I wrote this for the contest, but the story grew to over 3600 words, so it’s far too long. However, I’m not going to cut it down to 2500 words, so enjoy it as it is. Or not. I wish I could get the two short stories I wrote for the old forums…
Duty Unto the End
Jace struggled to regain the sense of awareness that the hammerblow of the enemy round had robbed from him. He lay sprawled in a hallway, though his senses reached no farther than the excruciating pain in his side. He touched the injury, which instantly rewarded him with agony; a jagged shard had pierced his body and remained protruding, a grinding torment that consumed his still-muddled senses.
Get it out.
He gripped the shard, slippery to the touch, and pulled sharply. He screamed at the pain, his eyes flying open and the world suddenly snapping into crystalline focus. The pain began to slowly dull to mere misery as his body adjusted.
Stop the pain.
He gingerly rolled over enough to reach his belt medical kit and tried to think about treatment. Red for bleeding. He heard the hiss of activation. Blue for pain. Another hiss, and he began to recognize his environment – and his condition.
Grimacing, he got an elbow under him and looked around. He was briefly distracted as he saw his wound and the volume of blood that had splattered his crew suit. Reflexively, he lay a hand across the wound, then held his palm up to see his blood. Jace’s confusion start to give way to anger as he remembered his situation.
The Monkaten Protectorate had hit their outpost, and Jace’s captain had dutifully risen to engage them with their lone corvette, the Triggerhappy. But the Monkeys had them at a three to one disadvantage, so the captain had tried to draw them away from the outpost while signaling for help. The captain’s ploy had worked until their enemy had battered the Trigger to the point where a single enemy corvette had the clear upper hand. That was the last of the encounter that Jace could recall. He wasn’t sure why he was away from his gunnery station, but he needed to get back to it.
Then he realized that there was no shooting. He froze, listening, sensing. No, the drive was still running. He had gravity. He could feel the thrum of the engines. But all else was quiet.
Jace struggled to his feet, taking measure of his body’s ability to answer his commands. He was sore and stiff and the meds he’d taken didn’t leave him particularly spry, but he could get around. And he could damn well still pull a trigger.
He realized that he was in A Corridor, the central hallway connecting the forward ship compartments. Looking in each direction along the passageway, he saw that he had left a trail of blood and that it led from the bridge.
Right. Intercoms were down. Reported to the captain. Explosion. Crap, gotta get back to gunnery.
Then he held his hand to his side and again looked at the blood on his palm. Very little was flowing now.
The bridge was hit. Captain!
He hammered his palm at a wall intercom panel, hoping to raise the bridge, then realized that internal ship communication was still down. Bracing himself against the wall, he staggered towards the bridge, struggling to push through furniture and other detritus scattered across his path, but stopped short. The emergency curtain that deployed to create an airtight seam blocked access to the bridge, and that was a very bad sign. There was no air on the far side; the bridge was open to space.
Oh Lord. The Captain. Mister Leveque.
He continued, but as he closed the distance, he could see through the glassy drape the wreckage that lay beyond. Worn by his exertions, he rested against the tough fabric and looked at the remains of what had been the ship’s command center. For remains there were, and only that. The room was hardly recognizable, and stars were visible through broad tears in the hull. He focused his attention on the openings, looking for signs of enemies.
Wait. Think. Nobody is shooting. Did we escape?
A ship on warp gives no sense of motion, so Jace had no idea if the ship was parked near a moon or racing across the system at multiples of the speed of light. Even the view into the blackness of space could provide him with no clues.
Frustrated, Jace took a last look at the shattered bridge and began his trip back through A Corridor to get to the gunnery and engineering sections. They had a drive, so he hoped that at least Ashanta would be alive.
Gunnery was first, and Jace was unsurprised to find that it too had lost air. As with the bridge, the emergency systems had deployed in time to keep Corridor A airtight. He immediately spotted Bream’s mangled body lying in gun mount C. Jace hung his head and swore softly to himself, not sure he could keep standing. Forcing himself to look into gunnery again, he could see no sign of Jigger or Sergeant Korpor. Or the ceiling. The entire roof of the section was gone.
Jace looked across the room at the end of B Corridor, leading to engineering. Madly, the emergency seals had fired, closing off the corridor, but the damage to the top of the gunnery section extended into the corridor and the systems stopped the loss of air into the adjacent compartment only to see it lost directly into space through the ceiling. Jace glanced up at the ceiling above him and saw that the damage to the gunnery compartment had reached within a few centimeters of the seal on his corridor. He quietly exhaled a whistle.
Jace’s gun mount, D Mount, was thoroughly wrecked, as was A Mount, next to it. On the opposite side, B Mount looked okay. C Mount had taken a couple of direct hits, and the barrel pointed out at a crazy angle. In any case, Jace had no intention of going near Bream’s body, which was trapped in the remnants of the gunnery cupola, largely sheared away from the carriage by the violence of the enemy rounds.
Poor Bream. He couldn’t hit the floor if he fell out of a chair, but that boy was as loyal and hard-working as they come. And there he was, still at his station when everyone else was gone.
He tried to think beyond the loss of the bridge and gunnery sections.
Well, the at least the head is intact.
Engineering was his next destination, but that involved getting through the tough emergency seals. Once broken, the air in his section of the ship would evacuate, so he needed to locate and install an emergency airlock. They were a variation of the emergency seals that contained a small circular doorway. It took two trips to the media room to retrieve them, but he fired first one, then the other, perhaps a meter apart, creating a pair of curtained walls in the corridor.
Jace struggled through the first airlock doorway, then closed it. Then he made it through the second doorway and closed that. He was then in the small space between the second doorway and the emergency seal that closed off the gunnery section. Hard vacuum was on the other side of that seal.
Jace sat on the floor and paused, breathing the air that was remaining in his small space, and getting a little strength back. He didn’t know how difficult his time in engineering would be and he wanted to build what reserves of strength he could. He closed his eyes and set his head against the wall, making best use of air that was soon to be lost.
Then he opened his eyes, and swore at what he saw. That one enemy corvette was still out there, clear as day, slowly approaching.
At that moment, Jace discovered a real sense of urgency. The Monkey corvette was badly mangled. It wasn’t firing as it approached and it sure wasn’t leaving. The Monkeys obviously wanted salvage, and they weren’t going to tolerate any survivors when getting it. Jace had to find anyone who was still alive and get the ship out of there. Ashanta would be able to get the job done. She was probably back there right now, three steps ahead of him, throwing together some kind of weird control system for the warp drive.
He deployed his suit’s bubble helmet and then, using a cutter from the door kits, he quickly sliced open the emergency seal. At the first break, there was a pop as the air in his compartment burst free, but then Jace was free to step into Gunnery. He looked up at the distant ship, doubting that he could be seen just yet, then started across the wide compartment. He glanced over at his ravaged gun mount, then quickly continued on, carefully avoiding looking at Bream’s remains. Reaching the other end of the compartment, Jace sliced through the useless seal across the opening of B Corridor and continued down to Engineering. His movements remained stiff, though his med kit was dealing well with the pain of his injury.
Stepping into Engineering was like walking into another world. Everything was polished and orderly, as if nothing had happened to the rest of the ship. He felt as though he could just settle in and enjoy another bull session with Ashanta.
The only problem was that Ashanta was not elbows-deep in the drive, nor tinkering with delicate electronics on her workbench. She was nowhere to be found. The section was devoid of any humanity other than that which Jace himself had brought. He had worked from the bridge all the way through the ship to reach engineering. What lay beyond Engineering? Engines. Beyond that? Space. Beyond that? Home.
Not home. An enemy corvette. And it’s just me now.
Jace turned and looked back up B Corridor. He swiftly imagined the blue-clad Monkeys rappelling down into the wide-open gunnery section, its weapons useless in efforts to halt the invaders. He could also picture the brief and pointless firefight that would result as he tried to hold engineering. The chokepoint of the access corridor would favor him, but the enclosed space of engineering would not. Maybe they wouldn’t want to damage the engineering spaces with grenades. Maybe they’d just cut a hole in the top of Engineering. It wasn’t going to end well in any case.
He thought of the possibility of hiding. The crew would salvage the ship, and might not get into every nook and cranny that a man might occupy. Then Jace knew shame, because he was no Hastis Industries man if he hid while his crew’s killers picked over the remains of their ship. Their ship. A Hastis ship. He knew that he had to do something.
Jace worked back along B Corridor until he could look out and see the approaching ship. It was coming towards him surprisingly slowly, as if they had suffered significant damage to their maneuvering systems. The ship was certainly beat up, but it lacked the gaping holes and rent hull of the Triggerhappy.
The best tactic in this case would have been to overload the drive. With the Monkeys coming in so slowly, they must have taken serious damage to important systems. They’d see the building glow from the drive envelope the Trigger, but they’d never get away in time. Jace smiled a nasty smile at the thought of going out with the massive warp flash, visible on sensors far across the galaxy, and killing his enemy with the same blow – with the Monkeys knowing it was coming. That would be the icing on the cake. Unfortunately, drive overloads are not something they teach in gunnery school, and Jace was pretty sure that there was no button anywhere in the Engineering section labeled Overload.
Gunnery school. Jace had done well there, and he knew the Mark 6 inside and out - and Marks 1 through 5 for that matter. Jace knew that the Trigger’s gun mounts were now closer to black powder muzzle loaders than anything else, but he decided to do what he could. Surely he could get a couple rounds out of B Mount before they boarded.
Jace moved to B Mount and clambed into the gunner’s station. Powered down, Jace tripped controls to bring it to deadly life, but it refused to respond. It was lifeless, inert. There was no round in the tube, no power for traversal. The mount looked ready to sling death, but it simply sat and pointed at the limping enemy ship, failing utterly in its designed purpose.
Just like me.
Jace left the cupola and inspected the rest of the mount more closely, ever watchful for movement – or attacks – from his enemy.
The reason for the weapon’s impotence was obvious once he contorted his battered body to a position that let him see the base of the mount and the utter lack of the electronics package that was once located there. Gunfire had torn it from the weapon, with nothing but a few wires and flash-frozen coolant to serve as evidence that it had ever been installed at all.
A Mount and D Mount were writeoffs. That left C Mount. And Bream. Jace and Bream were drinking buddies, competitors, friends. Jace didn’t want to see his friend’s flash frozen corpse still at his post, unable to lift a finger in defense of the ship, never to toast another victory or to grouse about another tight-fisted quartermaster. Never to step onto another new world. Never to… So many nevers.
Damn those Monkeys.
“I know how you are about C Mount, but I’ve gotta take a look, Bream.”
Jace’s voice carried no farther than his own helmet, but he kept talking to his shipmate anyway.
“You really wrecked it, didn’t you? Quartermaster’s gonna be pissed.”
Jace kept talking, making sure that he focused on the wreckage of the gun, and not Bream’s body, which was held in place high on the mount, its arms and legs sprawled.
“Well, we aren’t done yet, are we, buddy? I bet you had a round in the tube when you went down.”
He checked the gun tube and saw that there was indeed a shell loaded and seated. The grey and black banding told him that Bream had selected an armor piercing round before he died, but the gun’s breech was gaping wide.
“You didn’t close the breech, buddy. That’s against regs, you know.”
Jace slapped his hand against the heavy breech mechanism and found that it would move. Bream’s dead hand was draped across the mechanism and it too moved. Jace paused, staring at the hand, then resumed his banter, careful not to let his gaze creep any farther along Bream’s body.
“That’s okay, man. I’ve got this.”
Jace pushed to close the mechanism, but it stopped short. He had to bear down and grunt and groan to get the breech to move the final few centimeters. Unfortunately, it wasn’t locked, and the gun was so wrecked that the electromechanical locks were just not going to trigger. Jace was ready for this. He opened the breech a bit, with the block moving out easily, and grabbed one of the emergency welding patches that had been scattered across the floor of the compartment. He slapped it in place in the breech, tore off the protective strip and muscled the breech closed a second time. Jace couldn’t see or hear the reaction, but he knew that the patch had welded the breech to the gun tube, never to be opened again. He now had one shot.
Armor piercing up!
Next, he had to get a signal to the round sitting in the tube. There would be no aiming, just relying on timing to score a hit. Gunnery school told Jace that the Mark 2 tubes had relied on induction signaling, though at the time he had been more interested in lunch than ancient Mark 2 technology. Now he would put that bit of trivia to good use. He could simply attach a signal generator to the tube itself instead of relying on the modern signaling gear. Mark 2s broke their triggers all the time because of the mechanical connection, but Jace only needed it to work once.
C Mount’s signal generator was junk. Jace already knew that B Mount’s was gone. So he labored his way over to A Mount and was relieved to find an intact generator.
Frequent glances at the approaching ship told him that his time was running out, but he was confident in having his surprise ready for them when they came close. He had the parts he needed. He could hide in the wreckage of C Mount and wait. Then, just as they thought all their problems were solved with a little salvage, well, Jace would make a hole. If he was lucky, right in the bridge. If not, well, any Monkey hole is a good hole.
As he attached the cabling, Jace could feel the presence of Bream’s body in the wreckage above him, and sense the doubt of his friend.
“Have a little faith. It’ll work, okay? All they need to do is come to gunnery. It’s the gaping hole in the ship. It’s obvious. They’ll come in this way and I’ll ruin their day.”
It’s obvious, right? They have to come here.
Very shortly, everything was ready; just slap down on the trigger, the signal goes through the tube, the round fires and those fine sons of the Monkaten Protectorate get blasted straight to hell.
Jace waited as patiently as he could, trapped between waiting for his enemy to come closer and trying to avoid looking at his dead friend.
“See? I told you; they’re coming straight to us. We’ll get a nice solid hit. It’s all in the timing.”
The enemy corvette was clearly moving towards the gunnery section, and it loomed large before Jace. The gun tube was now pointing at the ship and it was just a matter of figuring out the right time to cut loose. Jace dearly wanted to let loose his agent of death, but he couldn’t afford to waste his one shot. So he kept glancing between the firing button and the corvette, waiting for the best possible moment to fire. His mouth was dry and he licked his lips.
Show me something nice and I’ll give you a little present.
The corvette was stubbornly refusing to show its bridge, relying on cameras and other sensors for the approach. That left the heavy armor facing C Mount.
Then the corvette stopped and started to turn away.
What are you doing?
Jace again looked at the firing trigger. Shoot now, before they turn and leave? Are they just stopping before unloading salvage gear? They’re too far away for that.
What are you doing?
Then Jace realized what was wrong. He had cut both emergency curtains leading to gunnery. The Monkeys wanted something still in a pressurized section of the ship. They could see the breached curtains and had turned away from gunnery!
No! Come back here!
The corvette was turning and moving towards the hull breaches at the front of the ship, at the bridge. They were leaving his line of fire! He had to shoot, but all he would hit would be heavy armor plating.
“Dammit, Bream, I need a shot!”
Unconsciously, he turned to face his friend and demand his help, but he turned only to see Bream’s sightless eyes staring back at him, his face burned and broken by the violence of the attack that had taken his life. Jace recoiled in shock, unable to break the gaze of his friend. But his motion rocked the mangled wreckage of C Mount and twisted his beaten body, sending new lances of pain throughout. Though now distracted by the pain, he saw out of the corner of his eye that the shaking of the mount had knocked Bream’s arm free of the wreckage - and it was swinging down.
Straight onto Jace’s jury-rigged trigger.
Jace could only watch as Bream’s arm impacted the device, simultaneously activating it and knocking it free of its jury-rigged perch. In that moment, Jace turned his head to see where the tube was pointed. As the enemy corvette had turned and moved, it had exposed its far side, its damaged hull, ravaged by the fight, and the gun tube of C Mount lined up flawlessly with the enemy’s own engineering section. Yet the weapon sat inert, and his enemy continued to drift by.
Fire, damn you!
Abruptly, the tube spat out its round amid a gout of light, rocking the mount wildly, collapsing the gunnery chair superstructure across Jace’s hips and legs. Jace felt no pain as he watched the near-simultaneous flash of firing and that of impact. No sound reached him, but he was witness to the mechanical carnage wreaked by the round. Gasses vented, liquids sprayed free in a shower of ice, mechanicals were flung away, and more than a few pieces impacted the Triggerhappy, with one or two ricocheting through gunnery. Jace was unscathed, protected from the shrapnel by the sheer bulk of C Mount.
“Bream! You did it! You broke their back!”
Jace watched the crippled enemy slowly roll and tumble through space, content in knowing that the ship would not be a threat to him for a very long time.
Jace looked around for his friend, but Bream’s body had been thrown clear of the ship and was drifting off into the black. Jace smiled when he spotted it. Visible in the distance far beyond his friend’s body were three pinpoints of light, gently moving in the distance. The relief force had arrived.
“Hey, Bream. Nice shot.”
Edit: Corrected Bream’s gunnery location to be C Mount throughout the story.