From An Unproven Concept
As he approached yet another hatch to Corridor C, Marcus found himself thinking back to his Marine officer basic course. His drill instructor, a tall, wiry Warrant Officer nicknamed ‘The Spider’ had been feeling rather benevolent one day after trying his damndest to kill them all in Zero-G Initial Entry. Rather than making the twenty remaining trainees queue up once again, Spider had gathered the group for some impromptu professional development.
“You idiots don’t get it,” Spider had told them as they were all in the front leaning rest position, his face focused on his own faraway memory. “It’s not the lack of gravity that will be what sticks with you. Oh no, all you pussies who keep puking in your helmets will eventually get used to that. No asshats, it will be the smell that you will never, ever be able to overcome.”
The decisions made by Titanic’s central computer had had devastating consequences within the vessel’s common spaces. Making their way aft, Marcus and the Ballroom A survivors had seen sights that would stick with them until they drew their last breaths. A great hound the size of a small adult whining piteously as it furiously licked its master’s face, the animal’s back as clearly broken as the dead human’s. The woman with her three small children, their arms still inextricably linked even as they floated past the viewport of a sealed emergency hatch. The layer of offal and gore that literally floated like gelatin roughly three meters off the floor, rippling like some evil god’s punch bowl with the Titanic’s motions in the gloom.
Yet, despite all these visuals Martin was certain the smell would yield high grade nightmare fuel when…no if any of them ever slept again, Spider’s admonition would be proven correct. Marcus had fought on crippled vessels before, but never one with so many people or activities as Titanic. The stagnant air, smoldering spot fires, chemical spills, and the various liquids that were a vessel’s lifeblood had combined with the sudden, violent rupture of things that were supposed to be inside bodies, not floating in midair. The result was an unremitting, soul searing stench that had him hovering on the knife’s edge of madness.
Goddamn you, Spider, Marcus thought, his anger rising.
“Marcus…” Sarah said, her voice breathless. “Marcus!”
It was the desperate, out of breath cry followed by the wet gurgle as she nearly vomited from inhaling that finally pierced the fog around Marcus’s brain. Turning around, he found himself confronted with his very angry fiancé.
“Dammit, Marcus, you and the fucking Spartans are about to give us all heart attacks,” Sarah snapped, her chest heaving and sweat pouring down her face. “We have wounded and elderly people, and half of them are having to hang onto other people. Where the hell are we going in such a hurry?!”
Marcus felt himself nearly scream at Sarah in rage, his expression causing her to take a step back.
She doesn’t realize what’s going on, he thought, fighting to contain his rage. No one besides the security folks and maybe the Spartans do.
“Engineering,” Senator Lu interjected from behind Marcus. “The first place you secure in any boarding action is the powerplant.”
Thank you, Senator, Marcus thought, slightly more in control of his emotions.
“Why not the bridge?” Sarah asked, confused.
“You can’t really do much from the bridge if you have no power,” Marcus bit out. Realizing he had snapped, he moderated his tone while continuing to explain. “You’re basically king of a little realm that has no ability to supply its own air, heat, or light. But engineering is our second stop, I’m just trying to get us into Corridor C so we can find a working intraship communication console.”
“I thought we’ve passed two?” Sarah said.
“No power,” Aimi remarked, still scanning the darkened hallway to their front through the Kanabo’s scope. “Whomever designed this ship’s subroutines should have their legs broken then left out on the plains for predators.”
“Charming,” Sarah observed lowly, drawing a poisoned look from the Spartan woman. Marcus hated that he found himself agreeing with Aimi’s sentiment more than Sarah’s. He looked and saw that their gaggle had closed up slightly.
“People have to keep up, Sarah,” Marcus said lowly. “This isn’t a pleasure cruise anymore.”
Sarah’s lips compressed in a thin line.
“It’s not a death march, either,” she snapped. “These people…”
“If you two would like to have a lover’s quarrel, we can waste more time,” Senator Du interrupted heatedly. “While I find it quaint you can argue in the midst of this insanity, pardon me if I’m all out of patience for sentiment.”
Sarah turned to look at Du, then back at Marcus.
“Well, glad to see the Union of the Carnivore is showing cross sector solidarity,” she sneered. “Would you like me to just shoot Mrs. Konarski due to her broken leg, or were you taking bets to see if Mr. Schembek has a heart attack first? Oh wait, I know, you’re waiting to see if Konarski has a bone shard that gives her a heart…”
“Are you done?” Marcus asked flatly. Sarah’s mouth opened in shock, then she closed it. Giving him a glare that would have melted deuranium, she turned away without another word. Marcus watched her go, then turned back forward and started walking.
“I get the feeling you’re going to deeply regret that later,” Senator Du said after a moment.
“If I am at a point to be sorry, it will mean I’ve done my damn job,” Marcus responded. “She’s just trying to do hers, I get that—but I’m not going to get us all killed trying to be nice.”
Marcus saw Senator Du give him a speculative look.
“You know, I think I might need to tell my staff to update their information on you, Mr. Martin.”
Oh the irony of that statement given who is walking in front of us, Marcus thought as Aimi reached the next passageway hatch to Corridor C.
“Betrayal changes a person, Senator,” Marcus replied coolly. “Nearly dying because some people espouse honorable principles yet betray oaths does as well.”
Du gave a slight grimace.
“A lion does not make deals with lambs,” Du replied.
“So tell me, what does a lion do when confronted with freakin’ lizards?” Marcus snapped as Aimi turned back towards them, her body language indicating that they had finally found a hatch which did not open into an unsafe section of Corridor C. Not waiting for the Senator to answer, Marcus walked up to the hatch’s control panel.
“Shouldn’t you…” Aimi had time to say before Marcus quickly entered his code and hit the button to open the door.
“Only the crew has access to Corridor C,” Marcus said, then stepped into the open hatch.
There were three things that saved Marcus’s life. One, the din of weapons fire that the closed hatch had concealed also served to disguise the sound of it opening. Two, the alien standing on the other side of the hatch had been in the process of contributing to said weapons fire and thus was fixated on its target. Last but not least, the fact he was holding a flechette gun, a.k.a. the ultimate point and squeeze weapons system whether one was nearly pissing his pants in fear or not.
In a move that was pure reflex, Marcus fired from the hip while using his toes to press down on the magnetic shoes’ friction release. The Pata’s recoil forced Marcus backwards while the cloud of flechettes blasted through the lizard in front of him. The metal rods continued on to decapitate another lizard kneeling behind an overturned table five meters away. As the bulkhead behind him stopped his movement, Marcus noted that both reptiles and their blood fell to the deck beneath them.
Corridor C has gravity and air circulation, he had time to think, right before a storm of fire came spitting through the hatch where he had been. There were screams and exclamations to his left as he quickly reengaged the magnetic shoes and stepped to his right. Looking into Corridor C back towards the bow, he saw another lizard starting to turn towards him, bringing up a weapon before the Kabano cracked next to his head and negated that threat. Springing back forward in a crouch, Marcus placed his back to the bulkhead on the hatch’s right, noting that Senator Du moved smoothly to the opposite side. The Kabano cracked again, Aimi’s cursing and shoulder roll forward to evade counterfire telling Marcus she had missed.
This would be one of those times comms was helpful, he thought angrily. There was no way he knew what was on the other side of the hatch other than someone had been in a firefight with the gaggle of aliens. Reaching into his satchel, he pulled out a small, shiny object the size and shape of a billiards ball.
“Dazzler out!” he shouted, then tossed the sphere around the corner. It hit with a metallic clink, followed a moment later by several intense strobes of light that elicited several decidedly angry sounds and a storm of projectiles from the other side of the hatch. Unlike his silver sphere, the ones that came back through the hatch exploded on the far bulkhead in a series of bright flashes, acrid smoke and, worst of all, slivers of spall that went singing down the corridor in all direction. The Spartan beside Senator Du grunted then, looking down at his reddening chest in surprise, slumped forward, and there was a scream from down the hallway.
The storm of fire suddenly stopped as there was a rising crescendo of flechette guns, rail rifles, and energy pistols on the far side of the hatch. Going prone, Marcus leaned his upper body briefly around the hatch just in time to see a last alien decapitated by a Kanabo slug. There was a long silence, and after about thirty seconds of no movement, it was apparent there were no more aliens in the next compartment.
“Sidney Goodwin!” Marcus shouted from the hallway.
“Cosmo Duff!” came a shocked response. “Boss is that you?”
“It ain’t Santa Claus!” Marcus shouted back, drawing a nervous laugh. “Coming in!”
Ten minutes later, the ragged band with Marcus had shuffled into what had been the Corridor C “aviary.” Designed as a space to allow crewmembers to forget they were on a giant can in the middle of space, the compartment’s domelike shape was intended to facilitate the holographic projection of a generic planetary scene. Completing the production was the movement and sounds of various bird species selected at random from the Confederation’s numerous worlds. In its original state, the illusion had been completed by the presence of faux foliage over a couple of slight rises, picnic tables, and a small refreshment stand complete with an ice cream machine.
Much like the rest of the ship, the room’s current state was a stark rendering of its previous opulence. What was left of the refreshment stand lay burning in the middle, with three corpses inside well past being unrecognizable. Divots and scorch marks made the greenery look like a scene prop from a 20th century warfare holovid, while the sound system played a staccato confusion of bird calls in a constant loop. The acrid smell of smoke, smoldering artificial turf, and the usual offal that came from violent death still managed to enter his sinuses despite the valiant efforts of the air circulation fans. As Marcus listened to the report from the deputy squad leader whose life he had just saved, he found himself almost wishing he was back in Corridor B where the power wasn’t working.
“Bastards blew in the door from the starboard side,” Jin-su Hwang said, his voice still raw from having been screaming the last ten minutes. A full head taller than Marcus, Hwang’s build reflected the hours of Tae Kwan Do instructing he had done as a former Marine. Marcus noted that the man’s hands were shaking as he gestured towards the open hatchway. Marcus noted that the explosives the aliens had used appeared to have had a cutting effect rather than a raw, uncontrolled blast.
“We were heading aft when it happened, had just enough time to turn and start fighting. There were about twenty to start with, and I’m not sure they were expecting trouble because we got several right off the bat. Then they shot something through that door…”
Hwang’s voice trailed off as he looked toward the burning refreshment stand.
“Whatever it was, it wasn’t just the explosion but the flash. Next thing I know, they’re in the compartment, and it’s all assholes and elbows after that. Marina,” Hwang said, referring to the original squad leader as he gestured towards a group of alien and human bodies to their left, “died over there. They’re so fast.”
Marcus winced sympathetically.
“I know. We’re all that’s left from Ballroom A, and I don’t think there’d be this many of us if not for the Spartans,” Marcus replied grimly. “Have you been able to reach the bridge?”
“Haven’t had a chance to try. We passed Dragnita’s squad on our way up here. She had the Purser with her, they were headed towards the Nursery.”
Marcus’s eyes widened.
“There were injured at the Nursery. The Purser grabbed Lavinia, said they had to protect the children. Lavinia agreed.”
“Set up a perimeter. Hopefully this is the only breach they’ve got into Corridor C so far, or we’re well and truly fucked,” Marcus snapped. “Get with Quentin, cross level what ammo you’ve got. I’m going to try that damn communicator and see if I can get a hold of the bridge.”
With that, Marcus moved off towards the console. He was almost there when Sarah caught up with him.
“What is your plan, Marcus?” she asked wearily. “We’ve got people who aren’t…”
“Sarah, enough,” Marcus seethed. “Enough.”
Sarah recoiled as if he had struck her.
“What in the hell is your problem, Marcus?!” she shouted, causing several people to look in their direction. Marcus ignored her, reaching towards his inside suit pocket in order to fish out a comms headphone. It was only at that point that he realized the entire left side of his suit was a ruin of tears and missing cloth. Sarah, following his hand motion, gasped in shock.
“You want to know what my problem is, Sarah?” he asked lowly. “My problem is that apparently I’m the only person aboard this fucking ship who realizes that all these pleasantries and customs you people want to keep observing don’t mean shit if the aliens blow our engine room into space.”
Sounding a little too scared shitless for comfort, he admonished himself, pausing to get his emotions back in check.
“So, no, I do not care that some septuagenarian whose sole importance in life is that she happened to get knocked up by a billionaire is about to have a heart attack,” Marcus continued, his tone slightly calmer. “Indeed, if I were a decent human being I’d walk back there and put two in her head myself, as that would be preferable to leaving her behind for some aliens to snack on.”
Sarah’s expression went from shock and dismay at his obvious near injury to outright horror.
“What about me, Marcus? Would you shoot me if I chose to stay with her? Or would you figure that was my own dumb decision and I deserved whatever happened to me?”
This would be why I wanted to plug in a headset rather than use the speakers, he thought darkly. Because the last thing I want is to revisit this conversation after getting in touch with Lorraine.
“Maybe you should ask yourself what you think the answer to that question is, Sarah,” Marcus replied sadly. “Let me know what conclusion you come to if I save all of us.” With that, he turned to the communications console. Pressing the buttons to bring it to life, Marcus said a little prayer that the thing still worked. As if to prove some deity in the universe at large was still accepting calls, the flat screen came on. Swiftly entering his override code, Marcus patched through to the bridge.
“Captain, I have made contact with Mr. Martin,” Ms. O’Barr reported from her position.
Abraham was astounded at the woman’s calm given their present situation. While there had been no sounds of combat for the last twenty minutes, no one present was under any illusions that would last.
Apparently Mr. Martin is more resourceful than I gave him credit for, Abraham thought. That and his people are far more desperate.
The aliens initially moving towards the bridge had been checked roughly twenty meters aft. The method of “checking” had been for one of the security squad leaders to blow a hole in the Titanic’s deck with what had seemed like an extraordinary amount of explosives. What the poor woman had not known was that the compartment below had been filled with vacuum, meaning that the emergency doors just outside of his day cabin had dropped unexpectedly behind her. Neither death from asphyxiation nor at the hands of twenty aliens one had just condemned to die sounded pleasant to Abraham, and he had studiously avoided asking O’Barr what had happened.
This is all my fault, Titanic’s master thought. All my goddamned fault.
“Marcus, we have no control over the comms system,” O’Barr said, then stopped to listen to Marcus’s retort. “Because the helm station is wrecked and we have no contact with the Secondary Bridge.”
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine Marcus’ response to O’Barr’s report. The woman calmly waited for his short, profane retort to end, then responded firmly.
“Because the helmsman’s head looks like it’s been through a log splitter, that’s why. Now, you want a situation report or you want to continue making wishes?”
Abraham was amazed at how little ire was in O’Barr’s last statement. If anything, the Deputy Security Officer sounded incredibly weary, as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders.
“Bad. The only good news is that the Dutchman protocols are trying to fix our orbit, but they weren’t designed to account for the deadweight bitch we’ve got attached,” Lorraine said. She took a moment to quickly recount what had occurred with the railguns.
“Sensors report that there’s, for want of a better word, chaotic energy pulses coming from the wreckage. Judging from how quickly the other cruisers moved away from us and the radiation alarms we’ve got in a couple of compartments portside, I think whatever we knocked loose might have been important. No matter—if someone doesn’t show up with a tug in about six hours this is all going to be moot.”
From An Unproven Concept