[OC][Quarantine 17] The Snake
There was a time when Rashim was so tired of staring at screens long enough to burn them into his dreams that he’d considered requesting a transfer to the infantry. But after a couple months running cargo hauls between freighters and the settlements on Asgard, he was glad to be back in his seat, doing his best to find a clear route between the fuzzy signatures of decaying particles.
It wasn’t exactly his seat, though. The Serpent of Eden
returned from the strike on the Council with half its systems dead, and had since been scrapped for parts to keep the rest of UC’s subspace fleet operational—a fleet that currently consisted of three ships. This one, the UCV Abraham
, had a larger cargo bay and thicker armor than the Serpent of Eden
, though it moved slower through subspace as a result. But the controls were almost identical, and Li had only needed one practice run to get used to the new bulk.
A heavyset marine in light combat armor stepped into the cockpit. “ETA to target?” she asked.
“Not long,” Li answered. “We’re definitely in the galactic outer rim now, we just need to get a good enough fix on the Beacon to pin down out location.”
was loaded with two pieces of cargo for this trip: two squads of marines and the subspace gate module from the Serpent of Eden
’s launch station. The ship’s onboard drive was only capable of keeping the ship in subspace; actually crossing over the line required a separate drive with an immense antimatter reactor to power it. They’d stripped the drive down as much as possible to fit it in the bay, but they didn’t have the power source; that’s what the marines were for.
“Got a fix,” Li said. “Bearing and distance look good.”
“Keep us steady,” Rashim said, “I’m sending out a probe.”
was equipped with the newest innovation in subspace technology: a set of cheap sensors attached to the end of a tether. When detached, the probe drifted out of the field of effect of the ship’s drive, fell back into flatspace, and transmitted the data back to the ship. The tether had a tendency to snap if the ship was moving too fast, or there happened to be matter on the other side, or there was too much turbulence on this side, or it felt like it, but it was the only method anyone had invented of navigating far from the Beacon. It was nearly impossible to pull it back into subspace, though, and they only had three on board.
Rashim examined the readout from the probe. It mostly relied on the positions of prominent stars to locate itself, but given time it could detect nearby bodies. “It looks like we’re in the right system, but maybe half a light-year out from the star.” He sent the bearing to the star over to Li, then tried to reel in the probe but the feed from it cut off within seconds. Li gently guided the ship towards the center of the system, then Rashim sent out another probe. It showed a red dwarf with a small planetary system, including a single gas giant. It didn’t show the station in low orbit over the gas giant, but Rashim knew it was there. “We’re here,” he said. He tried to reel in the probe again, and the tether snapped once more. But they only had to travel a short distance before dropping back into flatspace. “Tell Asgard we’re commencing operation Jorm…gander?”
Li suppressed a chuckle. The marine said, “I’ll give Mr. Richards one thing: he sticks to a theme.”
After a few more moments of travel, Li powered down the drive and they fell back over the line. Rashim followed the marine back. He edged past her and walked back between the two rows of marines readying their equipment. Many of them had adorned their uniforms and equipment with skulls, dragons, and other suitable intimidating symbols. Such personalization was against UC regulations, but these were marines of the 26th. Only a third of the strike force had survived to see Asgard, and they’d been hailed as heroes. Even with their numbers depleted, they had become the unit of choice for boarding operations. Rashim passed them and set to work readying the gate module for transport.
The marine from the cockpit—Lieutenant Sorenson—called to the marines, “Everyone know their mission?” She used the voice, distinctive to the branch, that was probably appropriate to low-flying drop ships or pods during reentry but was excessive for the quiet spaceship.
“Yes, sir,” they replied in unison.
“This is a thin-skinned station, so no kinetics; energies only.” None of the marines had to switch weapons. They all knew that it was harder to burn through the hull than shoot through it.
That was as much preamble as they needed. Within minutes, the ship had docked to the station—using codes stolen from an Errav freighter a week earlier—and the marines charged through. They expected little resistance; this station was a scientific venture, performing experiments with high-energy particles out where there was less interference from the galaxy’s cloud of dark matter. It had been chosen for this op due to its large onboard antimatter reactor, which was more than powerful enough for the gate module, and due to the month-long delays between resupply runs. Given another decade or two, the scientists here might have made the same breakthroughs that led humans to the creation of the subspace drive; as it was, they would be captured, sent back to a remote human station for interrogation, and remain captive for the remainder of the war. Assuming the war ever ended.
They weren’t here for the scientists, though. After they had swept most of the station and eliminated its small security contingent, one of the marine squads returned to start moving pieces of the gate module. Rashim followed them to a large room near the reactor that they had cleared out for the purpose. Assembling the module was a slow process, but several of the marines had been trained to assist them, and they worked feverishly.
After a couple hours, Lieutenant Sorenson entered and said to Rashim, “We’ve got a problem. One of the scientists said they sent out for a replacement part for their main experimental assembly, and they’re expecting delivery tomorrow.
Rashim swore, but didn’t look up from his work. “There’s no way we’ll get a tachyon drive back here in time.”
“Set charges and abort?” Sorenson suggested.
Rashim paused to think, then said, “There’s one thing we can try. If we can hook the Abraham
into the reactor, it should be enough to extend the drive’s area of effect over the entire station.”
“You want to move the station through subspace? After the bumpy ride out?”
“There should be a lot less turbulence from antimatter out here. The station probably has thrusters to keep it in orbit; we’ll use those once we’re over the line. All we have to do for the moment is get out of the system.”
Sorenson considered the proposal. She knew any pilot that had found their way into the subspace fleet had gotten there by being bold, which was just another way of saying they were prone to taking risks. But she had a mission, and the 26th had earned its fame the same way. “Alright,” she said, “but I’m still placing the charges.”
She walked to the hatch, then paused and added, “There’s something else. We captured a Zusheer intelligence officer on his way somewhere, he won’t say where. The scientists told us he came with two Carteca guards. We haven’t found them yet.”
Rashim swore again, several times. Humans and Carteca had only fought each other a few times; they had no formal military, just a few mercenary firms. Those few encounters had been learning experiences. Before the war, he’d read a report of a marine recon force assaulting an outpost built by a Carteca merchant company as an illicit trading port for pirates operating in human space. They’d thought the blind aliens wouldn’t put up much of a fight, and charged in. The Carteca withdrew from direct combat, forcing the marines to split up and search the outpost. One by one, the marines were silently dispatched in corners and dark hallways. When half were dead, the marines had set up floodlights in the hopes it would give them the advantage, but it had worked against them: The Carteca, as it turned out, aren’t totally blind, but possess photosensitive cells in their skin that allow them to “feel” bright lights. The floodlights told them exactly where the marines could see them. Only a few remained when they were extracted in the morning.
After another couple of hours, they were ready. The gate module had been assembled and connected to the reactor, the Abraham
had been moved to a more central location and also hooked into the reactor, and Li stood at the ready in the station’s thruster control room. So far, no marines had mysteriously dropped out of contact.
“Ready?” Lieutenant Sorenson asked over the comms. Everyone replied in the affirmative. “Alright, let’s go.”
Rashim punched some commands into the gate module’s control panel, and it hummed to life. The station rattled as the thrusters fired at full power. For a while, everything worked perfectly: Rashim watched the initial spike of power usage dissipate as the gate module powered down, and the Abraham
’s drive only drew a small amount of power. But soon, even that power usage fell to nothing.
’s not drawing any power,” he reported over the comms.
“Yeah, I see that too,” Li replied. “The line’s been cut. The drive’s running on the ship’s internal capacitors, but it won’t hold for long.”
Rashim told a marine to follow him and ran out to check the cable connecting the reactor to the Abraham
. As he was walking along it, he saw movement out the corner of his eye and stopped just as a knife flew past him and embedded itself in the wall. He turned and saw a Carteca charging down the hall. He instinctively reached for his sidearm, but the Carteca was on him before he could raise it to fire. It swung at him with a long, thin blade, but he raised his sidearm to block it. The blade cut through most of the barrel, but stopped short of his hand. The Carteca let inertia carry it forward and tackled Rashim to the ground. Once there, the Carteca threw aside the long blade, still embedded in Rashim’s sidearm, and pulled out shorter knives. Before it could stab them into his eyes, Rashim grabbed the Carteca’s arms and held them back with remarkable ease.
Now his training flooded back to him; so long as he wasn’t fighting a Ruchkyet, a Ploevedd, or a particularly large Zusheer, he had the edge in physical strength. He pushed the Carteca back and rolled over so he was on top. He glanced at the marine—struggling with another Carteca, a knife in his side but still fighting. Rashim maneuvered his leg forward so he could smash the Carteca’s arm with his boot. It writhed in pain, but made no vocalizations. He was about to repeat the action with the other arm, but was surprised to find the Carteca’s prehensile foot grabbing at his neck. The Carteca kicked him away, and stood up as he gasped for air. But before it could lunge at him, its face erupted in flames and it staggered backwards. Rashim turned to see Lieutenant Sorenson, pulse laser at the ready. She fired once more. The heat cracked open the Carteca’s skull, and it fell to the floor. The other Carteca ran around a corner, out of Sorenson’s line of fire, but Rashim took the injured marine’s weapon and brought it down.
“A little longer without power to the drive and we’ll start losing sections of the station,” Li reported. Rashim pushed himself up, continued along the cable, and found where the Carteca had cut the cable. He removed the damaged section and, with the Lieutenant’s help, pulled the loose ends of the cable together. Power surged through, and Li reported all well with the drive. As Sorenson went back to check on the injured marine, Rashim rested for the last few minutes until the station dropped back over the line.
Once they had secured the prisoners in the cargo bay with a few marine guards, Rashim and Li detached the Abraham
from the station, flew through the passage the gate module opened, and headed back for Asgard. Rashim saw the new signal from the gate module’s beacon appear on his screen. Three more, and they would have reliable subspace navigation throughout the galaxy. Part 18 Bring back daily updates and tea
submitted by loki130
I'm writing to flesh out a Stars Without Number campaign, and I thought you might enjoy reading it.
The sign on the bar said "Joe's" and looked much less like the kind of establishment that an Average Joe would run. I had stood outside the bar for a long time, several layers of clothing gripping to my body as my only defense against the winter sea breeze passing through the docks. I reread the note in my hand, a single word scribbled across in what seemed more akin to Sanskrit than English. JOES, it read. I was looking for someone, but certainly not a Joe, but not really anyone else either. Names didn't matter in this house of debauchery and depression, where you could get away with just about any kind of sick deed that would lift your spirits. Even murder. The streets were empty for the most part. The roads were small and narrow, barely large enough for a transport dolly to roll down, and paved over with a thin layer of concrete that would be replaced in segments. No one drove down these roads, especially not during the heavy seas month. The ground rolled underneath you if you stood as still as I was, like the bubble in a level. Coming here from dry land is a bad idea if you get any sort of motion sickness, even with stabilizers keeping the city more or less even with the horizon. Seagoing cities are becoming more popular as colonization grow, especially with folk of ill-repute, the kind that inhabits a bar named Joe's.
Bar is probably a stretch of the term for this kind of establishment. They served alcohol, and they served it across a flat counter of flimsy pressed fiberboard made to look like maple that could barely pass as a bar, as long as you didn't sneeze, lean, or breathe on it. It was an awful building with awful walls in an awful part of the port that can only hope to attract people better suited to life during the Roman days, whenever those days were. Guards didn't come down here often, if at all, and generally tried to avoid places like this like the plague, because too often some sort of disease ridden whore or boatman would wind up here and get the whole damned neighborhood quarantined, and then everyone would be either decontaminated or purged.
So for the sake of business and to keep spending to a minimum, the worst possible slimy things that crawled from the deep and out into the ports would end up in cesspools like this. Every once in a while, someone would get the idea to go gambling and would lose big. Real big. Loan shark big. These little fishes would flee out into the open water on to harvest their own slimy kind and not pay what was due. They can't live out on the water forever, and they always hope that when they come back, they would be clean of their debts like time would wash away their sins. They always slink back to these holes in the ground and try to wait out the storm they know is coming, and never stop to think that the people who own these places weren't in the pockets of the sharks hunting the fishes. Never stop to think that their damnation is self-inflicted. Never stop to think that theirs is the story of men without number, crushed underfoot like the footscum that they are.
"You going in, or are you just going to stand there looking like you've gotta take a shit all day?" Harsh voice from too much coughing. Too many Simarettes. Xi Huo. I knew the uppers were sending a door man to catch anyone going in or out, but Xi Huo?
He was a scrawny guy, early middle age and a fiercely receding hairline like an army in retreat. He was a Brother, bunch of Confucianists that like to espouse the wonders of meritocracy, but there wasn't much meritorious about Xi Huo. But he was strong, wiry as people would call it, and he could be counted on to rough up a person that crossed a line, which was usually any kind of line one could imagine as long as the credits were there. That was enough for me, at least.
"I've been waiting on you. We're supposed to've been done by now. What took you so long?" Xi Huo shrugged, and took a drag of his Simarette, putting the embers out on his boot heel and breathing a long fog bank of cancer. "I get here when I need to get here. Not when you need me," he said, locking his gray eyes with mine. He could stare down a statue. "Fine. You know what has to be done?" "I stand out here and make sure no one interrupts until you're done. You go in, and find some guy named Mikhail, probably the only Muscovian around these parts." He pulled out a data out of what had previously been thin air. Flatspace technology. Must be real important. "Here's the info. You get in, and out. You don't have much time left, reports say dust storm is coming in soon, and unless you want to spend the night at Joe's here, do what you gotta do and get back. I'll be here as long as I can." The datacard was about eight inches long and four wide, , made of a pseudo-ceramic composite that served as a miniature circuit board. It only opened by a bioscan, normally a thumbprint but for the unfortunate few without thumbs, you could spit, piss, or bleed on it. It wasn't quite big enough to read text off of, so it would shoot a rapid fire sequence of messages that your brain would interpret subliminally. One poor thug got one of these, and had been downing stimulants all day. The card gave him an aneurysm. I slid my thumb across the scanning patch, and for a brief second nothing happened. A wash of colors started as the circuits came to life. The card became a rainbow, electrical connections firing, electrons passing between molecules, an electromagnetic symphony. The barrage of images peeled into my mind, searing itself in the subconscious of my being, too fast to perceive normally, and suddenly I knew what must be done, like I had my whole life. Brainwashing at its finest. The card fell apart in my hand, the bonds between the molecules weakened to the point of failure. These cards were expensive off-world tech, usually reserved for government agents and the spooks that followed. Whatever it was that the brass wanted, it was important enough to make sure only person would ever know what it was.
Opening the door hit me with a pressure wave of shame and filth. Saying that it smelled like something died in here is an understatement; dignity and hope died here, and no one bothered to spray lye on the corpse. I wanted to wretch, but I had an appearance to maintain.
The bar was as expected: a cesspool that should be condemned and purged with fire to clean the bacteria from the walls. The building was bare on the inside, tables and chairs spread out over the place. It was kept cool to keep the metal walls from expanding in the blistering summer heat, so cold that you could see your breath, even in the winter. The walls and furniture were all stained in a rainbow of filth, liquids and solids smeared on the walls like inmates at an asylum would smear their own feces like sickening finger paintings. The lights were fluorescent, which had quickly grown into a trend over the last solar year or so. People wanted retro, wanted a return to old ways, to ancient ways, when people began to dig themselves out of dark times. They gave me a headache.
The people were of the sort you would expect to find in your living room one night, finding a door or window broken into. Whores, thugs, malefactors of infinite variety. Diseased miscreants with no regard to their own survival, only to the passing fancies that their mind and bodies craved at the moment. They smelled of damnation, and gave me stupid looks. I want to bash their heads in with my boot heel.
But this was not the time nor the place. None of the faces resembled the picosecond long flash of cerebral branding, but there were more rooms to check. There is also the possibility that this building had sub-basement access to the aqueducts and PipeWorks below. I closed the door, hoping my time here wouldn't be too long. The heat differential sealed the door shut.
It didn't take long to be propositioned for any and every vice you could imagine. Prostitution, narcotics, banned alcohol, weapons. It was full, for the most part. No matches to the face. I maneuvered my way through the crowd, smoke and bad breath at every turn, until I had managed to reach the "bar." The proprietor was an elderly fellow, but his age belied his stature; a weathered face that looked carved from sandstone, and a large, muscular torso that filled his white shirt to its brim. The shirt was covered in stains, some of them red and brown.
He was in the boss' pockets to keep his eyes and mouth closed to everyone else. I approached the glass-fiber board counter and took a pen out, and wrote down on the napkin, "Collections," and slid it to him. He glanced at the note, and nodded. No trouble from the owner.
I made my way through the crowd towards the only other door in the building, and into the connecting hallway filled with considerably less people, but just as much aroma. You could hear the fluorescent lights, that hornet's buzz of electricity piercing its way into your skull. My headache was getting worse, and my tolerance of being here was beginning to flat line.
I took my time, opening each door, each door assaulting my senses each time with smells, sounds, and sights that no sane man should ever have to endure. I was going through withdrawals from fresh air and solitude, and my headache was becoming palpable. I still only had a face, and the item in question that needed collection.
Most of the time, when a junkie or a gambling addict or whatever form of degenerate unlucky enough to make bets he shouldn't have comes short on the credits to pay back, something has to be collected. The credits in question is normal, with roughing up or even death as interest on the payment. Sometimes, the bosses want more, or want someone made example of. The black market and the medical labs off-world paid top dollar for people. Pieces of them, at least. I wasn't quite sure what it was that the bosses wanted this time. I had a picture, but it wasn't something I was familiar with, or even had an inkling towards. I couldn't even describe it accurately, but like what some important person on said on pornography, "I know it when I see it."
There was one last door at the end of the hallway, and it was slightly ajar. This far down the hall, the sounds of the crowd were drowned and suffocated, barely above a slight murmur. There was a light sound coming from the room, and a slight hint of smoke. A muted glow was coming out of the room, and occasionally a shadow moved across the dim light from within. I pulled a flat metal piece from my pocket, and whipped it out to full length. Collapsable batons were favorites among collections agents. Gunshot were loud, and tended to ricochet in the pre-fab buildings. Depending on the place, and how long its been since servicing, an unlucky shot would bring the ocean in.
I crept to the door, making sure my footsteps would make any sound. Heel to foot, every inch a labor in anticipation hoping that whoever it is behind the door wasn't tweaking at the moment, and praying to non-existant gods that he wasn't armed with old world revolvers. One slug would go through the pre-fab doors, into and out of a person, through the wall, and into any unfortunate people happen to be leaning against the outside wall at the moment. I got as far as reaching out with my hand to touch the door frame, in perfect silence, when I heard a weak voice pipe up from inside. "Come inside. I'm not armed."
submitted by likes_writing