Follow That Hull, Lost Memory Found, Blown Away, Bittersweet

Follow That Hull

It was sixty kilometers and counting, as the Crystal Nova burned red through the atmosphere of Tiber II. The controls shook furiously as Marcus tried to keep it all together. Making it worse was the God awful temperature within the ship.

Two hours ago they were in space, floating along with the debris of ships destroyed in battle. It had taken time to slowly push the fractured remnants of a frigate hull down into the atmosphere, but they had finally managed to send it, along with other debris, towards the planet. Marcus had then cut the power to the ship so they could freefall undetected with the rest of the fiery trash.

Fifty-Seven kilometers ticked away. An agitated voice growled behind Marcus. “You going to turn this ship on, or you going to let us crash and burn before we start this?” the voice asked.

Marcus wanted to snap off a nifty comeback from a 4D movie remake of a space opera he had once seen. What was it again? ’ain’t like dusting crops’? He was to busy concentrating on their descent to remember the line accurately. He just grunted in response as he started the charge up process. They were fifty-five kilometers and counting in a freefall Marcus was not about to lose control over.

Forty-eight kilometers and Marcus could tell they were going in too fast. He threw the maneuvering thrusters on, trying to stabilize the descent. The frigate hull and small debris field around him glowed so hot they could easily mask his ship’s signature, but the smaller debris was burning up fast. If he powered the rest of the Nova at this high altitude, he would be detected in no time; if he waited too long, they would break up well before they hit the thermosphere.

Forty-three kilometers and again the voice behind Marcus spoke up angrily. “Damn it man! You are not paying me enough to die in this bucket!”

“Sit down Taggit!” Adene, Marcus’s co-pilot, snapped back, “Your yapping is going to get us killed if you don’t sit the fuck down and let him concentrate!” Taggit slammed his hand on the hull in response, but did not say a word. He opted instead to stare back into the midsection where sat the rest of his crew.

If only he did concentrate, Marcus thought as he squeezed the controls. If only he hadn’t been so overconfident about his own piloting skills during friendly dogfights with Morgan and LeBlanc. He should of been concentrating more on Franks’ signature atmospheric freefall technique that was so deadly, but so easy for him. Had he been concentrating, he would never realized it was anything but easy.

Now he was the one freefalling, and he discovered the technique was not easy at all. Thirty-two kilometers and counting. The frigates hull was still glowing a hot red, but the smaller debris was used up. Marcus pushed on the thrusters once more, edging close to the tail end of the smoking hull. Adene winced as she looked out the window to the proximity hull as it passed by.

“Shit!,” she called out, “I’m not cleaning this ship if you’re going to make them piss their pants this way.”

Her comment made him smile, easing the tension and giving him a fresh surge of conviction that he could do this. Twenty-six kilometers…twenty-five kilometers…twenty-four. Marcus eased the Nova into the thick smoke trailing the frigate hull. He waved his left hand over the side panel and it whirled to life. Every alarm on the Freelancer went off. Adene franticly turned them off and then went back to watching the ships temperature. “Cutting it close,” she warned.

Nineteen…eighteen…

Again he flipped on the thrusters camouflaged by the smoke trail. He was flying blind in the wreckage exhaust, and if he didn’t time it right, he would smack into a suddenly slowed down hull as it hit the thicker atmosphere.

Sixteen…fifteen…

Marcus fought the controls to change the angle of the Nova’s descent. “Engines!” he ordered Adene.

“Our heat signature is redlined! Are you sure?” Adene fretted.

“Yes damn it!” Marcus yelled out as he pulled even harder on the controls. The engines roared just in time as the frigate hull came up fast. Taggit could be heard cursing impressively as they glided in tandem with the wreckage as if attached.

Twelve…eleven…

The Nova broke free of the turbulence in the wake of the hull. Marcus could feel the controls respond more freely. He eased back into his seat drenched in sweat. “Overclock the coolant system. Open vents and purge the heat.” He panted to Adene.

“Coolants are running at full capacity,” she replied, “We push them now, we could damage them and we won’t have them to aid our escape out of here.”

“You really are fresh out of the academy aren’t you,” Marcus smiled at her wearily, shaking his head. He touched the panels and extended the coolants capacity himself, “We will have time while on the surface to deal with that issue. And if we can’t, well we have other alternatives with getting out of here. Even if we do get detected; we are hundreds of kilometers from the nearest fight. It would take them a considerable amount of time to get to us.”

“You’re fucking smiley ass crazy,” Taggit mumbled from his seat, “This shit better be worth me and my crews time.”

‘Smiley ass crazy?’ Marcus snickered at the insult, ‘Well that’s a first.‘ Jaeger didn’t even come up with that one yet. He checked his initial readings of the area they were descending to; so far so good. “We’ll be touching down in ten minutes,” he announced, “And take turns using the facilities, smells like piss back there.”

“I’m not cleaning it,” Adene stubbornly said under her breath. Marcus just smiled as he steered the Crystal Nova into her approach…

Lost Memory Found

“Remind why we have to put these get-ups on again? This s h it doesn’t look flexible for combat,” Taggit asked, struggling to put on his Cyclops body armor. The suit was not as complicated as it’s military counterpart, but the rugged merc seemed to have issues just the same.

Marcus and Adene put on their suits with far more ease. Marcus kept his humor at seeing them struggle to himself as he tried to explain. “These suits are for caustic environments,” he said as he put on his gloves, “You see, the recent planet bombings have left this area of the planet chemically volatile. We have everything from the raised levels of carbon monoxide that’ll seize your lungs, high radiation leaks that’ll cook your guts within hours, down to the ‘special’ chemicals used to eradicate living tissue in the most ‘illegal’ and ‘top secret’ of ways all mixed up in a tasty humanoid eradication cocktail.” Marcus slipped on the cycloptic helmet and snapped it into place. “So if you would rather wear what you came down with, be my guest.”

“So if these are just environment suits and nothin’ can survive the sh it mess out there; what’s with the grenade bandolier and heavy fire power?” Taggit asked.

Marcus pulled the bandolier over his head. “Well I didn’t say nothing could survive out there. Reports are that not everything on this planet is surface dwelling.”

Taggit shook his head at Marcus and smirked, “This sh it gets crazier and crazier.” He turned back to his crew to see if he could get one of them to help put the suit on.

Marcus looked over to Adene as she worked on outfitting herself. “Once we head out, you’ll have to replace all ordinance we took off for the freefall. We may need them if we are spotted heading out of here.”

“Will do boss,” Adene replied. She started past the mercs, but was stopped by Taggit.

“I’ll leave two of my men here with you to help,” he offered to her. “No need for all of us to trudge in this sh it.”

Her expression was hidden by her helmet as she regarded the rough mercenary for a moment before glancing at Marcus, then her attention again focusing on the merc. “Alright,” she replied to him, her voice muted slightly by the environmental filters. “But if they become more of a hindrance then a help, they are sitting on the side lines until you get back.”

Taggit smiled and patted his hand on her shoulder. “Fair enough,” he said. He pointed to two of his men and ordered them to follow Adene to the cargo hold. He secured his own helmet, checked his crew, and then indicated to Marcus he was ready.

Marcus sealed the doors to the bridge and the cargo hold and leaned over to another switch to open the airlock and stairs leading out of the ship. Once outside, he surveyed the area. He had landed the ship in the shadow of a large unidentifiable chunk of wreckage. The twisted metal and plated overhangs were enough to keep the Crystal Nova from being spotted from the sky.

“So where is this prize we’re looking for in this sh it soup?’ Taggit asked as he clanged down the ramp behind his team.

Marcus ignored him, focusing on his HUD display within the helmet sifting information about the wreckage strewn landscape surrounding them. “Looks to be approximately three kilometers south south west, Adene. How we doing with that cart?” he asked through his comm.

“Bringing it out now,” came her voice over the comm. The cargo hold door clanked open before easing itself down to the ground. Adene led a large hover cart down to Marcus. On top of the hover cart was a metallic box.

“Don’t get any ideas, Taggit…we are not chauffeuring you around on this thing,” Marcus cracked. With no response from the burley guy for once, he turned to Adene, “You going to be alright here?” he asked.

“No problem boss. I’ll just dance the day away with my new friends,” she assured him as she swayed her torso back a bit. She closed her fists, leaving her left thumb stuck out of the fist as if holding something and then brought her arms in toward her, using her right arm to block her left in an x. She quickly motioned them in a circle as her torso moved in an awkward dance in the suit. She stopped, gave him a two finger salute and headed back to the cargo hold opening to start bringing out the missile ordinance. He watched her disappear in the cargo hold as he contemplated her rather odd farewell. He looked at the mercenaries around him and noted they barely took notice of her motions. That’s when he caught on to what she had just done.

“Shall we move on gentlemen?” he asked Taggit and the three other mercs accompanying them.

“Yeah,” responded Taggit, “I’m already getting an itchy fu ck ing feeling on my skin.”

Marcus led the way, followed by Taggit and then the others guiding the hover cart. It was going to be a long walk. Yet Marcus’ mind was so distracted on other things, the walk didn’t take as long to him. They had reached their destination in no time and memories flooded back as he looked at what was before them.

There she was, stern angled toward the sky. What was left of her bow rested on the ground. Gaping holes lined her hull, a sign of the beating she took in her last battle. Marcus just stared through the ugliness of her death-bed and remembered her for her former beauty. A slight smile emerged that the others could not see.

It was a bittersweet homecoming. The UEE Bengal-class carrier Valkyrie lay before him.

A tap on his shoulder shook him out of his gaze. “You going to stand there all day or we going to get this done?” Taggit grumbled through the comm.

“Oh yeah-sure.” Marcus motioned them to follow, “There are a few breaches in the hull that we can enter through.”

With Marcus quickening the pace, it didn’t take them long to make it to the twisted body of the ship. As he had suggested, they entered into a large gap in the scorched metal that brought them to a lower level corridor. “Activate your magnetic boots,” He ordered the others. “At this angle, you don’t want to find yourself slipping down a long corridor.” As they stepped into the darkness, the two mini lights on each side of their helmets flared on revealing their surroundings.

He watched his HUD interface flip through the schematics. Once he had his bearings he was confident he wouldn’t need them anymore. “This way to the armory,” he directed.

“The armory?” Taggit asked, sounding a bit agitated. “We’re here to steal weapons?”

“Not just any weapons,” Marcus replied calmly, “Standard issued UEE full ordinance for a Bengal-class carrier.” He tapped a few keys on his left arm that sent the full manifesto to Taggits’ helm interface. “The room the ordinance is in is built to withstand a solid impact so there is no internal explosion on the ship. This weapons list will sell a high price on the black market.”

They kept moving along as Taggit looked over the list. “An impressive list of weapons,” he said, “However, don’t you think this sh it looks a bit small time for a boss like yours?”

Marcus just shrugged, “I just do what I’m told to get. In times of need, any goods that fetch money will do.” After walking up several sets of steps, he turned a corner and stopped. “Here we are,” he said as his lights reflected off a large grey-metal door.

He walked over to the hover cart and pulled open a panel, removing a small data card connected to an unusual glass eye. He walked back over to Taggit and handed to him. “This is the ID card to open the door. The code is seven one six nine.” He pointed to the glass eye, “Place that in front of the retinal scanner when asked.” He returned to the cart and opened the large box, revealing a good sized portable generator. He motioned two of the mercs over to take it out.

“Take this generator to the engine room,” he ordered them, “I’ll send you over the schematics on where to connect it.”

“And what about you?” Taggit asked, wondering why Reece wasn’t doing any of this.

“I’m going to the bridge,” Marcus replied simply. “Once the generator is connected and shoots a burst of power into the system, I’ll need to quickly reboot it. When reboot is complete, all password access will be restored. You can then start filling the cart with goods and we can get out of here.”

It took a moment, but Taggit just shrugged and nodded to his crew to proceed.

“Okay. This shouldn’t take long, I’ll call in once I get to the bridge.” With that, Marcus turned back to the stairs leading to the higher levels, leaving Taggit groaning something under his breath.

Blown Away

It was a tough time getting there, but Marcus had made it to the bridge. Most of the corridors leading there were blocked off with debris. Even climbing an elevator shaft had its moments. But Marcus finally stood at the door leading in. He could feel the memories calling as he closed his eyes and took a deep breath before walking into the place he once called home.

A few steps in, he opened his eyes and looked around. Before him, the bridge was in tatters; its left side torn apart from a Vanduul missile. There were no signs of any humanoid remains; not even the cloths of the dead were around.

The captain’s chair was still intact though. Marcus headed up to it while turning on his comm. “This is Reece. I’ve made it to the bridge. Go ahead and start the generator.”

“Roger that,” came the reply.

Within a few minutes, a low humming could be heard. Several damaged wires sparked up around consoles. Marcus checked the captain’s chair to make sure it was in working order. When he was satisfied, he opened up the armchair panel and punched in a code. “Hey Taggit,” he called on the comm, “The system is rebooting. It’s going to take a few minutes, but once you see the green light, you can open her up.”

“Don’t take so long getting back here,“ Taggit squawked back, ”You’re not getting away with not doing any heavy lifting.”

Marcus just rolled his eyes. After all these mercs were getting paid to do the lifting. “It took a long time to get up here. But I’ll try to get back as soon as I can.”

“Yeah, yeah,” grumbled the reply.

Marcus didn’t say anything back; there was no need too. He would let Taggit and his crew deal with the ordinance. He had other things to deal with while on the bridge.

He sat down on the captain’s chair and opened up the other armchair panel. Taking out a small glas and connector from his side belt pouch, he hooked it up to one of the controls in the panel and began putting in codes very few people knew. “Sorry captain,” he mumbled to himself as data filled the small screen. He brought up the data pad on his left arm and touched it. Soon the data began to flow from the glas to his arm pad.

Confirming all was going well, Marcus got up and looked around. The download would take awhile and he was in no rush as he slowly walked from station to station, remembering the names of each individual he knew that manned them. XO Jaffey, Killoy, Rosaria; the list went on. Each memory made each step become heavier than the last. It wasn’t till he came upon the piloting chair that Marcus stopped.

The chair was torn and slightly mangled, but Marcus slipped into it anyway. The HUD before him was gone, and yet when he closed his eyes he could see it as clear as day.

‘Lieutenant Reece,’ he could hear Captian Keegan say in his chipper than normal voice, ‘Marcus. How are we feeling young man? You ready to take us there and back?’

‘Aye captain,’ he would reply, eager to keep the captain impressed with his skills, ‘We’ll be there and back in no time.’

But the captain was not there to talk about his skills. ‘Well not today son,’ the captains voice came clearly to him as he spoke, ‘Today you are going on extended shore leave.’

Marcus remembered giving a quizzical look to the captain. All he could think of at the time was why would he be sending him on leave on such an important mission like this?

‘Really,’ the captain had asked with the shake of his head. Marcus now understood how dumb he must of looked asking that question. ‘Is your wife not expecting your second child in no less than a week?’

Marcus leaned forward in the broken chair, his arms stretched forward to rest on the shattered panel. At the time he was young and dumbfounded that the captain made him chose family over mission. The sense of coming back was always there. As he leaned back, his hands looked to grab a flight stick that was no longer there.

‘I’d be doing this to you if she was my daughter,’ the seriousness of the captain voice had changed. ‘And in a way she is. May not of slept with a captain’s daughter my boy, but you did marry my XOs. And in my book, you got a responsibility son. This is far more important than you think.’

Marcus bowed his head, his arms crossed between his legs. Captain Keegan was right. Within a week, Melody had their second child and he was at his happiest witnessing the birth of his son.

That happiness didn’t last. A rap on their door would come too soon with grave news. ‘Melody Reece,’ he recalled the uniformed officer announcing at their front door, ‘I regretfully must inform you that your father, Commander Galen Jaffey, has been killed in action.’

The months were tough afterward yet it was Melody who was the one keeping it together. Her thick headed husband dropped into a deep depression. Friends, crewmates; all lost in a ball of fire to the d am n Vanduul on Tiber. Why did the captain give him a chance to live only to feel guilty that he had? It took almost losing his daughter in an accident to snap him out of it. He stayed beside her hospital bed for days, swearing never again to leave his families side in a time of need.

But here he was, years later, his wife pregnant again and this time he was out on a mission.

His heart ached when Xander told him what he wanted from him. The Valkyrie held valuable secrets; secrets that could help Midnight Enterprises move up in the business. And Marcus once had access to those secrets. At first he balked at such a thought. But a chance to see his old ship and possibly have closure made him change his mind.

He was here now and closure was not in his thoughts.

‘You shouldn’t be here,‘ a shadowy, but familiar voice slipped through his mind. Eyes closed, he could feel the wavering form of his old XO hovered over him, ’Your family needs you. My family needs you.’

Marcus lifted his head, eyes still closed; tears streaked the side of his cheek. “You don’t understand,” he muttered.

‘Let it go son. Live in the future, not the past. You are needed elsewhere.’ Jaffey’s voice stung, reminding Marcus his vows, ‘You promised my daughter.’

“I should of died here,” Marcus forced it out in guilt.

“And indeed you will,” came Taggits voice behind him. Marcus barely moved when he heard him. Taggit had his heavy assault rifle raised toward Marcus, “Just as soon as you hand over the precious nugget you came up here for.”

“And what nugget would I have Taggit?’ Marcus asked still not moving. He scanned over the HUD in his helmet. Two percent left. “We’re here for weapons to sell. I’m just sitting here waiting.”

“Don’t play coy with me now Reece,” Taggit scowled, “You should know your boss has made enough enemies with his ‘business’ success. Do you really think they wouldn’t be watching him closely? Now hand over the f u c king thing or I’m going to make your death as long and painful as possible.” Taggit fired the rifle tearing into Marcus’ armor and left shoulder.

Marcus grimaced in pain but held in his scream. He shook it off and stood up, his back still toward Taggit. One percent to go. “Honestly Taggit,” he said through clenched teeth, “you need to calm the f u c k down. Xander is very successful from big sales like these weapons. You want more money, I’m sure he can accommodate you.”

A snicker slipped through Taggits’ lips, “Oh, I don’t think your boss; or should I say bosses, are going to be alive by the end of this night.”

“No!” Marcus yelled. He turned around to face Taggit, his pistol drawn. But it was too late. Taggit fired another shot into his right side sending Marcus to his knees. The pain almost knocked him out. The adrenaline from anger kept him up.

“Were the f u c k is it Reece!” Taggit shouted pointing the rifle now toward his head. He was getting tired of Marcus’ stalling, “I got a bi t c h of a boss that don’t like to be kept waiting!”

For a second there was silence as Marcus knelt motionless. Then came a giggle followed by madding laughter. He had lost it. He left his wife without a word of the mission he was on. Why would he. She would stop him for fear she would lose him to the same hell hole she lost her father. And she was right. He was going to die with his long forgotten crewmates; he was going to die on this stinking planet in the ship he left behind and with friends who flew him here.

But he certainly was not going to die without showing Taggit a bang of a time.

“What the f u c k s so funny,” Taggit demanded. He suddenly seemed unsure whether or not to just shot and take whatever was on the d a m n psycho.

Marcus slowly stood up, using the pilot’s chair as leverage. A shot of pain coursed through his side. “You know Taggit, Adene warned me about you. Tricky girl put sign language that silly dance of hers. She knew something was up.”

“So what,” Taggit spat back. He placed the butt of the rifle against his shoulder and aimed for the kill. “She going to be as dead as you,”

Fully standing up, Marcus pushed out his chest revealing a fully empty bandolier. Six grenades no longer snuggled in their place and their remote detonator in his hand. There was one under the portable generator, conveniently connected to the now powered reactor. Another under the hover cart, being filled with weapons no one truly cared about. And the last four were saved for Taggit himself; right along the door entrance he was so nicely standing near.

“Got your magnetic boots on Taggit,” Marcus deviously asked, not really waiting for an answer. “Time to fly.”

The detonator went off and time just seemed to slow for Marcus as he watched. First the force slammed into Taggit; still magnetically connected to the floor; then the flames engulfed him. Though he could not see his face, Marcus could picture the wide-eyed mercenary cursing his name as his body incinerated in the ball of flame.

’You’re not going to die like this. You swore,’ Jaffey’s angry voice in his head pleaded.

“Taggit swore more than I did. Look were it got him,” Marcus thought back as the explosive force carried him out the window and down to the wreckage below.

Bittersweet

“You seem a bit distant,” Melody asked as she pressed as much of her lengthy body gently against his. She ran her fingers across his bare chest under the bed sheets, wondering what her husband was thinking. “You’re not worried about this presentation he’s sending you to are you?”

If only it were that simple, Marcus thought to himself, if only he could tell her what was really going through his mind. He turned his head and stared into her beautiful green eyes before he spoke a word. “No,” he said to her smiling, “I think I have the presentation down pat. I think I’m more worried about doing this in front of Xander and Frank more then the presentation itself.”

“Oh I wouldn’t worry about those two,” she replied back with a playful voice. She bit her lower lip her smile widened. She gleefully used her nails to make circles on his chest. The tingling sensation coursed his body. She stopped and dug her nails in his left shoulder. Marcus grimaced at the sudden change in feeling. Her face became very serious. “You will have to worry about me however if you are late for you daughters due date.”

She was about a month away. He had yet to miss the birth of one of his children. He would promise not to miss this one. His promise though would be a bit hollow this night.

“Don’t worry honey,” he said to her as he softly touched her belly bump. For some reason his left shoulder burned from the her nails, “This will be an easy trip. Nothing really exciting goes on during these things," he added through clenched teeth.

He was lying of course. For the first time in years, he was lying to the woman he loved. He wasn’t going on some silly presentation to hawk Midnight Enterprises name brand. He was going on a fool’s errand to Tiber II in search of ghosts from his past. If he told the truth, she would never allow it.

It wouldn’t be the trip to Tiber II that would most infuriate her on her husband. No, she would place that fury on Xander. If she found out he was going to the one ship that holds so much pain for this family, she would disown him. She would not go through it again.

She released her grip on his shoulder and brought her hand down to his chest. She leaned in to kiss him, her fiery red curls glistened around her. “You will come back to me won’t you,” she asked; her hand pushed down on his chest making it hard to breath. Marcus’ eyes widened as he fought for breath. He tried to move but her hand kept him down. Her voice wavered strangely, “Marcus will you come back to me?” The glistening of her hair brightened, forcing him to close his eyes, “Marcus come back to me…”

Melody’s voice was distant and quite different. “Stay with me Marcus..” Their bedroom melted away in a bright flash.

His eyes rolled upward behind his eyelids. He wheezed heavily, fighting for every breath. The pain was all over, but he could not move. He tried to focus through the pain and listen to what was around him. He could hear the erratic beeps and whirring of machines; a mask was over his mouth and nose.

“Marcus,” came a now familiar but frantic voice, “Marcus you need to stay with me. You need to focus through the pain and let the drugs do their work.” Adene had somehow found him and was now fighting to keep what was left of him alive.

“That’s it,” She said as she watched the heart rate monitor slow it’s beeping, “Don’t need you to have another cardiac arrest.” She looked over the other monitors and drug administrators. Almost all of them were starting to stabilize. She could still tell that he was struggling to focus by the fluttering of his eyelids. She continued to talk to him, hoping her words would help pull him through. “You are one lucky son of a bitch. I don’t know what you did, but if you had the environment suit on instead of that modified combat suit of yours, you’d be dead.”

She looked over him noting each bump, bruise, burn and break. “Instead you’ve got several broken bones and ribs; a punctured lung; and a few radiation burns. Not to mention what looks like two rifle shots you took. It’s not like you to let someone get the jump on you like that.”

The monitor’s beep slowed even more. The drugs were working well as his eyelids became more calm. She smiled, convinced her voice helped him along. Feeling satisfied, she got up and moved to the pilot seat of the Crystal Nova.

She opened the hailing frequencies “Parallax Descent this is the Crystal Nova requesting permission to connect.”

“Negative Crystal Nova. We are preparing to Jump out of this system,” came the reply.

The answer did not sit well with Adene. “Parallax Descent, I have one Marcus Reece, call sign ‘Rizman’, on emergency life support. I request a quick connection to transfer him to you ship for medical attention.”

There was a short pause before the response. “Crystal Nova you have clearance to connect. Coordinates have been sent. Please be reminded that we have a short window.”

“Roger that Parallax,” she replied. She turned to look back at Marcus, “Hang in there boss. Don’t be leaving us now.” There was no response of course. Marcus was deep in his own mind.

Follow That Hull, Lost Memory Found, Blown Away, Bittersweet

Stories of The 39th Midnight Squadron Sharhun