Experiment #130

The Stars Are Calling Part 6

Sarah had them in hyperspace on the thirty-six hour journey to the Vorthon system before she ventured to say anything. “Starry?”

Gideon smiled. “Back when Seabrook knew me I was a pretty terrible navigator. They got to calling me ‘Lodestar’ as a joke. They said I could’t find a star in a solar system.”

“Used to be terrible?”

“Let’s just say, there’s a reason I let you drive my ship.”

Sarah smiled. They fell into silence for a few minutes before another question boiled up in Sarah’s mind.

“I’ve never heard of Order 716 sub-paragraph C,” she said.

“Nor has the Federal Senate,” he replied. “Hopefully Seabrook still thinks I’m just a savvy freighter mechanic or our trip will end rather abruptly.”

“You think Seabrook was framed?” Sarah asked.

“No, he’s a scoundrel all right, but that many counts of anything almost never gets through the bureaucracy. Too much evidence to gather too many people to sign, any experienced postal inspector would have smelled a Joogla beast, but a ‘shiny coat’ wouldn’t think twice. He’d follow orders.”

“Wait, you think there’s a mole in the inspectors?”

“Do you know Gerard Himson?” Gideon asked.

“Postal Commander Himson?”

“When I went undercover as a freighter mechanic, he was my captain, my handler. He went by the name of Samuel Hughes.”

“Why would Postal Commander Himson want to hollow out a moon and build a fleet of ships? He’s like tenth in line for Grand Premiership.”

“Tenth isn’t first. And he wasn’t there when he started.”

“But that’s crazy! He can’t expect to win.”

“Maybe he’s not worried about winning,” Gideon said. “Maybe he just wants to take out one particular cruiser or envoy.”

“After the Ftharan incident a few years back the Grand Premiere takes a fleet with her wherever she goes-”

“Like on her publicity stunt of a visit to the outer edge?”

“Vorthon’s a two hour jump from Rygoth.”

“I’ll take first watch. Get some sleep, you’re gonna need it.” Gideon said.

“You got a plan yet?”

“Of course, but you won’t like it.”

*

“Gideon, get back up here,” Sarah said into the comm. “Fifteen minutes to Vorthon.”

Gideon had gone to the cargo bay to “prepare” when Sarah returned from her rest.

“You suited up?” Gideon asked through his comm.

“Yes,” Sarah said. “I wish I knew what you were planning.”

“If I explained it to you, you’d say no.”

“That sounds like one of your plans.”

Gideon finished his preparations in the cargo bay and headed back to the control room. One way or another he decided this was his last mission. If he lived he’d find a quiet place on a central planet and settle down. For the first time in his life this looked appealing. He’d faced death and terrible odds many times before, but somehow this was different. Somehow this would be final. His finale. As he dropped into his seat Sarah brought the ship out of hyperspace. “Vorthon prime,” Sarah said, “It’s dead ahead.”

“Hopefully not for us…” Gideon said.

“I’m picking up…”  She paused, double checking the holotable and scanners. “Nothing,” she said. “No ships, no postal carriers, nothing.”

Gideon looked at the scanners himself. No ships, federal, fake or otherwise. If the Grand Premiere had come there would have been twenty or more support ships. He double-checked their coördinates. They were at Vorthon alright. “Where the devil…” He said.

Sarah snapped her fingers  “I worked a grand première detail once. Thing was with a recent revolt in the Gurgan system and a lot of controversy over some legislation they were really careful about who they told her location. As standard military they wouldn’t trust us with the grand première’s actual location, so we ended up guarding a decoy for a few hours before they switched and we guarded the premiere.”

“Himson knows I’m a straight arrow, he’d never give us the real location. So where’s the grand première?”

“He couldn’t give us a location that was too far off or we’d spot a fake, but we must be at least out of sensor range.”

Gideon punched some keys.

Sarah waited, trying to think of what to do next.

Gideon let out a whoop. “Set course for Vingola.”

“Why?” Sarah asked.

“Because that’s where the battle is.”

Sarah frowned at him.

“Seabrook’s more involved than he let on,” Gideon said. “If I know him, he’s right in the thick of this.”

“And?”

“You remember when I went to check the anti-grav bikes back on Proteous? Well, I’d spotted Seabrook in the bar so I found his ship’s hangar and looked up the serviceman who handles refueling. I greased his palm a few years ago to keep track of certain ships for me. With the proper additional encouragement he handed over Seabrook’s transmission logs. Nothing he said, just when and where the antennae was turned on. He pulled ‘em every time Seabrook came by. According to the data he seems to have gone out of his way seventeen times to visit Vingola in the last two terrestrial years.”

“Maybe he’s got a lover.”

“Seabrook’s not the type. Plus it’s the only lead we’ve got and it isn’t far.”

“Just out of sensor range…”

Experiment #131

The Stars Are Calling Part 7

They popped out of hyperspace on the edge of the battle. Himson’s armada had already engaged the grand premiere’s escort and it was clear the fake beacon had done its work. The escort was spread apart, separated from each other with Himson’s Veruzan class ships spread between them. They looked like an octopus with the tentacles spread wide, flailing at the gaps between them, desperately trying to protect the head, the grand premiere’s ship.

Both sides had taken quite a bit of damage, but the escort had gotten the worst, of twenty ships only twelve remained in the fight, including the flagship. Five ships had been disabled or destroyed in the initial volley as the ship with the postal beacon revealed its true nature. And three more had gone down since, being caught unprepared for the attack. Himson’s armada lost four ships as well, three of the smaller attack ships and one Veruzan class ship.

“What’s that?” Sarah asked, pointing to a ship five times the size of any others.

“Son of a Crackdaw, that’s a peacekeeper.”

“I thought those were scrapped a century ago.”

“Obviously not.”

“Ok. What’s your crazy plan?” Sarah asked.

“I’m going to get on board the flagship help out the grand premiere’s escort. I’d only planned on you grappling with Veruzans, but if you can take out that peacekeeper, it’ll go a long way to evening things,” Gideon said.

Sarah turned and looked at him. “And just how am I supposed to do that?”

“Remember those uranium chips we got from the postal carrier wreckage?” Gideon asked.

“We don’t have a catalyst.”

“No, but the integrators from your plasma pistols’ll do the trick.”

Sarah frowned. They’d been a gift from her father. “We don’t have a delivery system.”

“No, but we’ve got a freight sled and an extra anti-grav bike.”

“What do you mean by extra?”

“How else would I get to the flagship?”

“You’re going to ride an anti-grav bike? You’ll have no way to maneuver.”

“I’ll have my suit thrusters, plus you’ve got the hard part, getting close enough to the peacekeeper to make those makeshift missiles count. They’ll wallop it good, but they’re nowhere near a tactical nuke, so use them wisely. You should also get half a dozen shots out of the turret. Won’t pierce a deflector, but you’ll have it all the same.”

“You were right,” Sara said. “I don’t like this plan.”

“Target the engines and the bridge. I’ve hooked up the sled to the cargo bay’s automatic system, but the hover bike will have to be jettisoned manually.”

“You’ll be dead before you get out of the cargo bay.”

“Not if you’re as good a pilot as I think you are.”

“Great a compliment and responsibility for your death all in one.”

Gideon pointed at the display where two federal ships fought side to side against Himson’s armada. “If you can drop me between the Republic and the Sentry I should be able to shoot down that corridor right to the flagship and the aft airlock.’

“With the counterfeit postal beacon the federals won’t trust us no matter what we say.”

“That’s where your flying skills come in.”

“If you die it’s your fault.”

“See you on the other side.”

“You better,” she said.

Gideon headed toward the cargo bay and whatever fate lay ahead. They hadn’t drawn any attention from either side thus far, but that would change soon. Sarah started the computer crunching on a hyperspace escape route just in case. Sarah flexed her fingers as she reached toward the throttle. “Don’t die,” she whispered.

“Who are you talking’ to?” Gideon asked over the comm.

“Both of us.”

Within minutes she was dodging laser blasts, plasma cannons and missiles. Alarms blared and red lights flashed all around her. Both sides seemed to believe she was against them and what artillery they could spare from each other were sent her way. She dodged and zigged, zagged and barrel rolled through the deadly obstacle course till she slipped between the massive federal ships. She knew she only had a minute before the ships decided to take their chances at cross fire so she gunned the thrusters and made for the far end. Three quarters of the way down, before she was in range of the flagship’s giant plasma cannon, she cut the lower rear thrusters and fired the lower forward maneuvering thrusters. She did a neat flip, pointed the cargo bay at the flagship, cut the thrusters, opened the door and prayed she wasn’t sending her partner to a cold, black death.

“Divine providence, Sarah,” he said.

“Divine providence, yourself,” she said.

Gideon had cranked the throttle on the hover bike with the hammock beam in reverse, holding him inside the cargo bay, trying to make every last inch of cargo bay deck count. The door opened. Sarah dropped the hammock beam and he flew into the battle torn vacuum of space, hoping he calculated his angle properly and that he really was too small to be targeted by a plasma cannon. Even a graze from one of the guns on the ships beside him would fry him instantly.

The distance was vast, but Sarah had laid on the speed in her approach and he had used the deck well. He hurtled through the darkness. Soon he left the protection of the ships and entered open space. Lasers and plasma cannons fired all around him, a spectacular, deadly light show.

*

Sarah had made it halfway across the battlefield. The grand premiere had lost two more ships and another three were in deep trouble. Two of Himson’s armada closed in to board the grand premiere’s ship.

Sarah prepared to engage the peacekeeper. “Frazzled plasma cannon with only a shot or two, check. Makeshift missiles that’ll probably blow up in the cargo bay, check, check. Giant ship intent on my doom, triple check. Just another day at the office.”

She aimed her navigational computer at the forward bridge and programmed the lift to drop out as soon as she passed it.

She pushed the engines to full and careened through plasma cannon, laser and missile fire. One of the Veruzan class ships was on protection duty, trying to keep small ships like hers from doing exactly as she intended. It moved to intercept. Sarah pushed the engines to critical. “Come on Savannah old girl, don’t let me down.”

Experiment #132

The Stars Are Calling Part 8

Within one kilometer of the ship, Gideon turned the bottom of the bike toward the flagship and flipped on the anti-grav discs. They softened the blow, but he still hit the ship hard. He would have bounced off and into eternity, but he had magnetized his boots and cut the anti-grav discs as he hit. Thud. He stuck fast. Leaving the anti-grav bike behind he walked toward the aft air lock and hoped his federal codes still worked.

*

Sarah opened the cargo bay. The Veruzan class ship was almost on her. Its forward plasma cannons targeted her and fired. Just before she passed over the bridge she hit the button and the utility sled flew out. Sarah took a hard right and spiraled down the far side of the peacekeeper. A giant explosion followed in her wake.

*

Somehow his code got him through the airlock. “I’m in,” he said into the comm. He heard a sigh on the other end, but Sarah said nothing. Gideon pulled both his plasma cannons from their holsters and proceeded toward the bridge. Before he turned the first corner he met a security detail.

“Halt!” the lead security guard said. “Who are you?”

Gideon pointed to the badge on the front of his space suit. “Federal Postal Inspector Gideon Wright,” he said.

“Lay down your weapons,” the second security guard said.

“I’m a Federal Postal Inspector on an urgent mission. I need to see the Grand Premier.”

“I don’t think so,” said the first guard, “I bet your postal carrier that fired on us.”

Gideon opened his mouth to reply but his words were lost as the outer wall behind the security guards exploded.

*

Sarah circled  under the peacekeeper and doubled back on her original trajectory. A flaming hulk of metal stood before her. She let out a whoop and called through the intercom, “I got it!”

*

Hot on the heals of the explosion came a boarding party. They’d hooked up an Agrawal tube, a capsule like object now embedded in the flagship’s hull and neatly cupped around the blast site. Connected to the peacekeeper, troops and more would be transported through its localized hyperspace window into the heart of the ship.

Gideon fired a few cover shots. He bent down to the security guards. Both were dead. He grabbed their ID cards and headed for the nearest cover.

“It doesn’t seem gotten,” he called into his comm.

*

As she completed her climb the wreckage came into clearer view. The flames and twisted metal wasn’t the peacekeeper. The Veruzan frigate had intercepted the makeshift missile. “Scratch that. Just a Veruzan,” Sarah said.

*

“Sarah, they’ve got an Agrawal tube.” Gideon said through heavy breaths. “I need you to take out that peacekeeper ASAP.”

“Tryin’,” Sarah said. “You work on the Grand Premiere. I’ll work on the peacekeeper.”

*

Sarah sealed the inner cargo bay door and pumped any unscrubbed CO2 and what air she could spare into the bay. “I hope nothing important’s in there,” she muttered to herself.

She turned back toward the peacekeeper and, dodging plasma cannons and renegade ships, made a pass near the engineering section of the peacekeeper, she opened the cargo bay door then threw the Savannah into a 90 degree turn and dropped the air barrier. The air and CO2 rushed out in the Sisyphean task of filling the vacuüm of space, and with it the anti-grav bike. She prayed her aim was good and headed for the edge of weapons range, dodging and twisting to avoid fire. She took hits here and there, but the deflectors shields held.

*

When Sarah had a chance to look, there was no smoldering cloud of fire like the Veruzan class ship she hit, just a tiny dark spot where the makeshift missile, along with a set of tools and a few spare parts had hit, dead on target, and bounced off with a thunk unheard in the vacuüm of space. It floated gently away.

*

Gideon made for the bridge. Between the ID cards, Gideon had enough codes to get through the security lock downs and other counter measures designed to inhibit the entering force.

Gideon opened the door on a bridge in turmoil. The captain attempted to hold his ground against the enemy ships while his first officer attempted to coördinate the internal struggle against the shock troops. The grand première, stood wisely to one side allowing her captain and his crew to do their jobs.

Gideon walked straight to the Grand Premiere.  “My lady,” Gideon said as two guards seized him, “there is a traitor in your midst.”

The Grand Premiere turned toward him.

“Gerard Himson is behind this attack,” he said.

The grand première soured as she looked on him. “Gideon Wright, I take it?”

*

Sarah fired the ailing turret gun as she made another pass. Mostly the discharge bounced harmlessly off the peacekeeper’s deflector shields, but if she could hit the anti-grav bike she might be able to catalyze an explosion. On the thirteenth shot the circuits overloaded and shorted out the entire weapons system. Sparks flew in the cockpit. Sarah slammed her fist on the dashboard. “Savannah, I’m gonna scuttle you if you keep frying on me.”

*

“Before, Colonel Himson’s ship went down,” the Grand Premiere said, “He advised me that you might arrive, though he did not anticipate your implication.”

Before anything more could be said a man’s face appeared on the forward view screen. Gideon gasped: Seabrook.

“Give it up,” Seabrook said. “You’ll be dead in a minute if you don’t.”

The grand première stepped forward. “My death would garner you little,” she said. “I doubt the Ftharan government would pay for damaged goods.”

Seabrook sneered. “That assumes,” he said, “That they didn’t want the goods damaged.” He cut the video feed and moved the peacekeeper to directly engage the flagship.

“They’ve reached deck 32,” the first officer called out. “They’ll be at the door in minutes”

Security officers moved into place covering each door the best they could with their plasma pistols.

“Sarah,” Gideon said into the comm. “You’re our last hope.”

In that moment without alternatives, options, or weapons she knew what she had to do. “Gideon,” she said, “sorry about Savannah.”

Gideon paused. His mind processed and re-processed the significance of those words.

“Wait, Sarah I didn’t mean…”

“I really am sorry about the ship,” she said. “Tell my daddy I love him.”

“Forget the ship,” Gideon said, but she had already turned off the comm.

Experiment #133

The Stars Are Calling Part 9

Sarah swerved around and aimed the Savannah right at the peacekeeper.

She flipped a few switches and disabled the safeties. She started hyperspace calculations for an entry point she knew she wouldn’t be at. “I hope this’ll make a big enough hole,” she said.

She pushed the engines forward as hard as they would go.

*

“They’re here,” the first officer called out.

Within seconds a precidian torch showed through the door. Silence reigned as the torch slowly, methodically finished its cut and a chunk of door fell into the room. “Fire!” The first officer yelled and eight well trained men including Gideon fired through the hole.

A second precidian torch struck up a cutting tune outside the other door.

The security officers, the bridge crew, and Gideon put up a brave fight. Many Ftharan soldiers and pirates fell in the doorways, but with sheer numbers a few got through and then by virtue of gaining the foothold a few more got through.

Soon the bridge crew was overrun and had retreated to a corner where they stood close, ready to face that brave and terrible day together. The captain and his first officer stood closest to the enemy doing what little they could to shield the others with their bodies. Gideon stood just behind them. Once they had been disarmed, Seabrook himself entered the bridge.

“Ah, Starry, my old friend,” Seabrook said looking at Gideon. “Just who I wanted to see.” He leaned in close to Gideon and whispered, “I know your secret.”

“What do you want?” Gideon asked.

“Always with the questions. That’s how I always knew what you were. You asked way too many questions for a mechanic.” Seabrook smiled from ear to ear. “But that’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Gloat to some one who cares.”

“You’ve asked so many questions, but never seem to ask the important ones like why you were exiled to the edge planets as a postal inspector despite daddy’s good name, or why that imbecile, Himson was promoted over you again and again.” He walked back to Gideon and got in his face, “or why they gave the best officer the academies have ever produced wrong location of the Grand Premiere’s visit.” He moved to the grand premiere and asked, “Do you know why?”

The Grand Premiere did not meet his eye.

“Ready everyone?” Seabrook said. “It’s because… Say it with me… He’s Ftharan. Yes, the ancient penal colony. Oh, we may fancy ourselves respectable now, but everybody knows the filth we came from. Rogues and brigands the lot of us, and you weren’t even want by us.”

Without warning Gideon punched him in the jaw. His men stepped forward to restrain Gideon, but Seabrook waved them off. “Ha!” Seabrook said rubbing his jaw. “So you already knew, huh?

“Then you know we’re brothers, Gideon,” Seabrook said. “Cut from the same cloth. Rejects of the same filth.”

Gideon clenched his fists.

Seabrook smiled.

“You know we never could have had this reunion if you hadn’t come along. Oh, I knew what was happening, I knew where it was happening, I even knew who was going to be there and who wasn’t. But When? That was the missing piece. That’s what made this soiree possible.”

Gideon did not speak.

“We’ll let that sink in for a moment,” Seabrook said. He was like a cat who had his dinner by the tail. “Where’s that pretty little friend of yours? She had nice legs. She’d make a good love slave.” Seabrook smiled. “Oh, but I see you’ve already thought of that. Oh, wait, there she is.” He pointed to a small ship flying towards the giant peacekeeper on the holotable in the middle of the bridge. “Come on, Starry. Let’s see what happens.” Seabrook placed his elbows on the table and his head in his hands.

“Don’t count her out yet,” Gideon said.

*

With proximity alarms clattering and blast after blast knocking her deflector shields further and further down The Savannah sped toward the engineering section. Sarah raised her hand to hit the hyperspace jump button, to blast a hole in the side of the peacekeeper so large it’d take a Ftharan year to rebuild it. But as she raised her hand, her deflector shield fell, and the peacekeeper’s cannon fired. The Savannah exploded in a brilliant fireball.

Experiment #134

The Stars Are Calling Part 10

“No!” Gideon yelled.

“Oh,” Seabrook said with mock incredulity, “I do hate it when you’re wrong.”

He turned to Gideon. “She was such a nice girl, so honest and fair. Would have been nice if her sacrifice had meant something… You know, served a purpose… accomplished something… But she just died and took your ship with her. Ha! I guess you lost two girls in one go.”

Without warning Gideon’s right hand shot out and punched Seabrook in the nose. While his left hand grabbed Seabrook’s gun. Seabrook stepped back in surprise and Gideon pointed the weapon square between Seabrook’s eyes.

Gideon brought his full presence to bear and addressed the mix of pirates and mercenaries, all of whom had their weapons trained on Gideon. “I am Gideon Wright of the Ftharan house of Clawf, and commander of his special ops. In Boss Clawf’s name and with support of the Ftharan Syndicate I hereby take command of this operation. Escort the prisoners from the bridge and place them in the estate rooms of the Grand Premiere. By order of the Ftharan Syndicate they are not to be harmed until they stand before the Tribunal and face the consequences for their crimes against Fthara. Any man who lays a hand on any one of these prisoners shall forfeit his life in exchange no matter his house or place.”

Seabrook laughed and then clapped his hands. “Well, well, what a performance.” He turned to the others in the room. “Did you all see that? He’s something else now, isn’t he?”

Gideon cocked the weapon. “Stand down by order of the Ftharan Syndicate.”

Seabrook stepped forward putting his forehead against the muzzle of the gun. “You want to make a sacrifice that matters? You want to go down in a blaze of glory? Then shoot me, between the eyes. I’m unarmed. You want the promotions and glory you’ve deserved for so long, then shoot me. Boss Clawf wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Shoot him!” The Grand Premiere yelled.

“I’m right here,” Seabrook said. “All you’ve gotta do is pull the trigger and you’ll be the hero, the savior of the Grand Premiere. What are you waiting for? Heck, everyone here wants you to do it, even my own men would like to see me go down. All you’ve gotta do is put a little pressure on that trigger and you’ll make all your wildest dreams come true. And maybe, just maybe that wench’s sacrifice’ll actually mean something.”

Gideon’s fist shot forward like lightning to land a blow on Seabrook’s face, but Seabrook was faster. He pulled a dagger from his belt and stabbed Gideon in the stomach.

“So much for the hero,” Seabrook said.

Gideon fell to the floor.

Seabrook spat on him then turned to his commanders. “We don’t need hostages,” he said, “but leave the Grand Premiere alive for now.” He walked toward her and made a crude gesture. “I’m sure I can find a use for her.”

“Don’t kill them,” The Grand Premiere said. “Do what you want with me, but spare their lives.”

Seabrook smiled a dirty, lecherous smile. “Oh I plan to do with you what I want.”

He directed two of his men to hold her, while he advanced toward her and undid his belt.

Gideon lay on the floor. As his consciousness slipped away he offered a prayer. A prayer of forgiveness for what he was about to do, a prayer for the soul of Seabrook, devil though he be, and a prayer that justice would prevail whether he saw it through or not.

He lifted up the gun in his hand and shot Seabrook square through the brain pan. Even with eyes partially closed and a knife wound in his gullet he was a dead shot.

Seabrook’s body seemed to fall in slow motion as the transfer from standing to the floor mirrored the transition from life to death.

For the first time in all Gideon’s years as a law enforcement officer, for the first time in all his years as a man, he had ended another’s life. He had pulled the trigger and sent someone to meet their maker.

The events following went by in a blur for Gideon. Seabrook’s death put his hodge-podge army on the bridge in enough disarray for the captain and his crew to get the upper hand. Meanwhile the rest of the Grand Premiere’s ships had been able to beat back Seabrook’s armada. They were not winning, but they did give the flagship enough cover to make a jump to hyperspace.

Awards and ceremonies followed. The Grand Premiere promoted the captain of the flagship to Commander of all military operations and she offered Gideon Himson’s old position, Postal Commander.

Yet Gideon passed through these days like a zombie, never allowing his heart to feel in the trifold loss of his ship, his partner and his innocence. The life he had longed for and dreamed of was just beginning, yet he found himself no longer able to live it.

***

Gideon drove the hovercraft down the long driveway. He parked by an old shed whose anti-dust coating had rubbed away in spots.

He rung the old-fashioned doorbell and waited on the splintered wooden steps.

An old man answered the door. The metal brace that supported his back showed through the places in his clothes where the metal had rubbed it thin. He creaked as he walked and held a sandwich in one hand.

“Mr. Cofax?” Gideon asked.

The man nodded. His eyes widened as Gideon took off his hat.

“Can I come inside, Sir? I have a final delivery from your daughter.”

***

Star Date: 95141.3

To: Ms. Cassandra Falling, Grand Premiere of the Colonial Federation
From: Mr. Gideon Bartholomew Wright, Postal Inspector, Sector B12

Re: My Final Post

Ma’am, Let me first say that you do a humble Postal Inspector proud to offer him such a shiny title.

But in good conscience, I’ve got to turn you down. Those jobs’re for men like Himson, and I’m just not him. You can also consider this my resignation letter. I just don’t have it in me to do this job any longer.

The stars are calling and I don’t want to disappoint.

Best of luck,

Gideon Bartholomew Wright

Experiment #279

Six Zeroes (An Excerpt)

Wonder who the scavengers Gideon and Sarah faced in the Stars Are Calling were? Learn about them and come face-to-face with Boss Clawf in Six Zeroes 

 

Inmates poured out of the giant hole into the forsaken landscape of the asteroid. They’d be dead inside seven days, but even death seemed better than continued service in the gulag. Colonel Kilmer and two of his men, each armed with a sniper rifle, stood a safe distance away.

“Prepare to fire,” Kilmer shouted.

He called off targets from the tablet in his hand. His men picked off those targets from the ID tags on the fronts of their neon-yellow jumpsuits.

“Filigree, H675

“Gerard, Y721”

Each inmate they hit vanished.

“Kleeple, T125”

After the second or third inmate disappeared, the rest stampeded.

“Fishmonger, A956 and Wisk, Q785.”

The man aiming for Fishmonger fired.

“You missed him, Corporal,” Colonel Kilmer said.

The man fired again and this time Fishmonger disappeared. “Sorry, Sir,” he said. “The other guy moved in the way as I fired.”

“Fine, we’ll sort it out on the ship.”

“Sir,” the other man said, “these inmates are just going to die.”

Kilmer smiled. “Sure, Sergeant. Have fun. Switch to bullets.” Kilmer touched a few buttons on his tablet and disappeared the same way the inmates had. The sergeant and the corporal smiled at one another, then reloaded their weapons and fired.

#

Colonel Kilmer entered the room amidst yelling, name-calling, and general anarchy. Four men and two women in bright, neon-yellow prison jumpsuits were restrained around the room. All fought their restraints and shouted except one. The yelling and name-calling only got louder as Kilmer entered the room and became its focus.

Kilmer stopped in the center and tapped a few buttons on his tablet. All six former inmates felt a jolt of electricity. After the screams died down, Kilmer spoke. “Welcome. You are now all employees of the Colonial Federation.”

In unison five of the six former inmates spat. Though most tried to spit on Kilmer, none reached him.

“I thought you might feel that way.” He dialed up the voltage and zapped them all again. “Your restraints have been fitted with a behavior suppression system. When I press this button,” he tapped it again, “you all feel excruciating pain.” He turned to one of the criminals, a burly man a half-foot taller than everyone else and three times as strong. “Yes, even you, Mr. Wisk. You may have dulled your sense of pain through steroids and other modifications, but you’ll be glad to know we’ve found a way around that.”

The former inmates breathed heavily and pulled on their restraints.

“Ok,” Kilmer continued. “Now that you all have a reason to listen to me, lets discuss a few more ground rules. Number one: I don’t have to hit this button–if any of you tries to attack me or any of my soldiers, the restraints are programmed to shock you automatically. Fight through the pain, you think? Well, each time you do it, it’ll get worse. Eventually it’ll kill you, or leave you brain-dead. The techs were a little unclear on the final outcome. Either way, you’ll be useless to me and I’ll jettison you into space.

“Now, each of you was recruited for some special talent you possess. Mr. Wisk here is as dumb as an Ox, but as strong as ten of them.”

A crazy look of pride entered Wisk’s eye. “Twenty!” he interjected.

“Clearly,” Kilmer said. He gestured to the next former inmate, a slender man whose hair was whispy and thin. His skin was mottled with scar tissue. He had no eyebrows. “Mr. Filigree here is a pyromaniac, calls himself ‘Pyrite.’ He’s an explosives expert and generally annoying individual. He also possesses pyrokinesis. Bought, I’m certain, through the most legal means. Those bags on his hands are lined with asbestos. I hope that you don’t want to have kids, for so many reasons.

“Ms. Samantha Gerard will be your commander in the field.” Kilmer indicated a dark-skinned girl in her late teens. Her hair was cut close to the scalp for efficiency. She had a dangly earring in her left ear and a bad attitude. “An expert in logistics and engineering, she’s already performed more bank robberies in her teens than all the rest of you put together.”

“I ain’t following no twelve-year-old girl,” Wisk yelled.

“Least I ain’t stupid,” Gerard retorted.

“Ms. Melodious Kleeple, also known as Masquerade–“

“Just Masq,” she snarled.

“–is our disguise and infiltration expert,” Kilmer continued, unperturbed. “I’d hardly believe she was a woman if I hadn’t seen the scans myself.”

“Scans can be faked,” Masq said. She was currently a light skinned blond woman, who seemed like she could wrap any man around her finger.

“And Anthony Fishmonger, half-man, half-machine. He’s replaced half his organs with cybernetic versions. Former biotech professor on Ashkelon, if the rumors are to be believed.”

“They’re not,” said Fishmonger. Most of his modifications were internal, except for his right eye which had been replaced by a disconcerting camera and an orange light.

The guy who’d been quiet the whole time coughed. All eyes turned to him and his wan smile. He was scruffy, thin, tall, and looked very out of place, like an accountant in a biker bar.

“Who’s this loser?” Gerard asked.

“Yes, who are you?” Kilmer asked.

“I’m nobody.”

Kilmer turned to one of the bodyguards who’d entered with him. “Kill this nobody.” The body guard lifted his weapon.

“Wait! Wait! My name is Kringle.”

“Kringle? Like Santa Claus?” Wisk asked.

“Okay, kill Kringle,” Kilmer said.

“Wait, okay, that was a bad lie, and I really shouldn’t lie to guys with guns. My name is Hero.”

“Seriously?” Pyrite asked.

“‘Hero?’” Masq asked with derision. “No wonder you said, ‘Kringle.’”

“What are you in for?” Fishmonger asked.

“Saving the day?” asked Pyrite.

“No, it was, uh…murder,” Hero said.

“Cyneheard Berhtoald Hero,” Kilmer said, “Breaking and entering.”

“Yeah, that’s how it started,” Hero said.

“Cyneheard?” Fishmonger asked. “What a stupid name.”

“It’s my Mom’s, okay?” Hero said. “My friends call me Cy.”

“Named after your Mom?” Pyrite asked, gasping with laughter.

“Apparently, elderly Mrs. Finchin, who’s very much alive by the way, decided to press charges.” Kilmer said.

Everyone laughed.

“What landed you in the max system? What are you, a Moorvat or something?”

Cy looked down. “No.”

Kilmer, who was still fiddling with his tablet, stopped laughing. He turned to the man next to him. “Double his restraints. I want him on camera every second.”

Kilmer and his men rushed out of the room.

“What’s a Moorvat?” Ox asked.

“The soldiers, you idiot,” said Gerard.

“A genetically engineered killing machine,” said Masq.

“Maybe first gens,” said Cy. “But the second generation–“

“They reproduce?” Pyrite asked. “Gross.”

“They’re still human,” said Cy.

“Not likely,” Fishmonger said.

“You are a Moorvat,” Masq said. “Aren’t you?”

“Well, yes,” said Cy, “a second gen.”

“So you, like, turn red and get laser-proof when you’re angry?”

“Not exactly. Anger’s often a trigger, but–“

“Good thing stupid’s not a trigger,” Pyrite said.

Everyone laughed except Cy. “Yeah.”

The night continued in much the same vein. Eventually Kilmer killed the lights in the room, and they all took that as their cue to sleep.

###

The lights blazed on as smoke, noise, and commotion filled the room.

Find out what happens next…