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The Saurian Opportunity

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“Terlain, get that bot up here!”

“Yes, sir,” Terlain called back, wondering why serving on a pirate ship sometimes felt an awful lot like joining the Confederate Alliance Navy. As a boy on a government run farm on an ambiguous world deep in corporate space all he ever wanted was to get off-world, but he was from a poor family so his only choices were to volunteer with the aforementioned military or to sign aboard an outbound vessel. Taking orders was never easy for him so he’d done the latter, having no idea that the Phalen’s Blade was a pirate ship until after they left orbit and by then it was too late to do anything about it, not that he would’ve if he could. He’d been fortunate that they were still using ancient bots, like the planter and harvest bots the Conglomerate provided their farms, and he was able to barter his maintenance skills to secure the position.

“Sonic blasters, energy lances, and heroic battles,” he mumbled to himself, thinking of the romanticized notions that had filled his head as a kid, “I should have known better.” The open circuit panel sparked in response to his latest probe, causing him to wince away as little dots of flesh on his arm singed. The squat bot rolled backwards on its treads squealing its dissatisfaction with Terlain’s technical skills. “If I can get your voice circuits back online, you can tell me where the short is and I can fix it,” he said, exasperated with its constant fidgeting. One of the truths he learned quickly was that everyone, not just the Conglomerate, held onto technology for as long as possible, because it was crazy expensive to replace; Captain Lanier Larson’s bot was about twenty years out of prime and parts were not easy to come by, but then, the only reason he was able to work with it at all was because of its age.

“Now roll yourself back over here,” he said, reaching for another tool. When the bot did not immediately comply he added, “You know that if you shock her the next time she touches you, you’re going out the airlock and I’ll probably be right behind you.” It was a bluff, but the limited logistic capabilities of this series bot could not discern that, not like the newer models. Besides, in the months since he’d signed on Terlain had become a fine harpooner—that’s what they called the gunners who operated the Magnetic Pulse Cannon—and had earned a degree of respect with the Captain and much of the crew.

The bot, affectionately called Fweep because of its continually malfunctioning voice circuits, contained the navigational routes, stolen security codes, and ring coordinates that Captain Larson had collected over the years. The chances of either of them being tossed out an airlock was slim, though far from impossible.

“Terlain! I hate hanging in space doing nothing, get that bot up here,” the Captain called from the upper companionway, her voice a mixture of annoyance and impatience. She’d named her ship the Phalen’s Blade, for the Confederation Alliance admiral who secured the final succession of the Confederacy from Federation Alliance rule; Tam Phalen was considered the perfect rebel—disciplined, focused, and driven. Lanier Larson strove to follow his example and in short order Terlain had found that her bark was in no way worse than her bite, in fact, one generally preceded the other.

“Almost there,” he called back, wincing in anticipation of the string of curses that would soon fall his way. To his surprise, his words were met with silence…at first, then came the sound of heavy boots clumping down the companionway.

“Terlain!”

What was coming was worse than the Captain’s curses.

Rajt Nevel served as Captain Larson’s second in command, and where she could be civil, even cordial on occasion, Nevel was just plain barbaric. He hated bots, probably because he couldn’t hurt or humiliate them, and was most likely responsible for Fweep’s current state of disrepair.

“I haven’t been able to find the short yet, Nevel,” Terlain said hurriedly, “I’m trying to repair his voice circuits so he can run an internal scan and tell me what’s wrong.”

“I don’t care,” the bulky man said stepping into the frame of the modified cargo hold that served as a ramshackle workshop. Nevel stood nearly a meter and a half tall, an albino with hard lined features and scars crisscrossing the right side of his face that he claimed to have gotten in battle with a group of Saurian warriors. Aboard ship, he led the boarding team dubbed Suicide Squad because of their rate of turnover. Those not on his boarding crews didn’t seemed to mind the turnover rate though; when people didn’t come back from raids it simply meant more digits for everyone else.

Terlain stepped back from the bot, putting his hands in the air as if surrendering to the big man. “Take him then just don’t touch him, and let’s hope he doesn’t short out the navigational computer when you plug him in.”

Nevel growled.

“If you give me ten minutes I can rig a portable collar that’ll ground him to the ship. It won’t fix the problem, but it’ll keep things intact until I can figure out what’s causing this anomalous discharge.”

“You have five.”

Terlain rubbed the end of his nose. “Okay, but then you’ll have to help me to fit the old junction harness with conducting rods,” he said, pointing to the web of metal links on the makeshift workbench.

The first officer growled again. “You’re down to nine minutes.”

As the man turned and stomped back toward the cockpit, Terlain let out the smile he was holding back. “He has no problems hacking living flesh with an energy lance, but ask him to get lubricant on his hands and he gets squeamish,” he said to Fweep, full well knowing that the bot had no concept of irony. He often spoke to the bot the way people talked to their pets, it didn’t really matter if he understood.

Eight minutes later he had the harness in place and was trailing the bot into the cockpit.

“Just in time,” Nevel called from his honorary position at tactics. During a real battle, either Deitrick or Piatt would run tactics and Nevel would be in the hold with the rest of his squad, waiting for a boarding opportunity.

Captain Larson stared open-mouthed at the outfitted bot, and then closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “Maybe it’s time I upgraded,” she said, glancing up at Terlain, who only smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Finally, she shook her head and turned away. “Hook it up, I want to get going.”

Fweep rolled into the small cradle.

Terlain moved in behind and attached the modified harness to the metal grated floor, grounding the bot, while Fweep extended an ancillary link that plugged into the navigation computer. When the lights on the socket began blinking, he announced, “Okay, he’s all set.”

The Captain spun around. “Finally,” she said, shaking her head again as she gazed at the bot. “It looks like there’s a giant metal arachnid eating its head,” she said, turning towards Terlain.

“It was the best I could come up with in nine minutes,” he responded with a shrug, resisting an urge to glance at Nevel.

“I suppose it will have to do for now,” she replied, spinning back around. “I need a non-stop route to Junction 43081.” The bot would normally acknowledge the command with a “yes, sir,” but with its voice circuits still out, it only managed a warble that sounded a little like turning on a disposal unit.

Captain Larson closed her eyes and sighed; no one else ventured a comment. “Congratulations Terlain, you managed to keep your job for another day,” she said after the course was plotted; that was the closest she ever came to offering praise. “Get yourself cleaned up and report to the main hold, our next opportunity is going to require some debriefing.”

Her tone raised the hair on the back of his neck, and his stomach churned over, like he’d stepped on a malfunctioning gravity plate. As if to confirm this feeling, Nevel laughed out loud, “And don’t be late this time,” he added, relishing any opportunity to throw around his authority.

Terlain turned and walked out of the cockpit, listening to the echo of his footfalls as he felt the ship accelerate through the deck plates.

*          *          *

“Okay,” Captain Larson said, watching the last of the crew squeeze into the hold. She stood on a small crate to get above those standing around with no place to sit down. “As you all know we ran into Tribunal forces at our last opportunity and we’re all lucky not to be serving on a penal asteroid in some ambiguous sector right now. I won’t get burned twice, the Phalen’s Blade is too valuable to me to risk in dangerous space, and right now, this is dangerous space.”

Terlain tried to imagine somewhere that wouldn’t be dangerous space for a crew of pirates, but for all the dreaming he did as a kid, his imagination wasn’t that good.

“Those of you who have kept up on galactic affairs know that the Saurians have been admitted into the Trading Guilds, which means that any Saurian vessels in Tribunal space have the same rules and regulations as all other trading vessels.” That meant that while the Saurians now get unrestricted access to trade at all Freespace Plazas, government colonies, and neutral planets, they can’t have or maintain any weapon systems on their ships and must submit their ships and cargo to random inspections. “So now we’re all on equal footing.” A cold grin touched her features. “Let’s all wish the bureaucrats continued good health and poor judgment,” she finished, her smile broadening.

A roar of nervous laughter erupted from the crowded hold; it died off quickly and she continued. “Right now we’re heading for sector 55414 to run the border between the Saurian Empire and the Tribunal systems. While I’m sure they’ll eventually try to cheat the system and arm themselves in ways that can’t be easily scanned, right now they need to make a show of good faith and for us that means opportunity.”

A cheerful murmur filled the hold. While his companions speculated about their next payout, Terlain decided that he was happy with the lesser share of profits he received for being a gunner. Even as a harpooner working with one of the two MPC’s, he received less than half of the bounty afforded to Nevel’s suicide squad. Of course, he had better than a fifty percent chance of surviving the opportunity. If half of what he had heard about the Saurians were true, enough of the squad wouldn’t be coming back that he’d be getting a larger cut anyhow.

“From what I know of the Saurians and their reasons for joining the Trading Guild,” she continued, once the chatter quieted, “I can almost guarantee that their cargo will consist entirely of weaponry and, if we’re lucky, diagrams of some of their shipboard weapon and shield systems. I don’t have to tell any of you what some of the smaller sector governments would be willing to pay for such information…and once we sell to them, their enemies will pay even more to even up the odds.”

A whooping cheer erupted from the hold as much of the crew began to calculate their share of digits, and the trade rate they would get on their home-worlds. Terlain was excited by the prospect himself, but he wouldn’t start to count something he didn’t yet have, and he still had that bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Now for the bad news,” the Captain began; Terlain held his breath in anticipation of the kick in the stomach that he knew was coming, “Saurians are only about a meter tall, so it’s safe to assume that their corridors are going to be much tighter than ours. With that in mind, some of you are going to need to be reassigned. We’re going to lose more than half of our boarding team due to size restraints,” Terlain noted that she hadn’t used either the word suicide or squad, “and those that have been bumped because of their size are going to have to be replaced by more lean and compact individuals. With that in mind, I’m going to lead the boarding team and Nevel is going to take over ship operations.”

That statement was at first received by laughter, but as they realized that she was serious, those giggles turned to gasps. Terlain glanced over at Nevel and saw the large albino grinning at him.

It was not a friendly grin.

“This is how it’s going to work, forgive me if this seems like a militaristic approach, but there’s really no other choice. The members of the boarding team that have been bumped have already been reassigned and they’ll need to be trained, so we’ll start ambush exercises on the second shift rotation today. Deegan, Igle, Macrae, Oehm-Oyer, Pax, and Terlain…you are now a part of the boarding team. Congratulations.” Captain Larson’s tone didn’t come off as congratulatory.

A couple of his crew mates offered their own somber congratulations and pat Terlain on the back; he idly wondered if it was their way of saying goodbye. Looking around, the others that Captain Larson had named were all receiving the same attention, and their faces looked as grim as his felt.

“I thank none of you for arguing,” she shouted over the din of voices, “Nevel and I had a bet that one or more of you would be trying to breathe in the vacuum of space after this debriefing.” That met with a round of genuine laughter as Nevel handed over the digits with an angry grimace.

Not for the first time, Terlain wondered what the penalty for arguing was aboard a military vessel. Whatever it was, he decided, it probably had nothing to do with trying to breathe in the vacuum of space.

*          *          *

“All right,” Nevel said out of the corner of his mouth, “if you…people want to stay alive, there’s a few things you all need to know before we begin.”

Terlain wondered how difficult it was for the big albino to refer to the group as people rather than dregs, while lined up with the other recruits for this less than basic training. It bothered him that Captain Larson stood in the line with them, more so because Nevel’s authority felt more complete than it should in her presence than any fear for her safety. Taking a moment to glance at the others, he noted that other than Oehm-Oyer—the other MPC gunner—he had only passing acquaintances with all of them.

“I assume none of you has ever seen a Saurian before,” Nevel continued, stepping in front of Terlain.

Even if any of them had seen a Saurian, they all knew better than to correct that assumption.

Nevel released a long sigh, shaking his head slightly, then continued. “Saurians are little red lizards. They’re scaly, ugly, and they stink. I can’t even imagine what the inside of their ship must smell like; I’m just glad that I don’t have to be the one to find out first hand. Even if any of you survive, it’ll probably take a year to wash off that smell…”

“Enough Nevel,” Captain Larson snapped, “we don’t need this speculation, just stick to the information that we do need.”

A couple of them grinned at the way she deflated the blowhard, but Terlain knew better, keeping his eyes forward and his expression neutral.

“You got it,” he said, brandishing that unfriendly grin and barely suppressing a snarl. “Saurians stand about a meter tall, they all have slender bodies with two arms, two legs, and most of them have a tail of some length. Except for their chest and belly, middle front torso, to be physiologically correct,” he corrected, glancing towards the Captain; she frowned back, and he continued, “they are covered with small, pliable scales. The middle front torso has larger, lighter colored scales that almost act as body armor. They have three adroit fingers and a thumb, all of which end in short, but sharp, talons, and they have similar opposable digits on their feet that also end in talons.”

“Are they nimble enough to bring more than one set of talons to bear when they attack?” Oehm-Oyer asked. Hailing from the Frontier Territories, Terlain guessed that Oehm-Oyer might be the best combatant of this group and so decided that he would find a way to stick close to him.

“Good question,” Nevel said, uncharacteristically offering praise. “The one’s with tails are very well balanced and can, in certain circumstance, bring more than one set of talons to bear in battle, but more importantly, they can attack with either hands or feet, and are known to make disabling or crippling attacks at the legs or hips.”

A couple of them unconsciously covered their groins.

“And you can’t forget about their teeth,” Nevel continued, “razor sharp and ravenous, they can take a finger or a hand quickly, and you don’t want to feel the power of their jaws locked onto any body part while they rip at you with all four claws, but none of you are going to let them get close enough for that to happen. We’re going to talk about their eyes, it’s our one advantage.”

“How do you mean?” Deegan asked.

Nevel strode to him and shouted into his face, “If you’d care to let me continue we might be able to keep some of you alive!” Deegan had been the ship's mechanical engineer before being thrust onto this boarding team, although Terlain didn’t know him well, he could tell by the way that the man shrank back that he was well out of his depth. After pausing long enough to make everyone uncomfortable, the big albino began pacing back and forth along the line and continued. “The lizards have bulbous eyes on either side of their head, giving them about three hundred degrees of vision.”

“How does that give us an advantage?” Oehm-Oyer interrupted.

“It’s not what they can see, but what they can’t see that gives us the advantage,” Nevel growled.

“What can’t they see,” Captain Larson asked, purposely drawing his attention.

Nevel looked as if he were going to shout again, but seemed to think better of it and slowly let the excess air out of his lungs. “Like us, they can’t see directly behind,” Nevel continued, his face a light shade of red. “They only lose about fifty degrees there compared to our one-hundred sixty or so, so it’s not much, but they also can’t see directly in front, a little less than ten degrees, but it can be enough to surprise them. They always approach one another from the right or left, they’re not used to anyone approaching them from the front, as is perfectly natural for us. On the plus side, that means that none of you will need any special stealth training, not that we have time for it anyway. Their peripheral vision works about the same as ours, so even though they’re blind for only ten degrees, it’s a matter of them having to notice you and make the effort to look in order to realize that there’s an enemy afoot, so by just being us, we should have the element of surprise in many instances.”

“So wherever possible,” Oehm-Oyer interrupted, “we don’t want to face them in hand-to-hand combat; I assume we’ll be carrying sonic blasters and energy lances, what will they be carrying?”

Nevel’s face started to turn red again, but a glance at the Captain was enough to at least keep him from shouting. “I was just about to get to that,” he said, his voice a low growl. “Saurians use chemically propelled weapons that fire at an extremely fast rate. Unlike sonic blasters that strike with a concussive force and settings that can be adjusted for mercy sake,” those last two words rolled off his tongue with something that resembled disgust, “Saurian weapons fire razor sharp fragments of metal that will chew up your flesh and leave you bloody with a pain the likes of which you have never experienced, if you live at all.”

If everyone in that room had not already been terrified, they were now.

“Oh yeah, I almost forgot,” Nevel added, a cool grin playing on his lips. “Those razor sharp fragments are also barbed, making them extremely difficult and painful to remove, so do yourselves a favor and don’t get shot.”

He allowed them all to absorb that while he went to one of the weapons lockers and pulled out a sonic blaster and energy lance. Even Captain Larson seemed uncomfortable, shifting her weight from side to side as she awaited her first mate’s return. Terlain had the distinct impression that the bulky man was savoring their fear, and he hated him for it.

When he returned, he set the energy lance on a table and held up the sonic blaster. “These will be preset to fire a high yield, narrow beam on the strongest setting. For you, that means that one shot will kill with authority, but you’ll have to be careful not to aim it at the ship’s hull because it will breach and then you really will have an opportunity to breath in a vacuum.”

“Why such a high yield,” the Captain asked.

“I intend to train you all to aim for the body, it’s the easiest target to hit and with those thick scales on their bellies, you’ll need that strength.”

“How many shots will we get using that setting?” Oehm-Oyer asked.

“Fifteen. Maybe. It depends on the strength of the energy pack, these aren’t exactly state of the art units,” Nevel replied, glancing toward Captain Larson; she didn’t bother with a response. It was easy to see that this was an ongoing point of contention between them. “Because they’re expensive and if you die we’ll likely lose whatever you’re carrying, you each will only have one sonic blaster with one power pack, having to buy more cuts into everyone’s profits and we’re all much too greedy on this ship to allow for that, so choose your shots carefully.”

He stepped over to the table and set the sonic blaster down, picking up the energy lance in the same motion. Grasping the metallic hilt, he ignited the weapon, a field of shimmering golden energies flowing over the short, rapier thin blade. “Each of you will have one of these, if you have to use it you’re probably gonna to die. Since we have to estimate the size of their corridors, I don’t know if you all will be walking with a slouch or crawling, but I do know that these don’t work well in a tight area, so if you get into a situation where you have to use it, your best bet is to close your eyes and swing it wildly from side to side.”

That prompted strange looks and some giggles, but the big albino appeared stoic. “I’m serious, if you have to use one of these things the only thing that’s going to save you is luck, if you try to get fancy the lizards are going to eat you alive, possibly literally.”

He paused, giving his words a moment to sink in, and then continued. “Now we’re going to work on deployment, formations, and retrieval, and then we’ll take some target practice and call it a day.”

Terlain was the last in line and glanced back at the empty hold as they all followed Nevel to the airlocks, feeling like he was leaving something of himself behind. As a boy he’d dreamed of fighting with sonic blasters and energy lances, but the imaginary foes he’d faced didn’t bleed, they didn’t have lives or families or hopes or dreams, and they absolutely didn’t fire barbaric weapons that ground flesh into something that looked like it came from a butchery.

Nevel had called the Saurians lizards, but Terlain couldn’t help but wonder if they would die like men.

*          *          *

As tired as he was from the drills and training, Terlain didn’t sleep very well that night or those that followed. Fatigue drove him to the small bunk room he shared with two others, both of whom were scheduled on opposite shifts so that not more than one of them would need the bunk at a time, but he would lay there awake for hours, regardless of his physical and mental exhaustion.

Although poor, he’d been born to parents who believed in hard work and doing the right thing, but the questions of moral right and wrong were easy to avoid when operating the MPC. His job was to fire the magnetic grappler in the general vicinity of the target craft then, using the on-board thrusters, guide it to the hull and get a solid lock. Between the heads-up display and the control board, it was like running a remote controlled bot back home. The trailing line could only reach out about fifty kilometers, so he had to choose his shot carefully, but that added difficulty only made it more exciting, almost like a game. Once the grappler was attached, he’d flip a switch and send a magnetic pulse through the trailing wire that would disrupt the targets power systems and overload the engines to the point of automatic shutdown. He’d never before considered the people on the ships, and the fear they must have felt at having their power systems shut down out in space.

It was the victims of the Phalen’s Blade is that kept him awake when his body craved sleep.

With bags under his eyes and a dull ache in his arms and legs, he stared at the gray ceiling in the dark of that small room. They’d been on patrol in sector 55414 for three days, scanning for Tribunal Forces while weaving between the borders of Freespace and the Saurian Empire, seeking an opportunity.  He knew that when they weren’t busy training, Captain Larson was in the cockpit, and he couldn’t help but wonder how much of the fatigue he suffered was affecting her. She had struggled as much as any of them in learning the boarding tactics and running the combat drills, but she never questioned Nevel when he made them repeat drills or shouted curses at their many mistakes.

Thinking about that cruel albino brought gave way to thoughts of the last few days of training. He proved to be one of the best marksmen of the new recruits, behind only the Captain and Oehm-Oyer, and was given his own mini-squad to command. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he needed to concentrate on somehow keeping himself alive during this mess, now he had two other people to worry about.

One of them was a regular on the Suicide Squad named Meige. She was from the same planet as Terlain, and had lived and worked in a poor industrial community, though she’d lived half a world away and spoke broken bandy in accent that reminded him of the tradesmen that would come around during the holidays. Meige had spent four months on the suicide squad, but as impressive as that sounded, it only encompassed three battles. Captain Larson took few with the Phalen’s Blade and chose her targets carefully, so between finding someplace to unload the contraband they’d accumulate and evading Tribunal forces, they were lucky to hit more than one opportunity a month. The other member of his mini-squad was Deegan, the mechanical engineer. He hailed from somewhere in the Federation Alliance and Terlain was pretty sure that the sector government was hunting him, likely for some white collar crime. In addition to being frightened and timid, Deegan was a reminder that not everyone had boarded a ship to escape the gravitational confines of a planet with the romanticized intention of exploring the galaxy.

For the past two days, the three of them trained together when they weren’t working on deployment or recovery exercises as a group. In that time, he’d learned two very important lessons. First, Meige resented not being chosen squad leader and had every intention of taking the position for herself. The other was that Deegan might have been a good mechanical engineer, but he was next to useless as a fighter. He couldn’t help but wonder if Captain Larson or Nevel ever worried about the people in their crew, and if they did, how they ever managed to get any sleep. Then again, they’d both been pirates for a long time, perhaps at some point they just stopped caring. When Terlain had been told that he’d signed aboard a pirate ship, it turned from a job into an adventure and until now that perception had not much changed.

Between the drills and discipline, Terlain wondered if he might not have been better off joining the Confederate Alliance Navy, at least then he wouldn’t be poorly trained or armed heading into a fight with Saurians. He remembered hearing how hard it was to get out of the Confederate Alliance Navy once you got in, and he idly wondered how difficult it would be to get off the Phalen’s Blade.

It was that last thought that preceded sleep…and one of those cruel galactic coincidences that immediately awakened him from the first restful sleep he’d had in days.

“Battle-stations!” Nevel’s voice burst from the console in Terlain’s bunk room.

Never having had the misfortune of being asleep when the ship had come upon an opportunity, sleep clouded his mind as he pushed himself up and mechanically started toward companionway leading to the port-side MFP. The cross corridor leading to the stairs was alive with crewman practically scrambling over one another to get to their positions. It wasn’t until he reached the base of the stairs that his sleep deprived brain caught up with the situation and he realized he was going the wrong way.

Making his way against the flow of crewmen, he finally stumbled into the cargo-bay-turned-training-area and nearly ran into Oehm-Oyer. The Frontiersman was already in the minimal battle dress that they’d been afforded, complete with holstered sonic blaster and sheathed energy lance.

“Hurry up,” he said, pushing his way past. “Larson’s already at the airlock preparing the docking tube.”

“Wha-” was all Terlain could manage. Sure he’d gone the wrong way at first, but Nevel had only just called for battle-stations, how could they already be at the docking tubes? Oehm-Oyer didn’t wait around, he was already moving quickly down the corridor and out of sight.

Terlain shook his head, trying to clear the pain at the base of his skull. If anything, the throbbing grew worse. Moving quickly to the weapons locker, he pulled it open and noted that his was the only equipment remaining inside. Shaking away his surprise, he began suiting up, wondering if he’d fallen asleep again after the Nevel’s call.

The ship shook beneath him and the lights dimmed.

“Oh-no!” he cried, recognizing the power drain caused by the MPC. “It can’t have been fired, not yet!”

As if to confirm his fears, The Captain’s voice burst from the console in the main hold, “Terlain! You better be on your way to the airlock!”

After zipping up the light mail coat that served as body armor, Terlain grabbed his helmet and bolted for the lower forward companionway, carrying the girdle that held his sonic blaster in its holster and his energy lance in its sheath. On the way to the airlock he managed to put his helmet on and don and buckle the girdle, but just barely. There were still plenty straps that needed tightening when he finally arrived.

“Where have you been?” Captain Larson shouted, as he ran up to the small group standing at the airlock. Before he could answer, she continued in that same furious tone. “I don’t care, you just cost yourself twenty percent of your cut! Oehm-Oyer, make sure he’s ready, the docking tube is extending now. Meige, you take command of the squad.”

“You really messed up this time,” Oehm-Oyer mumbled as he secured the energy lance to his leg and started adjusting the secured buckles at the bottom edge of the mail coat.

“Tell me about it,” Terlain whispered back, pulling the chinstrap tight and adjusting the goggles over his eyes.

“Ready here,” Oehm-Oyer called, moving back to the two men in his squad.

“Let’s go,” the Captain ordered, stepping into the docking tube.

Terlain joined his squad, not quite able to bring himself to meet their gazes. “Sorry,” he whispered, “I don’t know what happened.”

“Don’t worry about that now,” Meige responded. Her tone surprised him, he hadn’t expected sympathy from her, maybe from Deegan, but not her. “What you need to do now is concentrate on the task at hand. I know better than to take command in this situation, we drilled under your leadership and I’m not about to change that and have both of your deaths on my conscious, so regardless of what Larson said, you’re still in command.”

“It’s our turn,” Deegan mumbled, his voice trembling.

Terlain glanced at Meige then at Deegan. She was right, he needed to focus and they needed to work as a team the way they practiced; if he worried about being late, he’d get them all killed. “Okay,” he managed, his voice cracking. “Just like we practiced it, into the tube.”

Meige tuned one corner of her mouth up in a smile and stepped inside, Terlain followed, and he heard Deegan step in from behind. The airlock opposite the one they just left was much smaller, and the corridor beyond looked like a maintenance tube.

“This is gonna to be tight,” Terlain muttered.

“It won’t so much be the squeeze,” Meige said, poking her head into the Saurian ship, “as the smell.”

“Ugh, I guess Nevel knew what he was talking about, huh?” Terlain managed, trying not to breathe through his nose. It didn’t help, and now he could taste the musky stench which was worse.

“Yeah, every once in a while he gets lucky,” Meige said with a chuckle and disappearing into the alien ship. He followed her in; the arched corridor was a little more than a meter high and nearly perfectly square. The lighting through his goggles put an orange haze over everything, which was significantly different from the green haze he was used to, and a little off putting. He wondered what the lighting might look like to the naked eye, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort to find out.

Moving as quickly as they could, they began bear-crawling; the corridors were too small for them to attempt the squat-walk that Nevel had them practice, but not so small that they were forced to crawl on their hands and knees. A bear-crawl was going to make it difficult to change directions or draw their weapons, but a full on crawl would have been so much slower, it would take them forever to get anywhere.

His squad passed two open corridors that had already been marked by other teams and still hadn’t seen a single Saurian when the sounds of sonic blaster fire echoed back to them.

“This is amazing,” Deegan called from behind, after they had gone about twenty meters,” from an engineering standpoint.” Both Meige and Terlain paused, turning back to the engineer who was squatting next to one of the arched bulkheads that lined the corridor.

“What are you talking about?” Meige asked, resting back on her knees.

“I can’t be sure,” Deegan said, studying the framework of archway, “and I’d have to inspect a whole lot more of the ship to be certain, but I think that the entire ship is based on a honeycomb design.”

“A what?” Meige and Terlain asked simultaneously.

“The hull appears to have been designed so that as sections are damaged they can be sealed off and their loss would have little effect on the operation of the rest of the ship. I wouldn’t be surprised to find all the critical power systems at the center of the vessel.”

Meige shuffled back towards the engineer, looking past Terlain. “So you’re saying that these damn lizards can section us off and trap us?”

A look of horror crossed Deegan’s features. “I-I didn’t think about that.”

“If they were gonna do that, don’t you think they’d have done it already,” Terlain put in, trying to allay the engineers fears, at least a little. “Let’s keep going and be ready to draw your weapons, just in case.”

“A damn shame we can’t do that squat-walk and keep them drawn,” Meige offered.

“I agree,” Terlain conceded, “but the longer it takes us to get around the longer we’ll have to be in this stink.”

Meige started forward with a laugh, snap-rolling to the side and quickly drawing her sonic blaster when a wall to their right slid open.

Terlain screamed and scuttled backwards, staring wide-eyed at two Saurians.

The two lizard creatures seemed surprised by their presence, hesitating as they drew their weapons from a sling off their narrow shoulders. Before either of them could raise their weapons, Meige fired twice, striking both in the chest. A horrid screech of agony sounded above the sonic whine, as the force of impact threw both Saurians backwards, turning their torsos to paste in midair.

“That was a door?” Deegan said, crawling forward quickly and running his fingers over the smooth surface. He hadn’t yet seen what the sonic blasters had done to the Saurians; Terlain couldn’t tear his gaze from the pulverized remains.

Meige looked like she was going to be ill; she sat on her knees glancing back and forth between the sonic blaster and the carnage it wrought.

“C’mon, soldier,” Terlain managed, trying to be the good leader, “you’ve seen death before, we gotta keep moving.”

“No I haven’t,” Meige replied, staring into corridor. “We normally have these set to stun, Nevel forbids us from killing, unless there’s no other choice.”

Terlain stared at her, speechless.

“Th-then how come Nevel’s squad always loses so many,” Deegan managed, after glancing at the horror the sonic blaster wrought.

“We attack with stun settings, but they don’t necessarily defend with them,” was her matter-of-fact reply.

“So Nevel’s not the cold blooded murderer he pretends to be?” Terlain asked after a moment.

“If you believe his stories he is; I have no reason not to believe him.”

A rattling of weapons fire echoed back to them.

“That must be the lizard’s weapons,” Terlain offered, looking down at the sonic blaster in his hands. “Do you think we ought to go back?”

“And give Nevel the pleasure of tossing us out an airlock!” Meige responded, the sarcasm thick in her voice. “If we abandon the Captain here, we’re dead.”

“I don’t exactly want to go that way,” Terlain said, pointing in the direction of the weapon fire.

“Well two lizards already came at us from this way,” Meige offered, pointing into the splattered corridor.

“H-How about this way,” Deegan said, pressing the end of an apparent wall and watching it slide open to reveal a corridor beyond.

Terlain stared at him with his mouth hanging happen. “How did you do that?”

“It’s a simple pressure latch,” the engineer replied. “While it’s not very efficient for everyday use, it allows for a seal that’s kind of necessary for this honeycomb design to work.”

“I think he means, how did you know it was there?” Meige asked scooting towards them on her knees.

“Oh. It’s really obvious when you know what you’re looking for.” Deegan offered them a timid smile.

Terlain shrugged and looked over at Meige. “Yeah, obvious.” She smiled and they both shrugged. “Great, you lead the way then,” he said to Deegan, gesturing toward the opening.

“Uh, um…I don’t think that’s a good idea,” the engineer replied.

*          *          *

They’d only gone about ten meters when the corridor came to an end. “How do I know if there’s one of those sliding door thingys up here,”” Meige called back from her position in the lead.

“It’s a pressure plate,” he called up to her, “look for a slightly depressed oval that’s a little darker in coloration on your right, about a half a meter up.”

“Got it,” Meige called out after a moment.

Terlain heard the click of the latch being released and then everything was drowned out by the rattling sound of Saurian weapons fire.

Meige took what little cover she could against the wall and leveled her sonic blaster at the back of the lizard standing in front of her. The sonic blaster fired and the Saurian exploded forward, its arms forced out to its side as its torso disintegrated. She was still staring at the mutilated creature when a second Saurian swung its weapon around without so much as turning its head and started firing at her.

Terlain fell to the ground and curled up into a fetal position, covering his head as the weapon began to bark in his direction. He didn’t see Meige’s body convulse as the jagged projectiles began to shred her body or the blood spatter everywhere as her lifeless body slowly dropped to the floor, though he felt the warm spray on his arms and neck, and her weight fall across his torso. The feeling of metal shredding flesh he expected to feel never came, instead the rattling paused and he heard the whine of a sonic blaster, followed by a horrific splattering sound. While he wasn’t sure how many times two sounds were repeated as he laid there stricken by his own terror, they would haunt him for the rest of his life.

“Are you alive, Terlain?” a voice asked into the silence that finally prevailed.

The voice sounded remote but familiar. Movement above him prompted him to open his eyes, and he found himself looking up at Deegan.

“H-Have you been shot?” the engineer asked, a look of worry writ across his face.

“I…don’t…think so,” Terlain finally managed, managing a calm tone that he didn’t feel, “but I can’t seem to move.”

Deegan visibly gulped. “That’s because Meige is on top of you.”

“Well tell her to get off,” he replied, somehow maintaining that calm and feeling his shoulder falling asleep beneath him. He tried to roll off his left side, but he couldn’t manage the leverage.

“I c-can’t.” There was a pause. “Meige is, um, really dead.”

“Huh?” Terlain asked, ceasing his struggles. He looked up into Deegan’s face—in it he saw a new kind of horror.

“Nevel wasn’t kidding about the damage their weapons’ cause.”

“Get her off me,” Terlain nearly screamed, all semblance of calm gone. He had a dead body lying on top of him; dealing with the death of someone he was responsible for was tough enough, but to have that corpse pinning him down was more than his mind could bear. As he struggled, Deegan moved out of his line of sight, and after a very long moment he felt the dead weight shift and roll off him. Jumping up, Terlain smacked his head hard on the low ceiling. He was seeing stars, but the pain hadn’t yet register; he was staring down at Meige’s mangled corpse.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” he managed after a moment, finally feeling the pain explode into his skull from where he hit his head.

“N-No time for that now,” Deegan said, picking up Meige’s bloodied sonic blaster. “Those lizards were shooting at somebody, I-I took out the one, but someone else took out the other five; we need to go f-find that someone. Besides, I don’t want to be here anymore.”

The engineer looked terrified, but had somehow found the presence of mind to defend himself, while Terlain laid on the floor and covered his head. He’d been wrong about Deegan being useless in combat and he’d been wrong about Meige being willing to do anything to take his position as squad leader. If he got out of this, he promised himself that he’d reevaluate his life choices. “Good point,” he finally replied, finding that calm again. “As squad leader I suppose I should go first.”

“N-No arguments here.”

Avoiding even a glance at Meige’s body, Terlain stuck his head out into the junction and came face to face with the business end of a sonic blaster. He yelped and backed into Deegan before seeing the familiar face behind the muzzle.

A rattle of Saurian weapon fire echoed from somewhere else in the ship and Terlain felt himself sweating as he watched Oehm-Oyer quickly glance over his shoulder.

“I’m glad you’re still in one piece,” the frontiersman said, letting his arm with the sonic blaster drop to his side. The muzzle scraped on the metal floor. “We really screwed up this time, their hold was full of armed soldiers, we were trapped here and they were chewing us up.”

“Armed soldiers?” Terlain asked, “What about their cargo?”

“Larson thinks that them joining the Traders Guild was a ruse and that they were trying to use Freespace to transport soldiers across Imperial Boundaries.”

“S-So we got caught between the two warring empires?” Deegan asked from behind.

“That’s what she thinks, by the way, how are you holding up Deegan?”

“Better than Meige,” was the simple reply.

“Where’s Captain Larson,” Terlain asked, his mind spinning. He wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when they crossed the docking tube and entered the Saurian ship, but this certainly wasn’t it.

“She’s back there,” he nodded towards a corridor to their left, “around the corner with Igle and Macrae, and she’s been hit. We’re trying to find a way back to the ship, where does this corridor go?” he asked, inching forward to peer inside. “Hi Deegs,” he said with a smile; that smile abruptly vanished as he saw Meige’s mangled corpse.

“It goes back to that main corridor we came down,” Terlain responded, “about fifteen or so meters from the docking tube, how’s the Captain doing?”

“She took several rounds along her right side, mostly superficial, but bleeders. We bound her up pretty good; she’s still conscious, but in a lot of pain. Go back and get them, me and Deegs will hold up here and make sure there are no surprises when you bring them back.”

Without argument, Terlain moved past Oehm-Oyer and started down the corridor noticing the signs of battle that pocked the walls and ceiling. The metal projectiles littered the floor, forcing him to brush them aside as he moved; he couldn’t imagine how much it must hurt to have them tear into his flesh. He pushed down the emotions as an image of Meige’s body formed in his mind.

The Captain and her two crewmen were waiting right were Oehm-Oyer had said they were. “Come on,” Terlain said glancing at the bloody rags wrapped about Lanier’s arms and legs. “We’ve got a way back.”

“Good to see you again,” Captain Larson said between breaths. “If you can stay alive between here and the Phalen’s Blade, Nevel is going to owe me half of his pay.”

They’d placed a bet on his survival. He wasn’t sure if he should be honored that she’d be willing to put digits on him or outraged that they’d bet on whether or not he die aboard the Saurian ship. Closing his mouth, he shook the thought away and replied. “Let’s go, the last thing I want to do is hang around here and give any more digits to Nevel.”

The Captain tried to laugh, but it came away as a series of coughs. Between Igle and Macrae helping her along, they made it back to the junction fairly quickly. Terlain glanced into the corridor, seeing both Oehm-Oyer and Deegan down at the other end watching for trouble. He ducked inside and was helping the Captain through when the rattle of Saurian weapons exploded into the silence.

Macrae screamed as the metal fragments bit into his back and his lifeless body collapsed onto the metallic floor in a bloody heap.

Igle spun around to return fire, but when he pulled the trigger nothing happened and the Saurian weapons chewed him up.

“How many shots do you have left?” Captain Larson asked between clenched teeth.

“All of them,” Terlain said, surprised at the question. “I haven’t fired it yet.”

“Well you’re gonna to have to now!” she yelled, pain rippling across her face.

The thought of firing the sonic blaster scared him, partially because he was afraid of the devastating effect it had, but mostly because he’d never killed anything before and he didn’t want to start now. He sat back on his knees and drew the weapon, wondering if his instinct for self-preservation would allow him to do what his conscience wouldn’t.

The first Saurian reached the junction. Terlain saw its bulbous eye turn in his direction, as did its weapon. He didn’t remember pulling the trigger, but he would never forget the way the lizard turned to mush against the opposite wall. He hadn’t meant to pull the trigger again, but another shot lanced out of the sonic blaster, tearing into and through the bulkhead into open space. Before the vacuum of space could so much as ruffle his hair though, the door Meige had opened slid shut, sealing off the corridor once more.

“I was right,” Deegan said scurrying up behind him in a bear-crawl, “this ship is built like a honeycomb, automatically sealing off damaged areas.”” He reached down and checked the Captain to see whether or not she was still alive; at some point during the firefight she’d lost consciousness.

Terlain stared at the closed door. His knuckles were white from the death grip in which he held the sonic blaster and, he realized, he was still holding the trigger down. It took him a moment to ease off enough to let the trigger snap back, but he didn’t feel that he could pry his fingers off the handle.

“Th-that was a brilliant maneuver,” Deegan was saying, “by breaching the hull you triggered the fail-safes and sealed off the section. Nevel is going to be green with envy when he hears about this. I-I bet it even gets your percentage back, though I don’t think we’re going to make anything from this opportunity, but still, it was a brilliant m-maneuver, just brilliant.”

If he would have been able to make shut Deegan up, he would have, but Terlain couldn’t get the image of that Saurian out of his mind. The image of it crashing backwards was burned into his mind—its bones splintering, its eyes popping out of its head, and its teeth shattering in its mouth.

Nevel wouldn’t be envious, he’d be exactly the same man he was before, except that now the big albino had company; he’d turned Terlain into a killer, someone who could feel what he felt and be just as miserable and in just as much pain.