This story takes place immediately following the events as laid out in The Cordova Vector.

Zero Balance

by

C.Steven Manley

Commonwealth Fleet Ship Saturnalia
Sector 321-Beta
En Route to Rokalia-3
0974.045 CWE

“Shut your suckholes and listen up, marines!”


Corporal Marcus Crowe looked up from his thoughts as Gunnery Sergeant Briggs’s voice cut through the briefing room like a hammer cracking stone. She stood at the front of the room in a stiff posture that qualified as casual for her. At well over two meters tall, the mitarian human looked every bit the hard marching career marine that she was with a precise high and tight haircut, uniform creases you could shave with, and boots so polished you could use them as the shaving mirror.


Crowe watched in silence while the room settled down. He’d been aboard the Saturnalia for nearly six months since finishing his RAITH training. He’d liked the gunny since day one. She knew how to cut through the crap and get down to business.


“As much as I know you bunch of layabouts have been enjoying this little joyride, your vacation is about to come to an end. We’ll be making orbit at Rokalia-3 in fifteen hours. It’s a damn fine planet with beautiful landscapes, mild temperatures, and friendly locals that are easy on the eyes. That is the good news for the marines who will be handling security for the trade negotiations. The bad news is that you six, along with Lieutenant Ryn, will not be among them.”


A chorus of groans rose up from the assembled marines. Crowe kept silent and watched the gunny. Her expression never wavered but she allowed the troops their moment of disappointment. It was only a single moment, though.


“All right, cry in your ale on your own time. Command says you’ve got a mission elsewhere, then you go. Quit your whining.”


“Where are they sending us, Gunny?” someone asked. Crowe thought it was Forrd, a leonine PFC with rust colored fur and eyes the same hue as old blood. He’d sat at chow with him once. Crowe had gotten the impression that the young leo was a solid rifleman.


“Well, I am so very glad you asked, private. It is that kind of enthusiasm that gets me all tingly inside,” Briggs said. She stepped to a holopanel and called up a display. The outline of a small solar system appeared and she magnified the image until the second of four planets filled the viewing space.


“This is Pursit-2,” the gunny said. “It is an alpha class planet with near standard gravity and a dry atmosphere. Water is relatively scarce since it only covers about twenty percent of the planet’s surface and most of that is along the equatorial belt which is where most of the pretty trees and flowers grow.” She highlighted the zone with a swipe of her fingers.


“You will be going here,” she said and tapped a point on the planet display that was about two hundred klicks north of the equatorial zone’s northern outer edge. The holo expanded out again and showed what looked like a massive mining complex complete with housing for the workers. Crowe studied it while the gunny went on.


“The commonwealth’s new friends on Rokalia have territorial claim to the Pursit system and all the mineral rights thereto. This mine produces a variety of raw ores that the commonwealth considers valuable. Three hours ago, we learned that the facility suffered a seismic event which took out a number of miners as well as a large portion of their security staff. It’s a thirty hour hyperspace coast from Rokalia but only about four from the Saturnalia’s current position. In one hour, the ship will drop out of hyperspace and two long range shuttles will depart for Pursit with disaster relief personnel on board one and you lucky souls on the other.”


“Relief?” a gruff voice said. “Sounds like a babysitting job, Gunny.” It was another PFC, though Crowe didn’t know this one as well. Crowe thought his name was Marella, a dark skinned human with thick arms and a nearly hairless face and head. He was a tech and demolitions specialist, if Crowe remembered correctly.


“Commonwealth Marines do not babysit, Marella,” Gunny said, confirming Crowe’s recollection. “We protect, defend, and overcome. If the diplomats on Rokalia want us to show their new friends that we can save asses and well as we kick them, then we step up and get it done.”


There was a round of “Ooh-rah!” from the room at large. Crowe mouthed the exclamation but didn’t raise his voice as the others had. He was still studying the map that hovered above the holopanel.


The complex was surround by what looked like hills of barren rock, rough vegetation, and fissures large enough to drop a shuttle into. He knew his role on this mission would be long range support and overwatch, the standard sniper gig, so he was pleased to see terrain that promised plenty of concealment. He caught the gunny’s eye and half raised his hand to get her attention.


“Question, Crowe?” she said.


“Those fissures in the topography,” he said. “Do we have any details about them?”


Gunny smiled. “So glad you asked. Intel is that those things run deep enough into the planet that there’s magma at the bottom. Supposedly, they all give off a strong sulfur signature. So, while you snowflakes might be breathing just fine it’s going to smell like brimstone and craehound farts the whole time you’re dirtside. Have fun with that.”


That set off another round of groans. Crowe just nodded and made a mental note to requisition a filtration breather.


“Got any more good news, Gunny?” Marella asked.


“Yeah, Marella. Your mama called and said she found your balls in one of her old purses.”
Gunny Briggs let them enjoy a laugh before she said, “All right, marines, collect a standard sentry loadout and muster in shuttle bay portside-nine. Dismissed.”

********


An hour later, Crowe was seated aboard one of the Saturnalia’s long range shuttles. Typically, shuttles weren’t given their own names, just a designation code that tied them to their point of origin. As he’d boarded, though, he’d noticed that someone had enameled the name Death Taxi next to the loading bay door. He’d gotten a little chuckle out of that.


The interior was the standard bare metal, spartan layout that all marine transports were. Hard back seats, uniform gray colors, and a design that was all function with little consideration for comfort. Crowe appreciated the no-nonsense design though he thought a seat cushion or two might not be a bad thing.


He watched the rest of the marines load up. A few of them, the newer ones that didn’t really know him yet, gave him a surprised glance when they saw he was already strapped in, gear stowed, and ready to rock. Crowe pretended not to notice and made a show of looking over the mission specs that were scrolling across his datacuff.


The last person to board was Second Lieutenant Ban’fretton Ryn. Ryn was a member of the callite species, functional hermaphrodites that generally resembled androgynous human females except in skin tone and the fact they had thin bone ridges where humans would have eyebrows. They also had thick, heavy nails on all their digits and hair that was consistently jet black or snow white.


Ryn was one of the white haired callites and wore that hair shaved so close to the dark red scalp that it gave the effect of a tight, somewhat bloody halo around the callite’s head. All callites had skin color in varying degrees of red, from light pink to a deep mahogany, and Ryn’s made Crowe think of expensive red wine.


Crowe knew Ryn and, more importantly, knew his type. The cal was the kind of officer that came across as by the book and tough as nails but was all breeze and no storm. Ryn was a dress uniform marine who was more suited to public relations than disaster relief. Crowe hadn’t liked the idea of the cal commanding a mission in a potential danger zone but it wasn’t his call to make.


“Give me your attention, marines,” Ryn said, speaking loud to override the sound of engines winding up and the flight crew securing the hatch. “I know a few of you but I see more new faces than familiar ones. I’m Lieutenant Ryn. You will address me by rank or the male gender reference, ‘Sir.’ Anything else will earn you my disapproval.”


He was interrupted by an announcement to prepare for departure even as the shuttle rocked a little and the landing struts retracted. Ryn stayed standing, though, staring hard at the assembled marines and bracing himself by holding onto two of the overhead safety straps. Crowe couldn’t help but notice that he looked like he was trying to pose for a recruitment poster.


“We’ve got a straightforward mission here,” he said. “Bring relief and security to the sentients working the mining facility on Pursit-2. The Fleet personnel on the other shuttle will be providing medical and logistic support while we will focus on security and environmental threat assessment. Above all, we will be there to show the rokalian government and its citizens that allying with the commonwealth is in their best interests both economically and in terms of the security and support that we provide to our signatory allies. We will be there not only to provide them with a secure site but to inspire confidence in the commonwealth. I’ll expect each and every one of you to conduct yourselves with the decorum befitting a Commonwealth Marine. Is that understood?”


There was a round of acknowledgments that Crowe didn’t bother adding to. He leaned his head back against the bulkhead. The shuttle was rated to carry more than four times the number of marines that were currently aboard. Most of them had spread out with all the extra seating and even then there were plenty of open seats. Crowe had to keep his disappointment off his face when Ryn made his way through the cabin and sat down next to him.


“Corporal,” he said.


“Lieutenant,” Crowe replied with a nod.


“Sargent Ledg over there is my second on this op,” he said. “You and Ivants are both pretty much equal with rank and time in service but with your RAITH training, I’m making you third.”


Crowe met the officer’s pale eyes and didn’t bother to hide his frown. RAITH was short for Reconnaissance, Advanced Infiltration, and Tactical Hostile action. They were affectionately known as PSBs; professional sneaky bastards. They were the guys command called on when they needed things done quietly and permanently with a ‘give them the mission and get out of the way’ mentality. Higher ranking RAITH were often advisers but never in the direct chain of command. Crowe said as much to Ryn.


“The only reason I’m here, lieutenant,” he finished, “is to provide concealed overwatch. You should give the command slot to Ivants.”


“I’m aware of all that, Crowe, but your spec-ops status is exactly why I want you. It’ll play well for the rokalians to see one of our finest out there doing the job with the rank and file. You’re the youngest sentient ever to RAITH qualify. That makes you special and we want our potential partners to see special.”


Crowe shook his head. “That’s not my op, lieutenant.”


“It is now, marine.”


Crowe tightened his jaw. “What about overwatch?”


Ryn shrugged. “This is a relief mission. We can expand our patrol radius and it’ll be fine. I need you to play nice with the locals on this one, Crowe. That’s an order.”


Crowe resisted the urge to grind his teeth. The fact that Ryn was so concerned with chain of command on a seven slot detail told Crowe all he needed to know about the cal’s priorities. He was the kind of officer more suited to a seat than a sidearm. Still, though, it was his mission to call, regardless of whether or not Crowe liked it.


Crowe forced his jaw to unclench and said, “Yes, sir.”

*********


The four hour hyperspace coast passed with the usual combination of laughs, snores, and general talk that accompanied a half-dozen bored marines in a confined space. Crowe sat and watched, spoke if anyone said anything directly to him, and tried very hard not to let his new assignment eat away at his calm. He knew part of military life was taking orders that he didn’t want to follow. He just didn’t like it very much.


“Plainspace shift in thirty seconds,” the pilot said over comms.


Ryn projected his voice through the cabin with a little more force than he needed and said, “Strap it in and lock it down.”


Crowe smiled when he saw a couple of eye-rolls at Ryn’s attempt to establish his authority. Shuttle protocol was second nature to these marines. Any one of them could do it in their sleep. Ryn’s job was to watch them and ensure they did it, not bark pointless orders.


He pulled the restraint harnesses into place and clipped them into their buckles. That done, he slid his helmet over his short clipped hair and tightened the chinstrap. He was grateful that they’d been kitted for sentry duty. That meant lighter combat armor. The heavier stuff was just too bulky for his taste.


He silently counted the seconds until the shift. He liked to see if he could feel the transition from one kind of space to the other. Even though hyperspace physics theory seemed like an indecipherable language to him, he’d always liked the way ships just appeared in plainspace after a shift. The suddenness of it appealed to his sneaky side.


“Positive shift,” the pilot said.


Crowe smiled. He hadn’t felt a thing. The pilot was good.


“Board is green, marines. We should… standby.”


Crowe turned his eyes towards the flight deck. It wasn’t uncommon for minor malfunctions to occur after a coast, especially on smaller ships like shuttles, but if that had happened then the ‘board is green’ announcement wouldn’t have been given. Crowe wasn’t the only one that had gotten curious. Most of the marines had their eyes trained on the flight deck.


“What’s going on?” Ryn shouted up to the flight deck.


“Comms malfunction, we think,” the pilot said. His voice echoed slightly through the speakers. “Sit tight and we’ll sort it out.”


They sat in silence for a few minutes after that. Crowe watched Ryn grow more and more agitated, though he wasn’t entirely sure why. Then, his frustration at its peak, Ryn slapped at the quick release control and his restraining straps snapped back into their housings.


As the cal stood, Crowe said, “That’s not a good idea, sir. Safety protocols.”


Ryn faced him with a frown and said, “We can’t set down with a malfunctioning ship, corporal. What kind of impres-”


“Hot contact coming in one-nine-nine mark three-three!”


Even as the warning came, the ship lurched hard to port. The inertia cascade stacks absorbed most of the g-force generated by the maneuver but they all still felt it in their guts. Ryn felt it a lot more than that, though.


As Crowe watched, the officer staggered back and then hard to one side as the ship rolled. When he’d stepped back to catch his balance, his right leg had slipped between two of the sturdy seats. A half second later, when the sideways roll came, Crowe got a very clear view of the lieutenant’s shin snapping in two.


Ryn screamed loud enough that for an instant he blocked out the sound of the engines and everything else. Despite that, he was still a marine and enough of his training remained in his public relations clouded mind that he grabbed onto another of the hard seats to keep himself from getting thrown any further. Corporal Ivants managed to stretch out from his seat and grab a handful of Ryn’s uniform and help stabilize him as the ship rocked back and forth, evading and avoiding whatever it was that they had run up on.


Crowe was too far away to be of any use to Ryn, so he held on and watched as Ivants helped the cal struggle into the seat and get locked down again while the ship shifted and rocked around them, combat alarms blaring out at a steady beat. Ryn’s leg was a mess and sat at an unnatural angle on the deck. His face was a portrait of agony. Crowe met Ivants eyes and they both shook their heads at the young officer’s foolishness.


“Multiple contacts!” the pilot shouted over the intercom. “Marines, prepare for-”


The ship lurched hard and there was a roaring explosion from the flight deck. More red warning lights flashed to life all through the cabin as an emergency bulkhead slammed into place between the passenger cabin and the flight deck. Whatever had happened on the flight deck, it had caused an explosive decompression that no doubt had killed the flight crew.
In situations like that, the shuttle’s passenger cabin was designed to separate from the flight deck and any other non-essential systems and turn itself into a lifeboat that would lock on to the nearest habitable planet and set down there. Crowe grimaced when he realized that the shuttle wasn’t a shuttle anymore.


Sudden metallic groans and heavy vibrations radiated through the lifeboat as micro-explosions pushed away the unneeded parts of the shuttle. The loud pop of mag clamps releasing was immediately followed by the roar of four secondary thrusters igniting.


Under normal circumstances, that would have been all that was needed to get the marines down to the planet in a safe, controlled descent. As another kind of explosion jarred the ship and sent it listing hard to starboard, Crowe remembered that these were in no way normal circumstances.


There were no portholes in the lifeboat- marine transport designs didn’t make a lot of room for such luxuries- so there was no way for Crowe to get a look at whomever was shooting at them. The lifeboats were designed to be tough, though, with a heavy layer of armor to survive rough landings and automatic avoidance systems that were supposed to keep it from colliding with debris. It was not, however, designed to fly defensively against an enemy that was actively targeting the craft. For that, a secondary pilot station was available for the ranking marine to take control and hopefully fly the lifeboat to a safe landing.


With Ryn incapacitated, the duty fell to Sargent Ledg. Crowe looked his way and saw that he had pulled down the retractable overhead holopanel. A holo-display hovered above the device. Even though he was looking at it backwards, Crowe recognized the basic pilot controls layout.
Crowe pulled down his own reserve panel and called up a display that mirrored the sergeant’s. Before he could get a good look at the readouts, the lifeboat suddenly started vibrating with a familiar shudder. They had broken atmosphere over what Crowe could only assume was Pursit-2. The ship jumped and shook as it descended, but Crowe managed to get a look at the holo-display.


Ledg was bringing them in at a steep angle. It was what was making the ride so rough but Crowe understood why. There were five enemy contacts on the board. Two larger ones and three smaller. Ledg was bringing the lifeboat in through the atmosphere at such a steep angle in an attempt to get them off their tail.


Crowe expanded the sensor panel out since he didn’t need the control scheme. The ships consisted of two large freighters that had been retro-fitted with extra armor and weapons as well as room for a couple of fighter bays. Their transponders were masked so Crowe couldn’t get record their names or codes. Whatever these sents called themselves, they were so obviously pirates that they were nearly a cliche.


“Hold on, marines!” Ledg shouted. The angle of descent increased along with the bounce and shudder.


As Crowe watched the display shake and skip before him, he saw one of the smaller craft match the lifeboat’s trajectory for a few seconds before pulling up and firing a rocket their way.
Crowe saw the incoming contact, did a quick calculation of the lifeboat’s speed combined with its distance into the atmosphere, and then shook his head in resignation. There was no way they were going to avoid the attack.


Crowe tucked into a crash position and wondered if he’d be there when it was over.

*********


As it turned out, he was.


He woke up with a mouthful of crash foam. It was slowly dissolving all around him as the emergency chemicals in the oxygen rich mixture started breaking down into a thin gel. He could hear it dripping from the bulkhead and feel it running between his skin and his armor. Crowe had a real love/hate relationship with the stuff.


He spat out a wad of gel and did his best to get the chemical tang off his tongue without much success. He coughed once and shouted, “Sound off, marines!”


There were four choked responses from somewhere in the foam filled lifeboat. The crashfoam hadn’t dissolved enough for him to see anyone but he thought he recognized Forrd’s baritone. He wondered who hadn’t responded.


The foam loosened enough that he slapped at his harness and the straps came loose, retracting in slow crawls into their housings. Crowe stood up, breaking away wet chunks of the crash foam as he did so. He swayed slightly as he got his feet under him. For a moment he thought he might have taken a head wound and was dizzy but then realized that the deck was slanted beneath his feet and slick with dissolving foam.


He wiped away the residue that was still running around his eyes and blinked to clear his vision. Strong sunlight filtered through a massive rupture in the hull revealing a dry, rocky landscape beyond with large clusters of thick, gray shrubs that varied in height from a few centimeters to several meters. Crowe’s memory kicked into gear and he realized the he was looking at the exact spot Sargent Ledg had been sitting just before the rocket attack. The darker parts of his mind woke up and started a tally. Ledg made one. The pilot and co-pilot raised the tally to three.


“Who's’ with me?” he shouted as he kicked his way through the loose foam.


“Ivants, here,” came a reply. “I’ve got Ryn with me. He’s alive but unresponsive.”


“Forrd, here, corporal. I’m solid.”


“Marella,” came another reply. “I knew this op was gonna suck.”


“Stow that noise,” Crowe said. They were still missing one. A private, Crowe remembered. A female thimerian named Ja’tyr. He shouted her name.


“I’ve got her here, corporal,” Forrd said.


“What’s her status, private?”


The response was slow in coming. “She didn’t make it. Looks like shrapnel from the explosion, sir.” Crowe could hear the controlled fear in his voice.


Ja’tyr made four.


“Weapon up,” Crowe said, pulling his rifle from its rack next to his seat. “Forrd, help Ivants with the lieutenant. Marella, get eyes on the perimeter. I want us out of this lifeboat as of now. Whoever did this is on their way to confirm the kill and we need to be somewhere else. Go signal dark, burst comms only, and activate your thermal cloaks. Get it done.”


The foam had dissolved to a level that allowed Crowe to see the rest of the team wading through the chest deep sludge to carry out his orders. He spotted some minor cuts on a couple of faces but- aside from Ryn -they all seemed to be mission effective. Marella was at the breach staring out into the sunlight while Ivants and Forrd hurried through the process of wrapping a quick-splint around Ryn’s leg. They were hoisting him from the seat by the time Crowe reached Marella.


 The terrain was rocky and relatively flat but broken up by angled stone eruptions the size of small mountains that looked like they had burst up out of the planet’s surface and gotten stuck there. They reminded Crowe of the jagged bone he’d seen tear through Ryn’s leg and pants.


“Vacc, this planet smells like old cattle ass,” Marella said, his face a wrinkled in distaste.


He wasn’t wrong. The scent of sulfur and some things Crowe couldn’t identify hung in the air like an invisible fog. Gunny Briggs hadn’t been exaggerating.


“I’d rather not know how you got to know that particular scent,” Crowe said.


“Very funny. You know what I mean. So, what’re you thinking, Crowe?”


“Zero,” Crowe said.


“What?”


Crowe turned and met the other marine’s eyes. He’d been told many times that when he stared directly at someone it was like having two cryolasers focused in their direction. Granted, it was usually ex-girlfriends that told him that.


“We’re down and in distress in unknown territory,” he said, never breaking his gaze from Marella’s. “Call signs only from here out, marine.”


Marella nodded. “Right. Aye, that. What are you thinking, Zero?”


“Well, Boomer, I’m thinking those two dots on the horizon are a couple of enemy fighters coming our way to finish what they started.” Crowe nodded behind Marella.


Marella looked in that direction. It took him a second to spot the twin specks of shadow but when he did, he said, “Ah, shit! Incoming!”


“Move out, marines,” Crowe said with as much steel as he could muster, “Boomer, take point. Keep the lifeboat between us and the fighters.”


Marella gave him a quick nod and stepped into the sunlight, his ion rifle up and sweeping from side to side as he scanned for threats while he moved. Crowe covered Ivants and Forrd as they carried a groaning Ryn out of the breach. He followed and cut a sharp right to follow the path Marella had set.


Crowe glanced back just in time to see four flashes- two from each fighter -drop from the underside and streak towards the lifeboat.


“Rockets inbound,” he shouted. “Move it, marines.”


The order snapped them all into action, each one doubling their pace without looking back. Even Ivants and Forrd managed to speed up with Ryn between them, his toes barely brushing the stony, hard packed soil. Crowe moved fast as well but held back enough that he could look back and keep an eye on the fighters. They were still inbound but the rockets were far ahead of them. He counted off the seconds as they approached, made a guess at their speed, and shouted, “Drop and cover!” just a few moments before the weapons struck the lifeboat.


Four nearly simultaneous explosions flared fire and debris into the sky. A blast of heat rode the shock waves over Crowe and the rest of the prone marines like a hurricane draft out of some mythological hell. The ground shuddered under them as dirt, stones, and small pieces of lifeboat rained down. They stayed prone and covered, letting their body armor handle any debris that happened to hit them.


Crowe looked back when he thought it was clear. There wasn’t much left of the lifeboat. All he could see clearly was the lip of a crater pouring smoke and fire into the afternoon sky. Beyond that, though, he knew there were still two hostile fast movers inbound and loaded for war.
The light duty sentry armor they all wore was designed with multi-environment camouflage and had been programmed to the terrain that they had expected to be operating in.

 

Crowe knew it wouldn’t make them invisible but it would make them damn hard to spot from a couple of fighters screaming by overhead. Since they’d cut any constant signal output and masked their thermal signatures, they should be invisible to any standard sensors on ships that size. The problem would be if those ships decided to come to stop and hover over the area for an on old fashioned visual scan. The marines needed concealment and needed it fast.
He called all clear and ordered Boomer to head for the closest of the stone eruptions. If his suspicions were correct, there would be a shallow crevice or depression beneath it that should provide them with cover. He just hoped it didn’t turn out to be occupied by some kind of local wildlife.


The marines were up and moving again. Crowe was impressed with their focus and the fact that they didn’t complain or comment as they ran across the rocky, uneven ground. Even Marella, who had proved himself to be a talker more than once, kept his thoughts to himself. The only sounds were the slap of their boots on the hard soil, the occasional grunt of pain from Ryn, and the increasing whine of incoming ion engines.


“Here,” Marella called out as he crossed into the shadow of one of the smaller stone formations. “There’s a depression underneath. It looks clear.”


“Cover and conceal,” Crowe ordered. He picked up his pace and quickly closed the gap with the rest of the group. They all rushed into the stone littered depression. Crowe ordered Ivants and Forrd to take Ryn deeper into the formation while he and Marella took up prone firing positions near the lip.


“What are we-” Marella started. He shut up when Crowe shot him one of those ice filled glares.
The fighters reached the crash site as they watched. The two craft were obviously pirates or raiders of some kind. The way their ships were a cobbled together collection of parts and mismatched enamel was a dead giveaway for the type. Anyone who’d faced them, though, knew that the jury rigged appearance was not an indicator of their effectiveness. Successful raiders didn’t put inferior equipment into play.


The raider ships slowed to a hover over the ruined lifeboat. Crowe shouldered his rifle and sighted down the scope to magnify his view. He moved it until he had a view of one of the cockpits. It looked like they were dual crewed fighters though he couldn’t see through the cockpit screen very well. The housing was kind of cloudy, so not proper Transtel but more than likely some kind of homemade transparent steel. Despite this, he was pretty sure the pilot was a mardashian. He couldn’t make out more than a silhouette of the co-pilot. If they were doing a visual scan, the cloudy screen would work in their favor despite the mardashian’s naturally sharp eyesight.


A full, tense minute passed as the fighters hovered over the crash site, sliding this way and that to reorient their view. Suddenly, they turned as one towards the stone outcropping where the marines where hiding. Crowe felt Marella tense at his side. For a moment, Crowe thought he might move and risk giving them away but the mouthy marine held it together.
The fighters accelerated and ascended towards them, passing overhead with a roaring whine and nothing but a smoking crater to mark their passing.


Crowe followed the sound of the ships with his eyes despite not being able to see them through the stone overhang. When he looked back, he saw Marella staring at him.


“What?” he said.


“Can I talk now?”


Crowe snorted and said, “Only if you’ve got something worth saying, marine.”


“Something worth saying? Yeah, yeah, I got something worth saying. Asking, I guess, is more like it.”


“Then spit it out before you choke on it.”


Marella gritted his teeth and said, “What the vacc just happened? For vacc’s sake this was supposed to be a babysitting job! What the hell, Zero?”


“How should I know?” Crowe said. “I got the same briefing you did.”


“Oh, come on. You’re RAITH and I saw you chatting it up with Ryn after we lifted off. He must’ve told you something.”


“No, Boomer, he didn’t.”


“That’s a-”


“Zero,” someone said.


Crowe looked back and saw Ivants gesturing for him to join them. Ryn was sitting up against a boulder with his injured limb stretched out in front of him. There was a dark line of a wound that stretched over his scalp from the hairline but it didn’t seem to be actively bleeding. Forrd was busying himself with the medical kit they’d taken from the lifeboat.


Crowe stood up and made his way into the depression to join the rest of the marines. When he got there, he took the medical kit from Forrd and told the young leo to join Marella at the sentry position. Forrd seemed almost relieved to obey the order.


Crowe knelt next to the lieutenant. Before he could say anything, Ryn said, “What’s happened?”
Crowe shrugged. “We got shot down and didn’t die.”


Ryn’s eye’s darted around at the marines. “Two? We lost two marines? Who was shooting at us? What’s going on?”


Crowe shook his head and silently wondered why everyone kept asking him that.


“Report, dammit!” Ryn said.


Crowe met the officer’s eyes. They were wild to point of bordering on panic. His normally dark skin had paled to the color of thin blood. It was obvious the stress and his injuries were taking their toll.


Crowe started rummaging through the medical bag and said, “Well, for starters, our CO decided to break transit safety protocol and got his leg busted- which looked like it really hurt, by the way -then, what I think were some raiders shot the shuttle out from under us and we made planet fall in a lifeboat. That’s not an experience I’d recommend.”


“What? We’re on Pursit-2? Why aren’t we in the lifeboat? We need the emergency beacons if we’re going to get rescued.”


Crowe found a transdermal introducer and started sorting through the injectates. “Oh, the bad guys blew that thing to hell and gone. I don’t think it would’ve helped, anyway. I can’t seem to get a cuff signal past the planetary satellite network and the shuttle pilot said they had a comm malfunction just before the attack. I guarantee you there’s a signal interrupter net floating around up there.”


“What? Then, that means we can’t call…” Ryn grew quiet as the implications settled in with him. Crowe found the vial he wanted and loaded it into the injector.


“They’ll… they’ll come,” Ryn said, his voice shaky. “They’ll notice when we miss our check-in and they’ll come. We just need to wait here, stay hidden. The corps will come and save us. We just-”


Crowe pressed the introducer against Ryn’s neck and emptied the contents into his system. The cal had just enough time to look at him in shocked surprise before his head slumped forward and his body grew limp.


“What was that?” Ivants said. He sounded as shocked as Ryn had looked.


Crowe shrugged. “He looked like he needed something for the pain.”


He let Ivants take the introducer from his hand. The corporal studied it and said, “This isn’t a pain blocker. It’s a sedative.”


“Is it? My mistake, then.” Crowe kept his expression neutral.


“What’re you playing at, Zero?”


Crowe studied Ivants’ face. There was suspicion there but a kind of open mindedness, too. The latter made him feel a little better about what he was about to say.


“Here’s what needs to happen,” he said in low tones. “I’m going to leave and you’re going to take command. We didn’t need an armchair marine like Ryn getting in the way of that.”


Ivants’ eyes grew wide.


“Hear me out, marine. It’s a solid bet that the bad guys think we’re dead. If they didn’t they would have lit up our little hidey hole with some more missiles. Your best bet is to hunker down here and wait for reinforcements. The L.T. got that much right anyway.”


“You said ‘your’ best bet. Why aren’t you counting yourself?”


“Because I wasn’t kidding about the signal net. Sure, the Saturnalia will eventually figure out something is wrong and come looking but that could take days before they show up. Remember, there was another shuttle with us. We need to find out what happened to it and see about getting a message out to the Saturnalia. That’s my op. Yours is keeping everybody here alive.”


“They probably just shot down the other shuttle, too, right?”


“Maybe. If they did, we’ll need to confirm it but I don’t think that’s the case. These are raiders or pirates. They’re in this to get paid and that shuttle was loaded with a whole colony’s worth of medical and relief supplies not to mention the shuttle itself. There’s a lot of black market value there. This whole thing stinks of a staged ambush so I doubt they’d shoot down their winnings. I’m thinking they set up at the mining colony and have a way there to get a signal out through their net. I’m heading that way and calling in some support.”


“You know where it is? Where we are?”


Crowe nodded. “I was monitoring our position when we got shot down. My cuff collected enough data to figure our position. It’s a couple of hours hump from here but I can get it done. You just hold your position, play dead, and wait for the troops.”


“You shouldn’t go alone.”


“That’s exactly what I should do. It’s what I’m trained to do. RAITH, remember? Also, when this is over, report that you tried to stop me from dosing Lieutenant Ryn.”


“What?”


Crowe shrugged. “That’s how my after-action is going to read. Yours might as well agree.”


Ivants was looking at him like he didn’t understand. Crowe shouldered his rifle and said, “Think it over while you wait. In the meantime, only contact me if you’re forced to change position. Even then, just send me a signal burst. I won’t respond so don’t keep a channel open waiting. I’ll either join you or not. You focus on these marines.”


Ivants nodded. “Aye, that.”


Crowe gave him a nod and started up the depression. He was half way to the lip when he heard Ivants call after him. Crowe looked back and met the other marine’s hard eyes.


“Make ’em pay, Zero.”


Crowe gave him a quick nod and headed back into the sunlight. As he got his bearings and started in the right direction at a slow trot, he let his mind slip into the darker places he carried.


They owed him four.

*********


Late afternoon had settled over the mining facility by the time he came within sight of it. He was lying prone atop a ridge studying the layout through his rifle scope.


The facility looked to have a pretty standard arrangement for a mining setup if a little smaller in scale than Crowe was accustomed to. The rokalians were a slender race whose average height was right around a meter and a half. They had long limbs that seemed to flow more than move and, as Gunny Briggs had stated, they were a visually attractive race with exotic features and pale, smooth skin. The most striking thing about them were the very thin vestigial wings that draped below their arms from wrists to knees. These were often covered in colorful patterns of stripes and spots that were genetically consistent in familial bloodlines.


The few rokalians that Crowe could lay his eyes on, though, weren’t as beautiful as they once had been. From what he could tell, a dozen or more had been shot, heaped into a pile, and burned. The twisted, dark remains were still smoldering a short walk from where the Fleet relief shuttle had set down.


The vessel looked no worse for the wear. There was no sign of the crew, but three guards were posted around the shuttle, though they seemed more interested in telling jokes than actually guarding anything. Crowe lowered his rifle and thought over his options.


He’d come on the op kitted out for sniper duty, so the gauss rifle he was packing was more than up to the job of dropping the three guards in short order. He was relatively sure he could get them all before they could react in any significant way but that was a risk. If anything went wrong, if he missed or one of them got lucky, then they might get a call off and he’d have who knows how many more to deal with.


He tapped a command into his weapon and the long barrel retracted into the housing, significantly shortening the weapon. He secured it to his back before and let his hand brush the long bladed combat knife that was secured to his tactical vest. He needed to do this quietly.

Normally, he’d want the cover of night for something like this but there wasn’t time. Crowe didn’t see any sign of the shuttle crew which meant that they were either prisoners or had been taken elsewhere for execution. He chose to take the chance that they could still be rescued.
So, he ducked low and started moving. He crept among the stones and brush fast and silent, always aware of his target’s lines of sight as well as the lines of sight from any potential watchers that he might not have spotted. He stalked the three guards with all the patience of the alpha predator that he was.


When he finally came around the end of the shuttle he wasn’t surprised to find the three guards in pretty much the same formation they’d been in when he’d been watching from the ridge. They all looked up as he approached with nearly identical surprised expressions.


He came in without hesitation or mercy, his knife held down at his side. The nearest guard, a thimerian female with facial tattoos that stretched over her hairless scalp, turned to face him while raising her rifle. Crowe lashed out with the razor sharp blade in a wide, flat arc that opened a three inch deep incision all the way through the female’s throat. Dark blood fanned out into the air as the raider staggered backwards, rifle forgotten and both hands trying in vain to keep her life from spilling down the front of her ragged combat suit.


The other two guards, both human males, grabbed for their casually placed weapons but Crowe was too fast and too efficient. He lunged forward and pinned one of the men’s weapons with his left hand while his right arm hard-pistoned three times into his target’s chest high and on his left. Crowe knew from long practice that all three cuts had pierced the heart.


The last guard had taken a step back and was raising his hand to activate his datacuff, no doubt to call for help, but Crowe never slowed. He held on to the rifle that he had pinned as its former owner slumped to the ground and performed a graceful back spin that whipped the butt end of the weapon around in a fast swing. The stock connected with the remaining guard’s face. There was the crunch of breaking bone and a spray of blood and teeth as the impact sent the man tumbling to the ground.


Crowe was on him in an instant. He put his knee into the man’s back, shoved his face into the dirt, and stabbed him through the hand, pinning it and his now ruined datacuff to the hard soil. The guard screamed at the pain but Crowe kept his face pressed into the soil to muffle the sound.


He leaned down and whispered into the man’s ear. “Commonwealth Marines,” he said. “Try very hard not to think about what I’ll do to you if you don’t answer my questions.”


The guard turned out to be remarkably cooperative. He’d told Crowe everything he’d needed to know to get a message through the orbital signal net as well as where the shuttle crew was being held. The plan was to take them to a non-aligned world that was known for its thriving slave markets. Apparently, the raider’s leader- a mardashian known only as Slice -was not one to waste an opportunity for profit. Crowe thanked the guard by bludgeoning him into unconsciousness and leaving him bound and gagged behind some of the mining facility’s support struts.


As it turned out, most of the raiders were still aboard the orbiting cruiser that had launched the fighters responsible for bringing the two commonwealth shuttles down. What guards that remained dirtside were on the other side of the complex guarding the prisoners and the raider’s ships. According to the guard, Crowe had a reasonably clear path to the communications center. That was where he would find the encoder that would allow him to get a message out.


Crowe had retrieved what looked to be the best maintained of the raider’s weapons. It was a blocky Forceworks AS-15 slug-thrower with a lot of after factory modifications. As much as Crowe liked his marine issue sniper rifle, the long barrel wasn’t well suited to close quarters combat. His standard sidearm would have normally sufficed as a replacement but he didn’t want to disregard the chance that the guard had lied about the number of raiders on planet. If he stumbled across a group of them, he wanted something with more punch than the ion pistol. With a rate of fire that would make most sentients soil themselves right before it tore them apart, the AS-15 fit the bill nicely.


He entered the facility as quietly as he could, the only sound the soft metallic hiss of the aging mag-pistons that slid the doors open and closed. He moved fast and smooth through the corridors, the As-15 up with the holographic sights leading the way. His senses were on alert, every sensation that washed over him giving him hints as to what his environment might throw his way. The sulfur aroma was all but gone within the facility thanks to the atmosphere filtration system.


Crowe drew up close to a ‘T’ shaped intersection and hugged the wall on one side, listening intently for the sound of footfalls. There weren’t any footsteps but he could make out voices a little further down, though he couldn’t understand what was being said. After a quick check to make sure the way was clear, he rounded the corner and eased up next to an open door, taking in what he could of the conversation.


“-always sell well in the Harron markets,” someone said. The voice was soft and light. It reminded him of the soothing tones a physician might use when he was about to do something that was going to hurt.


“They had better,” a second, rougher voice said. “This whole job is a risk for my people. If you can’t deliver then we’ve drawn far more attention than was worth it.”


“Console yourself, Slice,” the first voice said. “I was able to arrange for these two vessels to fall into your net and I will be able to arrange for more once I’m installed into the New Alliance government. This is just a sample of what I can deliver. Complicated and massive political systems like the commonwealth always have acceptable loss margins built into their budgets. There will be ships for scrapping and bodies for the slave trade. You must only be patient.”
That was all Crowe needed to hear. He swept into the room with the AS-15 leading the way. He found himself face to face with a black and red feathered mardashah and a pale skinned, lavender eyed rokalian. He assumed the mardashah was Slice but had no idea who the other sentient was.


Slice was fast. All four of his arms moved at once, taloned hands snatching at four identical ion pistols that he carried in an assortment of holsters. Fast as the raider was, though, Crowe’s weapon was up and he was moving. He gave his trigger a quick squeeze and put three holes in Slice’s narrow chest. The raider fell backwards, the wall behind him suddenly covered with the contents of his torso.


Crowe swung his weapon towards the rokalian and found the sentient staring at him in unmistakable horror. He held his hands up in a universal expression of pleading. The sentient opened his mouth to speak but Crowe snapped at him to be silent.


He knew there was a chance that Slice’s remaining troops had heard the gunshots but he also remembered enough of the facility schematics to think they might not have. He took a quick look around and realized they were in the comm room judging from the array of consoles and holo-displays.


Crowe glared at the rokalian with his frozen stare and said, “Where are the prisoners?”


“They’ve gathered them on the landing platforms,” the rokalian said, his eyes still downcast. “They are awaiting departure orders.”


Crowe glanced at Slice’s body and said, “That’s going to be a long wait.”


“Please, sentient, whomever you are, show mercy. I was forced-”


“Don’t,” Crowe said, looking around the room. “I heard you. ‘Ships for scrap and bodies for slaving’. That was you. So, just don’t.”


The rokalian lowered his hands and met Crowe’s eyes. “Then perhaps I can be of some kind of service that will keep me from ending up like Slice, yes? You are a Commonwealth Marine, yes? I’ve never seen one of your profession before but the uniform is telling.”


Crowe gave looked him over and said, “What good are you?”


“I imagine you want to contact your vessel of origin? Call for reinforcements and rescue, yes? I can do that. I can open a channel through the signal net.”


“First thing’s first,’ Crowe said. “I saw security monitoring discs on my way in. Call up the feeds from the landing pads and let me get a look at what’s going on.”


“Of course, of course. It speaks highly of you that you seek to ensure your crewmates safety. I assure you, they are well. Injuries detract from their value and-”


“You’re going to want to stop talking,” Crowe said, his voice little more than a loud whisper.


The rokalian complied and within a few seconds had called up a holo-display that showed three ships settled onto an equal number of landing pads. Crowe counted seventeen raiders scattered among the ships. Four of them were circling a clustered group of ten Commonwealth Fleet personnel who were on their knees with their hands bound behind their backs.


The good news was that it looked like no one was reacting to the gunshots that had killed Slice and that the shuttle’s compliment was accounted for, pilots and all. The bad news was there was no way he could take on that many raiders without some of that same compliment dying.


“You said you could get a channel open through the signal net,” Crowe said. “Do that.”


The rokalian moved to another console and started swiping at the controls with his delicate, long fingered hands. A few seconds later he said, “Done. This console is prepared for your use. You may transmit whatever message you wish at your leisure.”


Crowe nodded his thanks.


“You will mention this at my arrest, yes? Let your superiors know I am cooperative, yes?”


“I’m not arresting you,” Crowe said. He nodded towards Slice and said, “He was number three.”


“I do not understand,” the rokalian said.


Crowe shrugged and said, “You’re the balance due.”


The rokalian opened his mouth to speak but the words were drowned out by three rapid percussions from the AS-15. The rokalian was dead before the sound faded from Crowe’s ears.

*********

Commonwealth Fleet Ship Saturnalia
Sector 321-Beta
In Orbit Above Pursit-2
0974.045 CWE
10 hours later

“So, you shot a rokalian national in cold blood?”


Crowe looked up at the Security and Intelligence officer that was seated across the desk from him. The man was a radder with skin that was a gray so light that it was approaching silver. The pips on his collar marked him as a lieutenant commander. The name on the uniform was Depont.


“He made a move for one of Slice’s weapons. Self-defense.”


“So you’ve said, corporal, but since all the monitoring for that time was corrupted we really can’t confirm it. Any idea how that happened?”


Crowe shook his head.


“I see,” Depont said. “And, once more, how exactly did you get the Fleet crew back unharmed?”


Crowe did his best not to sigh. “Most raiders are all about two things, commander; staying free and getting paid. I opened up the intercom and explained to them that their team leader was dead and that I was actively recording them. If they did anything to hurt our people, I’d have the action and their faces on a record that I would personally share with every dock, port, and black market space station known. I promised them that the commonwealth would take out bounties on each and every one of them large enough to guarantee they never got a peaceful night’s sleep again. When I added that I’d already called for the Saturnalia, they decided that bugging out was a smarter play than calling my bluff.


“Uh-huh. So you talked them down?”


“Well, it was more like a lot of threatening, but, yeah.”


“You do know that the commonwealth doesn’t commission bounties, right?”


“Don’t they? That seems like a waste of resources.”


Depont shook his head and cast his glance down at the report that was hovering above the desktop. “Lieutenant Ryn is still insisting that you intentionally incapacitated him.”


Crowe shook his head. “I regret that the L.T. thinks that. I just grabbed the wrong injectate. Stressful situation, honest mistake. You understand.”


“Oh, I’m pretty sure I do, corporal, so let me cut to the chase. You broke from your team in hostile conditions and struck out on your own with no orders to back you up. You launched a one man assault on an enemy encampment and killed a rokalian national who just happened to be a lock for a spot on the trade council once the trade agreement with the commonwealth was signed. A trade agreement that is now on indefinite hold thanks to this mess. All we really have to show for this whole debacle is one very beat up raider guard with a hole in his hand and a story about how you tortured him.”


Crowe nodded slowly.


“That’s it? You’re just going to nod?”


“I didn’t hear a question, sir.”


Depont’s face tightened in frustration but he went on. “The politicos want somebody’s head and you’re a choice target, Crowe. They could paint you as a rogue RAITH and hang this whole thing on you in the court of political opinion. The only reason you aren’t getting discharged and looked at for potential criminal charges is that you managed to bring your fellow servicemen back alive. So, you need to go away for a while.”


“Sir?”


“You’re being reassigned. It’s a security detail for some archaeological dig way, way out on the Edge. You’ll be out of sight and out of mind for anybody that wants to try and turn this disaster into some kind of public spectacle. Considering the alternative, be grateful. Orders incoming.”


Crowe tried and failed not to frown. A moment later, the datacuff on the back of his hand buzzed and lit up. He opened the message, read it, and looked up at Depont.


“Where the hell is Jeremiah’s World?” he said.


The End

 

Find out what's next for Marcus Crowe in The Cordova Incursion, Brace Cordova Book Two