It is said that the right melodies can generate powerful emotions. There is nothing melodic about a Thrakon operator activating her magnetic boots to attach herself to a hull. In smugglers, the sound generates one single emotion.
Felix Porter was jerked awake in his bunk by the sound of alarms clamouring. A ship-wide alert, Minos’ Folly was screaming with every voice she had as every siren and alarm that could sound out, did. The lighting flashed to emergency red. Silhouettes of running sailors created daemons, conjuring images of Kolasi, Hell. Felix fell out of bed, grabbed a shirt and ran down the hall, barefoot. He joined the stream of sailors headed for the armoury in their various stages of undress. Most of the crew had been asleep with only the graveyard watch awake.
The Quartermaster was hurling guns and ammo packs at every hand that beckoned, not even bothering to record their serial stamps. For once, every smuggler aboard was united in purpose, their lives and home were at threat. Felix Porter managed to secure himself an Ares PIP carbine. Owning a plasma induction pulse carbine was a crime that carried the death sentence. Felix figured, when the choice was between death for smuggling, or death for owning a gun, that he would much rather have a weapon in his arms.
He made it to his assigned station on the central access before he realised the quartermaster had handed him the wrong powerpacks.
His assigned station, no more than an upturned table hastily dragged out from the mess, did not inspire confidence. The sounds of gunfire began to echo down the corridor, fighting had commenced. There was the electric scream of PIP carbines, the rough roar of lightning guns and the dull thump of scattercannons.
There was some solace in the knowledge that the invaders would seek out the bridge first rather than his collection of tables outside the engine room. Not much solace, Felix had to admit, but some was preferable to none. Eventually the distant gunfire stopped. The alarms continued. They were next. Every gun pointed down the corridor, every eye peeled for the slightest hint of movement. With each sailor synced with the local sphere they presented a formidable welcome.
Silence greeted them.
“Hey, I thin-” What the smuggler next to Felix thought he’d never know. A blazing bolt of energy manifested in front of them and zigzagged through the air to touch him. His scream came out as a whisper as he was burnt to a crisp. Felix and the others recoiled in horror. They could avert their eyes, but the inescapable smell assaulted them. Someone was noisily sick.
Panic drenched through them, multiplied by the sphere’s sync. As one, they flooded the ship’s digisphere with scan queries, overwhelming the ship’s sphere with their repeated demands. A fragment of pain for them all as it crashed. They were individuals again, alone but for their terror. The projection of an empty corridor collapsed, revealing a fireteam barely more than 50 feet from them.
“We’ve been hacked!” Felix yelled. The invaders had turned their own ship against them. Too little, too late. His gun had no charge but he raised it all the same. A few guns barked, but it was no proud volley.
Three troopers, encased in the Navy’s fearsome Thrakon suits charged, pounding down the corridor with the fury of a Nemean lion. Grenades bounced into the collected ranks of the smugglers and exploded. Concussives battered them around, throwing them against the bulkhead, stunners blinded them. Blood poured from their ears as the pressure waves from the explosions rocked them. Worst of all was the digisphere jammers that burned through their minds, keeping them from the ship and each other, leaving them alone, uncoordinated.
When Felix had gathered his wits enough to take stock of his situation, he found himself staring up at a charged lightning gun. It hummed with a deadly purpose that Felix swore he could hear over the ringing in his ears.
He was still clutching his useless PIP carbine.
Surrender was easy.
The troopers dragged them to the bridge, the act made effortless by the suits that protected them.
Lieutenant Dominikiia Volkova looked down at the crew of Minos’ Folly. Her troopers had gathered the motley bunch and now they were kneeling before her, supplicants for mercy. As a group, they collectively begged for leniency, hoping for some, expecting none. Her eyes narrowed before she reached up and pulled off her helmet, hooking it to her suit’s waist.
She smiled. It was a simple thing, so alien amongst the fierce Thrakon suits that loomed over the smugglers. She stalked around them, interlink interrogator swinging idly. It was too risky to use the interrogator on them, they might have hardcoded viruses. It was always better to have a volunteer. That meant doing it the old fashioned way. The way the War Academy had taught her so long ago.
Of course, she reflected, that only made her position stronger. Smuggling ships, post-extinction, had a low turnover for crew. Each man and woman aboard was part of a family. A family she was going to hurt.
She nodded at Sergeant Yuan who made his way behind the group and grabbed one of the sailors, yanking his head back. Her eyes twitched as she activated the combat implant again, felt the soothing rush of Lethe fill her.
She waved Sergeant Yuan to proceed. He released the man, grabbed another.
Reactions rippled outwards from her prisoners. Shoulders tensed, necks hunched to appear smaller, less significant. She wrinkled her nose. Third from the left, pissed himself. Eyes screwed shut. Mouthing a prayer over and over. Useless to her. That one would say anything she wanted to hear. He’d be useful as an example.
“I need a friend. Someone who can tell me about the other ships.”
There. A slight tightening of the jaw. Anger. She pinged him to Sergeant Yuan. The right pressure would get that one to attack. Always useful to demonstrate the futility of resistance.
They were all like an open book to her. Second from the right. Sharp breathing. Panic, but more importantly eyes roving to the others. Concern for them? No. Those eyes kept trying to spot Sergeant Yuan. Concern for himself.
She pointed at a man who yelped as Sergeant Yuan yanked him forward. She knelt, servos hissing and drew her pistol. The barrel pressed hard into the man’s temple.
“What’s your name?”
“Felix. Felix Porter.” He whispered, eyes fixed on the barrel of her service weapon.
Dominikiia gave him a warm smile, “Lieutenant Volkova, Lyssa’s Fury. Nice to meet you. Now, Felix, we’re friends aren’t we? Friends help each other.”
“What do you want?”
“Little things. You help me, I help you. I want to know the ID codes of the other smuggling ships. In return, I offer safe transit to Hades 9.”
There was a murmur behind Felix as the gathered prisoners wondered if safe transit was for them or just her new friend.
“I don’t know any other ships.” A note of defiance crept into Felix’s voice as he looked up at the Lieutenant. There was a look in her eyes that suggested she didn’t think very highly of him.
“That sounds like a lie to me, you smugglers are a parea together,” she replied.
Felix tried to back away, expecting a blow, but the Lieutenant stamped down on his left leg, letting the full weight of her suit press on his leg. The snap of bone was a sound that burned into Felix’s mind as intensely as the pain that followed. Red hot. He’d never experienced pain as intense as that in his life. His scream was raw and vibrant, filled with fear.
Fear that he was about to be given a great deal more experience in his immediate future.
Dominikiia curled her lip in disgust. She wasn’t returning to Lyssa’s Fury without answers. Failure was something she would not accept. Failure raised the spectre of weakness.
“Sergeant Yuan, fetch one.”
Her sergeant dragged a man to her feet. The rancid stink of piss grew stronger. Her sergeant had good instincts. Dominikiia switched her pistol over to the other man. He tried to writhe away, but Yuan held him in place.
“In five seconds, you are going to be responsible for his death.” She told Felix.
She started counting.
It was easy to be defiant in the face of “The Enemy” but Dominikiia had yet to find someone who could remain defiant for long when the plea for mercy came from an ally beside them.
Felix struggled against the binds that held him. “Malaka! I don’t know any!”
“I don’t know! It was always coordinated via dead drops in the digisphere!”
Dominkiia reached five.
“Too bad. He was handsome.”
She pulled the trigger, felt it as the neuro-links on the gauntlet shared the recoil feedback. The action was mechanical, her suit’s combat injectors ensured that neither tremour nor hesitation interrupted her. Morality was an inefficiency. Her instructors, long dead on Polis, would have praised her response times. She cast the lifeless corpse aside.
Felix found himself forcefully pushed against the still warm body, like a misbehaving animal. His face was shoved against still wet chunks of his former crewmate and he shut his eyes. But nothing he could do would shut out the smell, the crawling wet feel of flesh or the voice shouting in his ears.
“His death is on you. Tell me about the other ships!” She shook him like a ragdoll. Felix could not repress the cry of pain as his broken leg caught on the floor, raking him with pain.
“I- I told you, we don’t know!” He cried.
Dominikiia’s only answer was to look up and nod at her sergeant. “Bring me another.”
“Ma’am, are y-” Yuan hastily swallowed the rest of his question when Dominikiia looked at him.
“Sergeant Yuan, you had better not be about to question the order a superior officer has given you.”
He dragged another forward.
Alert. One of the men was about to launch himself at her. She could shoot him before he’d even stood up. Sergeant Yuan and two of her troopers were within reaction time. A quick sphere order could have the man messily minced from three directions.
She ordered them to stand down.
Her tactical alert pinged. She’d heard a crunch. His jaw had moved.
A hollow tooth.
Her troopers were outside reaction time. She pinged Yuan her course of action.
It was not anger that had pushed Gerald Braddock into action, but shame at his inaction. There was no plan, no heroic endeavour with which to spring upon their fearsome captors.
Just a hollow tooth with enough nanites to consume him and maybe take one of his captors with him.
All he would need is to spit.
In any case, the first bullet punctured his lungs. He collapsed as the second hit his chest.
With the nanites at work, there wasn’t enough left of his head for the third bullet to work with.
“Bring me another.”
It took four further executions before Lieutenant Volkova was finally convinced that Felix Porter and the rest of his crewmates had no useful intelligence for Captain Galweigh. The lack of results frustrated her and as she stared at the bulkhead of the dropship, she could feel her suit easing off the Lethe. It was a familiar pain, a burning sensation in her chest that went hand in hand with a heaviness that pulled at her like a quagmire. Her eyes turned to the enemy, except they weren’t anymore. Now, they were prisoners. People. Frustration vanished, guilt came.
It was easy to blame the Lethe, easy to seek solace in obedience.
But, she was good at what she did.
And she knew it. There was a perverse pride in it too, at some level that she refused to dig into.
She forced herself to look at them.
They huddled in a group, empty eyed and subdued as they were escorted to the brig on Lyssa’s Fury.
As Lieutenant Volkova walked down the dropship’s ramp, she heard Sergeant Yuan call out to her,
“Ma’am? Do you want to debrief the men?”
There was a strange look in his eyes that she’d never seen on any prior mission. Dominikiia thought it was pity. He could take his damn pity and shove it where the stars didn’t shine. She shook her head, “No. There’s no need.”
Yuan coughed, “Do you want to have a debrief?” His eyes had drifted to her hands, she didn’t need to follow his gaze to know he could see them shake. She clenched her hands, balling her fists tight. Yuan took a step back, for a second he thought the lieutenant intended to attack him.
Dominikiia snapped at him, “I don’t need a goddamned debrief. You’re excused sergeant. Now, get the hell out of my way.” She stormed off, pushing past him.
She realised maybe it was concern, but she didn’t much like what that suggested either.
Her quarters were minimalist aboard Lyssa’s Fury, but greater than someone with her salary could afford on Hades 9. The room’s size was a result of simple necessity. Sailors kept and maintained their survival suits, Thrakon operators did the same with their armour. This suited Dominikiia just fine, who enjoyed the privacy her quarters afforded her.
She slipped out of her armour. Clad in only her ship suit, she felt strangely naked, as if she were incomplete without it. The shaking in her hands was worse now. No Lethe to keep herself from herself. The ghosts were coming back. Sometimes they haunted her days too. The fact that one arm was bionic apparently didn’t matter one whit to her shaking hands. The rattling of the arm’s servos irritated her to no end. She jumped as someone knocked on her door, cursing, but recovered as a voice hissed,
“Domi, let me in.”
She cracked the door open, cast a nervous look outside, then tugged in the engineer who stood outside into her room. Once inside, she lifted her shaking hands.
“Please tell me you have more.”
The engineer’s lean face broke into a sly grin.
“You know as well as I that drugs like Lethe are not easily pilfered from ship stores. Especially when they’re slated for combat-use only. Lucky for you, Alfred Pryor is a man of many talents.”
In his palm, a Lethe pill rested. Dominikiia could not stop herself from taking a step forward. There was hunger in her eyes as she gazed at the tiny thing, the gel version of her own suit’s injector suite.
Alfred smiled at her, it was not a kind gesture. It was the smile of a man with pride over his dominion.
“Please, give it to me.” Dominikiia begged, hating the wheedling tone that escaped her.
“You’ll have to take it.” Alfred said, popping the pill into his mouth.
Lieutenant Volkova was many things. Stupid was not one of them. The pill in his mouth was the only thing that would stave off the ghosts that haunted her, the only thing that would still the shaking and let her be her, or at least the her that was in control.
She knew her reliance on the combat drug had grown into dependence.
She knew she couldn’t trust herself without them, not anymore.
And she knew that Alfred Pryor with his sickening smile knew it too.
She took the offensive, advancing towards her target and seized him, grappling with him.
But this was a different sort of fight, one where Alfred Pryor had as much finesse as she.
As she kissed him, the pill passed between them. It brought clarity of purpose and focus, banished the ghosts. The Lethe steadied her shaking hands, made her strong.
Yet she was not free of her perceived weaknesses.
She had only traded one set of chains for another.