“Totaled” is available for free in the Amazon US and UK stores, Barnes and Noble, and Wattpad. It is also featured in The Officer: Eleven Science Fiction Short Stories, ed. Alasdair Shaw.
A Starship Fairfax Prequel Story
The Kuiper Chronicles
By Benjamin Douglas
Copyright 2017 Benjamin Douglas. All rights reserved. The author’s permission is required for any reprinting, distribution, or recording of this content. All persons within are fictional and not intended to be representative of any real persons.
The ship’s computer was acting up again, Dolridge was sure of it. There was no reason for the unauthorized persons alarm to be going off. Not this far out from port. If there had actually been any unauthorized persons aboard, they would have been detected hours ago, back in the Kuiper Belt. There weren’t any ways to get around the scans. So why was the computer insisting on telling him otherwise?
To aggravate his splitting headache, of course.
“Sir?” That new officer was looking at him again. Did she have to do that? No one else bothered anymore. They all had the courtesy to look at their feet and pretend they hadn’t seen the red circles around his eyes, the patches of stubble on his face. Around the rest of them he’d learned not to care what his face said, what his posture betrayed. But now she was looking at him, and something inside told him to sit up straight and project confidence. If only he could remember how.
She cleared her throat.
Right. The alarm was still going off.
“Yes, officer…” He squinted at her, trying to recall her name. Yeah, right. As if there was room for new names in his omelet of a brain.
“Caspar, Sir.” She saluted. He grimaced, but returned it. “Shall I send a squad to check that out, Sir?”
He squinted again. “Squad?”
He waved a hand. “Sure. Send the techies while you’re at it, though. More likely a crossed wire than a stowaway.”
She nodded. “Yes, Sir.”
He watched her punch in a few commands at her console. She was good at her job, he had to give her that. It was odd, seeing someone display competence. Maybe he’d been floating on the fringes in this tin can for too long. Too many hours lost in the bottom of a flask.
Or far too few.
“Officer, um…” He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to recall the name she had just given.
“Right. Caspar, you have the bridge.”
“I’ll be in my cabin until o’eight-hundred.”
“Aye, Sir.” Her eyes refocused on her console. Good. Keep them there, Caspar. Let an old man keep what little dignity he had left while making excuses to go lose himself in his cups.
He probably shouldn’t be leaving the bridge—not when the Captain had left him in charge of the ship. But where was the need for an XO when there were no orders to give? Nothing interesting was going to happen on this trip. It never did.
The alarm blaring overhead brought him slowly to his senses, mingled as it was with the alarm that always sounded in his dream. In his nightmare. He shook himself from sleep and fell onto the floor, cursing as he spilled what passed for scotch down the front of his uniform.
“Commander Dolridge to the bridge,” a distant voice kept repeating. The com. He pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the overwhelming desire to vomit, and slapped at his wall console. A ding from the computer alerted him that someone was waiting outside his door. The ding was louder than the com, so he answered the door first.
It was that eager officer.
Light spilled in around her and he flinched, blinking.
“Sir.” She saluted. He growled as he held up a hand, covering his eyes.
“What is it, gunner?”
She pursed her lips. Oh, had he upset her? Good.
“Nav computer was doing a sweep and picked up Earthers this side of the rings. Three regent-class, probably armed to the teeth. Bogies, Sir. Out-of-bounds.”
He dropped his hand and propped himself up straight in the doorframe. “Earthers? Here?” She just stood there, watching him. Waiting for him? To do what? Push the power button and restart the Nav? It was obviously on the fritz. No way anyone but Kuiper-friendlies were pushing battleships around out beyond Saturn. “Sounds like the ship’s computer going the way of the buffalo.” He pressed his lips shut for a moment, swallowing bile.
She quirked an eyebrow, confused. “Buffalo, Sir?”
“Yeah, you know. Big. Hairy. Extinct.” He stumbled out into the hall and the door hissed closed behind him. These kids. He wasn’t an XO; he was a nursemaid. Clearly he would have to go back to the bridge to smooth some feathers. His gung-ho gunner probably had half the crew readying for battle.
“Sir, are you feeling alright?” She called after him, watching him still. Always.
“I’m fine,” he snapped.
“Do you want me to call battle-stations, or should I—”
He spun around so quickly he saw three of her, and he had to hold a hand out to steady himself. “I’m sure you’ve done enough, gunner.”
“Officer Caspar, Sir.” She was quieter now, thank the stars. But she sounded defiant. Maybe she should. They both knew he had no right drinking this much while on duty. But did she have to take every little blip and blop from nav so seriously?
“Caspar.” He sighed. “You are relieved of bridge command.” She opened her mouth, and he raised a hand to stop her. “Thank you for bringing this… situation… to my attention. You may resume your post as munitions officer.”
“Sir.” She saluted and he completed his walk down the hall, trying to stop the walls from bending.
On the bridge, he fell into the captain’s chair like a sack of potatoes, wheezing. “Somers.” His tactical officer turned slowly. His face was set in a permanent scowl, his back hunched over a belly a bit larger than the fleet typically encouraged for active officers. He, like the XO, wasn’t used to being needed out here. The roles seemed vestigial, spillovers from more active sectors of the system.
Somers waited. “What’ve you got?” Dolridge said.
“Sir?” The fat man pursed his lips. “Just between us? Bad knees and a runny colon.”
A few half-hearted snickers from the crew. Dolridge sneered. “I bet that’s true. C’mon. Why is that alarm still sounding?”
It was truly stunning, the lackadaisical way his crew moved. No one responded to his question. He heaved a deep sigh and muttered a curse.
“Alright. Somers, I want you to triple-check the info coming in from nav. Run some scans.”
The fat man took a raspy breath. “Which scans would you—”
“Are you my head tactical officer or aren’t you? Get creative. Mix it up. Just confirm that this is or isn’t good intel.”
The tension was broken by the bridge doors hissing open. In stepped Caspar, saluting. “Sir, munitions inspection complete. Ready for anything.”
“Thank you, officer,” he grumbled, waving the salute back at her. She took her seat beside Somers.
Dolridge slapped at the console in front of him, pulling up his head of security on the com. “Officer Marx, come in.”
He tried again. Nothing. He bit on his tongue, still fighting the persistent tug of nausea. If anyone onboard had a bigger drinking problem than the XO, it was probably the chief of security. A fine pair they made. There were reasons men got shipped off to wander out in the boonies, he supposed. They weren’t ever supposed to need an active security force, either.
“Marx, I don’t care if you’re lying in a puddle of your own… . Just come in already.”
He could all but feel the young gunner’s eyes burrowing a hole between his shoulder blades. She must be itching to speak up and offer to go check on the man. Itching to prove herself. Show how much better she was than all of them. It made him even more sick, but also a little sad. Maybe a little wistful. Hadn’t he been hungry to prove himself, once? Hadn’t he been young and full of hope?
All things die.
He spun around, avoiding her eyes. “Alright. Caspar.”
“Sir?” At least she had the good grace to sound surprised.
“Since our good Mr. Marx appears to be indisposed, I want you to head down to security, get a team together, and get the ball rolling.”
“The ball, sir?” Her eyes were wide like a child with an ice-cream cone, and he almost laughed in her face. Probably for the best that he didn’t. His laugh was known to make children cry.
“The investigation, Officer Eager. You know. The supposed unauthorized person or persons onboard?”
She smiled ear to ear, like an idiot. Like a complete buffoon. Like a perfect angel. He shook his head.
“And get a techie on nav. I want that alarm shut down and a full diagnostic.”
“Yes, Sir!” She saluted again and left the bridge, leaving him in the company of Somers and the let-downs.
Oh, well. It could be worse. He could have a whole crew like Caspar.
An hour later, things were both better and worse. The alarm had been quelled, for starters. And Caspar hadn’t found any stowaways—not yet, anyway—so there was that. Maybe the best news should have been that, after a conclusive series of manual sweeps, tactical had definitively denied the presence of any Earth warships.
But Dolridge didn’t feel good. Not that he remembered what ‘good’ felt like, per se. But he felt uneasy about the whole stinking thing. Because without a reboot or anything, apparently even nav was now reporting all clear. That just didn’t make sense. Real or not, tiny armadas didn’t just disappear into the vacuum of space. Something was wrong.
He fastened the top button of his uniform shirt and splashed a handful of cold water on his face, then left the lav, heading for the Captain’s quarters.
Old Gray didn’t drink the way Dolridge did. But he certainly did love his solitude. And out here, patrolling the fringes of Kuiper-Colony space, that was okay. A crew hardly needed a captain, because all the crew needed to do was keep the ship moving.
Their current course was a wide solar orbit about ten AUs beneath the orbit of Saturn. They were basically a high-cost security camera, set in place to monitor any inner-system ships that tried to enter Kuiper-space from below. And whatever excitement was to be had between the colonies and the inner forces seemed to stay up on the orbital planes. People just didn’t fly down here. The only UFOs they ever came across were hunks of space junk.
Their cargo hold was a testament to this. It held the ruined remains they’d scooped up: bits and pieces of other starships; empty escape pods; dated, irrelevant fighters. It was a service they provided to the fleet.
So they were on duty in the sewer of the solar system, and Captain Gray was the plumber. He didn’t care for it much, so he spent most of his time cooped up in his cabin with his private library. Which left Dolridge to preside over the let-downs and to babysit the occasional green officer sent their way for an inauspicious first tour.
His com beeped and he answered.
“Sir? It’s Officer Caspar, Sir.”
Ah. Speaking of the green ones.
“What is it, Officer?”
“Maybe nothing, Sir, but we’ve been unable to validate a log entry from—”
“If it may be nothing, it can wait. Dolridge out.” He snapped off the com and buzzed for entrance. The doors slid open.
Captain Earnest Gray sat in his antique armchair beside his faux fireplace, an ancient trade paperback in hand. His feet, clad in velvety red slippers, were up on a stool, ankles crossed. Dolridge suppressed a sneer. Captains shouldn’t cross their ankles. Not when an officer could see.
“Dolridge.” Gray acknowledged him without raising his eyes. “How’s the run?”
“Smooth as butter, Sir. That is, we’re gliding along fine. But, ah…”
Gray glanced at him from behind his book. “Spit it out, XO.”
“It’s probably nothing, Sir.” He blushed, hearing Caspar’s voice in his own. “A few quirks here and there. Nav thought she spotted a bevy of Earth ships, comp sounded the UP alarm. Both came to nothing. Scans complete, system recalibrated, nothing. Still, just thought you should know.”
Gray pursed his lips. “Didn’t we have a specialist come in to debug before we left Pluto?”
“Aye, Sir.” Dolridge raised his eyebrows. “Guess they must have missed something. I’ll keep an eye on her for a relapse.”
“Mmm.” Gray’s eyes found his book again. Dolridge inclined his head and turned to go. “Gavin.” Dolridge stopped cold. He hated it when people called him that.
“What about our new munitions officer… Caspar?”
“What about her, Sir?”
“She doing alright?”
“She’s doing enough. Maybe too much.”
“Hmm.” The captain brought his book down. “She was top of her class at the academy. I hear the jealousy of an old spacedog.”
Dolridge cracked a half-smile in spite of himself. “With respect, Sir, it takes one to know one.”
Gray nodded. “Were we young once?”
The XO shook his head. “Not me, sir. Someone else just borrowing my face for a while.”
“You know, she reminds me of someone we once knew.”
Dolridge clenched his jaw.
Gray’s voice sank to a whisper. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“Sir.” Dolridge’s voice had gone cold. “I’ll be on the bridge.” He left the captain in silence.
The problem was, it was his fault. Had been. No words would ever change it.
It was the sound that had stayed with him, would always stay. The sound of her body meeting the floor. He’d been on the com with her when it had happened. Wasn’t even a military engagement. Not an honorable death. Just an inspection on a freighter that had gone wrong when the pirate-loving smugglers had panicked and decided to open fire on the authorities. In all his years of flying, Dolridge had never seen anything else like it. No reason, no thinking-it-through. Just sheer, animal panic, and boom. People died. His people. She had been making her report to him when they’d attacked. Shot her in the back. She never even knew.
The report had gone from mundane details to blaster fire to a dull thud. It echoed still.
There should be a law against taking your own child on a starship. Oh, there were rules. But rules could bend and break, and frequently did when the right palms were greased or the right names were dropped. So when, five years ealier, an impressive up-and-coming officer had been requested by her father to serve under his command, the assignment had been made.
Now there wasn’t a day he didn’t see her face or hear that sound in his mind.
He turned the corner, and for just a moment thought he was seeing her in front of him, standing there, arms crossed. He stopped mid-gait and stared, blinked. No. It was just Caspar.
“Report, Officer,” he growled as he walked past. She turned and walked with him.
“Sir, invalid log entry just before we left port. Comp shows a ‘Dr. Sarel’ checked in to hitch a ride past the rings. Only, security says there’s no such person aboard. We think the alarms were triggered by who or whatever came on in his place.”
Dolridge froze. “Are you telling me there is an unauthorized person aboard this ship?”
Caspar nodded. “That seems to be the case, Sir. But security is puzzled. I’ve had the comp review all footage from the passenger section, and there haven’t been any—”
She was getting more and more difficult to understand, the words beginning to blur together. She paused, peering at his eyes.
“Sir? Can you hear me?”
A fog was creeping into the corners of his vision.
“Sir, get down!”
She grabbed him by the shoulders and thrust him to his knees, then pulled him down to his belly. Together, they lay on the floor. A cough racked his body. His head cleared a little.
“Gas?” he croaked, his throat struggling to open.
Caspar nodded, blinking away tears and coughing.
The vents in the corridor lined the wall along the ceiling. They seemed to have some clean air down by the floor, but who could say how long that would last? And the door to the bridge was a full twenty meters away—could take some time in a belly crawl.
Dolridge rolled onto his back and tore his shirt open. Buttons popped, askew. He wrangled out of it and tied it around the lower half of his face, up above his nose, like a bandana. Caspar did the same. Then together, they crawled on forearms and knees.
He’d once prided himself on his physical fitness—back when he’d been an up-and-coming young buck serving the Council of Kuiper in espionage missions. Now, the most exercise he got in a day was strolling from the bridge to his cabin. His throat and eyes burned from the poison, and his lungs screamed in protest, but he forced himself to take short, shallow breaths, trying to get by with as little air as possible so as not to imbibe any more gas.
Caspar seemed to go slowly on purpose—must be matching his pace. He growled, frustrated, but couldn’t waste the air to tell her to hurry up. Anyway, it’s what he would have done, too, if he’d been the faster one.
The door was closer, he knew it. Another five meters. Maybe three. But it was fading, falling away from him. Caspar looked over, saw his eyes, and looked worried. She grunted, took a deep breath, and rose, sprinting the remainder of the distance and slapping the console on the wall. It dinged.
But the door didn’t open.
She slid to the floor, took a deep, racking breath, and had a coughing fit.
Dolridge breathed in fire through his nose. Yep. He was too old for this nonsense.
He somehow managed to crawl to the door, then reached up and slapped the keypad again. Same thing—ding, but no dice. He turned on his back and kicked, hard. There was no give. Stupid thing.
Another few seconds and they would both pass out, and he doubted they would ever wake up. There wasn’t much to lose by taking a chance. So he slipped his blaster pistol from its holster at his belt, tried to aim at the console, and fired.
The round lit up the foggy air like a nebula. He blinked his bleary eyes, refixed his aim, and shot again. This time sparks flew from the console and it smoked, the cover melting away.
Dolridge grabbed Caspar by the shoulder and struggled to speak.
“Tear out the… circuit.”
She nodded and rose to her knees, still coughing. Then she cleared away some debris from the smoldering console, reached inside, and pulled. A grunt, a snap, and a little piece of circuit board came out in her hand. She tossed it to him.
The doors hissed open.
But the scene on the bridge wasn’t much better. Bodies hunched over stations, everyone already unconscious. The gas seemed even thicker here. It was acrid and smoky, creating a hellish atmosphere. This must have been ground zero for dispersal; the bridge crew had never had a chance.
Happily, there were emergency ventilation contingencies. But Caspar and Dolridge had already pushed their bodies to the max. They would have to crawl at least halfway across the bridge to get to the nearest station, then just hope it was in better working order than the door had been.
He glanced at her. Her eyes were grim, jaw set. She knew they weren’t going to make it.
Small, narrow portholes on either side of the viewscreen looked out onto empty space. A light flashed through the smoke from the porthole to the left. Dolridge peered up and saw the light come to settle outside. It was followed by a single, continuous blasting charge at the porthole.
A hand grabbed Dolridge by the shoulder—Caspar—and pushed him back through the doorway. She rolled through after him.
“Put it back,” she croaked, pointing at the broken console. No use. Her voice was an impotent hiss.
Instead, she grabbed the circuit board from him and lurched up to the console. He watched in bewilderment as she jammed it back into its slot. The doors closed again, but not before the blaster outside cut through the porthole. All the gas on the bridge rushed out, and the gas in the corridor was sucked along behind it. Fresh air followed from the vents, and when the door finally sealed, Dolridge and Caspar had air to breathe.
They sat, their backs to the door, gasping in lungfulls of clean oxygen. Dolridge struggled to his feet, balancing against the wall. Stars swam in his eyes.
“Marx,” he groaned into his com. “Come in. Marx? You there?”
A crackle of static, then nothing. Dolridge sighed heavily.
Caspar was fiddling with her comp device. “Hull breaches all over the ship, Sir. Looks like engineering has been spaced… lower decks are shot… and—” She paused, looking like she might vomit, and cursed.
“Well?” he asked.
“The bunkhouses, Sir. They’re gone.” She held up the device and he scanned the screen. Sure enough, the crew quarters had been breached and destroyed. A lifeforce scan revealed no survivors in the lower decks. Neither was anyone alive on the bridge, which was now open to the void.
She took the device back. “I’ll have the comp run a systems-wide diagnostic. Could this be a security malfunction, Sir? Ship thinking she’s cleaning house?”
Dolridge shook his head, jaw clenched. “I know exactly what this is. If you’re the praying sort, Caspar, set your spiritual affairs in order. Neither of us are leaving this ship alive.”
It had been over a decade since he’d given up spying and joined a starship’s crew. But he still remembered his last mission, what he’d seen. A prototype squadron of space marine drones, developed on Old Earth and up for bid to anyone in the inner worlds. Send them out into space and they could home in on any target for reconnaissance or an attack, with no loss of life. The real treat was their AI, a massive upgrade to previous combat drones, which had substantial trouble operating in the realities of the void.
“Drones,” he grunted. “From Old Earth. Or whoever owns them now. Maybe Earth forces. Or the Sons. Hard to say. Doesn’t matter.”
“How do you know, Sir?”
“It’s their MO. Latching onto a ship’s hull and cutting through with prolonged blasting rounds. Once they’re in, all the atmo jettisons out into space.” Eventually the ship would be left an empty husk of space junk. An eternal graveyard.
Caspar’s device beeped. “Sir, a lifeform in the Captain’s cabin! Gray must be alive!”
Dolridge grunted and pushed off from the wall. His vision swam and he fall back against it. Caspar rose to her feet, eyes still glued to her device screen.
“I’m going to go check on him. You alright here, Sir?”
“Of all the lousy times you’ve seen me propped up against a wall, barely able to walk in a straight line, this is the time you’re just going to leave me here?”
She frowned and made to help him stand up straight, but he waved her off.
“No, no. Go. I’m kidding. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, gunner. We’re all three of us going to die today.”
“I’m not ready to believe that, Sir.” Her voice had grown quiet again.
“It doesn’t matter what you believe. Sometimes death just sneaks up and takes what it wants.”
She stepped back from him. “With all due respect, Sir, I don’t really care what you think right now. Look, if you have intel, and you want to help me, then let’s help each other and survive. But if your plan to is wait here until those things cut through that door and pull us out to die in the void, then you might as well just go open the door for them. Me? I’m going to breathe until I can’t anymore.”
She turned and sped toward Gray’s chamber. Dolridge watched, grimacing. Had he ever had such a drive to survive? Maybe she was right about him. Maybe, after she was safely inside with the door shut, he should just go back onto the breached bridge and be done with it. How long would it take to die in the void, anyway? He pursed his lips and started going down the checklist of what would kill him if he got shot out into open space.
But then death would win, a voice seemed to say.
He’ll win in the end anyway, he thought back.
He’ll claim your body. Not your spirit.
Death claimed my spirit long ago, he thought, coldly.
So claim it back.
Talking to himself? He really was advancing quickly into his dotage.
Anyway, what harm would it do if he chose to just die? What great scar would he leave behind? None. No one would mourn him. No one would remember him as he lived now. Everyone he had cared for had already grieved his loss, first when he had retired from spying for the Kuiper Blade, second when he had retired into his booze after Sarah’s death.
And Sarah. She wouldn’t judge him too harshly, would she? On the other side? Surely she would understand. She must have seen his suffering. Must have missed him all this time. Maybe she would even laugh with him about it all, be glad that he had finally given up and taken the easy way out. They could be together. They could be a family again.
Down the hall, Caspar had reached the Captain’s quarters. She swiped at the console and the doors slid open. Dolridge turned away, his eyes on the door to the bridge.
He heard blaster fire.
Followed by the dull thud of a body.
Dolridge gasped, his head clearing all at once. He was halfway down the hall to her, his lucid mind telling himself that it wasn’t Sarah, that he wasn’t reliving her death. Another few paces and he saw Casper roll to the side, just in time to avoid another round.
So she hadn’t been hit; she had dropped to the ground under fire. He caught his breath and told himself to calm down. She saw him and her eyes widened. She nodded back inside Gray’s cabin.
“Captain’s dead,” she mouthed. “It’s a drone.”
Broadcasting as a lifeform? That was a new trick. But he supposed if they had been programmed to act as lures, maybe they had replicated Gray’s sig before frying him. Or maybe the AI had come up with that tactic all by itself. The hairs on Dolridge’s arms stood up, and he suppressed a thrill of horror. Maybe the drones were hunting them, adapting to their environment, trying to trap the survivors.
Trying to trap Caspar.
He saw Sarah’s face in his mind, her arms outstretched, beckoning, and silently, inwardly, said, not yet. Then he pulled his pistol out, squatted, aimed toward the door, and rolled across the opening, covering himself with fire.
Of course the drone fired too. It clipped him in the arm and he dropped his pistol, biting his tongue and groaning as his flesh sizzled. But he made it to the other side of the doorway alive.
“You alright, Caspar?” he asked.
She raised an eyebrow and looked at his arm. “You sure you’re the one who should be asking that right now?”
He glanced at it and chuckled. “That’s nothing.” His arm didn’t look good. But in sleeveless undershirts, they could both see the many other scars on his arms and shoulders. Souvenirs of the old days, when he was a Blade agent.
He caught her staring, and she met his eyes. “You know, they can get rid of those scars if you want.”
He sniffed. “Nah. I don’t want them to make me pretty. I want the reminders.”
“That I’m alive. C’mon.”
At the end of the corridor, a panel concealed a maintenance hatch. Together they pulled off the panel and turned the dog lever. The hatch hissed open.
“Wait.” Dolridge stopped Casper with an arm. He leaned forward and took a whiff of the air from the maintenance shaft. It was clean. When he looked back at Casper, he saw a look of amusement on her face.
“Sir, am I going to have to report you for conduct unbefitting an XO of the Kuiper Fleet?”
His arm was stretched across her chest, covered in a tight undershirt. He fought a blush and pulled his arm back.
“Oh, shut up, gunner. You know what I was doing.”
The ship harbored a small force of escape pods, most of them in the lower decks. From what Caspar’s scans had reported, it looked like these had all been destroyed. But there was a lone escape pod just a level up, held there for quick access from the bridge.
They headed up, pulling themselves carefully, rung by rung. Orange running lights gave the shaft an eerie glow. A level up they reached another hatch, and turned the wheel.
This deck still had atmo, but it was deathly quiet. “Caspar, you seeing any lifeforms?”
“No,” she said grimly, looking up from her device. “Not another on the whole ship.”
They reached the console outside the docking bay that housed the pod. Dolridge swiped at the controls, and they lit up, announcing that the pod had already been jettisoned.
“What?!” he growled from between clenched teeth. Casper plugged her device into the console and pulled up the logs.
“Marx took it,” she groaned.
Had he been in collusion with whoever had sent the drones to begin with? A man inside—and chief security officer, no less—might explain why there hadn’t been klaxons sounding and lights flashing. It had been a silent takeover. Silent, and apparently complete.
Dolridge shook his head. “She’s lost. Totaled.”
And there was no other way off.
Why had he ever agreed to babysit this stinking piece of metal in the first place? He didn’t belong here, scooping up antique fighters and—
“Casper,” he whispered. “You still want to live?”
“Still?” she chuckled mirthlessly. “Is there any other way?”
He nodded. “Might be. But we’ll need a good deal of luck. And I don’t know if you’d noticed, but that seems to be in short supply today. Follow me.”
He turned, heading back to the maintenance shaft.
Ten minutes later they were leaning against a hatch to the cargo bay, ears pressed to the door.
“Not a sound,” Dolridge murmured. He was still set on edge by the silence that had fallen over the ship. Caspar leaned into the wheel and turned, pushing the hatch open.
Yes, there it was. Across the dock there sat a little comet-hopper, a small maintenance vessel equipped to carry up to ten men. Short-distance only, so they would have to hope they could evade the drones and get scooped up by someone else. But if they could only put themselves on course to float up through the orbital plane, that might be enough. And he knew it had fuel and would at least start, because they’d tested it out after picking it up to see if it might be worth anything.
The only problem? The veritable army of drones scattered across the floor of the dock between them and the hopper.
A finger to his lips, Dolridge reached for the hatch to pull it shut. The wound in his arm seized him, and he muffled a gasp, pulling back. Caspar closed the hatch without a sound.
“I really hate that AI,” Dolridge said.
“You think they knew we were coming?”
He shook his head in bewilderment. “It must have known beforehand what all was on board, and narrowed down our options. Process of elimination and all that.”
“Let me look at that.” Caspar took his shoulder in her hands and turned him to inspect the wound. Her eyes popped open, then refocused.
“That bad, huh?”
“Let’s just say I think you need a medic more than a shower—for once, Sir.”
He snorted softly.
She pulled up her device and fiddled with it for a moment. “Listen. In about five minutes there’s going to be a distraction, which I hope will lure these things out of the loading dock. It’s an AI, right? Must be curious. As soon as they go, get to the hopper and get it fired up. I’ll join you as soon as I can.”
“This distraction wouldn’t happen to involve you blowing up another part of my ship, would it?”
She shrugged. “Well, Sir, I am your munitions officer.”
“I’ll go. You stay and wait for them to leave.”
She suppressed a laugh. “With respect, Sir, no. You look like hell. Just between us, I think I’m giving you quite enough responsibility by asking you to get yourself to the hopper in five.”
“You’re giving me responsibility…?”
He wasn’t going to let her go, but she dodged away before he had finished his thought. Oh, well. She was right, anyway.
For once, things went well. A few minutes after Caspar’s disappearance there was an alarmingly loud sound, followed by a shudder, and, as one, the drones rose and vacated the bay, all heading in the direction of the noise. Dolridge shook his head. That was quick thinking, however she had done it. She would have made a fine agent of the Blade.
His arm burned and he winced as he ambled out onto the deck. He tried calling up his old training. There was a time he’d been able to shut pain down like a comp, but his brain just didn’t work that way anymore. He would just have to rely on grit to get through.
The hopper was old, but functional. He started the comp and engine, saw the tank was only half full, and brought her up to coast over to the opposite side of the bay, where there was a fueling dock. He had just finished topping her off when he heard a clang from back where the hopper had been sitting. A panel had fallen from the wall. Caspar leapt out, saw that he had moved the hopper, and broke into a run, her face hard and determined.
He climbed down to cross toward her, but she waved him back. “Go, go!” she shouted. “Get moving!”
An instant later he saw why. Just as she reached him, the drones flew out behind her in a perfect line and gathered above the deck like a swarm of bees.
They were closing in on the hopper by the time he had lifted off. Caspar’s hands flew on her device, and the bay doors yawned open.
“It’s no good,” he growled. “They’ll just follow us and tear us apart out there.”
“Not if they can’t get out!” Caspar hit one more keystroke, and the doors reversed direction, moving toward each other again. Dolridge slammed the accelerator and the little hopper flew out into space, the doors clamping shut just behind them.
“Brace!” Caspar yelled, ducking down and holding her head in her hands.
But Dolridge couldn’t have prepared for the force of the explosion if he’d tried. The entire starry sky behind them seemed to be enveloped in flame. A shock wave sent the hopper bucking, her nose tipping down. He had just enough presence of mind to counter with front thrusters so they wouldn’t be locked in a spin. Then another explosion, another wave, and Dolridge flew from his seat toward the ceiling and knew no more.
It was the strangest debriefing he’d ever had. Officers interviewed him in the med bay of whatever base they’d brought him to. They didn’t seem as interested in asking questions as in explaining to him what had happened. Drone attack by a rogue mercenary cell, inner-worlds. No military directly responsible. Cell was being hunted down, would be held accountable, blah blah blah. His mind wasn’t as nimble as it had once been, but he recognized political mumbo jumbo when he heard it. And he knew the perils of letting on. So he nodded and smiled and thanked each one of them for coming to his aid.
They said they’d found the hopper drifting out toward open space, leaving behind a few scattered pieces of a starship. Lucky for him, the comp on one of the local freighters had been on the fritz and ran a scan too wide by a factor of ten. The freighter had scooped them up, brought them to this Kuiper-friendly base, and alerted the authorities. So here they were. Any questions, Sir?
No, thank you.
He was being retired with honors, sent back to his family hab on Pluto. He couldn’t complain. At least his career was ending with a battle instead of a bottle. Caspar was being promoted—Lieutenant Caspar now—and transferred to a more active charge, the Starship Fairfax. So they hoped to keep him quiet with a fat pension, and keep her distracted with building a career.
Fine. Only something didn’t sit right.
“Congratulations, gunner.” She opened her eyes at his voice. She was sitting in the corner, punching buttons on a new device. He was still stretched out on a med bed. Had they been keeping him sedated?”
“Thank you, Sir. You too. That’s quite the souvenir.”
His arm was covered in bandages.
She stood and came to his side. “I told them not to make it pretty.”
He snorted and nodded. “Good thinking blowing her up, Caspar. Fairfax is a fine ship, and Harris a good Captain. You might just make something of yourself. If you can manage not to blow up the Fairfax. So consider carefully what you do with what you’ve seen these past few days.”
He beckoned her forward, and she leaned in.
“Do you remember ever seeing Marx? Since we left port?”
“No, Sir. But the log on the pod—”
“Logs can be fixed. And the comp was going haywire long before the drones appeared. Seeing ships. Finding UPs. And we had it checked just before we left Pluto.”
Her eyes widened and she pulled back. “Sir, you think it was an inside—”
“I’m feeling fine, thank you!” he said loudly. Meeting her eyes, he nodded subtly.
He was discharged in a week—apparently the medics had been more concerned for any lingering effects from the poisonous gas than for his arm—and sent home on a charter. On Pluto he met with and was debriefed once more by a mid-ranking commander. It was more of the same. Lots of assurances, lots of apologies. No real answers. No real questions.
Home was a farm hab. He tinkered with the idea of resting on the pension, sending for a freightload of scotch and spending the rest of his days with his ankles crossed in front of the fire.
Instead, he went out under the dome and worked the soil.