2948-11-17 – Tales from the Service: Boarding a Hellship

While we’ve been covering the adventures of the Marines, FDA, and mercenaries on the ground at Margaux, Admiral Zahariev has been planning his next move to recapture the orbital space above the besieged planet.

The Fifth Fleet has been away from Maribel for several weeks now, its resupply train ferrying supplies out to predetermined rendezvous points in interstellar space. What it has been doing in that time, I cannot say, for the simple reason that this embed team is not with the fleet. Our home vessel, Saint-Lô, remains yard-bound to repair battle-damage suffered during the fleet’s first attempt to relieve Margaux.

Before this war, any spacer would have regarded the idea of six fully-crewed battlewagons going out on operations for nearly a month without a return to port as an insane expenditure of resources better suited to the grand strategy of the Terran-Rattanai War, but this is more evidence that the Admiralty is taking the Incarnation’s push into the Frontier very seriously indeed, rather than worrying about budgets and resource stockpiles.

While news that the Fleet has arrived in Margaux space once more is expected any day now, I cannot provide a date or speculate as to Zahariev’s plan of attack. His force is noticeably smaller than the last time it tangled with Incarnation cruiser swarms over Margaux, but intelligence suggests the enemy fleet is equivalently degraded by the previous battle and by the harassing attacks of the few remaining ground-side anti-orbital batteries on the planet. At least one Tyrant is also believed lost and several others damaged in cutter ambushes at the system’s periphery.

The Navy’s successful use of stealth cutters in harrying attacks on enemy warships and supply haulers has been one of the bright spots for many months. This week, the Navy announced that it had concluded Operation Express, a clever use of steath cutters to capture an Incarnation supply hauler returning from Margaux to one of their forward bases, probably Mereena. While it was expected this vessel was moving critical plundered supplies, it was found to contain instead prisoners taken during the fighting on Margaux - mainly men from the FDA - kept in horrific conditions. As the survivors are still undergoing medical attention and debriefing, no full list of personnel rescued from this hauler has been released.

Sem Ivankov, one of the Marines temporarily placed aboard Mahseer (a vessel which has appeared in this feed before – Tales from the Service: A Tyrant’s Downfall) for the operation sent us a report of what was found aboard. The video taken by the marines’ suit cameras is beyond description, but he did his best to recommend a few words in his written account. If the use of what the Navy is calling "Hellships" for prisoner transport is commonplace in the Incarnation, many tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel from worlds like Margaux and Adimari Valis are at risk of enduring horrors like those Corporal Ivankov saw.

Mahseer shuddered as the assault-docking clamps welded to her hull for the operation clanked onto, then bit into, its massive cargo hauler prey. Two other retrofitted cutters were supposed to be doing the same thing at exactly the same time, but Corporal Sem Ivankov knew better than to expect everything in an operation so complex to work out as planned.

“Docking link established.” Lieutenant Commander Zappa announced over the secure link. “Marines are go.”

Sem and eleven other Marines detached their heavy assault suits from snaking umbilicals and released the hard-lock on their suit joints. One by one, each kicked out far enough to escape Mahseer’s miniscule A-grav axis, then used maneuvering thrusters to drop their magnetic boots onto the hull of their victim.

Boarding operations being a Marine specialty, used regularly even in peace-time to recover hostages from terrorists or rescue unfortunate Confederated citizens from pirate chattel pens, this part at least was completed with no complications – all twelve pairs of boots hit the enemy ship’s hull simultaneously.

“Think they know we’re here, Sarge?” Lukas Okorie, the youngest private, sounded nervous, and Sem hoped his own voice would not betray the churning in his own insides. He had briefly participated in the last phase of street-fighting withdrawal on Mereena, but this was different. Below his feet, inside the hull, was enemy territory.

All at once, the stars all around began whirling crazily, as the ship’s crew belatedly realized the danger. Though the Marines on its hull were in no danger of being thrown off as long as the hull plating itself stayed put, Mahseer’s retrofitted clamps began to visibly flex with the sudden strain. If those clamps broke, Mahseer – the Marines’ ride home if things went badly – might be thrown clear of the hauler.

“I think they know, Okorie.” Sergeant Sommer’s dry mockery of the young man cued several snickers on the squad link. “Let’s go.”

Though the hauler wasn’t laid out anything like the briefing material had suggested, the squad found an airlock quickly. Rather than cycling their massive suits one at a time through a normal personnel airlock, and thus facing whatever lay inside one at a time, they unpacked an assault airlock and securing it to the hull.

Once all the segments of the assault lock’s deployment ring and breaching charge had been set up, the Marines arranged themselves inside the ring.

“Breach.” Sommer called. Though there was no sound, the airlock’s outer hatch disappeared into a cloud of glittering metal splinters which quickly vanished into a torrent of gray fog as atmosphere from within vented into the void and cooled.

Sommer let the air escape for less than two seconds. “Seal.” He triggered the assault airlock ring, which threw up a dome of flexible self-sealing plastic around the Marines and the gaping hole where the original airlock had been.

As soon as the pressure had stabilized, Sem headed for the opening. He had volunteered to take point, even though it was technically the rookie Okorie’s turn. Okorie would be a good Marine someday, but he still had a long way to go.

The corridor lighting on the hauler had failed, or been deliberately cut, but that didn’t stop the Marines, as their suits had both lights and night-vision helmet optics. The walls and deck were filthy by the standards of any spacer, as if the deck had once been given over to free-roaming livestock and had only been cursorily hosed down. Sem was glad his suit remained hermetically sealed, as he imagined the smell of such filth to be horrific.

Just as it had been on the outside, the vessel was not laid out as the briefing had said, but a hauler was a hauler, and Sem had seen plenty of them. Based on where Mahseer had latched on, the airlock they had boarded led to a lower deck amidships, probably the deck that gave the crew access to the cargo bays.

Though the ship shuddered and sporadic contact with the other two squads from the other two cutters indicated action elsewhere onboard, Sem saw nobody. He led his squad forward, looking for an accessway to the upper decks to join the fighting. If the Incarnation crew of the vessel knew his squad was there, they made no attempt to intercept them.

As the squad hustled forward, Private Okorie tapped one of the large hatchways on either side of a long corridor that seemed to run the length of the deck. “Sarge, what do you reckon is in here?”

“Pressurized cargo hold.” Sommer replied, echoing Sem’s own best guess. “Intel says this ship’s return flight is emergency priority, so whatever they looted from Margaux, they must really need it.”

As the sergeant patiently humored the nervous private, Sem’s suit sensors indicated an acoustic anomaly – a faint, rapid tapping had started behind the door Okorie had just knocked. “Hold it. Something’s in there.”

At once, the squad wheeled and organized a shallow semicircle, guns pointed at the door and poor Okorie, who hadn’t moved as fast as everyone else.

Noting that the rookie had become point-man after all, Sem gestured for him to open the door. It was safer to deal with the uncertainty now than to leave it threatening their flanks.

Okorie hugged the wall, then reached one armor-suited arm across and pulled the manual release latch in the middle of the hatch. It shuddered open on worn-out bearings, and twelve sets of harsh suit-lights shone into the massive cargo hold beyond.

Instead of maddened Margaux beasts, Sem and the others saw only two filthy, emaciated figures crouched on a catwalk beyond the door, pitiably shielding their eyes from the Marines’ lights. The floor of the bay, and likely the main loading doors, was about ten meters below the catwalk, and from that direction a cacaphony of animal-like noises could be heard.

“What is this?” Sergeant Sommer’s suit-external speakers amplified his voice until his deep baritone sounded even more like that of a vengeful storm-god than normal.

One of the emaciated men on the catwalk stood shakily and offered a trembling Confederated salute. “Lieutenant Denzil Vicario, FDA.”

Sommer gestured for the two men – obviously unarmed and barely able to stand – to step out into the corridor, and for the rest of the squad to check the hold. Okorie went in first, and Sem made sure he was second.

At first, when Sem panned the beam of a suit-light over the floor of the hold below, he thought it filled with a chunky beige substance, perhaps some manufacturing byproduct extracted from the many chemical factories on Margaux. It was Okorie who realized what he was looking at first – and who promptly vomited into his helmet.

Seeing the other Marine’s distress, Sem looked again. This time, he saw a face peering back up at him with listless, blank eyes. To his horror, he began to see others – face after face, body after body, buried in the material filling the hold.

Upon the realization that the substance in which they were buried were more men, Sem nearly voided his own stomach as well. The hold had been filled with living men as completely as if they were a substance, until they could not stand without standing on one another, could not lie down without being trampled. The cargo hauler had left Margaux orbit six days before – they had, presumably, endured this purest form of human-devised hell for the entire duration.

The utter callousness on display overwhelmed even a hardened Marine, Sem backed out of the hatch, blanked his suit’s sensors, and focused on his breathing until the roaring sea of helpless anger receded. He would kill the chip-heads later – right now, he needed to find a way to help the wretches in the hold below.