FreeSpace Pirates: The Saurian Opportunity

“Terlain, get that bot up here.”

“Yes, sir,” Terlain called back, wondering when exactly he had joined the Confederate Alliance Navy, especially considering he was on board a pirate ship living out what he thought would be a boyhood dream come true.  Aside from starting his own spacefaring business, and coming from a poor family that was not going to happen, the only ways for him to get into space were to either join the aforementioned military or to sign aboard another’s vessel.  He’d had no idea that Lanier Larson owned a pirate ship when he’d signed on, and even after using his amateur experience in bot maintenance to secure the position, he’d hadn’t found out until they’d left orbit, not that he would have changed his mind anyhow.

“Sonic blasters, energy lances, and heroic battles, I should have known better,” he said to himself, wincing as the open circuit panel sparked in response to his latest probe.  The squat bot rolled backwards on its treaded rollers 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 the bot’s constant fidgeting.  Lanier’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 had no chance to discern that.  In the months since he’d signed on Terlain had become one of the finest harpooners, the name given to the gunner that operated the Magnetic Pulsar Cannon, on the ship.  The bot, affectionately called Fweep because of the continually malfunctioning voice circuits, contained all of the navigational routes Lanier 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,” Lanier called from the companionway, her voice a mixture of annoyance and impatience.  Since signing on with her ship, Phalen’s Blade, named for the Confederation Alliance admiral who secured the final succession of the Confederacy from Federation Alliance rule, he’d found that her bark was in no way worse than her bite and that, in fact, one generally preceded to the other.

“Almost there,” he called up, wincing before she could start chewing him out.  To his surprise, the string of curses he’d expected didn’t float down to him, instead the sound of heavy boots clumped down the companionway.

“Terlain!”

What was coming was worse than Lanier’s curses. 

Rajt Nevel was, for all intents and purposes Lanier’s first-mate, the second in command, and where Lanier could often be civil, even cordial on occasion, Nevel was just plain barbaric.  He hated bots, probably because they couldn’t fight back when he abused them, and he 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 annexed cargo space that served as the fix-all workshop.  Nevel stood nearly one and a half meters tall, an albino with hard lined features and scars crisscrossing the right side of his face that, he claimed, he’d gotten in battle with a group of Saurian warriors.  Aboard ship, he led the boarding team dubbed Suicide Squad because of the rate of turnover he managed.  No one seemed to mind the turnover rate though; it meant more digits for everyone else.

Terlain stepped back from the bot, putting his hands in the air as if he were going to surrender to the big man.  “Take him then, just don’t touch him, and I 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 and we can 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 the anomalous discharge.”

“You have five.”

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

Nevel growled again.  “Your down to nine minutes.”

When the bulky man turned and started to stomp 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 cowers away.”

Eight minutes later he had the harness in place and secured and was following 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 takeover tactics and Nevel would be in the hold along with the rest of his squad, waiting for a boarding opportunity.

Lanier turned and glanced at the outfitted bot, shaking her head at the added bulk.  “Maybe it’s time I upgraded,” she said, glancing up at Terlain.  In turn, Terlain just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.  “Hook it up, I want to get going.”

Fweep rolled into the small indention that served as its cradle.

Terlain moved in behind and attached the modified harness to the metal grated floor, siphoning off enough of the anomalous discharge to ground the bot, while it jacked into the computer.  “Okay, he’s all set.”

Lanier spun around.  “Finally,” she said, shaking her head as she gazed at the bot.  “He looks like the victim of a metallic arachnid,” 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 over at Nevel.

“I suppose it will have to do for now,” she said, spinning back around.  “I need a non-stop route to Freespace Junction 43081.”  The bot would normally acknowledge the command with a, “yes, sir,” but with its voice circuits still damaged, it only managed a warble that almost sounded as if someone had activated a disposal unit.

Lanier just sighed; no one else ventured a comment.

“Congratulations Terlain, it still works.  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 Terlain’s neck, and he had a sudden bad feeling about the upcoming debriefing.  As if to confirm it, Nevel laughed out loud, “and don’t be late this time.”

Terlain turned and walked out of the cockpit, listening to the echo of his footfalls as he felt the ship accelerating around him.

 

“Okay,” Lanier 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 it in dangerous space, and right now, this is dangerous space.”

Terlain tried to imagine someplace that wouldn’t be dangerous for a crew of pirates.  He didn’t have much luck.

“Those of you who have been keeping up on galactic affairs have heard that the Saurians have been admitted into the Trading Guilds.  For the rest of you, that means that Saurian vessels travelling in Freespace are regulated under the same restrictions the Tribunal places on all trading vessels.  While they gain unrestricted access to all Freespace stations, colonies, and systems they can’t have or maintain any weapon systems and they must freely submit their ships and cargo to ongoing embargo inspections,” she finished with a smile.  “Lets all wish the bureaucrats continued good health and poor judgement,” she finished, her smile broadening.

A roar of laughter erupted from the crowded hold.  When it finally died off, she continued.  “As I speak, we’re heading for sector 55414, where we can patrol the Freespace that borders on the Saurian Empires.  While I’m sure that they’ll eventually try to cheat the system and find ways to arm themselves that can’t be easily scanned, right now they need to make a show of good faith, and for us that means opportunity.”

As that began to sink in with the other members of the crew, Terlain decided that he was happy with the lesser share of profits he received for only being a gunner.  Even as a harpooner working with one of the two MPC’s they used to disable vessels, 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, he’d be getting a larger portion than normal, if any at all, anyhow.

When the chatter that her words had started began to die away, Lanier continued.  “From what I know of the Saurians and their reasons for joining the Trading Guild, 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 of the Frontier Territories would be willing to pay for such information.  And, then, of course, their enemies would be willing to pay more for the same information.”

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 individual 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,” Lanier 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 its safe to assume that their companionways 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 half of our boarding team because of 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.  In that regard, I am going to lead the boarding team, and Nevel is going to take over ship operations.”

That statement was received by a few giggles then gasps as the crew realized that she was serious.  Terlain glanced over at Nevel, and saw the larger man smiling back at him.

It was not a friendly smile, or even a pleasant one for that matter.

“This is how its going to work, forgive me if this seems like a militaristic approach, but there’s really no other choice.  Those members of the boarding team that have been bumped have already been reassigned, they will need some training so we will begin 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.”  Lanier’s tone didn’t convey good cheer.

A couple of his crewmates offered their own congratulations and gave Terlain pats on the back; he idly wondered if it was because they didn’t expect to ever have the opportunity again.  Looking around, the others that Lanier had named were all receiving the same attention, and all their faces looked as grim as his felt.

“I thank none of you for arguing,” Lanier 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 laughter and another round of cheers as Nevel handed over a handful of digits.

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, “there’s a few things you all need to know before we begin.”

Terlain was surprised to see Lanier standing with the other five recruits in this less than basic training.  Looking around at his fellow recruits, he realized that while he’d had passing acquaintances with all of them, other than Oehm-Oyer, the other MPC gunner, he had never had so much as a long conversation with any of them.

“I assume none of you has ever seen a Saurian before,” Nevel began.

No one, not even Lanier attempted to say differently.

Nevel dropped his eyes for a moment, shaking his head slightly, then continued.  “Saurians are little red lizards.  They’re scaly, ugly, and they stink.  I can’t even imagine what he insides of one of their ships must smell like, and, to tell you the truth, I’m glad I don’t have to find out first hand.”

“Enough, Nevel,” Lanier said, the impatience apparent in her voice, “just stick to the information that we need.”

“You got it,” he said, brandishing that unfriendly smile again.  “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 said, glancing toward Lanier; 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 surmised that Oehm-Oyer would be the best combatant of any of the new recruits, and so decided that he would find a way to stick close to him.

“Good question,” Nevel said, uncharacteristically offering the slightest 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, attempting to disable or cripple an opponent by striking at various areas of the leg or hip.”

The men around him unconsciously dropped their hands to cover their groin.

“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 enough about that, because none of you are going to let that happen.  We need to discuss their eyes, it’s our one advantage.”

“How do you mean?” Deegan asked.

“If you’d care to let me continue,” Nevel practically yelled, startling everyone in attendance, including Lanier.  Terlain felt sorry for Deegan, he’d been the ship's mechanical engineer before being thrust onto the boarding team.  He did his best not to refer to it as the suicide squad, but couldn’t help but feel that that name fit better now than ever before.

“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,” Lanier asked, purposely drawing his attention to her.

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.  Terlain briefly wondered what kind of hold she had on the bulky man, but decided that it was information that could probably get him hurt or worse, so he let go of that line of thought.

“Like us, they can’t see directly behind,” Nevel finally said, his face still a light shade of red.  “They only lose about fifty degrees there compared to our one-hundred sixty or so, so its 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, while, as you all know, its perfectly natural for us to approach that way.  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, its a matter of them having to notice you and make the effort to look for them to realize that there’s an enemy afoot, so 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 Lanier 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, that unfriendly smile once more 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 let everyone think about his words while he went to one of the weapons lockers and pulled out a sonic blaster and energy lance.  Even Lanier looked 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, then you will have an opportunity to breath in a vacuum.”

“Why such a high yield,” Lanier asked.

“I intend to train all of you 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 are not exactly state of the art units,” Nevel responded, glancing toward Lanier; she didn’t bother with a response.  “Because of the potential loss, you each will only be carrying one sonic blaster with one power pack, having to buy more cuts into everyone’s profits, and we are 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 your probably gonna to die.  Because we have to estimate the size of their companionways, I don’t know if you are going to 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 Nevel didn’t smile this time.  “I’m serious, if you have to use one of these things the only thing that’s going to save your life is luck, if you try to use style the lizards are going to eat you alive.”

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

Terlain was the last to get up and follow Nevel into the newly cleared cargo area.  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 human flesh into something that looked like it came from a butchery.

Nevel had called the Saurians lizards, but as Terlain stood to follow the others, he couldn’t help but wonder if they would die like men.

 

As exhausted as he was from all the drills and training, Terlain didn’t sleep very well that night, and had barely slept at all since.  Fatigue drove him to the small bunkroom 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 rarely found himself sleepy enough to fall asleep, no matter how tired he’d been.

While operating the MPC, the questions of moral rights and wrongs were easy to evade.  Once the target’s shields were down, his job was to fire the magnetic grappler in the general vicinity of the target craft then, using the on-board thrusters to make course corrections, get a solid lock.  Between the heads-up display and the control board, it was like playing a realistic arcade game 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.

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 in the middle of battle.

It was thoughts like those that kept him awake when his body craved sleep.

They’d been in sector 55414 for three days and the patrols were proceeding normally, one person scanning for Tribunal Forces, Deitrick most often, while Lanier wove through Freespace seeking an opportunity.

During one of those long nights, he wondered if Lanier ever allowed her first mate to take the controls, but doubted she would trust his level of competence over her own.

Thinking about Nevel brought back memories of the last few days of training.  He’d proven to be one of the best marksmen of the recruits, behind only Lanier and Oehm-Oyer, and was given his own mini-squad to command.  That wouldn’t have been so bad if Lanier and Oehm-Oyer were the other two members of his squad, but they weren’t.

One of them was a regular named Meige.  He was from the same planet as Terlain, though he’d lived half a world away and spoke with a severe accent that characterized his native language.  Meige had spent four months on the suicide squad, but as impressive as that sounded, it only encompassed three battles.  Lanier took no chances 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.  Deegan hailed from somewhere in the Federation Alliance, and Terlain was pretty sure that that sector government was hunting him for some crime or another.  He had to remember that not everyone had boarded Lanier’s ship to escape the gravitational confines of a planet and see the galaxy.

The three of them had been training together for the past two days, that is, when they weren’t working on deployment or recovery exercises as a group.  In that time, he’d learned two very important things.  The first, that Meige resented not being chosen as a mini-squad leader and seemed like he would do most anything to take the position for himself, and the other, that Deegan might have been a good mechanical engineer, but he was next to useless as a fighter.

These were other thoughts that kept Terlain awake at night.  He wondered how Lanier or Nevel ever managed to get any sleep at all, but then, this was a way of life for them.  When Terlain had discovered that he’d signed aboard a pirate ship, it turned from a job into an adventure and, until now that perception had not changed much.

Between all the training and the constant discipline Nevel expected, Terlain almost felt that he had joined the military.  He remembered hearing how hard it was to get out of the Confederate Alliance Navy once you got in, and he idly wondered how he would get off the Phalen’s Blade, and if it would be as difficult.

Those thoughts preceded him into sleep.

It was one of those cruel galactic ironies that awakened him the moment he fell into a restful sleep for the first time in days.

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

He’d not before had the misfortune to be asleep when the ship had come upon an opportunity.  Though he’d only just dozed off, sleep clouded his mind as he pushed himself up and mechanically started for the main hold.  The companionway was alive with crewman practically scrambling over one another to get to their positions, and Terlain wondered who was running toward the portside MPC, his old gunnery assignment.

Stumbling into the cargo-bay-turned-training-area, he nearly ran into Oehm-Oyer.  The Frontiersman was already in the minimal battle dress that they had been afforded, complete with holstered sonic blaster and sheathed energy lance.

“Hurry up,” he said, pushing his way past the new arrival.  “Lanier is already at the airlock preparing the team.”

“Wha-” was all Terlain could manage.  Nevel had only just called for battle-stations how could they all be there already.  Oehm-Oyer didn’t wait around to answer, he was already moving quickly down the companionway and out of sight.

Terlain shook his head, trying to clear away the pain he felt at the back of his skull.  It didn’t work.

Moving as quickly as he could, he hurried to the weapons locker and pulled it open.  His was the only equipment left inside.  Shaking away his surprise, he wondered if he had fallen asleep again after Nevel’s proclamation and started suiting up.

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, Lanier’s voice burst from the communications 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 the girdle that held his sonic blaster in its holster and his energy lance in its sheath, and bolted for the companionway.  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?” Lanier screamed 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 ten percent of the profits!  Oehm-Oyer, make sure he’s ready to go, the docking tube is extending now.  Meige, you take command of the mini-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 mini-squad.

“Let’s go,” Lanier called stepping into the docking tube.

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

“Don’t worry about it now,” Meige responded.  That surprised Terlain, he hadn’t expected any sympathy from him, maybe Deegan, but not him.  “What you need to do now is concentrate on the matter at hand.  I know better than to take command in this situation, and I’m not about to have both of your deaths on my conscious, so regardless of what Lanier said, you’re still in command.”

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

Terlain glanced at Meige then at Deegan.  The former was right, he knew that if he continued to worry about screwing up, he’d get all of them killed.  “Okay,” he managed, his voice cracking.  “Just like we practiced it, into the tube.”

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

“This is going to be tight,” Terlain muttered to himself.

“It’s not going to be so much the squeeze,” Meige said, poking his head into the Saurian ship, “as the smell.”

“Ugh, guess Nevel knew what he was talking about, huh,” Terlain managed, trying not to breath through his nose.  It didn’t help much, now he could taste the musky stink and wasn’t sure if that was better or worse.

“Yeah, every once in a while he gets lucky,” Meige chuckled, disappearing into the alien ship.

Terlain followed him in.  The companionway was a little more than a meter high and nearly perfectly square.  The lighting through his goggles gave everything an orange tint, which was significantly different from the green he was used to.  He wondered what their lighting would look like to the naked eye, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort to find out.

They started crawling down the companionway; it would have been difficult and impractical for them to attempt the squat-walk that Nevel had had them practice, but it was good to know that if they needed to change directions in a hurry or adjust for a shot, there was room above in which to move.

They had 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 from ahead.

“This is amazing,” Deegan said from behind, after they had gone about twelve meters.  Both Meige and Terlain turned to look at the mechanical engineer.  “From an engineering standpoint,” he finished.

“What are you talking about?” Meige asked.

“I can’t be sure,” Deegan said, studying the framework of the companionway, “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 said 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 very center of the vessel.”

Meige pivoted around and sat down, 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 never thought of that.”

‘If they were gonna do that, don’t you think they would have done it already,” Terlain put in, trying to allay the mechanical engineers fears, at least a little.  “Let’s keep going, and maybe we should draw our weapons, just in case.”

“Crawling around is going to make them tough to carry,” Meige offered.

“Yeah, but I’d rather be ready, and besides, I need something to take my mind off this stink!” Terlain responded, with a smile.

Meige drew his sonic blaster and started to flip back over when a wall to their right slid open.

Terlain screamed and scuttled backwards as he gazed at the two Saurians standing next to him.  Meige fired twice, striking both in the chest.  Above the whine of the sonic blasters, the force of impact threw both lizards backwards, practically turning their bodies to paste in midair.

“That was a door?” Deegan said, running his fingers over the smooth surface.  He hadn’t yet seen what the sonic blasters had done to the Saurians.  Terlain wished he hadn’t seen it either.

Meige looked like he was going to be ill, he was 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 said, staring into the newly opened corridor.  “We normally have these set to a heavy stun, Lanier doesn’t want us to kill.”

Terlain was 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, they don’t defend with them,” was Meige’s matter-of-fact reply.

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

“Yeah, he is, just none of us tell Lanier about it is all.”

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 maybe we ought to go back?”

“And give Nevel the pleasure of tossing us out an airlock.  No!” Meige said sarcastically.  “At least here we have some chance at survival.”

“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 companionway.

“H-How about this way,” Deegan said, pressing the end of an apparent wall and watching it slide open to reveal a companionway beyond.  “It uses a simple pressure latch principle, not very efficient for everyday use, but it allows for a seal that is almost necessary for this honeycomb design to work.

Terlain and Meige glanced at one another and shrugged.  “You lead the way,” Terlain offered after a moment, gesturing toward the opening.

They’d only gone about ten meters when the companionway appeared to come to an end.  “How do I know if there’s one of those sliding door things up here,” Meige called back as he neared the end of the hall.

“It’s the same principle, only reversed, probably a pressure plate.  Look for metal of a slightly different coloration on the right side of the door, about a half a meter up.”

“Got it,” Meige called after a moment.

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

Meige pushed himself back on his knees and leveled his sonic blaster at the lizard standing in front of him.  He moved quickly, but the lizard moved faster, swinging its weapon around without so much as turning its head.

Terlain fell to the ground and curled up into a fetal position, covering his head as the Saurian’s weapon began to bark in his direction.  Meige’s body seemed to convulse as the lizard fired into him.  Blood spattered everywhere and his body collapsed atop of Terlain.

Above the din of battle, Terlain heard the whine of sonic blaster fire, a horrible splatting sound, followed by another and another until they seemed to echo off into infinity, and then only silence.

“Are you alive, Terlain?”

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

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

“I-I don’t think so,” Terlain managed, “but I can’t move.”

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

“Well tell him to get off,” Terlain said, feeling his shoulder falling asleep beneath him.  He tried to roll off his left side, but he couldn’t get any leverage.

“I c-can’t, Meige is really dead.”

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

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

“Get him off me,” Terlain nearly screamed.  He had a dead body lying on top of him; dealing with death was tough enough, but to have a corpse pinning him down was almost more than his mind could bear.

Deegan moved out of his line of sight, and after a moment, he felt the dead weight shift and roll off him.  Terlain nearly jumped up, smacking his head hard on the low ceiling in his attempt to get away.  The pain didn’t register; he was too busy looking over 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.

“No time for that,” Deegan said, picking up Meige’s bloodied sonic blaster.  “Those lizards were shooting at somebody, I took out the one, but someone else took out the other five. And we probably should find out who that someone was and if their hurt.  Besides, I’d feel a lot safer if we were in a larger group.”

He’d been wrong about Meige’s jealousy over his appointment as mini-squad leader; it just made sense that he’d been wrong about Deegan being useless as a fighter.  “Good point, he conceded.  As leader I suppose I should go first.”

“No arguments here,” Deegan said, the corners of his mouth turned up in a slight smile.

Avoiding even a glance at Meige’s body, Terlain stuck his head out into the companionway, coming 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 weapons fire echoed from somewhere in the ship, and Terlain felt himself sweating regardless of the smile he’d had after seeing Oehm-Oyer.

“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 muttered, “but what about their cargo?”

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

“So we got caught between the two warring empires,” Deegan added from behind.

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

“Better than Meige,” was the matter of fact reply.

“Where is Lanier,” Terlain asked, his mind spinning from all the information being tossed around him.  He wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when they crossed the docking tube and entered the Saurian ship, but it wasn’t this.

“She’s back 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 companionway go?” the frontiersman said, inching forward to peer inside.  “Hi Deegan,” he said with a smile, then that smile abruptly vanished as he saw Meige’s mangled corpse.

“It goes back to that main companionway,” Terlain responded, “about fifteen or so meters away from the docking port, how’s Lanier doing?”

“She took the rounds along her right side, mostly superficial wounds, but bleeders.  We bound her up pretty good, she’s still conscious, but in a lot of pain.  Why don’t you go back and get them, me and Deegs will hold it up here and make sure there are no surprises for you when you come back.”

Terlain moved past Oehm-Oyer and started down the companionway noticing the signs of battle that pocked the walls and ceiling.  Metal shards littered the area; he couldn’t imagine how much it must hurt to have one lodged in his flesh, much less, thinking of poor Meige, what a whole lot of them could do.

The three of them were waiting right were Oehm-Oyer had said they were.  “Come on,” he said glancing at the bloody rags wrapped about Lanier’s arms and legs.  “We’ve got a way back.”

“Good to see you again,” Lanier 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.”

Terlain wasn’t sure if he should be honored by Lanier’s faith in him, or outraged that they’d bet on his survival, but that question of ethics would have to wait until he was sure he’d live to mull it over.  “Let’s go,” he said, relishing this opportunity to tell Lanier what to do, “the last thing I want to do is hang around here and give that bet to Nevel.”

Lanier 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 companionway, seeing both Oehm-Oyer and Deegan down at the other end watching for trouble.  He ducked inside and was helping Lanier through when the rattle of Saurian weapon fire exploded into the silence.

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

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?” Lanier asked between clenched teeth.

“All of them,” Terlain said, surprised she’d asked.  “I haven’t fired it yet.”

“Well you’re going to have to now!” she said, 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, partially because he had never killed anything 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 lizard reached the companionway.  Terlain saw its bulbous eye turn in his direction, followed closely by 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 companionway once more.

“I was right,” Deegan said coming up behind him, “the ship is built like a honeycomb, automatically sealing off the damaged areas.”  He reached down and checked Lanier to see whether or not she was still alive; at some point she had lost consciousness.

Terlain stared at the closed door.  His knuckles had turned 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 hilt.

“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 bet it even gets you your ten percent back, though I don’t think we are going to make anything from this opportunity, but still, it was a brilliant maneuver, just brilliant I say.”

If he would have been able to shut Deegan up, he would have, but Terlain couldn’t get the image of that Saurian out of his mind.  He could still see it crashing backwards, all of its bones simultaneously shattered by the force of the blast; he could see its eyes popping out of its head and its teeth shattering in its mouth.

Nevel wouldn’t be envious, he’d turned Terlain into a killer, now there was someone else like him, just as miserable, and in just as much pain.