Children of Darkness: Chapter 1
The blaring of the ship’s intercom woke Captain Marcus Drake from his favorite dream, the one about the dancing girls and the hot spring. He glanced at the clock on the wall and groaned. Only four hours since his shift ended. Whatever Solomon wanted better be important.
Marcus swung his long legs over the side of his bunk and stepped on something sharp. “Damn it! Lights.”
The overhead lights came to life, not quite blinding him. “Damn it! Reduce brightness by half.”
The lights obliged and after a moment Marcus’s vision cleared. The state of his little cabin made him want to turn the lights off again. Three months of accumulated junk spilled out of the storage bins. Clothes in desperate need of cleaning, food containers from half a dozen restaurants – each from a different planet – along with the other odds and ends he’d collected in his travels. On one shelf, in a neat row, sat twenty leather-bound books, his mother’s collection. An island of order amidst the chaos. He smiled when he looked at them and a bit of his annoyance leaked away.
Marcus raised his sore foot and found the remains of a small statuette he’d picked up at the spaceport on Titan two months ago. At least he didn’t break the skin. He picked his way through the debris to the intercom and slapped the switch. “What?”
“We’re picking up a distress beacon.”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere. Who the hell would travel through this part of the galaxy, besides us, of course. The nearest trade route is half a day from here.”
“Yeah, but the distress beacon is out there nonetheless.”
“Fine, I’m on my way.” Marcus released the intercom switch. He threw on his clothes and ducked out of his cabin. Six steps to his left and the automatic door to the cockpit slid open. He smiled as he stepped through the door into his only true home in the galaxy.
Seated in the copilot’s chair, his best friend and navigator, Solomon Keys, glanced back at him. “You look like shit.”
Marcus scratched the three day’s growth of stubble on his cheek. “Thanks. This is what you get when you wake me up after four hours’ sleep. You sure the beacon’s legit?”
Solomon didn’t dignify that with a reply. Marcus grinned. Solomon’s people skills sucked, but he knew computers. Solomon told him computers were easier to deal with than people. If he didn’t like the way a computer acted he’d just change its programming; he had to talk to people.
“I’ve pinpointed the beacon’s location.”
When Solomon gave him the location he shook his head. “None of the big merchant houses come out this far. Did you identify the beacon?”
After a moment of typing Solomon said, “I’ll be damned. It isn’t merchant class at all, it’s expedition class.”
“No exploration ships have come out this way in years. It’s gotta be pirates.”
“You always say that.” Solomon typed another command. “We haven’t even seen a pirate in three years. Come on, somebody might be in trouble. Shall I prepare for a return to real space?”
“We have a schedule to keep. We can’t be late again.” Last time they hadn’t made their delivery date their client, Axis, cut their fee so much they’d only gotten enough to refuel. “We can report their location when we get to Mars.”
“It’ll take three days to get there and three more for a rescue ship to get back. Whoever’s out there might die before anyone arrives. You know we need to stop and try to help. Besides we’re six hours ahead of schedule.”
“Fine, have it your way.” Once Solomon got an idea in his head it would take a plasma grenade to get it out. Best to go along with him. “Bring us out well away from the beacon. I want a good look around before we go in.”
“Understood,” Solomon said. “Revision in three.”
“Inertial dampers on full.”
“Shields at maximum.”
The Rogue Star came shuddering back to real space. Nothing shot at them which Marcus took as a good sign. A ship’s most vulnerable moment came just after first leaving hyperspace. Marcus learned that lesson the hard way years ago. He activated the ship’s sensors. No heat signatures or movement detected, they appeared to be alone.
“What do you think?”
Solomon squinted bloodshot, blue eyes as he studied the readings. “I’m not picking up any energy readings. Nothing to indicate a battle. I’m just picking up a single large object drifting at random. It’s the source of the distress signal.”
“Well, let’s take a look,” Marcus said, curious now despite himself. He pushed the engines to half power and guided the Star toward the object. He took a deep breath and tensed and relaxed his muscles one group at a time. They had no need to worry. If he told himself that enough times he might start to believe it.
They approached the object and Marcus activated the ship’s powerful floodlights, revealing the gray hull of a large star cruiser. Something had blown a hole in the side of it. Marcus could have flown the Star right through the hull.
“Run a full scan of the ship. I need a classification and note of our position. This thing is slagged but I bet we can get good credits from a salvager.”
While Solomon worked, Marcus piloted his ship in a quick orbit of the cruiser. Hundreds of laser bolts had scarred and pitted the durasteel hull. She’d seen plenty of action, no doubt. The guts of one engine dangled from a six-foot gash in its housing. Something had blown the second engine away leaving only an empty hole. He spotted several smaller holes in the hull toward the rear of the ship. Whoever they ran into did a thorough job.
When he’d finished his orbit Marcus guessed the cruiser measured three hundred yards long. Even as scrap it should sell for a quarter million credits.
“Finished your scan yet?”
“Almost. It’s a class three Earth Force destroyer. Minimal weapons. Probably decommissioned and sold to a private buyer.”
“When you’re finished plot us a course out of here.”
“Not so fast.” Solomon ran a hand through his shaggy blond hair. “I picked up a life sign. Someone’s alive over there.”
“Impossible. That thing is so full of holes it can’t have any atmosphere.”
Solomon checked the readout again. “I’m telling you something’s alive over there. We’ve got to check it out.”
“Sure. If we hang out for a while longer we can end up the same as them.” Marcus sighed. “What the hell. We might as well take a look.”
Marcus eased the ship over towards the gaping hole in the destroyer. He could access the ship there with no problem. When his proximity detector read fifty meters he killed his momentum and activated the tractor beam to anchor them in place.
Marcus got to his feet. “I’ll take a data slate with me and see if I can salvage any information from the ship’s computer. Keep your eyes on the scanner. If anyone comes sniffing around let me know.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything,” Solomon said. “You just be careful over there.”
Marcus left his cozy cockpit and took the main corridor back to the cargo bay. He paused to collect a spare data slate from a storage locker.
The cargo bay took up by far the largest portion of the ship. Hundreds of crates stacked from floor to ceiling and held in place by force fields filled the hold. Only four six-foot-wide alleyways remained empty. When Marcus set foot in the cargo bay a pair of red lights appeared seven feet off the ground.
Soft white light filled the bay and revealed the massive form of Marcus’s cargo handler. At just shy of eight feet tall and two tons, the robot usually just moved cargo. The huge hands that shifted thousand-pound crates could also crush a thief to pulp making it a good guard.
“Voice recognized.” The mechanical vocalization sounded kind of tinny. He needed a new speaker. Marcus would add it to the ever-growing list of new things they needed. “Drake, Marcus, access granted.”
“Good boy, go back to sleep.”
“Command acknowledged.” The red glow from Herc’s eyes dimmed as the robot went back to sleep mode.
Marcus slipped past the sleeping giant and walked to the rear of the bay. Cargo came in through the large ramp that lowered like a castle drawbridge. They also had a smaller airlock so he wouldn’t have to open the main door.
An imbedded storage cylinder stood beside the airlock door. A shared keypad between the door and the cylinder allowed access to either. Marcus typed in his five-digit code and the cylinder rotated one hundred and eighty degrees revealing his gleaming black and silver power armor. The back of the armor sat open, just waiting for Marcus to step in, like one of the knights of the round table. Marcus smiled as he remembered the stories his mother used to read to him, the brave knights riding forth to slay the dragon and rescue the princess.
He sighed and wondered if any of those ancient knights had bills to pay. “Armor status?”
“Fully charged.” Just as he expected.
Marcus took a deep breath and let it out slow. “Black dragon, armor up.”
His access code deactivated the defense mechanism that would fry anyone else who tried to put on his armor. Marcus stepped inside the storage unit and pressed his chest forward until he met resistance. The armor came awake, plates snapped shut, and the unit closed around him. A faint hiss indicated the plasma seals had engaged, theoretically enclosing him in his own self-contained environment. Of course you never knew until you flew out of the airlock.
Marcus stepped back out of the cylinder, careful not to bang his head. He took a moment to test the movement of the joints and to get used to the slight delay as the servo motors translated his movements to the armor. Satisfied that everything worked properly he attached the data slate to his back with the built-in magnets and stomped toward the airlock. Time to go for a walk.
He eased through the inner airlock door and closed it behind him. When the green light activated indicating a positive seal he hit the button to open the outer door. The room depressurized and Marcus floated out into the void.
Once he cleared the airlock Marcus activated the thrusters in the soles of his armor. The Star’s floodlights illuminated the destroyer’s hull. The edges of the metal had liquefied then twisted it into an abstract sculpture. Hellfire torpedoes – nothing else would get that hot.
“Can you hear me, Solomon?” Marcus said.
“Loud and clear.”
The communicator worked, so far so good. “Okay, I’m heading in.”
With his thrusters set to low Marcus eased his way inside the wrecked ship. Away from the hull breach the light didn’t help and he couldn’t see a thing. He activated the light in the chest of his armor. Row after row of empty shelving bolted to the floor filled the space. Pity, he could have gotten more if the cargo hadn’t drifted away.
“Where’s that life form reading?”
“Somewhere on the lower decks near midship. That’s the best I can do.”
“I’ll head to the bridge and check out the computer first.”
“If someone’s in trouble…”
“Don’t worry. This piece of junk has drifted for years. If someone survived this long I doubt a few more minutes will matter.”
Marcus shivered as he flew through the empty ship. Thousands of people worked here once upon a time. Now he found nothing but the odd bit of floating junk. Creepy, maybe he’d meet a ghost.
Most of the inner doors had opened during the battle and remained that way. Something had short circuited, but it made his life easier. Everything must have gotten sucked out when the hull breached to leave the place so empty.
When he reached the bridge his luck ran out. The doors had sealed, a security lockdown to keep boarders from accessing the bridge. With no power he couldn’t override the lock so that left brute force.
“Cutting laser, online.”
He felt a vibration in his right hand as the laser generator powered up. When it reached full strength the tip of his index finger snapped open and an emitter slid out. He pointed and a small red dot hit the door.
An intense beam of red light lanced out. Where it hit, the door glowed orange then melted. He moved his hand in a slow circle, slicing a hole in the door. When he finished he deactivated the laser and pushed the metal disk into the bridge. Marcus followed, careful of the molten edges.
Unlike the rest of the crew the bridge officers didn’t get sucked out into space. Laser-burned corpses floated through the large, open space. Marcus tried to ignore the bodies. Instead he focused his attention on the work stations, looking for a data port compatible with his slate. He found one at engineering. Marcus brushed a corpse out of his way and plugged in the slate. He transferred power from the slate to the computer, just enough to get the hard drive running, then set it to auto-download. It would finish its work while he finished his.
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of Children of Darkness. Find out what happens next in Chapter Two.