Epsilon Eridani Star System, aboard salvaged JSSDF Naraka Prison Ship, approaching Planet Coronus g-591e.
1409 Hours, January 5.
Breath exploded from Kael's lungs while her back and head met the steel ceiling at speed, followed by an eerie split-second of freefall as the ground leapt at her--alarmingly fast.
Kael reacted in an instant; her hands and feet hammered into the floor, cat like, and she rose without breaking stride--then a sudden spell of vertigo washed over her.
Kael fell to a knee in a disoriented haze from the head injury; breakfast surged up her throat and vomit filled her helmet to the nose. She emptied the contents and put the helmet back on, eyes stinging from the acrid stench, and dizzied to a low crouch.
"Who the fuck is it now?" Claire said to Murdoch over the radio, leaned against a wall as she patiently and calmly chambered a round into her assault rifle and cycled the safeties off with a practiced tolerance.
"Fucking Russian enforcers." Murdoch replied. "One Raven boarded, origin cargo ship holding position eight hundred kilometers out, just waiting to chase us down the road."
"How did they find us again?"
"You tell me; it's your cunt they're after."
"Motherfuckers just can't get enough Brazilian pussy," Claire laughed, as if this was all normal.
"Well then, enjoy sucking off the boarding crew. Mark key a subspace jump and get us as close to the Coronus outpost as possible. I'll secure the survival gear and the ATLAS-I. Party in bay A7 in ten minutes, so you bitches better get those tits a-shaking."
"If you Protestant fuck-buckets don't get them first," Claire shot back.
A count-down timer and a marker to hangar bay A7 appeared on Kael's display.
"Wait, what the fuck?" Kael said to Claire.
"I did say you'd have to get in line to kill me."
"What the fuck does 'party in bay A7' mean?"
Claire cleared the nearby corner and gave the signal to advance. "Prison ships have no weapons, so we're going to run."
"Won't they just chase us on the planet?"
Claire shrugged, "probably."
"Maybe I should go with them," Kael said as she followed.
"You don't understand. You can't reason with people who deliberately crash into a prison ship just so they can kill one person. They can't tell the difference between you and me underneath that armor, and you're wearing the wrong team colors, Princess."
Kael kept her mouth shut.
Static roared over the radio, then a fleeting jolt of acceleration hit. A quick glance at the time/location stamp in her visor showed the location was unknown, which confirmed that they were now in the subspace jump.
The next intersecting door opened up to the mess hall.
Black smoke bled in oily jets from the overhead vents and made it impossible to see anything. Kael switched her visor to infrared and cut through the smoke. A flash of open flame in the distance made her display flare white, so she manually turned down the sensitivity.
Piece-of-shit cracked firmware, she thought as she rebooted the sensor suite.
Another flash blinded her--this time audible with the crack of gunfire.
Kael dove behind a supporting pillar while fragmentation rounds blew apart on the metal floor at her feet and sprayed metal slivers into the column. She knocked over a steel table and set it between herself and the column for good measure.
To her right was Claire; they exchanged a brief nod.
Kael turned the table and kicked it with all her strength, multiplied two-fold by the exoskeleton framework beneath her suit. The flying table parted the smokescreen like a drawn curtain and crashed into the wall, directly above the bounty-hunter as he blind fired from his cover.
Claire squeezed off a three round burst--but her injured wrist gave to the recoil and she missed.
Kael opened fire just beneath where Claire fired. Bullets ripped through the thin cover and she heard a wet smack, but kept firing until the gun clacked thrice--empty, and she cycled another clip. The charge capacitor reading in her visor depleted to 95%.
Claire went behind the table; two shots rang out, a delayed brief delay then the third--a dead check pattern Kael recognized as two double taps to the chest with a headshot. Claire then gave the universal all clear a hand signal and motioned for her to follow.
Kael always wondered how she'd feel if she made a kill face to face, but today there was no time to confirm whether she'd incapacitated or killed the bounty-hunter; all she saw as she followed Claire were the ugly holes blasted into the steel table and the wall behind that.
The timer flashed: 07:49
A metal plaque with the letters "RECEIVING CORRIDOR" swayed as they sprinted down the passage. The next intersecting sign pointed them to "LAUNCH BAYS A1-A9."
Popping sounds shook the deck beneath, then there was the faint roar of a waterfall.
"What's happening?" Kael said to Claire.
"Atmospheric re-entry," Claire replied, a nervous glance behind and ahead. "We better move."
Even as she followed, Kael mentally halted. The majority of existing starships fell under the Ulysses class, and were wholly designed to work in hard vacuum, in much the same way a massive seagoing cargo ship wasn't meant to dock at a tiny pier.
Except for the minority of ships built under the newer Navajo class, atmospheric re-entry was normally tasked to Raven drop ships and Halberd interceptors. Now seized by planet Coronus' gravity, Kael knew the ship wouldn't last much longer.
The deck rattled under stress--then a massive shudder whipped both mercenaries into the opposing wall. The screech of a thousand waterfalls shot through Kael's skull like a bullet before the audio gain filtered out the noise.
Outside, a massive shockwave detonated off the Naraka's prow and grinded down its length as the prison ship took an eerie orange gleam while it challenged the planet's rapidly thickening atmosphere.
Kael and Claire passed a tangle of four corpses as they entered LAUNCH BAY A7, and salvation came wrapped in angular heat-shielded Therrite, a quad of jet engines on projecting wing stubs, and crystal-hard windows--the E102 Aerial Insertion Vehicle, NATO reporting name "RAVEN" dropship.
"Don't make me wait," Murdoch insisted. "'Cause I won't."
Mark keyed the Raven's engines to life and whisked the war bird off the ground. Explosions detonated aboard the Naraka and listed her burning hulk; empty weapons hard cases and trash cans slid across the bay and smacked the drop ship while it nosed toward the hangar door.
In one sudden motion, the Naraka's rear launch bay doors split asunder...to burning hell. Beyond, planet Coronus' greenish curvature punctuated a wall of fiery debris. Explosive decompression ejected the Raven and the swirling vortex of projectiles away from the rapidly disintegrating prison ship.
The Raven's maneuvering rockets roared in full overload as the craft tumbled and tried to balance in the Naraka's turbulent wake. Kael, Murdoch and Claire flew clear from hastily secured five-point harnesses and bounced from wall to wall like golf balls in a tumble dryer.
The craft finally leveled; Kael hit the ground face first into the old ATLAS-I missile launcher hard case--then immediately got up and secured herself properly.
Re-entry heat seared into the drop ship from the pilot's cabin ahead. In the pilot seat, Mark keyed the pulse-detonation engine, and the drop ship streaked dual lines of ringed fiery-white exhaust while it fell into its atmospheric re-entry vector.
Hundreds of kilometers distant, the once-mighty JSSDF Naraka continued to list forward as the atmosphere grinded down its length, stripped and burned what remained of its Therrite skin like a candle meeting the breath of a blowtorch.
The reactor self-destruct mandate, specifically designed to vaporize a fallen vessel rather than let it rain down upon a populated planet, activated. The prison ship fell into a sickening spiral towards Coronus and detonated.
Blinding white light and heat splashed into the drop ship while a small fourth sun bloomed on the distant horizon. The Raven powered into its atmospheric re-entry vector at hypersonic pace, its leading edges licked white-hot by re-entry at well beyond the recommended full speed; everyone else aboard was thrashing, everyone was flailing...but they didn't make a sound.
Kael thought it was the end of the world.
The white light cooled, and the planet's clouds shifted toward the tattered and burned atmosphere the nuclear explosion had created. Chunks of the Naraka's hull broke apart and vaporized as they sunk into the planet's curvature.
Thunder rang out through the passenger compartment; roaring flames and white-hot debris exploded off the Raven's hull and flew aft. The hull rattled, and metal loudly creaked.
"SLOW DOWN!" Claire cried, "this thing will never hold--"
"NO! We'll make it!" Murdoch laughed. "What could possibly--possibly--go wrong?"
The transport dove toward the surface like a bullet; the crack of a supersonic boom knifed through the Raven, then rumbled and faded in the transport's fiery wake as it dropped into supersonic flight. In seconds, the transport drew whorls through clouds and flew toward a vast expanse of pines and evergreens that crested an emerald shore ahead.
Kael took a deep breath and tried to calm down, but her hands still shook. She looked out the passenger compartment's crystal hard windows and watched the rolling plains of the planet below blend into a pale-green horizon, touched by the faint streaks of a golden sunset.
Mark hunted for a landing zone. A few minutes and there--a clearing in a pine forest, just large enough for the Raven's size. The transport touched down, and like a door to heaven the loading ramp swung open.
Kael raced out and crunched glorious dirt in her hands. She didn't care what the others thought; this was the best thing that happened since the ambush. After a moment to catch their breath, the mercenaries assembled around the drop ship and marveled at the tortured and bruised war bird.
Mark had pushed the Raven past its recommended performance; its once matte-black Therrite plating was now a shade of burnished copper. Hairline fractures had spidered across its projecting wing stubs, and even the crystal-hard windows had begun to warp from the heat.
A closer look at the transport's four jet thrusters revealed thin, black coils of smoke and fire retardants curled within the stressed cowlings. If one more thing failed, if one more bolt gave way--they'd all be free-floating molecules in the planet's troposphere.
"You sir," Murdoch said to Mark as he shouldered the missile launcher, "are a god among pilots."
Kael glanced at him, feeling very much the same. Of all the mercenaries, he was the most difficult for Kael to read so far. Claire was certainly a sociopath of some measure; Murdoch was a nihilistic dinosaur on top of that, and both greedy with it.
At that moment, all Kael read is that there was a certain reserved demeanor to Mark, a fact he demonstrated when he ignored the compliments and instead looked up at the sky suspiciously just as Kael heard the distant roar of a Raven drop ship--closing fast.
"The Russians will catch up any minute," Mark said. "Vamos."
A metallic clink rang out from their damaged transport with an explosion of sparks--then Kael heard the targeting vector confirmation shot, fired from the first Russian drop ship a few kilometers out at well beyond the speed of sound.
As Kael dove away, their downed dropship erupted into a blinding shower of fiery sparks. She instantly recognized the red-hot metal spikes while they sizzled through the air and tore ugly wounds into the transport's Therrite skin. These were the same rounds that flew a scant meter above her head on the second day of boot camp with Velasquez Company.
Murdoch screamed into the radio: "Move-move! Staggered line. I'll post markers."
By then Kael had already broke into a dead run.
Behind her, the anti-tank spikes rained into the battered and bruised dropship--sawed clean through the metal body underneath, sliced it in half. Kael changed direction and ran even faster; armored as she was, she knew even a glancing hit from one spike could blow her apart.
Kael ran for her life as the dirt exploded on her left. She jumped away, rolled and slammed to a halt; more rounds slashed a trench into the ground right where she'd be if she continued the roll.
The enemy dropship shot past the forest canopy, and mighty pines shook in the heady gust--bowed to the wind as the transport drifted into the distance and began a slow descent toward the tree line.
Kael hid behind a tree and keyed off the safety on her rifle, thankful that even with computer-assisted aim, attempting to hit a relatively small moving target with a mounted gun while on a moving platform was still notoriously difficult.
Claire sounded over the radio: "just how the fuck do they keep finding us?"
"We weren't that hard to follow," Mark answered. "Also our little bird might be bugged."
"Can't be," Murdoch told them. "No implants on every x-ray, no nanomachines detected either. Sliced her up for more than one reason, you see."
"I'm impressed," Claire laughed. "A disgusting, misogynistic imp actually being sensible--"
"CHILDREN!" Kael cut in, voice quaking with the rage. "If anyone is interested, six armored assholes just got out from the drop ship, and I'd really just fucking love it if you shit-heads STAY FOCUSED!"
"...you see? You fucking see what I mean?" Murdoch replied; Kael heard the ATLAS-I missile launcher magazine clicked shut on his channel. "Absolutely no manners, and she'll only get worse with Claire encouraging her."
"He's got a point," Mark laughed; a single shot cracked out from his Gauss sniper rifle.
"No way I'd make her worse than she already is," Claire defended herself. "Vicious little cunt was just born that way. But guys, seriously, they really do have boots on the ground and a dropship incoming for another shot."
"Fuck's sake," the Brit whined, "still mind sharing what the bloody hell you did to 'em?"
"A young and stupid mistake, but that's not important right now."
"Yeah? Well then let's just feed you to the Russkies and call it a day."
Kael couldn't believe how shockingly conversational they all were. Didn't they understand that they were in danger? Did they even know what they were doing? These so-called mercenaries were a far cry from the grizzled, no-nonsense veterans she expected.
"What's important is they'll kill you both along with me anyway," Claire shot back, "then cash in the girl if she isn't killed too. Just help me drop the fuckers and everyone gets their money and our little Princess gets her revenge, m'kay?"
"Yeah, ok, whatever. Just be where I fucking say then."
A new marker appeared in Kael's visor. It made some sense in Kael's head to wait for a chance to engage the dropship with their biggest gun at adequate range while their force multiplier discouraged enemy troops on the ground, with Claire providing support at the middle, and their valuable paycheck at the back.
But with her boots on the ground, in reality, it didn't make any sense to think about things like safety when the lesser of two evils happened to be the gunship meant to break up your formation and push you into the enemy troops' line of fire in panicked confusion.
There was no time to think, no time to worry while the transport opened fire and the tree at Kael's immediate right exploded into a shower of smoky splinters. The transport thundered overhead, and at range broke into a turn then swooped down into another strafing run.
This is all I can do, Kael thought as she took a springing leap away, forced into open ground and opened fire on the enemy transport; her rounds uselessly sparked the hull and shot tiny cracks across the bulletproof glass.
Anti-tank spikes whistled centimeters overhead, blew apart another tree at her back--trunk, branches, leaves and all. Her rifle clacked twice, empty, and Kael remained at her core deliberate as she sidestepped and calmly cycled in another magazine to continue firing.
Thought-patterns had connected.
Kael realized that beneath all the despair and terror, there was a certain rhythm and timing to the violence and chaos of a firefight, so she stood alone, undaunted, before a force designed to take out main battle tanks...and knew she was exactly where she needed to be.
Right on cue, the dropship suddenly angled away from its attack run. Behind her, the ATLAS-I missile smashed through small branches and twigs as it left the forest in a flash, snapped into its targeting vector like a silver spear inexorably drawn to the reeling transport.
Kael saw what took a mere split-second in fine detail: the arching skyward blaze left by the older missile as it turned to strike its target, and the dropship as it automatically turned to break away from the missile's curved line of attack. Manually fired in subpar conditions, the missile overshot the reeling target for an instant before the proximity sensor activated.
Kael took a step back, braced.
The explosion crashed into the transport above her--buffeted and swayed the craft this way and that while it struggled to balance against the force and remain aloft. A heartbeat later, the Raven plunged into the forest while its engines fired in a tortured squeal, out of the fight.
Precisely in the heat of this moment, she felt bullets rapidly strike her armor's outer shell at the waist, heard the unmistakable crack of MK55 sub-machineguns as she sprung from the line of fire. She moved out of sight and returned suppressing fire in the general direction of the shots.
A nearby bush rustled as someone instinctively ducked; Kael advanced on the position, firing as she went--then activated the suit's optical camouflage, almost invisible as she ejected the spent magazine and circled in for the kill, leaping between the tree trunks--a glass shimmer, then gone.
After the ambush with Velasquez Company, she knew taking hits in the lower-spec JAW-60 suit wasn't an immediate death sentence. She could take more damage in her JAW-180 suit, and with its active-camouflage could startle and gain the element of surprise at the enemy's back.
Kael leapt--a whisper-rustle in the forest dusk--and wrapped her forearm around the neck, wrenched him off his feet straight up; at the deft flick of her wrist the combat knife shot out from its holster on her hip, the tip skillfully twirled to face the body.
Sixteen inches of tungsten-carbide hammered between the thinner Therrite plates at his abdomen before he could react, and with a savage wrench she dragged the knife into a gruesome line across his entire midsection. The bounty hunter moaned with the shock and agony, languid in Kael's grip, one finger indelibly hovering over his gun's trigger.
It shouldn't be this predictable, she thought as more rounds sparked off her back, chipped the Therrite and optical camouflage matrix there. With a casual push from her hip, Kael wheeled nearly three-hundred pounds of armored dead-weight to shield herself from the suppressing fire.
Questing fingers ringed the grenades at her victim's waist, ripped them away.
She set the dead man to a moment of free fall--then lashed out with a straight boot.
An anvil crashed into the meat shield's back, cracking the Therrite plates there. The lifeless body flew clear--crashed, tumbled and rolled with the force to the gunfire's general direction. It shouldn't be this easy to kill.
Kael braced into a three-point stance against the impending explosion. He disappeared in a trinity of blinding lightning-thunder; two more crashed out from their cover from the blast, groaning in a disoriented haze as they reached for their weapons.
A Gauss round split the air above Kael, white-blue smoke in its trail.
Mark missed number one at the right, but the result was all the same; a great bulk of the bicep went with the sniper round--armor plating, chunky meat, skin, bone and all, fixed to the tree at his back in a flash of bloody mist. Blood pressure plummeted almost instantly, and with the fatal shock and trauma came unconsciousness and in mere moments death.
Claire was upon number two in flash, heavy knee crashing down upon his back .
Brutal hard fingers caught the chin and back of the helmet in an explosion of sparks--twisted with such multiplied strength that the articulated Therrite exploded off the neck and nearly flung herself clear off his back.
For the longest moment the body took an epileptic tremor and thrashed beneath Claire's weight--grotesque, chest down, visor nearly sunward. Claire leaned close to the face, and with a sympathetic hand caressed his cheek.
"Shhh, shhh, shhhh...it's okay, it's okay." Claire made the noise to quiet him, tone and voice disturbing and motherly as if she were trying to calm an irritated child. "I'm here with you now. Calm down and relax for me, okay?"
Slowly, but surely, the trembling ceased.
"Right," Murdoch sounded over the COM. "I think play time's over."
After the trembling ceased, Claire worked the cramp in her healing wrist, then started to loot the body. She stood with a disappointed sigh and glanced past Kael to the remains of her opponent, head titled to the side in a quizzical glance.
"So this is what you can do to a body in a fair fight." Claire said; Kael practically saw the glee through the woman's helmet, hands crossed at her chest as if she were a teacher taking pride in her student's work. "Come on. Let's go."
Kael hesitated, then started to follow silently.
"You find anything in their drop ship?" Mark asked Murdoch. "Is it operable?"
"Not unless you enjoy digging dirt and twigs from the wrecked thrusters, and you have spare parts." A haughty laugh from Murdoch, "and I've never dealt with any mafia enforcer who wasn't broke, even if times weren't tough for everyone. Come on; time to follow papa."
Kael stopped following Claire.
It shouldn't be so natural, Kael thought, so simple. She wasn't sorry for what she had to do, but something felt wrong. Kael had the distinct impression that she was going down a path she didn't fully understand and could never return from.
"Time to go, little bird," Mark called out.
Kael ignored. Instead she remembered her tiny apartment in the housing project on the city limits, taking the bus every day to school then work at Fenris Enterprise...all her friends, co-workers, Miranda and her former squad-mates were all billions upon billions of miles away.
As she was, she couldn't even prove if any of that life existed at all.
Kael turned from Claire to walk away from all of this...only to confront the results of her grizzly work: a finger here, a foot there, and the rest broadcast across the scene as shattered cranium, Therrite fragments, splintered teeth, and bits of carbonized bone.
What kind of a monster am I turning into?