2947-07-09 - Tales from the Service: Alone In the Dark

Hello, Cosmic Background audience. You might have noticed that your usual content editor Duncan Chaudhri is not the one posting this item to your ingestion feeds. 

That’s right! Since I’m working on contract with Cosmic Background for the short duration of this little war, I have all the powers that Duncan has over what appears for your entertainment and what doesn’t. I promise that power won’t go to my head... right away. 

As this goes live, I’ll probably watching Duncan bumble about in a vacsuit during his mandatory EVA training. Since I’m already EVA certified, that means I get to sit inside and drink food-processor coffee while he flails around and generally does his best to get himself killed despite the instructors’ best efforts. 

That's enough gossip, though. Before vanishing into his battery of certification training courses, Duncan helped me compose this interesting little story based on an oral account we were given earlier this week. He told me I could put anything I wanted in this forward section, so I did. 

After he left, I went back over it once more to try to make it as gripping as the teller’s original story, but the composition software won’t let me submit that version. It calls most of my changes “errors” that need to be resolved prior to publication. Something about all the proper rules of writing Duncan is so worried about can just suck the animal terror out of the whole thing. He did that to all my stories, too. Still, I did what I could. Like last week’s story, this one comes from a gunship pilot who got up close and personal with a Sagittarian criuser-analogue. Rather than keep using that silly long technical term “cruiser-analogue”, I’m going to call it what Navy Spacers do – they have given this ship-type the nickname “Tyrant” due to their tendency to pick on weak targets and avoid proper engagements. This is apparently a reference to a popular holovid drama which I have not seen.  

If this reference is important, I’m sure Duncan will explain it next week. 

Kwahja reflexively sucked in a breath as the Magpie’s cockpit disintegrated around him. Buffeted by gouts of escaping and flash-freezing atmosphere, he had only a moment to ponder the spectacular view before the ejection system completed its task, firing him far from the stricken attack boat. 

The deep breath helped little, of course. The emergency bubble helmet which formed around Kwahja’s head sealed in one atmosphere of pressure, and the eight-gee acceleration of ejection forced the hastily-obtained breath from his lungs in any case. When the gunship expldoed behind him, the only indication was the reflected light of the blast against the clearsynth of the helmet. Ejection did not give him any means of maneuver; it served only to preserve his life until a med-evac shuttle could scramble to pick him up. 

“Crew check-in. Iryna, Zalman, you guys make it out?” 

“Affirmative, Lieutenant.” Iryna’s voice was shaky. She was the greenest gunner in the whole squadron, and had never been forced to eject before. 

“I think that broke all my ribs.” Kwahja knew Zalman, a veteran whiner, was all right. If he was actually seriously injured, he would be all business. 

“Good to hear it. Don’t put your beacons on yet.” He didn’t need to explain why. Less than three klicks away, the sinister lines of the Tyrant which had crippled their Magpie cut across the stars. One sweep of the ship’s point defense beams could erase all three of them, if the aliens aboard were feeling particularly cruel. Kwahja had no reason to believe they wouldn’t do it, and every reason to play it safe. 

“Stars around.” The common exclamation likely slipped off Iryna’s tongue without any thought as to how true it was. “We’re just going to sit here and watch?” 

“Yup. Anyone bring any popcorn?” 

“Cut the chatter, Gunner Resnik.” Under normal circumstances, Kwahja tolerated Zalman’s joking and griping to an extreme degree, but the idle comms chatter did present a small risk that the Sagittarians would notice the three stranded human spacers. 

The line subsided into silence, and Kwahja watched without any magnification aid as the remaining four ships in the squadron made another strafing pass along the Tyrant’s hull. The big ship, maneuvering wildly to avoid long range railshot from Mijo Yankov and its two escorting frigates, likely suffered little damage from the light ships’ harassing attack, but the flashes of exploding ordinance still improved the stranded pilot’s mood. At least he hadn’t lost a boat for nothing. 

“Boss, there’s something over here. Moving fast. One of ours?” 

Iryna replied first, in her nervousness not realizing the observation was meant for Kwahja. “We'd see IFF if it was one of ours.” 

“Debris from Deadeye?” The Magpie gunship had earned its nickname from the many off-shift sessions its crew spent in the gunnery simulator. Now it was gone, and the next one would need a new nickname. Kwahja craned his head, but he couldn’t quite turn far enough to look toward where the ejection system had hurled Zalman. “I can’t see from here. Iryna, what about you?”  

“I can see Zalman if I switch to infrared, but I can’t see what he’s talking about.” 

“Let me try that.” The gunner went quiet for a moment. “Yeah, that’s something. No IR signature at all. Whatever it is, it’s awfully small. Going to hit it with a wrist light.” 

Kwahja wasn’t an expert in deep space salvage, but he knew that things which had just finished exploding were supposed to be hot. “Not wreckage, then. Skip the light. Let it pass.” 

The order came too late. Already an inset came to life in the bubble-helmet around Kwahja’s head, showing Zalman’s wrist-mounted microcamera feed. The light came on a second later. The curved, nonreflective object pinned in the middle of the weak beam at first seemed to be an oddly shaped asteroid – a chance encounter in the void, nothing more. 

Then the object rolled, and its lines took on a deadly, sleek shape wreathed in puffs of thruster-gas. “Zalman, get that light off.” 

“Hells! Drone of some kind.” Zalman’s light went off, but the camera feed remained. The flippant tone in his voice was gone. “Think it’s from the Tyrant?” 

Kwahja glanced back at the evasive gyrations of the alien cruiser. The drone’s shape did have a vague aesthetic similarity to the Sagittarian ship. “Could be. Still see it?” 

“Yeah.” Zalman pointed the camera at a black patch of space. As he held it still, stars resolved themselves around a dark silhouette. “Right there. On vector with us.” 

“Should we switch on the beacons and tell them to speed up the evac?” Iryna was doing her best to remain calm, but the appearance of a strange drone was enough to unsettle even a veteran. Kwahja knew she was very close to panic. 

“Negative.” The drone was so close that no rushed evac could reach the trio in time. “Iryna, watch Zalman. Let me know if you see anything on visual or IR.” It galled the pilot that he couldn’t see either of his gunners; the ejection system did not equip a stranded pilot with attitude thrusters. 

“It’s moving again.” Zalman’s fear was almost palpable, and it was easy to guess why. Even an unarmed drone, directed by the inscrutable will of a Sagittarian, could kill a stranded pilot easily. 

“Still don’t see it.” Iryna muttered. 

“He’s getting closer. A hundred meters. Going to try my side-arm. I’m not going out like this.” 

Zalman, stay calm. It’s probably-” 

“I see it!” Iryna called out. “I have a clear shot from here.” 

Seventy meters. Damn thing’s coming right at me, but he’s coming slow. Zalman’s teeth were gritted. “He passes forty, and I open fire. Iryna, you see me shooting, you shoot too.” 

Kwahja knew side-arms would do nearly nothing against even the thin skin of a utility drone. Still, he knew his gunners were right to prepare to shoot the thing – perhaps they would get a lucky shot, or confuse its programming and force it to back off. “Good luck, you two. Sorry I’m angled wrong to help.” 

“Thanks, boss.” Zalman adjusted his camera feed to point at the slowly growing silhouette. “Fifty-five.” 

“I think I see drive exhausts. Going to aim for those.” Iryna was as good a shot with her side-arm as she was with a gunship’s ordinance. If she could hit a weak spot, it might disable the drone. 

“Fifty meters.” 

Kwahja watched helplessly as the shape on the feed drew closer. Zalman, realizing stealth was pointless, flicked his wrist light back on, giving Iryna a better target and Kwahja a better look at the incoming. It was big for a drone, he decided; it reminded him of the skim-racers he’d seen competing in the orbital blood-sport common to some of the colonies of the Reach. Like those tiny ships, the drone had a fluted and fragile look, as if every gram of needless weight had been removed from its hull. The pair of recesses in the prow suggested the thing was armed, but until it opened fire there was no way to be sure. 

“Forty-five. Nice knowing you guys.” The blurry barrel of Zalman’s sidearm intruded on one side of the camera footage. 

“Give him hell, Zalman.” 

The only indication that the incoming drone crossed the forty-meter mark was Zalman’s gun spitting a cloud of red-hot slugs into its nose. A moment later, a second cloud of red motes slammed into its side from Iryna’s weapon. Each hit produced a shower of sparks, but Kwahja had no way of knowing if there was any damage. 

Zalman’s gun fell silent, though its magnetic barrel still glowed. “Dammit. That’s my mag. Going to try to re-” 

The camera feed flashed white, then vanished. At the same instant, Iryna started screaming. If there were words in her voice, Kwahja couldn’t pick them out. 

ZalmanZalman!” A quick check of the telemetry from the other two showed Kwahja what he already knew – Zalman Resnik was gone. “Iryna. What happened?” 

The gunner continued screaming. Perhaps she was firing her side-arm and reloading it as fast as she could, or perhaps she was curled into a fetal position in her ejection rig, there was no way to tell. She barely even stopped screaming to take a breath. 

“Iryna. Get a grip. Tell me what happened!” 

It was useless. After another few seconds of screaming, Iryna’s voice rose in an almost pathetic squeak, then the line went dead, along with all her indicators. 

“Iryna. Report!” Even as he sent the message, Kwahja knew that he was alone with the sleek, murderous drone. 

As the seconds ticked by, Kwahja craned his neck around in his bubble helmet, wishing he could rotate enough to see in the direction from which danger was coming. He estimated that it would reach him in less than a minute, and began counting, already checking the battery and magazine of his own pistol.  

At a count of seventy seconds without instant death or the appearance of the drone, Kwahja frowned, but kept counting. Perhaps it was slower than he had anticipated. Sweat trickled down his neck, but there was no way to wipe it away. 

At ninety seconds, he checked the suit’s mission timer to verify that he wasn’t counting too fast. The drone should have found him already. In the distance, the Sagittarian ship had given up its course and was burning an escape course toward the edge of the stellar grav shadow. Perhaps the drone had been recalled? He kept counting. 

At five hundred ninety-one seconds, an all-clear broadcast from Mijo Yankov told him it was safe to switch on his beacon. He kept counting, pistol ready, until the rescue ship arrived.