I braced my hand against the metal wall of the canteen, my arm stuck inside the NutriBar machine. I frowned and gritted my teeth as I fished around for an elusive snack.
“Hang on, hang on... Aha!” I cheered, pulling out a small but heavy and dense bar wrapped in purple wrapping paper with the words “NutriBar!” emblazoned in bold and white on the front, and “Berry Flavour, manufactured on Bastion for our boys and girls abroad!” in smaller words underneath, in italics.
“Oh yay, berry flavour for a change.” An accented feminine voice from behind me, oozing with sarcasm, spoke up. I leaned back and looked at the machine to see rows and rows of berry flavour nutribars inside.
I shrugged and chucked the bar to the woman, who was dressed in a short sleeve dull bluish grey T-shirt with close fitting grey cargoes and a pair of digital dog tags around her neck. She was built well with some feminine muscle visible under the close-fitting uniform.
“Thought you’d like a change, Renee.” I said with a smirk.
She caught it expertly and stared at it with a lopsided smile. Her hair was very short and fair, and her eyes a deep green, typical of people from Nova Toulouse. The planet was colonised by French people from Earth hundreds of years ago. They made good cider, too.
“Why couldn’t we have picked up better flavour in the dry-dock back in the Ursinus system?” She complained, crossing her arms.
I shrugged, “Why the hell you asking me? I didn’t buy the damn bars.” My accent, normally quite neutral, became accented once more.
She sighed, “Ah, merde. Oh well, I suppose we should get going, I’m sure the captain will be upset if we don’t report in soon.”
I waved my hand in the air dismissively, “Nah, he’s never that mad. He won’t mind if we’re a couple of minutes late so long as there’s no emergency.”
She grunted, “Yes, well, we shouldn’t be here too long then, knowing our luck. Let’s go, and thanks for the Nutri, Valentin.”
I shrugged, “It’s no problem.”
We exited the small cafeteria and entered a long, grey metal hallway. It was wide enough for three people side-by-side, the floors were military grey titanium as were the walls, and all along the halls were bright lights that were meant to simulate daylight.
In the background there was a light hum, along with some other noise like machinery working and people speaking. It was a nice background noise, better than the dead silence of space, that’s for sure. Space madness could be a real issue if you were on your own for too long out here, and was the reason why all ships have some background ambience built into them, be it the hum of an engine or the sounds of chirping birds and wind.
We walked down, passing a couple of annoyed looking tech boys dressed in the many pocketed greyish blue overalls that they normally wore. They also had sidearms in their holsters; I could tell they were revolvers at a glance.
I touched the first tech’s arm. He was a young guy, light brown skin. He was from the planet Bastion; I had met him just after my squadron joined up with the ship three months ago back in friendly territories.
“What’s up, Kaiden?” I asked.
He let out a frustrated sigh and spoke in a cockney English accent typical of those from the capital on his planet, “Damn lunatics in the Jump section set one of the capacitors to the wrong baseline temp. We’re heading out to fix their problem, those fucking arseholes.”
I winked and pointed my index fingers at both of them, “You lads go fix those dilithium crystals, then.”
They both grinned and walked off, with Kaiden was shaking his head. He shouted over his shoulder, “Screw you too, Valen!”
I chuckled and turned to Renee, shaking my head.
After a couple of minutes of walking with plenty of chatting about home between us, we got the main locker room where the other two members of our squadron were already preparing for the next mission for when we came out of warp.
“Hey Valentin, hey Renee.” Luke said. He was our squadron leader from another part of Bastion. He was a middle aged looking man with a powerful build from all that time training and short, slightly gingerish, brownish hair which he had been eternally teased for. He had a small goatee and a friendly smile, but I knew the guy had decades of flight time and on-foot operations under his belt, so he’d seen it all out there. He also had a deep sounding, accented voice, being from the part of Bastion that was home to many Swedish descendants and thick, misty pine forests.
“Captain.” We both said, nodding.
Next was Henry, our obligatory Arty in the squadron. He was about three years old and still going strong, so pretty damn good for a synthetic. His skin was dark grey and his eyes bright blue with almost imperceptible blue veins under the skin around them. His short hair was also dark grey, same as his skin, though that was about it as far as a synthetic went. His personality was human, his mannerisms were human and his jokes were definitely human.
“Hey Henry!” I waved, walking up to him.
“Valentine..!” He said, mispronouncing my name on purpose and drawing out the word in a cockney English accent. He raised his hand in the air, I copied his movements, and we high-fived, “How are you doing, bruv?”
“I’m great. You feeling good, you Arty scum?” I said.
“Of course, fleshy meat-bag.”
We shared a chuckle at the joke, referencing a dark time in our history long ago.
It took us another twenty minutes to get ready, mainly because we were busy talking and joking like we usually did. If anything was to go wrong though, we would be able to get ready within five minutes.
I looked at myself in the mirror, my short dusty brown hair and lightly tanned skin being quite a mix with my Slavic facial features. My world, Posadka Dmitriya, or Dmitry’s Landing in English, was home to over a billion people. It was a recent colony, only being founded a century ago, and was home primarily to people of Slavic origin.
I also had a goatee I had been carefully shaving for weeks, now finally big and bushy. My build was medium; I was primarily a runner rather than a weightlifter so a lot of power was in my legs which suited me just fine for my duties.
I suited up in a close fitting, long sleeved thermal full-body suit designed to retain warmth in very cold environments.
Suddenly we felt the ship leave warp as motion stopped and started again and light vertigo quickly set in, but dissipated just as fast.
A voice spoke over the ship-wide speaker system; “Attention all pilots, attention all pilots; Vulpine ship has been spotted ahead. Suit up and meet in the hanger.”
“Oh golly!” Henry said with faux cheerfulness, “I love ghost ships!”
I grimaced, “God, I hope not. We’ll probably be the first Pathfinder team to check it out before they send in the marines.”
“We’ll be fine Sergeant, this isn’t the first time.” The Captain said as he chuckled, “Besides, it’ll just be a ship error, their nav is messed up or someone plugged in the wrong coordinates.”
“You know most ships only have a less than five percent chance of being haunted if all the crew dies onboard anyway, yes?” Renee said, trying to cheer me up.
I shook my head, “Uh, not exactly working there, Renee but thank you anyway.”
She shrugged, “C´est la vie.”
“Zhizn' dayet i zhizn' otnimayet.” I replied in Russian.
She raised an eyebrow at me, whilst I just shrugged and smiled at her as got dressed in our flight suits.
They were moderately armoured and could absorb some low calibre rounds, but were completely sealed and had state of the art scrubbers and cyclers to absorb and clean as much air as possible when in hostile atmospheres.
It had small thrusters mounted on the arms and legs so that a pilot could make their way back to the mothership when their craft was destroyed. The helmets were close and you had to put it on face-first, but it shifted to fit the skull and linked in with the pilot’s mind to give tactical data on the battle. All but the pilot’s eyes were obscured by lightened titanium alloys shaped like a shield over the face, whilst the glass visor was actually a Gusarov crystal-based design, allowing it to take direct small arms fire without shattering.
I put my helmet on and felt the small, tough plastic straps shift around the back of my skull, linking in with the other side of the helmet. It closed up and I heard a small hiss as the air pressurised inside the enclosed atmosphere, and then a small electronic ‘ting’ sound as the visor came online. I blinked as the suit integrated itself with my mind and the nanites in my bloodstream, accessing some bio records and taking a quick look at my well-being, with everything checking out.
The HUD, or head’s-up-display, flashed over my eyes and I saw targeting data appear over my squadron, with small arrows pointing to them and squares of data and pictures popping up. Friend or Foe identifiers appeared then disappeared as I turned them off by thinking, and then communications came up as the rest of the squad attached their helmets.
“Mic check, mic check...” I heard the slightly buzzy sounding voice of the Captain come over the suit radio, but it sounded like he was right next to me.
“Loud and clear.” I replied. The others said the same.
We picked up our sidearms, long pointy nosed chrome revolvers called Vinters with a pentagonal shaped ammo cylinder, along with eight rounds of .454 bullets. They were typical powder rounds, no fancy gauss or magrails in these bad boys, but they still packed a punch and could easily tear through tough armour.
Then we took our submachine guns, named the Ace-5. They were small black firearms made of light carbon fibres to reduce the weight for pilots carrying them. The grip was just slightly angled backwards towards the user, with a rail along the top of the Ace-5 holding a basic iron sight. It was built with a short, smooth handguard and the magazine was inserted into the grip of the weapon, allowing room for a foldable handgrip at the front. The butt of the gun was a light collapsible stock, but generally you still held the gun close to your body given how compact everything was.
The magazines were thin; holding forty rounds of small .22 calibre armour-piercing bullets, however above the short barrel sat a sharp pointed black gauss module clipped on to the rail along the spine of the gun, increasing the power of the weapon.
I put the revolver in its synthetic fibre holster and attached the submachine gun to a mag-grip on the right rib just above the hip. It was built so as not to interfere with the seating of the pilot when in the cockpit and keep as compact and comfortable as possible.
“Right, let’s head out, Killjoys!” Captain said our squadron’s name with some authority, nodding to the door.
“Aye Cap!” We replied in unison.
We were in the hanger after a quick jog over. It was a long stretch of metal and reinforced alloy and was brightly lit. It contained two types of craft for use in combat operations.
Twelve Whiplash fighters hung up from suspension hooks and mag-locks to prevent sway during flight sat above, looking glorious in the hanger bay. They were shaped with a downwards facing nose squared off at the end, a long body with many small compartments that opened up to reveal varied ordinance, two larger wings at the top, in an upwards diagonal shape and pointing backwards, to stabilise the craft in atmospheric flight, and two much smaller winglets at the bottom sharply pointing behind the craft for further stabilisation. The craft was coloured a lighter shade of military grey and they were armed with Rapier Mk III autocannons that opened up from under the nose of the craft and could point behind, in front or to the sides if needed. That cannon could shred smaller fighters and asteroids to pieces with no problem.
They also had a unique feature, in that there was no cockpit window for the pilot to see out of. Instead, the Whiplash was equipped with hundreds of tiny cameras inside the armour that gave an almost three hundred and sixty degrees field of view to the pilot, and if they were damaged in any way, the cockpit slid back and folded up, revealing a normal bullet-proof crystal glass casing.
Then there were the dropships. Since our vessel was a smaller patrol class, we only had room for two of them. They are the original designs that a corporation called Helix took and modified to suit their purpose. Theirs are named Sparrows and ours, the Gyrfalcon.
A Gyrfalcon was small but powerful, with a light hydrogen power plant mounted inside the tail but closer to the main body. The tail itself was long and well armoured and had two small thrusters at the back that could spin vertically. The main forces at play were two large arms that could rotate vertically and horizontally (only as much as the body could allow, as some pilots found out during the test runs decades ago) and also fold up when docked, as they were here.
The engines could also spin around, which allowed the Gyrfalcon incredible manoeuvrability in atmosphere and in space. The main body was a squared teardrop sort of shape, with the main cockpit looking more like a small glass half bubble with two seats suspended in the air, though it operated much like a Whiplash as it had folding metal plates that closed over the glass as armour. Inside it could hold enough supplies for three men for a week in space, and could carry up to twenty marines quite snugly. It could also carry our off-roaders for planet based ops, but they were stored elsewhere.
The guns on this small, well armoured beast were two Rapier autocannons under the cockpit like the Whiplash, but these could only rotate ninety degrees downwards or horizontally, and four missile tubes for ship-to-ship combat, effectively turning the Gyrfalcon into a guardian angel for fighters or ground troops. They were also rated for very low yield nuclear weapons, only for taking out frigates. By law they could only carry one per-craft, but one was usually enough to get the point across anyway. It was also equipped with a short range hyperdrive system, allowing it to quickly move from space and into an atmosphere, or escape a fight. It was activated, like on all ships with hyperdrives, by four small arms that extended out from the main body that generated some sort of dimensional field. How it worked had always been lost on me. All I knew was that it was more energy efficient but had much shorter range than warp or jump drives.
I stared up at our four whiplash fighters. With my suit on, it pointed out my one with a little cyan haze around it and a box with details about the craft. The Whiplash was armed with a thousand balls of explosive ammo for the Rapier, and ten general purpose guided missiles; low explosive yield, fighter-to-fighter class.
The Captain tapped the side of his helmet, “Request to lower our fighters, prepare for take-off?”
“Copy.” A polite, English accented female voice spoke through our suits’ radios, “Fighters are fully fuelled and armed, data systems have been updated.”
“Thanks.” Cap said again, before tapping the side of his helmet.
With a hiss and a jolt, the mag-locks on the craft detached and folded back up into their compartments. A motor buzzed into life as the four fighters were lowered down. Wheels extended out from the bottom of each craft, three silver reinforced rubber wheels on titanium alloy legs. We all stepped back as the fighters auto-manoeuvred into the centre of the hanger bay. Within seconds they had parked themselves into formation and the cockpits had opened up and slid backwards up the body.
They all formed a V shape, with the Cap’s ship leading the formation. They were evenly spaced out, obviously so as to avoid any mishaps.
As we approached, a ladder symbol appeared in my suit as the ladder to the cockpit rolled out of a hidden panel in the armour. I climbed up, shifting my weight over the edge and slid comfortably into the cockpit.
It was a typical control stick aircraft with two armrests, both with digital buttons and a pop-out holo-display. I tapped a couple of buttons on my left console and a blue holographic screen came up. It showed the ship spinning in a three sixty pattern, with little check marks over every system before it finally shut down and I took hold of the stick. I pressed a button on the right armrest and the cockpit slowly slid over me, closing me in darkness with only the emergency lights for company.
I took a breath and sighed, enjoying the feeling of being back in my Whiplash. I had always wanted to be a pilot when I was a child, but doing National Service when I was eighteen I realised, after seeing two Whiplash fighters in action over a frontier colony, that I wanted to pilot one myself.
The others had completed their system checks and were ready, and just as I relaxed a little more, the cockpit suddenly cleared up and displays blinked in of the surrounding hanger bay. If you didn’t know that they were cameras, you would think that you were surrounded by a glass cockpit.
Some basic, blue digital images appeared to my left and right on the glass of the conditions of the ship and her engines, and a targeting data screen blinked in front of me, showing weapon, ammo count, bearing and location of mothership.
“Alright Killjoys; prep engines and bring them up to speed. Release mag-breaks and prepare for takeoff.” Captain spoke
We all responded with ‘aye’s. Within moments we were rolling. I looked down the runway, a short eighty five meter long landing strip that was ten meters tall, but these craft didn’t need much to go on, especially in space. A large blast door was ahead of us, hermetically sealed so as to prevent the vacuum of space from sucking out all the air.
Klaxons blared and orange lights flashed in circular patterns all over the hanger. The two people still inside the hanger quickly rushed out and were replaced with basic robots. These bots were linked to the ships systems and were commanded by the officers on the bridge or down here in the hanger bay. Both held Marshalling wands, little red glowing things to prepare us for takeoff.
The bots were human sized and had round, smooth featureless heads, aside from a couple of blue lights in a vertical pattern down the left side. They looked nearly skeletal and had a basic chassis system over their torsos to protect the core components, but other than the mark of the navy, four stars placed vertically inside a circle with a planet next to it on one shoulder, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a naked civilian model.
They stood in the spaces between our craft perfectly, as only robots could do, and spun one stick around in a circular pattern and held the other up at a diagonal angle. We powered up our engines and I felt my Whiplash hum and buzz as the small power cells in the back powered up.
The hanger depressurised with a low rumble as the air was quickly sucked back into the ships’ tanks. Then the hermetically sealed doors slowly slid open with a hum, revealing the star littered background of dark space. It took only seconds for the gears and rotors to move the door, and then our robot Marshalls turned, swung both wands towards the door and squatted.
“Green light, take off take off!” The English woman spoke quickly over the radio.
We all powered up at the same time, going from zero to two hundred kilometres within three seconds. The hanger was a blur as we raced out, our engines leaving barely perceptible blue glowing trails behind them. We headed forwards for a few moments picking up a bit of speed in the void. Over my radio I could hear faint chatter from back on the ship as various sections talked to one another.
The Captain’s ship up front powered ahead, expertly rolling into position as engine tail shifted around, allowing the craft to turn slowly. We all followed suit and banked right and moved up, where we got a good view of our mothership, named Band of Misfits, from the side.
It was around two hundred and fifty meters long and was a dark grey all over, with very lightly glowing white lights from the various windows along the hull, and I could occasionally small black shapes moving within. The hull was long, fat and blocky, but with smoothened edges all over. The front of it was a four pointed pyramid shape with a flat top hiding a main Zeus-class railgun within, developed by the military engineers on Bastion.
Called the “Watcher-class”, this particular class of space ship was relegated to patrol or guardian duties within the navy. It was meant for long range patrol across border space, on the lookout for pirates or slavers trying to sneak through. We had a crew compliment of about two hundred, with fifty of them being marines and another thirty for the Whiplash and Gyrfalcon pilots and their crew. Along the bottom spine of the ship, facing the front, was the main hanger.
Along the sides were dark grey coloured “canyons” in the armour, each side holding six two-barrelled “Gully” gauss cannons capable of firing high explosive, ship-to-ship balls at long range targets of up to two hundred kilometres away, but were meant for closer engagements.
Along the top and bottom spine of the ship were four Guardian-class defence turrets that spewed out hundreds of flak rounds a minute, mainly for anti-fighter and missile defence. Another two were mounted within the Gully canyons on small extended platforms.
We also carried a few ship-to-ship missiles in hidden tubes along the top spine, but it was more up to the fighters and gunships to use missiles, the Watcher usually wasn’t meant for up-close engagements on its own against more than three frigates, officially. Most, however, carried two medium-yield nuclear missiles when on patrol away from reinforcements, just in case.
The rest of the ship became pointed towards the rear, with three fusion engines powering it at the back in a triangle formation. Along both sides above the canyons were white numbers digitally painted, reading “091” and the letters ODF in large white italics next to it.
“Killjoys, this is Mother, how copy, over?” An older man’s voice, accented with a light touch of a Germanic accent. It was the Watcher’s officer in charge, Commander Ahren Bauers, one of the more respected officers this side of our space. He was an old war veteran who fought against the Holy Union back in the day, apparently a very good tactician too. We had only just recently been assigned to this ship, so we didn’t have much time to get to know our new commander. What he was doing commanding such a Watcher rather than a larger cruiser or a carrier, I didn’t know.
“We hear you loud and clear, Mother.”
“Copy. Proceed to coordinates marked on your HUD. Mother will follow close behind you with two squadrons at the ready and weapons armed. Proceed with caution Killjoys, we don’t know what we are dealing with here.”
I grimaced. If the Commander didn’t know what was going on, that generally meant that this wasn’t some sort of surprise exercise like what was being spoken about after we left dock over Olympus. If this was a ghost ship, chances are we would need to watch over it and get a psychic team over to clear it. Whatever the case, it meant the Killjoys landing inside the ships’ hanger, if it had one, and securing a staging area for a few marines. If it didn’t have a hanger, then space walk it was.
Ahead of me, marked at thirty Ks, or Kilometers, by my ship’s computer sat a rocket-shaped structure which I assumed was the ship we were looking for, and by the looks of it, it had dropped out of warp right in the middle of nowhere and activated its distress beacon. That was a day ago, though.
We sped up, spreading our formation apart. Space was silent, so there wasn’t much aside from the hum of my Whiplash and the radio chatter to comfort me out here. I know it’s a cliché to say you get a bad feeling, but I did.
After about thirty minutes of drifting, conserving cell power in case we needed to fight or manoeuvre suddenly, we were within a kilometre of the ship.
I had heard the foxes, or the Vulpes as they preferred to be called, were the builders of beautiful buildings and ships but this took the cake. By the looks of it, it was some kind of small space liner, the type rich people and pensioners always go on.
It was roughly four hundred meters long and was shaped wonderfully with a long, cylindrical body with thin gold plating down the sides, obviously reinforced underneath to withstand vacuum. It had the flags of some big Vulpine company or merchant guild. It was the green image of a strange, twisting tree going up in a helix pattern, with odd branches splitting off of it with a white background. The flag was actually a synthetic compound made to withstand space, as normal flags lost colour after a few years whilst in void.
The ship had a long ring around the middle attached by metal pylons. It was an old-fashioned warp drive most likely. By the end it was one powerful ion engine, renewable but not very fast. It even had solar panels at the back, though they were only half extended and not getting much light way out here on the edge of the system.
“No lights, no sensor pings on mobile phones or Wi-Fi implants.” Our captain spoke quietly, “Though I am getting some power readings all across the ship. I can access the hanger doors from here I think.”
“At least it’s got a hanger.” Henry said quietly as he used the RCS thrusters on his Whiplash to turn and look at me with his ship, “I’d have thought they’d have just had a docking extension, being a civvy vessel.”
I grunted, “Yeah, but maybe it’s an emergency dock for shuttles?”
“Have to be pretty rich to afford that.” The Arty replied, slowly flipping around again.
Henry and I split off from the squadron whilst Renee and Luke moved around, looking for the hanger. We slowed down and quietly crept along the outer hull, looking through the windows for any sign of life. I turned on the ships lighting and pointed it inside the mighty vessel.
“Oh God, please don’t be floaters...” I whispered to myself.
“Nah, gravity looks to be online.” Henry replied, “Things are checking green on my end.”
I kept silent, squinting through the reinforced glass, looking for bodies, signs of an explosion, a fire or a fight.
Nothing, absolutely nothing.
“Alright Killjoys, hanger has been located. Renee and I are landing to set up a secure zone, finish up your scan and join us.”
We replied affirmative and continued on a quick sweep, seeing nothing. We briefly visited the bridge of the ship, a large glass dome up front, reinforced with small titanium bars crisscrossing the glass. It held a suspended platform with all manner of instruments and screens, all blinking normally, but the seats were spun around at strange angles as if they left quickly.
I touched a button on the arm of the chair and saw a sensor ping of the Captain and Renee. They were on the other side of the craft. I gently throttled up and flew over the hull of the ship, spotting the Band of Misfits on the other side quietly approaching. My ship’s HUD said she was only four hundred meters away, so backup would be swift.
We approached the hanger, a much smaller one than on the Band of Misfits. It held two white shuttle craft, old designs with an arching glass cover, rectangular body with two small folded wings either side and two basic ion thrusters at the back. It was meant for ship to station transport, probably ferrying light cargo or passengers.
There were crates all over the place along with tools and a wheeled, orange forklift, as if it had suddenly been abandoned.
“I don’t like this.” I said to Henry, who was arching his ship nose up and gently coming to land on the deck. I followed suit.
“We’ll be fine Valentine, don’t worry.”
“Sure.” I said, locking the magnetic wheels in place.
I pressed a button on the side of the cockpit and everything went dark, there was a hissing sound, and then the cockpit slid back.
Putting my arm on the side, I swung myself out only to find that the gravity in the hanger was lighter than Earth Standard and I stumbled mid fall. I landed awkwardly and fell forwards, but was able to right myself and stand up straight.
Meanwhile, Renee and Henry were doubled over laughing at me, whilst the Captain was too busy looking around with his submachine gun at the ready to bother with us.
“Ublyudki.” I growled at the two of them.
We all readied ourselves, taking out our Ace-5s as we swept the hanger bay. Henry and I moved up to a doorway on the right side that was closed. There was a panel on the side and above that a small screen. I nodded to it, “You think I should take a look?”
“Go ahead, I’ll cover.”
I nodded again and we moved up, our weapons pointed at the door. I moved up to the panel and lowered the gun whilst Henry took position on the other side. I pressed the on button and the glass screen flashed with the same image as was on the flags outside.
The display was a touch-screen, old fashioned for my people but easy to use. I touched the screen and dragged it up, scrolling through the options. One of them was to close the hanger doors.
“This is Valentin, I have found the hanger door controls. Want me to close them?”
“Negative, I’ll call in the marines.” Luke said, looking at me and shaking his head from the other side of the hanger. He touched the side of his helmet and called in a Gyrfalcon.
Meanwhile, Henry and I stayed put twiddling our thumbs.
If only we knew was waiting for us on the other side, we would have blown the ship up and been done with it then and there.