Adam Murton – alias Vardos Cadix – has written for us before. Here, he provides us with an exciting new piece of fiction that deals with the potential traumas Isorians may suffer when using their phase-shift technology.
Blood Through Her Hands, I
The Ayal system gate opened and two vessels slipped through, one after the other. Both were relatively small and bristled with weapons, clearly raider ships. Ahead of them a giant Isorian star-freighter ploughed its way deeper into the system heading for the fifth planet.
The two raider vessels jinked away from the direct route from the gate horizon to the planet. They relied on being too small to be noticed out of any direct sensor scan. They weren’t after the star-freighter, after all: they were after the cargo convoys that would race to meet it. They were after the softer targets.
Their passage went unnoticed. But someone knew they were there.
* * *
Squad Leader Syn Y’Dao was good at waiting. She had been a phase trooper for almost 78 years and waiting had been a large part of that. Her first squad leader had noted repeatedly that waiting was the best part of soldiering; almost inevitably what you were waiting for was terrifying and involved strange creatures trying to kill you. But waiting meant thoughts could come and her mind returned to the siege of Qurum, the blood dripping from the ceiling, dripping through her phased-out form, the unit’s only surviving technician, Aphrian, frantically trying to repair the transmat. Her pulse raced and her breath quickened.
She took a deep breath and forced herself to look out the dome at the familiar scene. On the first few days of this posting, she had loved the way the vivid purple lichen ran as far as the eye could see, the gentle landscape punctuated only by ruddy craters. Even the Isorian bio-silicon nanospore had made little headway into converting it into anything more substantial. Now, six months in, the sight was merely mundane and she found herself wishing for something to break up the view. She looked down at her gloves, was briefly dismayed how filthy they had become and replaced them before anyone could notice the blood.
This posting on Ayal V was all about waiting. Waiting for the next scheduled freighter to come and collect the ore but also waiting for the Mavvolian pirates to come. They were less well scheduled but came almost as frequently. As always, she’d entered the traditional unit sweepstake to guess the time of the next raid and had opted for today in the next hour. The ore freighter was here, which seemed to attract the pirates, and on top of that her squad was due to ship out on the freighter’s return journey. She strongly believed that fate would want to mark that occasion, probably with something terrifying that involved strange creatures trying to kill her.
She was also waiting for the IMTel to announce her new assignment and that filled her with almost as much trepidation as the prospect of pirates. She glanced down at her gloves, which were inexplicably bloody again and was mid-change when the IMTel spoke to her. “Greetings Squad Leader Y’Dao. To decide where your services fit best, we have consulted the needs across the Ayal Salient. The freighter has updated the shard with new information.” She wished it would just hurry up and tell her. “Firstly, we would like to thank you for your service to the wider Senatex.” And there was her answer. After all, why thank her if she was continuing for another three years. She felt empty and only paid scant attention to the remaining words. “Distinguished record… melee skills… bravery and heroism… particularly the Siege of Qurum. Debt of gratitude… recent psych evaluation… for your well-being… you are not required…”
Syn stopped listening altogether at that point and turned back to the view. She was vaguely aware that the voice had rumbled to a halt, but she continued to stare off over the horizon. Time passed but she had no idea how long. “Squad Leader Y’Dao.” The voice caught her attention again. “Please report to the freighter for transfer to your new assignment.”
As she turned, something caught her attention on the horizon, something that glinted amongst the star-scape. She removed her helmet from the compression pouch and was raising it above her head when the voice spoke again, but this time across all the troops in the barracks. “Alert! Alert! Pirates incoming. All active personnel report to Vehicle Bay Two.”
Syn exited the room and was six paces down the corridor before the announcement finished. Her helmet comm activated, the IMTel speaking just to her: “Squad Leader Y’Dao where are you heading?”
“Vehicle Bay Two.”
“Your orders are to report to the freighter for transfer.”
“Nope. ‘All active personnel’ are to report to Two and I am still active personnel” For the next two days at least, she thought. She reached the security entrance into Bay Two and wondered if it would open or whether the IMTel would lock her out of her last mission.
The door buzzed open; the decision had clearly been made.
Syn ran across to the Tograh transports. The technicians were just finishing and stepping away from the skimmers. One turned to her, and she caught her breath. It was Aphrian – they had served together on Qurum. But despite their shared past, in fact because of their shared past, Aphrian and Syn avoided each other where they could. She twisted away and tried to slink past the technician but he reached out and caught her by the wrist. Just briefly enough to stop her in her tracks. He pressed a compression pouch in to her hand. She knew without checking that it contained the twelve nutribars from the sweepstake. “Congratulations, looks like you were right.”
“And you weren’t – again. Maybe next time.” The small talk was painful for her but she made the effort and didn’t just rush past, as much as she desperately wanted to.
“It’s bad luck I guess. Since Qurum…” Aphrian left the sentence unfinished. “Anyway, there is no next time. Not for me. I’m shipping out after this.”
“Me, too,” said Syn. “Wait, so you’ll never have the chance to break your sweepstake losing streak?”
Aphrian shook his head. “I guess not. Four and a half years without ever having won it. As I said, just bad luck. The Qurum curse.” He pointed to a Tograh transport. “That’s yours.” The gesture was unnecessary, the IMTel had already highlighted the assignments for each squad, but Syn took the hint: since Qurum, Aphrian had been distant, withdrawn, even from Syn. He’d been here for longer and was, perhaps, going through the same thing as Syn, memories triggered by the closeness of another survivor.
That was something Syn could understand, and she turned away.
Continued in Part 2