ago, when mankind was still blissfully unaware of other intelligent life in the universe, not one but five expeditions had been launched to Andromeda.
The first was a voyage of discovery, a scientific expedition sent to learn why a particular section of our neighboring galaxy was so rich in class ‘M’ planets.
The second had been a rescue mission, sent shortly after the first mission vanished without a trace.
Three light warships were sent to find the missing scientific expedition. In a feat that has yet to be duplicated, one of those three ships escaped destruction and returned home.
The details of this mission and the communications logs from that fateful journey are still kept under tight wraps.
Despite everyone involved being sworn to secrecy it was not long afterwards that word spread throughout human space of the fierce automated galactic defense system that served as proof mankind was no longer alone.
The three subsequent failed missions to Andromeda were sent in search of the Guardians creators, a task that to this day remains unfinished thanks to the arrival of the Guardians in human space.
"G – 13, left in three seconds." Warns a controller stationed in the Avenger’s command center.
The space between the hulls of the Avenger was divided into one hundred separate compartments. A heavily armed and armored five-member squad mans each of these compartments.
"To your stations people." Jackie orders as the squad is still bunched up by the doorway where she came in.
Near the center of each cell there are five chest-high shields jutting up from the bulkhead floor.
During the coming attack the troopers will hunker down behind these shields to prevent flying shards of shattered hull from ripping holes in their EVA armor.
Jackie watches her chronometer, mentally ticking off the attacker’s timetable. Three seconds to impact, two seconds for the attacker to secure it’s grip and ten more to deploy its payload.
Upon being ejected from the bowels of the enemy craft it would take each German Shepherd sized man killer ten more seconds to power up. This ten-second window of vulnerability that offers the human defenders their only opportunity to destroy the small, lightening fast killer robots.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery regarding the Guardians was that they had next to zero computing power. The little machines didn’t think, reason or hesitate. Their every action was dictated by a short list of scripts stored in their memory, a simple series of yes/no responses to the information gathered by their onboard sensors.
Like the human fixation with the number three, the creators of the Guardians had a similar fascination with the number five.
Each polyhedron shaped Guardian mother ship was roughly half the size of the Avenger and exactly five times as long as it was round. The five theme was repeated ad nasuem throughout the design, the number of engines, number of decks, number of defensive weapon clusters as well as having five main offensive weapons batteries.
Like a child’s toy, the boarding vehicles carried within them five smaller robots and inside each of these were five more.
The five larger robots were designed to burn their way into the target vessel and neutralize any resistance. Once it was safe they would deploy the five fist-sized, spider-like robots within them. Once deployed the spiders would seek out the low voltage charge of the ship’s circuitry to deliver their payload of superconductor munching nanobots into the target ship’s systems.
"D – 8, impact in two seconds, right," and Jackie tenses up all over again. While battles in space were often decided in minutes, it was still a bit early in the engagement for the Avenger to be taking this many hits.
Jackie figures the enemy boarders must be slipping in through the holes opened in the shields so the Avenger could fire it’s new rail gun, a weapon that would give the Guardian mother ships a taste of their own medicine.
The tactics employed by the Guardian’s had not only rewritten the book on ship design but on ship to ship combat. Many of the strategies the humans now utilized were lifted directly from the Guardian’s playbook.
Jackie feels a fine patina of sweat forming on her brow as her chronometer ticks off impact plus fourteen seconds.
"B – 22, F – 30, C – 3, two seconds." Control announces over the IDF Comm link.
The hits are now coming far to fast to give specific impact information or for Jackie to keep track of them all.
Here in the eternal darkness, a place where time has no meaning, the only thing left to do was wait, wait for it to be over.
"F – 30, all clear, C – 3, all clear, G – 39, all clear."
G – 39? Jackie doesn’t recall control issuing that warning. Maybe she missed it as several more impact warnings had come in while she waited for the earlier sections to report all clear.
Things were happening so fast that the Comm channel was getting overloaded, intermittently transmitting bursts of high-pitched squeals instead of cognizant speech.
The Avenger’s designers had wanted to automate the ship’s internal defenses but they couldn’t to come up with a failsafe method. In the end it was no decided there was no substitute for direct human intervention, a methodology that kept all of the ship’s vulnerable systems safe behind the twelve-inch thick inner hull.
Lost in her own thoughts for a moment, Jackie starts and taps the side of her helmet when it occurs to her that the Comm channel has suddenly gone silent.
Jackie’s heart begins to pound; loss of communications is one of the first signs of a successful hull breach by the enemy.
Something black bounces off the wall behind her and it takes Jackie a moment to register that the fist-sized chunk of composite is a piece of the outer hull, D – 5 was under attack!
She rises and turns so fast that she almost falls over. Not twenty feet away, the ugly nose of an enemy attack craft can be seen jutting through the outer hull.
She screams ‘incoming’ but the Comm link is dead, none of her teammates can hear her. She sights down her weapon as the nose of the enemy craft drops onto the deck. A moment later, the first deadly German Shepherd sized boarding robot drops from the opening.
Jackie’s laser sight paints the target with a small, bright crimson dot and she lets loose. The powerful weapon bucks silently in her hands, the heavy depleted uranium slugs instantly reducing the target to scrap metal.
Jackie turns and sees that her teammates are still dutifully hunkered down behind their shields.
She skips over to the next station and kicks Aaron who, like Jackie, is busy tapping the side of his helmet, trying to get his radio to work.
He looks up angrily at his CO. It’s not until he sees the muzzle flashes from Jackie’s weapon as she opens up on the second boarder that it dawns on him their section has taken a hit.
He springs up to join the fray, tossing a grenade in the direction of the hull breach. With the second boarder destroyed, Jackie motions for Aaron to ‘wake up’ his neighbor while she does the same to hers on the other side.
A second laser sight joins Jackie’s in drawing a bead on the third invader. Jackie’s weapon bucks once and quits, she’s out of ammo. Jackie almost falls on top of Todd while trying to reload, kick him into action and watch the deadly robots all at the same time.
Todd is at a loss. The rocket man’s job is to destroy the enemy boarding vehicle after it deposits its deadly payload into the kill zone. Todd interprets Jackie’s kick as his signal to fire. He rises, gets a bead and launches his rocket.
It is not until he looks at Jackie and sees that her mouth forms a perfect circle that he realizes his error.
The enemy fighter drifts slowly from its perch, too slowly, as the fourth boarder is ejected from the bowels of the fighter backwards, out into the void of space.
The fifth follows a heartbeat later while Jackie and Sarah race to the hull breach with their weapons at the ready but the spinning derelict blocks their view of the twin targets.
How much time is left?
Without regard for her personal safety Sarah leaps out of the hull breach in pursuit of the small robots. Jackie watches helplessly as Sarah sails wide of the enemy craft.
Jackie growls to herself in frustration. She’d like to give the squad leader a good dressing down for her heroic, yet foolish action but the Comm channel remains silent, there is nothing she can do.
Like the derelict fighter, once Sarah loses momentum she starts to spin. There is no way she’ll be able to get a bead on the two remaining robots, robots that will be activating any second now.
Still watching Sarah, Jackie catches a flash out of the corner of her eye. The fourth robot has targeted Sarah and is firing its weapons at the helpless squad leader.
Jackie uses the flash from the robot’s plasma weapons to get a fix and returns fire. There is a small explosion in the vicinity of where the robot was and Jackie ceases fire.
Her eyes drift back to where she last saw Sarah, her stomach lurching when she sees that the small robot’s plasma weapon has cut the squad leader in two.
Jackie is on unfamiliar turf. It’s unknown whether or not the smaller robots could maneuver by themselves in space. She strains her eyes, peering into the starry background searching for movement that will betray the location of the fifth and final boarder.
She feels someone poking her in the shoulder. Jeff is by her side, pointing at something to her left. She shifts her position to get a better view and then she sees it.
The last robot is sailing along with no visible means of propulsion, headed directly for the mid-section of the Avenger.
If the drifting robot happened upon a section where the troopers were still huddled behind their shields, it would kill them all before they knew what hit them. Humans were no match for the speed that the little machines were capable of.
In a few more seconds it would reach the outer hull. What Jackie needed was a long piece of rope but there was no such item to be found out here in barren space between the hulls.
Jackie watches as the little robot’s plasma weapon starts burning a hole through the outer hull. It occurs to her that she still might be able to take the little monster out and she pantomimes to Jeff that she wants him to hold on to her legs.
She stretches herself out through the hull breach and takes aim. It’s a long shot, far too long for the laser sight to be of any use but circumstances being what they are, she’s forgotten to turn it off.
Jackie pulls the trigger at the same instant she sees a bolt of plasma heading straight for her, her laser sight has betrayed her position.
Desperate, she rolls to her right and flattens herself against the hull. Jackie’s struggle to save herself causes Jeff to lose his grip. Miraculously, she manages to hook her toe on the hull breach. Without a moment to spare, Jeff seizes Jackie’s foot and hauls her back inside to safety.
Heart pounding, Jackie knows it’s too late to do anything now. All she can do is hope her people see, and react to, the danger in time…if it isn’t too late already.
Todd, Jeff and Aaron are all gathered around her and she can readily read the despair in their eyes. Like her, they are frightened, fearful that once again the soulless machines have won the day.
There is little she can do to comfort them for she is just as ignorant as they are.
Jackie regains her feet and signs to the three troopers that they are to remain at their post while she ventures back inside the Avenger to find out what’s going on.
Jackie exits section D – 5 only to be blinded once again by the five headlamps of the troopers stationed in Section D – 6.
To the plus side, at least these troopers had the presence of mind to be watching their section with their eyeballs instead of waiting for the Comm link to come back online.
Jackie is obliged to repeat in pantomime what she told the denizens of D – 5 before departing--you stay, I go. A process that she also has to repeat in section D – 7. Upon being told that they were to stay, the troopers in D - 7 all wag their heads in the negative and point at the airlock.
Jackie is well aware that the airlocks are still offline. Fortunately, there is a protocol in place to deal with just such a situation. Jackie points first to the squad’s rocket man and next at the non-functioning airlock.
Everybody scrambles into the far corner of the cell while the missile tech gets a bead on the airlock. There is a brief, blinding flash followed by a jagged hole where the airlock used to be.
Jackie will be in it deep for compromising hull integrity during an attack but with the Comm link offline it’s a chance that she’s willing to take.
Jackie starts down the companionway but has to stop and repeat her instructions to the curious troopers of section D – 7 that have fallen in step behind her.
If the ship were already doomed, leaving a section unguarded wouldn’t make much of a difference--but leaving a section unguarded meant running the risk of having more of the German Shepherd sized man killers roaming around during an already bad situation.
Jackie keeps her EVA armor buttoned up as there is no way to tell whether or not the Barn still has atmosphere. Fighting the urge to run, she strains her eyes to peer as far ahead as she can as she traverses the dimly lit companionway. It wasn’t likely that a boarder had made its way to the center of the ship already but you never knew.
Just as Jackie rounds the corner at the far end of the companionway she encounters Shane, accompanied by two armed troopers.
Jackie should have conscripted an escort too but that would have meant leaving a section short-handed; something it seems Shane didn’t have a problem with.
Shane puts his faceplate against Jackie’s and shouts "Where’s your escort?"
"Don’t have one."
"Are you nuts?"
"What’s the problem?" Jackie asks.
"Man killers! There’s safety in numbers."
"Are you headed to the bridge?" Jackie shouts.
Shane nods in the affirmative.
Jackie takes the lead, waving for the others to follow. She knows that Shane likes to look out for her but being the CO is her job.
The Bridge is located just forward of mid ship on the deck directly above the Barn. There is a manually operated airlock built into the ceiling of the Barn, placed there for just such an emergency.
Jackie peers up and down the long corridor, searching for signs of trouble but the Barn looks much as it did when they left. She consults her chronometer and is surprised to see it’s been over twenty minutes since the captain sounded battle stations.
The EVA armor’s life support unit was only good for an hour before it needed to be recharged. Twenty minutes meant a third of the Trooper’s oxygen supply had been consumed, assuming the troopers kept their suits fully charged.
In order to charge the suit properly, it had to be taken off. The ceaseless drills combined with the suit’s complex series of straps and seals, some of which couldn’t be fastened without assistance, forced the troopers to wear their combat EVA armor most of the time.
Since it was not uncommon for the IDF to go EVA for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time, a half dozen times a day, most troopers cheated. They would recharge their armor via the suit’s emergency umbilical, a trick that would only charge the suit to seventy-five percent, reducing that hour of life support to around forty minutes.
It was a safe bet that a majority of the troopers were down to less than half of their air reserve while others would find themselves gasping on the deck any minute now.
Jackie glances at her air gauge and sees that she has slightly more than thirty minutes left. The band of troopers isn’t running but Jackie has set a fairly aggressive pace because the bridge airlock is still a half a mile away.
A segment of retractable ladder juts down from the ceiling where the airlock to the bridge is located. Shane reaches up, pulls the ladder down and mounts it before Jackie can protest.
Next to the airlock’s hatch is a set of red and green indicator lights. The red light warns of the absence of atmosphere while the green light means it is safe to proceed.
Neither light is working.
Shane looks down at Jackie and Jackie gives him a nod, safe or not it’s the only way out. Shane undogs the hatch and pushes it up then finishes climbing into the airlock.
Jackie gets ready to climb the ladder but Shane waves her off, pointing at one of his escorts. Grudgingly, Jackie steps aside to let the rifleman climb up and join Shane. The airlock is only large enough to accommodate two at a time. She doesn’t like it but Shane’s right on this one; there’s no point in risking the lives of both officers.
The hatch closes and Jackie does a double take when she notices Shane’s other escort is female. The issue of treating all crewmembers equally is ground that she and Shane had been over many times yet here, like an incurable genetic defect, he’s gone and done it again!
After a minute the hatch pops open and a hand beckons them to come up the ladder.
Jackie isn’t sure what she had expected to find on the bridge but seeing it totally deserted knocks the wind right out of her. The captain must have ordered abandon ship after the Comm link went dead. There were no bells, claxons or flashing lights out in the void between the hulls. The Comm link was the trooper’s only lifeline and it was the failure of that lifeline that had condemned them all to die.
Jackie fights back her tears and rushes over to main command console to see if any part of the ship is still functional. All of the critical systems monitors are dark, all of them except one; the launchbay still has power!
Jackie starts when Shane unexpectedly presses his faceplate against hers.
"If we can get to the launchbay we can fly out of here!" He shouts.
"What about the others?"
"What about them?"
"We can’t leave them here."
"We can’t call for help if we stay. What’s it going to be?"
"How much air do you have left?"
The look on Shane’s face lets Jackie know that he hasn’t been watching his life support monitor. They both hold out their wrists and see that Jackie has twenty minutes of reserves but Shane only has ten.
It’s an even mile from the bridge to the launchbay. Running will burn off what’s left of their air supply more rapidly but if they don’t run, they’re going to die anyway.
Shane eschews the ladder, dropping straight through the chute made by the now open airlock. Normally dropping the fifteen feet between decks would cause a nasty sprain but whenever the Avenger went into battle the artificial gravity was reduced to half of Earth normal to make maneuvering in the heavy combat armor easier.
He hits the deck lightly and bounds off in the direction of the launchbay. The female escort is apparently afraid of heights and starts down using the ladder.
Jackie catches her under the arm, hauls her back up out of the hatchway and jumps down through the chute like Shane had. If the other female was going to slow things down, she could do so as much as she liked so long as she wasn’t doing it in front of Jackie.
Jackie pours on the speed, trying valiantly to catch up to Shane.
While the reduced gravity made the bulky armor more manageable, it didn’t by default make you a track star.
Jackie makes good progress for the first quarter mile but has to slow her pace, her muscles just can’t take it.
She slows down to a fast walk so she can give her legs some time to recover.
The male escort sprints past Jackie using the long, slow strides favored by distance runners. Impressed, Jackie follows his lead and starts covering a lot more ground with only a fraction of the exertion.
The bouncy step is fun to do in low gravity as between bounds it produces a sensation that is akin to flying. By the time Jackie reaches the launchbay airlock she’s into it and is having quite a party for herself.
Jackie pulls up short of the airlock and turns to check the progress of the other female, who is so close behind that she nearly runs Jackie over. Either this gal was a quick study like Jackie or she’s a real life track star.
Jackie half expected to find Shane lying in a heap outside the airlock, gasping for his last breath but both men are nowhere in sight. Jackie eyes the female escort warily as they step inside the airlock that was designed to accommodate fifty people at a time.
Jackie is unsure if the incident at the hatchway hasn’t made her an enemy that her superior rank won’t save her from. The crewmember keeps her eyes averted from her CO, leading Jackie to believe that if the other female is upset, she’s doing a damn good job of hiding it.
Her rank, Jackie wonders to herself for a moment if her rank still has any meaning here on a doomed ship. She glances at her air gauge, her heart sinking with the certain knowledge that in ten more minutes she’ll be the commanding officer of over five hundred dead people.
There must be a way. They may not be able to rescue all of them but there must be a way to rescue some of them.
The airlock cycles open and the two helmetless males stand there, grinning like Jack O’ Lanterns as they wait for the females to remove their helmets.
"What kept ya?" Shane asks.
"Thanks for waiting." Jackie replies. "Have you been to flight control yet?
"There’s a possibility we can radio for rescue if this section isn’t too far gone."
"Jackie!" Shane protests.
"I’m not giving up Shane. You three go and get the fighters ready, I’ll go check the control center."
"Not without you."
"Yes without me. We don’t have time to argue about this Shane, you do your part and I’ll do mine."
Shane leads his pair of escorts towards the hanger bay while Jackie walks alone across the deserted flight deck. She steps quietly into the command center and sees that like the flight deck, it is deserted.
She finds the Comm console and the first thing she notices is a series of alarm lights, all of which indicate some sort of system malfunction. No gain, no antenna and the loss of all command frequencies.
Jackie’s not a communications expert by any stretch of the imagination but she fiddles with the controls for a few moments hoping that maybe she’ll get lucky.
She gives up after failing to get even a burst of static on any of the channels. Communications relied heavily on superconductors and superconductors were precisely what the Guardian’s Nanobots ate.
Frustrated, Jackie exits the control center and makes her way back toward the flight deck. She’s in the short corridor between the stairway and the flight deck when she hears the loud chugging of a trooper’s heavy slug thrower.
Jackie flattens herself against the bulkhead wall as her fingers scramble into the ammo pouch at her side. She only has two clips left.
She creeps forward, hoping to see what the others were shooting at before whatever it is saw her.
Jackie reaches the doorway that separates the flight deck from the command center and peeks out the window. From the insignia on their uniforms Jackie sees both of Shane’s escorts’ lying face down on the flight deck, their bodies charred, smoking ruins.
Not twenty feet away, a lone fighter sits idling on the flight line, ready to launch.
There’s no sign of Shane.
Jackie worries her lower lip as she contemplates her next move. If she calls out, she risks attracting the attention of the man killer. If she stay put, the darn thing will find her anyway so Jackie figures she has nothing to lose.
"Shane," she shouts her rapidly sweeping the perimeter for a glimpse of the dog-sized menace. Maybe it’s stress but she doesn’t think she shouted loud enough to be heard over the fighter’s idling engine so she tries again.
Jackie waits, certain that she shouted loud enough the second time but the only response to her cry is silence.
"Damn him," Jackie mutters under her breath, fearing the worst. A blur of motion out on the flight deck catches Jackie’s eye. She knew that calling out would attract the man killer and now there it was, just a few feet away from the idling fighter.
Jackie takes a half a step back from the door and opens fire. The deafening roar of the high-powered slug thrower reverberates inside the narrow hallway, the fresh clip expending itself in less than three seconds.
She pops the spent clip out, letting it fall to the deck as her fingers grasp her last reload.
There, through the holes she just blew through the closed door, she can see the man killer preparing to open fire.
Her last clip slips out of her grasp and falls to the bottom of her pouch. Her hand dives after it, her fingers brushing against it as the flash of the Guardian’s plasma weapon glows on the other side of the closed door.
She sees the metal door slowly melting away as her hand flashes to jam the fresh clip into the magazine…
Snap! Everything goes black.
Gunnery Sargent Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Van Leewyn is shaking so badly that she is unable to remove the virtual reality headset. Her body is so overloaded with adrenaline that she drops to her knees, hyperventilating as she wills back the overpowering urge to vomit. The doomed ship scenario was indeed the hardest of all the tests that every command candidate was required to take.
"How’d I do?" Jackie croaks when Colonel Abraham enters the test cell a few minutes later.
"Better than most Commander." He smiles, "Better than most."
"Did you say Commander? You mean I made it, I got the promotion? Jackie gasps, still struggling to get her body back under control.
The colonel grins broadly and offers his hand in congratulations but it’s all Jackie can do to return his firm grasp. As their eyes meet, the colonel’s allows his congratulatory smile to fade from his face. He’s seen the look in Jackie’s eyes before. It’s the same look every candidate has after taking the test.
"The simulation. I know most of those people. It was like someone’s been following me around with a camera."
"The test is customized for each candidate. It has to be. The test you just took incorporates the very latest intelligence we have on the Guardians. It is imperative that we know up front who can and cannot hack this assignment. Only the best will go. You people are mankind’s last hope. If this mission fails the experts calculate the Guardians will overrun what remains of human space before the year is out."
"You can count on me sir, I won’t let you down!"
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