It came from a long way off, a silver lined glimmer of light in the dark brought on by an accusing voice; it brought Jessik up out of the quiet place, that blank nothing that came before death and after sleep.
“Awaken!” it screamed, a red eyed nightmare.
Machines whirled and clicked and her blood was warmed and re-circulated through her thawing systems. Consciousness, dim and tenuous returned to her and she opened her eyes.
Confused, disoriented, her vision was nothing but a neon blue blur. She blinked and winced; muscles that had not moved for a very long time twitched and made her aware of how badly she hurt.
I am still in my stasis tube, she thought with growing alarm. She moved again with more purpose but with very little strength or speed. Every joint popped, every muscle complained, the ends of her fingers and toes were in throbbing agony. Reaching up, grunting, flooding her face with slow moving bubbles through the frigid gel she was suspended in, she reached for the flush lever and pulled it. Nothing happened. Panic, raw edged and claustrophobic, gripped her heart and she pushed against the glass in front of her, pushed until her back was against the rear of the tube, pushed but to no avail.
Oh Jesus, I’m stuck! She thought, pushing with her hands and knees with what little strength she could muster. Something clanked loudly by her feet and suddenly there was a powerful suction at the bottom of the tube. Sucking and gurgling, the gel began to drain out. Dropping below her face she immediately vomited a torrent of the clear fluid up out of her lungs and stomach, coughing and wheezing and gasping for breath she leaned against the tube as it fell below her shoulders and waist making her feel increasingly heavier by the moment.
“God!” she rasped falling to her knees with a wet splat, her hair was so long now it reached well past her shoulders, falling around her face in a heavy black curtain. She whimpered and began to feel out the wires, tubes, and hoses all over her body. Making wet gasping sounds, she yanked each one out one by one, they were all worryingly black and corroded and they oozed thin tendrils of brackish slime. Heaving more gel out of her lungs, she tumbled out when the front of the tube slid away with a depressurizing hiss. She screamed, the metal deck was frigid, her skin stuck to it wherever it touched and came away with searingly painful snapping sounds. Crying out, she struggled with all her might to gain her feet. They stuck to the deck and bled but she made herself move, each step was a gristly pull, snap, crunch as she made it to the nearby terminal. It was dark save for the lights on her tube and so cold the steaming gel on her naked body began to frost over. Everything was covered in a layer of ice and unreadable, her fingers wouldn’t work so she used her whole hand to mash the controls. A green light flipped on and she almost wept with relief when she heard the static hiss of the waiting com.
“Emergency r-response to c-cryogenics!” she stammered through violently chattering teeth, hearing her voice broadcast and echo loudly through the com system, the ship sounded oddly hallow and empty. It took her a moment to realize it was because there were no other systems running, the ship was as silent and still as the grave. Blinking back tears of frustration, searching the terminal for the climate controls, she nearly peeled her nails back scraping the ice away to read the console.
I’m going to freeze to death before anyone gets here, if there’s anyone to even get here at all! She thought, finding what she hoped was the correct knob and turning it to full. A deep shudder ran through the piping all around the dark bay as the backup generator reluctantly woke. Ice cracked and for a moment the room was full of snow before delicious heat began to blow from the vents. Clenching her teeth, Jessik sank down next to the closest one. One by one the overhead lights flickered on revealing the frost shrouded room around her. She stared in horror. Half of the tubes contained rotten corpses, the rest were shattered, their desiccated occupants lay sprawled on the deck where they had fallen. There had been an explosion, sharp spurs of twisted metal and blackened deck plates radiated outwards from an ominous hole in the deck and continued on through the overhead.
We’ve been shot, she thought dumbly.
Swiping her icy hair over her shoulder, she made the painful journey to a pile of toppled storage lockers, rifling through them she found one with her name, Jessik Daruk, stenciled above the lock. Dragging it back to the heater vent she pried it open and yanked a plastic sealed duffle bag out. Tearing it open she upended it spilling fresh blue fatigues, boots, socks, and personal effects out onto the floor. Stepping into the boots and stuffing everything else back inside, she shouldered it and headed quickly for the door. Checking the controls verifying there was an atmosphere on the other side she keyed it open and stepped outside into a dark stale smelling corridor. Reluctantly the emergency lights spaced evenly along the deck began to come on one by one.
“Dammit!” she cursed through chattering teeth, the gel coating her body was beginning to harden and itch, bad. Half jogging, unlaced boots clomping loudly she went straight to the showers.
“Please work, please, Jesus, work,” she said aloud, dropping her duffle bag on the ground and going straight to the terminal on the wall. Tapping it to life, she waited a miserable frigid minute for it to boot up. Immediately its screen flashed out damaged system warnings, moaning, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, she recalled half forgotten technical lessons and keyed in the command to reroute power from the emergency generators. Overhead the pipes gave an almighty bang and showered her in snow and ice chunks. Daring to hope, she smiled and busied herself with checking the lockers that lined the walls of the ice rimed chamber. Finding dozens of plastic wrapped towels she tore them open greedily and wrapped herself up despite how they instantly became glued to her body.
Banging and thumping louder, the pipes rattled and hissed and after a few agonizingly cold minutes water began to trickle from the dangling shower heads around the room. Gradually the temperature began to climb and steam filled the air.
“Finally!” she croaked, kicking her boots off and stepping under a showerhead pulling the chain.
She gasped a shuddering breath as the water enveloped her in delicious heat; she huddled up underneath the faucet trying to keep every part of her under the downpour at once. It hurt at first, all of her extremities throbbed but it all began to fade away, replaced by rosy warmth.
Sloughing off of her in sticky strands, the suspension gel began to dissolve leaving her skin feeling super sensitive and fresh.
Looking at herself in the reflection of a mirror on the wall across from her was like looking at a stranger. She was tall for a woman, over six foot for sure, dusky dark skinned with a frame that was somewhere between bullish and panther, all hard muscles and strong limbs. Her bust was large, larger than she would have thought for her fitness and her hips had a feminine curve that was womanly and pleasant. Her face was brooding and boyish but not ugly, its most striking feature were her eyes, heavy lidded and emerald, flashing intensely green under bold expressive brows.
“So,” she mumbled, speaking to her reflection, unable to quite meet those burning jade eyes, “I am alone.” She knew it as a certainty, by the condition of the bodies in the cryogenic bay and the state of the environmental controls she was alone on the ship. She frowned, she could not remember what ship she was on or what events had transpired to end with her in stasis. That was normal she knew, stasis often came with memory loss, usually not permanent. She paused to touch the black craters in her body where the corroded tubes had been and frowned, they were hard, scabby and numb.
“How long?” she whispered in a voice full of dread, “How long does it take for something to corrupt in stasis?” she shivered recalling the voices that had wakened her, had that been the onset of dementia or neurological damage from too long in the freeze? She hoped not.
Turning the water off, she dried quickly and dressed herself in her dark blue fatigues and tall black combat boots. In the breast pocket she found a plain silver ring and immediately a pang of loss struck her in the gut.
“My wedding band,” she said softly. She felt her knees grow weak and a deep melancholia sweep over her. Half remembered places and faces swam through her mind but the memories eluded her save for the certainty that she had a husband who she loved and who loved her very much. It was all she could do not to cry when she slipped the band back onto her finger, but with a sniff she tucked her long hair back behind her ear and moved on, there was work to be done, later, later she would let that torrent of emotion out.
Priorities began to sink in, dressed but still terribly cold, she found an operational computer terminal halfway down the corridor and tried to pull up a ships schematic.
“NDF Tomahawk!” she shouted when the name of the ship flickered to life on the grainy screen “We were on combat maneuvers!” her voice was loud in the corridor and she stifled it, not liking how alone it made her feel. She smiled though at the welcome rush of memories, she was a marine aboard a Niliesian Defense Fleet destroyer. They had been at war with the United League of Worlds, the details were hazy still but she knew the war had not been going well.
Scrolling through a jumbled screen full of corrupted data she found a video file marked as the last entry. Chaffing her arms and shuffling her feet to keep warm, she clicked it and watched as the grainy image of a mechanic in a torn and bloody jumpsuit resolved on the screen.
“-so fucked I don’t even know why I’m doing this, we’re shot to hell and I’m the only one left!” his soot smeared face broke and he wiped furiously at tears in his eyes, Jessik felt like she knew him, his pale Sigilite face was familiar but she could not put a name to him. Sniffing, he recomposed himself and took a deep shaky breath. “I managed to loop power from the backup generators. I’ve got gravity, life support, and cryogenics still running but that’s about it. I am trying to access the main computer to find out just where the hell we…I…am but I don’t think the bridge is even there anymore.” The screen went black and Jessik had to thumb through a handful of corrupted files to find the next one. Clicking it she watched as the same mechanic came into view again, he looked thinner and paler and his eyes were heartbreakingly tired, obviously some time had passed between this one and the previous file.
“Well, I’m finally out of hyper space transit, I don’t know why but there it is, back in real space and caught in a gravity well, it’s either a planetoid or star or something, I have no clue, I don’t suppose it really matters though…uhm…stasis failed on three more tanks, there’s only two others and just me left, Private Hask and Sergeant Jessik, I really wish I could wake them up, but there wouldn’t be a point now, I don’t think they’d thank me.” His eyes welled up with big tears that spilled down his gaunt cheeks, he didn’t move to wipe them away. “I’m going to try to get through that bulkhead again today…tonight? I think there’s supposed to be supplies in that gunship…I’m awful hungry.” Again the screen went black and she had to scroll through a dozen broken links before she found the next working file.
He looked even worse when the screen started moving, he was emaciated and filthy sitting with his back against the wall with his face in his hands.
“Private Hask died, power to his tank just failed, it wasn’t a hard fix, if I’d just known I’d have been able to fix it. Wish the reactor wasn’t scrapped…wish the bridge wasn’t gone…Just you and me Jess…just you and me now…did I ever tell you I was sorry for cheating at cards before all this shit happened? You didn’t seem too upset about it but I still felt bad…You suck as a sergeant…bet if it wasn’t for this war you’d have never got the promotion…I’m glad you did though. I’ve almost got that bulkhead open, Jess…I’m nearly through.” he stopped talking but the recording went on for another full minute without him moving before it went black.
Clicking the next one it began playing immediately and she was greeted by his wasted face smiling widely, he had managed to shave the stubble from his cheeks and clean up, he had even found a clean jumpsuit.
“I got through into the hanger Jess! I made it through and found a bunch of crated food and stuff! Oh my God, I feel better with a full stomach! I’m going to wake you up in a little bit Jess! I’ve got the gunship plugged into the backup generator and it's charging, once you’re awake you’ll be able to fly us out of here! We’re in orbit around th-” the vid cut to static, there weren’t any other files after it.
“Orbit over what?” she questioned feeling something like hope stir in her breast, without the bridge and reactor there’d have been no distress signal and no moving the ship. She would have traded a long painless death in stasis for a short hungry one awake on the ruin that had been the Tomahawk.
Paying careful attention to those sealed bulkheads that opened to the void she made her way through the gloomy silent halls passing long dead crewmen and long settled battle damage for an observation blister with its shutter half opened like the sleepy eye of someone waking from a dream.
“Damn,” she breathed feeling her spirits fall, she was in orbit over a cold grey planetoid pocked with craters “I’m sorry,” she whispered rubbing the wedding band around her finger with her thumb. Her back hit the wall and she slid down to the floor, desolate.
So this is my tomb after all, she thought spitting the nasty lingering taste of suspension gel out of her mouth. Sitting in the beam of silver light the rock outside cast through the shutter, she stared at it bitterly watching its mountains and craters slowly inch by.
If she had blinked then she would have missed it. Just then as the ship made its full round she glimpsed a slice of green and blue. She rocketed to her feet and pressed her face to the glass straining to see, breathing so hard she fogged up the port.
“Shit!” she swore, swiping it away with her sleeve. There was a planet out there hiding behind the moon, a big beautiful blue world. “Holy shit!” she cried aloud running back the way she had come, boots thumping and clanking loudly on the deck, breath puffing in white clouds in front of her face. Chaffing her arms for warmth, she stopped at a junction and turned in a full circle trying to orient herself before taking off down the passage. It was worse on the way there, fires had burned out of control and everything was burnt black, thick clouds of soot jumped from her every footfall revealing blackened bones and scorched metal. Twice she slowed to walk in complete darkness where the emergency lighting had failed and once she nearly fell through the deck where a passing shell had created a yawning pit in the black.
Arriving at the flight deck it was hard not to feel dismayed; the whole bay was in complete shambles like a child's toy box that had been kicked over. Tons and tons of machinery, ordinance and wreckage lay heaped in tangled piles everywhere creating a hellish maze of twisted spurs and broken struts. Her salvation, however, sat perfect and clean, still in its cradle suspended above the ruins.
She was a Dagger Class gunship, 201 meters long from stem to stern, stiletto thin and armed to the teeth with a whopping four MAC turrets, torpedo tubes fore and aft and half a dozen close in weapons support nodes, she was the cutting edge of Niliesian attack craft.
Picking her way through the icey hold she made it to a smashed ladder leading to a precariously leaning gantry.
She stopped. There under a pile of fallen gantry was the mechanic. Kneeling down she studied the desiccated corpse. She still did not recognize him, but he had known her, and saved her by keeping the power running. Reaching out she touched the corpses shoulder and bowed her head.
“Thank you, whoever you were,” she said somberly. Standing, she touched her brow in a small salute before scaling the broken gantry.
Groaning and shifting ponderously under her weight, it broke and fell just as she made it inside the gunship and closed the door. It powered up like it had been waiting just for her, she cranked the heat up and set its systems to run a self diagnostic. Jessik grinned when the dash lit up green across the board. These memories were coming back to her quickly, she had scored very high on her flight tests, marines were expected to know how to use all of their kit.
A glance through the view port told her there was no way to get to the overlook controls to open the bay doors; the whole bulkhead was warped and distorted. Flipping the switches to uncouple her from her cradle, she powered up her defenses, the hull polarized with a static whine and held at 100% on the gage. Next her reactor fired up and the whole craft shuddered from nose to tail as her long dormant engines woke and levitated her off the cradle.
Licking her lips nervously, she backed up as far as the bay would allow and unlocked the weapons system, immediately there was a cacophony of mechanical movement as MAC rounds moved through their autoloaders, ammo belts spooled up and torpedo tracks slid back into place. Her blue tactical screen pinged ready and overlaid a digital targeter over her view port.
“Alright…alright, here we go,” she said aloud sealing the bridge and placing the helmet that had rested on the dash on her head, strapping herself in and adjusting the seat she gulped and targeted the bay doors. Immediately warnings popped up on her controls, canceling them out she took a breath and prayed. There was ordinance scattered loosely all over the hanger, close confines, and she meant to open fire.
It’ll either work or it won’t, you’ll be dead regardless, she thought to herself darkly. Before she could double guess herself she pulled the trigger. She forgot to turn off the fire control. Instead of a single round the gunship fired a simultaneous salvo from all four guns, the bay doors imploded, ordinance detonated and the gunship rocked so hard she would have been thrown out of her seat if she hadn’t strapped in. She screamed, the only thing that saved her was her knee smacking into the flight stick sending her powering forward at full burn. Blasting through the fire and explosions, she was in the void while the pitiful remains of the NDF Tomahawk tore itself apart behind her.
“Shit!” she screamed, “Idiot! Idiot! Fucking idiot!” she berated herself, the board was already flashing red in a dozen places, hull polarization was down to thirty percent, power levels were dropping and weapons were completely offline, it was only stupid luck there weren’t any hull breaches. “Fuck!” she cried scrambling to put the ship on a course towards the planet. It wasn’t far but at her current power usage it was going to be close. Running one rapid fire scan of the surface for a landing zone she got a hard return on a single beacon, League pattern. Locking in the coordinates, she gave the boosters one last good nudge before shutting them off and reducing her power usage to almost nothing.
League pattern, that gave her pause, the League was the enemy, the invaders. Surrender was not an option, Niliesians did not surrender but there were too many unknowns, too many questions that needed answering, like: where was she? How long had she been out? Was the war even still on, and if it wasn’t who had won?
There was nothing to do but wait, the gunship was locked onto a landing zone a few klicks away from the beacon. Taking her helmet off she swiped irritably at her long hair and mopped the nervous sweat from her face. Unbuckling herself, she stood on wobbly legs, her vision swam, swallowing was suddenly far too difficult to manage, choking she coughed and felt her stomach rebel. Clamping a hand over her mouth she screwed her eyes closed and took deep breaths through her nose.
Don’t puke on the bridge; don’t puke on the bridge she thought to herself mantra like willing the tide of nausea to subside. Her stomach made a loud queasy sound and she transferred her free hand to her middle. I am absolutely going to puke, she thought with grave finality. Heel toeing it out of the bridge, she moved through a painfully cold junction between bridge, below deck, and officer’s quarters. Pushing the door open to the officer’s quarters which was only fractionally larger than a normal bunk to make room for a private toilet and shower she staggered into the head where her knees hit the deck and she heaved with all her might. Awful tasting congealed suspension fluid filled her mouth and sinus forcing her to choke and gasp gracelessly, fighting for every breath.
“What a fucking day,” she said half sobbing with effort, propping herself up with one hand and trying hard to keep her infuriatingly uncooperative hair away from her face with the other. Spitting, sniffing miserably, she climbed to her feet and faced herself in the mirror hanging above the sink. Her heavy lidded eyes were bloodshot and her already hard planed face was gaunt and drawn with strain.
“Cant do anything for your looks, but I can do something about your hair,” she muttered thickly remembering vaguely that a barber had said that to her when she had been recruited a moment before he’d shaved her head bald. Casting an eye about the sink she found an electric buzzer sitting in its receptacle. Taking the guard off of it, she flicked it on and ran the buzzing blade along the sides and back of her head cutting away long strands of black hair letting them fall carelessly into the sink. Leaving the top alone she gathered it into a long tail in the back and brushed the rest to one side and gave the freshly shaved stubble a raspy stroke.
“That is much better,” she said brushing her shoulders off “Not exactly regs, but that’s better.” Putting the trimmer back where she had got it, she went back out into the junction and took the ladder down a level. Her stomach growled loudly, with the nausea finally abated her appetite had returned with a vengeance. Making her way through the cramped industrial interior, she raided the galley for freeze dried food packs and returned to the bridge with them gnawing on a meat rasher and sipping citrus flavored carbohydrates from a foil sealed pouch.
Sitting back down at the controls she peered out of the view screen, the blue planet was closer. Opening another rasher she surveyed her dash, all the systems in the red were power related and still dropping, though far slower with everything powered down, she would have enough to make landfall, with a little to spare. Nibbling on the flavorless meat snack she booted up her scanners despite how it immediately sucked a percentage bar off the power meter and focused in on the league beacon coordinates.
Say one thing about the Dagger Class Gunships, they had good scanners, thirty seconds later she had a digital topographical map encompassing five square miles around the beacon, clicking a button beside the scanner she printed a small plastic copy of the map and folded it neatly, putting it in her pocket. There was no visual on whatever was down there, but at least she wasn’t going in completely blind.
“League pattern,” she growled studying the map, the contours of the land were extreme, deep lows and towering heights; it would be a hell of a place to fight if that’s what it came to. Standing up, she left the cockpit again, taking the ladder down directly to the armory.
Stocked for a crew of eight there was an abundance to choose from, lockers full of ballistic armor, racks of weaponry, crates of ammunition and all other manner of gear. Going to the lockers first, she took tall greaves, vambraces, and a heavy vest all made of the same dark grey armor and strapped them on tightly.
Taking a belt from the same locker she fixed it around her hips and sheathed a long bladed Teflon black knife lengthways in the small of her back, on her hip she affixed a holstered Garta .50 sidearm. Snatching a Lavern Heavy Assault Rifle from a rack she checked its action and sights smiling at the familiar weight of the weapon. It had done poorly through the war against the lighter faster firing League weapons. It was a big, weighty ammo hog, but it packed a hell of a punch. Setting it aside she set to the task of loading herself down with ammunition, filling the pouches on her vest and trousers with spare magazines. Lastly she took a tomahawk, press stamped and black like her knife from its place in the locker. More than the rifle, more than the armor, the tomahawk felt right in her hands, she was good with this weapon, no, she was great with it, she knew that with a certainty uncolored by arrogance or vanity.
Memories swirled in her mind so intense she had to close her eyes and take a breath.
Trees, trees as tall as skyscrapers rising up into a sky impossibly blue, her hands on the hilt of a knife and tomahawk, laughing, dancing, the face of a proud father sparring with her in a clearing under the sun.
Shaking her head to bring herself back to the present, Jessik slotted the tomahawk into a sheath on her back so that the handle jutted up over her shoulder. Bouncing on her heels to make sure nothing rattled or clanked she took a deep calming breath, her heart yearned for that clearing under the sun by those tall, tall trees, but an ugly voice deep down inside her whispered an awful truth, it wasn’t there anymore.
Snagging a helmet on her way out she went back to the bridge.
She was almost there; the planet was huge in her view screen, glancing down at the power levels she felt her heart flutter, they had all but bottomed out.
Strapping herself in, she gulped and flipped primary power back on to begin her descent. Immediately power warning popped up flashing bright and red all across her screen.
“I know! I know!” she growled over the wail of alarms and the growing roar of atmospheric reentry. Following the coordinates the computer had locked onto, she played a desperate game of shutting down absolutely everything that did not need to be running at that specific moment. The glaring red heat in front of her view screen broke and a world of brooding crags and dark forests came rushing up to meet her. “Almost there!” she shouted, most of her power levels had dropped to zero, if propulsion ran dry now she would fall from the sky like a stone.
Fighting the stick to keep the Dagger steady, she nosed her craft down further until the razor edged crags were all around her, blotting out the sun throwing her into darkness.
She could no longer cancel the warning alarms, they were a constant scream. Decelerating, she nosed the ship lower until tree tops began to bang and thump against the hull. Deploying the landing struts, she cut power to the thrusters, hit the stabilizers and began her vertical decent.
I made it! I fucking made it! She thought with giddy relief. Her dash went dark and the stick stopped responding.
She screamed as she dropped straight down, her stomach leapt up into her throat and her arse nearly left the seat, kept in place only by the restraints that were suddenly far too tight.
BAM! She was smashed back down a second later with a cry of pain. Unsnapping her belt she dragged herself out of the seat feeling heavy and unbalanced. There was no power at all. Fishing through her pouches for a moment she retrieved her flashlight and made immediately for the engine room. Crossing the length of the ship she looked for any damages but found only clutter tossed about from the rough landing. Reaching the engine room she felt a surge of uncertainty, she knew how to fly the ship, but she was no mechanic. Casting her light around helplessly she exclaimed with relief when her light landed upon the base of the battery station, its power core had been ejected.
“You were just overcharged from sitting in the cradle for so long!” she said picking it up and turning it about in her hand examining its blackened surface. It was literally the only thing in the engine room she knew how to fix; all she needed was another power core. Setting it back down on the deck she made for the airlock below the armory with a new purpose.
Winching the hatch open, she was met with a blast of sharp cold air fragrant with water, soil and pine. Jessik closed her eyes and took a moment just to breath, outside, beyond the popping and clicking of her hot engines, she could hear the wind, it rustled and whispered through the trees. She still had no idea how long she had been on ice, but she did know that it had been a very long time since she had heard such a beautiful sound, it sounded like home.
Taking another deep breath, she shouldered her rifle and stepped off onto an alien world…