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Marauder

by Kathryn Carson 2 months ago in Horror / Sci Fi
Runner-Up in New Worlds ChallengeRunner-Up in New Worlds Challenge
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We sailed out into the darkness. Seeing the stars suddenly replace the deck beneath your feet is the moment that separates marauders from everyone else. I live for it.

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. But it’s my job to make sure everyone can hear the screaming over comms.

The psych warfare begins long before the actual maraud. Distances in space are vast. The slightest difference in approach vector can send you barging into an obvious intercept course for the target vessel...or gliding in silently like a predatory bird over-top them instead. It takes real orb-mech artistry for a pilot to bring a raiding ship into the blindest parts of most Earth ships’ sensor arrays without being seen. You want the people on board to miss the fact that they’re looking at an intercept course. You want them to see at most a flickering blip on their computer screens. It’s that flickering blip that gets people’s minds working and their heart rates up, perversely far more than if the attacking pilot has blundered and everyone knows exactly what’s going to happen hours before it does. It’s the hope that fucks with people more than the certainty. Everyone hopes that it’s not a maraud, instead of just accepting the fact that it is and getting on with their jobs.

I’ve been the person working those sensor stations, watching that flickering blip. I’ve felt the tension on the bridge build as the wait for the signal return suddenly gets shorter. I’ve been the person who has said, into the sweating silence, “Is it just me, or is that getting a lot closer?” It’s the deck officer’s job to monitor the potential outcomes of all sensor hits and to prepare accordingly—the one who should be exactly paranoid enough to order an armed standby every time. But I’ve been on ships where there was no deck officer, or he wasn’t sufficiently paranoid. I have been the person who realizes that precious hours have been wasted watching a blip on a screen, instead of preparing to repel boarders.

I would always rather be on the giving end than the receiving end of those moments.

I am not a masochist, a sadist, or a sociopath. I don’t want to board other ships, kill their marines, and steal their cargo or take their crew and passengers hostage. I don’t want to have it done to me, either. But it’s my luck to be born in a time when megacorps and colonizing governments battle it out for resources on a daily basis—when humanity is figuring out the hard way that space is a lot bigger than we realized, and that sometimes the only way to get home is to pad your fuel or air or water with someone else’s.

I began my service as a conscript in an Earth-Mars skirmish. Eventually I became a comms officer and backup sensors specialist, with no more combat training than anyone else who got through basic. But then the war got hot.

I’ve been through a lot since then. We all have. And I got tired of hearing needless screaming over comms.

Over the years I discovered that there are ways to get the job done with the minimum loss of life. In short, I got very good at psychological warfare. I had a bit of a...flair, shall we say...for ensuring that people suffered the maximum fear before the first shot got fired. It ensured that my target gave up long before anyone got hurt. Combined with my willingness to negotiate with my targets over what got taken and how, so that everyone involved could at least limp to the next station or planet, it quickly got me noticed in the chain of command. I became the terror of our enemies while also being the poster-child for the high moral ground our government believed it had.

I became a full-fledged marauder, rated for armored vac suit use and maintenance, trained for close-quarters boarding actions, and certified in demolitions. In short, if you want me to suit up, fly my fire team over to a target ship, build a shaped charge, blow a hole in the hull, and throw myself into the decompressed remains and start carving up bad guys, I can do that. I’d just rather not have to. So once the Mars government made me a Marauder Commander, higher in rank than anybody on the ship except the Pilot Commander, I got to call the shots, both literal and figurative, on every boarding action. I got my choice of privateer vessel. I got my choice of pilot. I got my choice of marines. And I’d deployed them to a perfect service record thus far.

So when the deck officer—Roddy, another of my choices, a paranoid survivor of more than one maraud himself—called “sensor contact” and “armed standby” over public comms, I felt a little trepidation, but not much beyond the disorientation of being woken up unexpectedly. I knew it didn’t matter whether we were the ones being chased down by someone else, or we were lining up to do the hitting. Roddy was just following my playbook. We had at least an hour yet to decide how best to disorient and disable the boarders...or to make our target squirm.

“Confirm armed standby,” I answered. “Marines, suit up for long deploy.”

I pulled myself out of my sleep sac and did my necessaries. One big upside of being a marauder commander, I got my own quarters and head; big downside, I got to smell the head long after the suction had stopped. I also got to keep a ready supply of disgusting protein bars in my quarters. I ate one as quickly as I could and drank a water pouch, too. I pulled on a diaper and a gaiter bag (in case I lost that godawful meal during deployment, which was a non-zero chance no matter how experienced you were as a marauder).

Something made me look up. People don’t look up often on a space-faring vessel. It's a uniquely claustrophobic reminder that the inner skin of the ship is just centimeters away from my head. Behind the transparent plastic was our algae, the layer that served simultaneously as heat sink, water purification, and protection from cosmic radiation. It swayed minutely, like tiny river grass in a current. Beyond that were other, thinner layers that I couldn't see: the electricals, and then the outer skin of the vessel. Beyond that, just a short few centimeters away, was the empty maw of space. Most people describe spaceship travel as being buried alive in a tin can. Most people weren’t marauders, either, so they had no idea what it was like to float through space in a suit considerably smaller than that.

But something made me look up. Maybe it was the fact that I was naked except for the damned diaper and gaiter. I’m always at my most sensitive when I’m at my most vulnerable.

I heard a low susurrus, a sound like sand skating across the hull outside.

My skin broke out in goosebumps, and it wasn’t just the cold. Mental note: ask Roddy to recalculate orb-mech for space junk. I wondered if that engagement with the frigate last week had displaced something that could potentially hole our hull...or punch holes through my team and me as we suited up and went out the airlock. But there were no thunks, no hissing sounds of escaping air, no floating water droplets, no alarms from elsewhere in the ship. Just the usual sounds of monitors beeping, the murmur of conversations, and the clanking of bulkhead doors opening and shutting as other parts of the crew went about their jobs.

You couldn’t beat the sound of space junk rattling across your hull to make your hackles go up. But I couldn’t make that kind of sound on cue to intimidate a target. I had to make do with opening channels and asking them in a conversational tone whether they wanted to be put off the ship in vac bags and take their chances on a pickup, or be killed clean on the bridge.

I parked my misgivings and pulled on my contact suit. The contacts gleamed like beads on chains up and down my body—ready to transmit my muscle impulses to the armored and insulated parts of my vac suit. It was the only part of that whole contraption that would warm up...eventually. Everything else would come out of the suit locker cold and stay that way. The thought added to my goosebumps.

I pulled myself carefully out of my cubicle and down the passageway to the lockup. I spared a few minutes to visually cross-check and spot-check a random selection of suits, to make sure my team's suits were ready. They were. So I suited up—the contacts in the suit automatically bonded with the contacts on me, with quick little snicking sounds like somebody dropping magnets onto a steel table. The rest of my fireteam—Anatoly, Mike, and Chen, all much bigger than me—arrived and shoehorned themselves into their suits.

They shouldered their way down the hall and pulled themselves into position at the mouth of the launching airlock before engaging their mag boots. They thunked to the floor. That sound was so encouraging when it happened inside the ship and absolutely terrifying when it happened outside. One of my calling cards was to come in slow over a ship but not touch it til I could set boots, one member of the fireteam at a time, right over the bridge. Usually the next sound would be the meaty thwack of a disc of plastic explosive being flung against the hull over the commander’s head. They usually surrendered quick after that.

My team began the process of breaking out the weapons locker.

I marched to the bridge, my boots clunking the whole way. Roddy had the orb-mech screens up. The vectors blipped through changes, moment by moment, scattered dots representing whole planets and dozens of friendly ships moving in a dance that showed lines nowhere but our screens. There was nothing to see out the actual windows except black space, and a few distant pips of light. One of them was yellowish. The screens identified it as Jupiter. We were a long, long way from home here.

Roddy's face looked even more lined than usual in the low, red light. It made his beard look like the frills on some kind of warlike lizard. I could still smell the coffee he’d drunk to get through his graveyard shift. His eyes glinted as he glanced over his shoulder at me from the flight chair. “Hey, Maggie. Contact is about a half hour out now. Low and slow, dead center in the shipping lane from the Belt. Sized like an Earth freighter. Really weird, though. It’s alone, and the signal keeps breaking up. No transponder, either. But we’re perfectly in the pipe, above and abaft. Thank God their sensors are made by Earth’s lowest bidder, huh?” He nudged one of the sticks to keep us in position, his touch feather-light. I heard the dull roar of the thrusters as they adjusted.

As I looked at it, the target blip on the screen vanished, then reappeared. It was exactly the kind of effect we’d normally hope to cause for somebody else. Luckily, we were on this side of the equation. “Visual?”

“Nope. I’m guessing somebody painted it black to try to hide. You heard the sand? Gave me the willies.”

“Yeah. Any chance that came from taking the Lorelei?”

“I was thinking the same thing. No idea. If it did, nobody’s updated the register.”

“Timestamp it and put it in the possible hazards index. Leave it to bigger paychecks if they want to map it. But if you get bored, do the orb-mech, huh?”

“Aye.”

“Channel 920. Give me time checks at five-minute intervals til intercept. Open channels with them at t-minus ten and route to my suit. Mute controls to me.”

“9-2-0. Five and ten. Muted. Your controls. Will do.” He glanced at me again. “You’re giving them the open-channel silent treatment for twenty solid minutes? Letting them stew before boots-on, huh?”

“Anybody crazy enough to go through these lanes without a convoy is crazy enough to think he has a chance against trained marauders.” For some reason I thought of the last time I was on the receiving end of this equation. It was the fight in which I pioneered the practice of forcing boarders to enter through the galley so we could receive them with emergency strobes and halon spray. “Depending on what I see, I might go in silent until boots-on.”

Roddy shivered. “God, you’re evil. I’m glad you’re on my side. Happy hunting.”

I marched down the passageway to my team. They were ready to go—Anatoly’s icy blue eyes staring at me from that sharp face, Mike’s “I’m a crazy Irishman” grin firmly in place beneath the shaved red hair, and Chen’s quiet competence radiating even past the chin switches and tight borders of the helmet he always donned before he had to.

Chen raised my battle rattle—belt, taser, charge pouch, monofilament blade, bandolier of flashbangs. “Cross-checked and ready, ma’am.” He helped me get into it and checked my clips. I checked his.

“Helmets on,” I said.

Helmet in hand, Mike looked at Chen and grinned. “Over-achiever.”

Chen smiled back. “Slacker.”

“Channel 920, you weirdos.”

We seal-tested, then loaded up into the airlock. The external sounds got a lot louder in the tiny space. It echoed horribly. Every boot stamp sounded like a gunshot. The beep of the atmo pumps starting up sounded like a piece of glass shattering. The air was steadily pulled out. The silence that everybody talks about but so few have experienced crept around us like a smothering blanket.

No one can hear you scream in an equalized airlock, either.

The outer airlock opened to the blackness of space, distant stars scattered like diamonds on velvet in a jeweler’s shop. But just like diamonds, those specks of light didn’t care a damn whether we lived or died. That was a truth that every space-farer re-learned every time they looked out a ship’s windows.

That truth made my job so much easier.

“Comms check.”

My team checked in, one by one.

“Jet test.”

Everyone’s jets passed checks.

“Hands on.” Everyone took hold of their nearest grab bar. The magnetics in my gauntlet attached me to the rail with a reassuring clunk.

“Boots off.”

We almost immediately lost touch with the floor, as Roddy finished heeling the Octavia over, lining up the airlock with the dorsal ridge of the target. We adjusted, and waited for the maneuver to finish.

I caught sight of it then—or rather, I caught sight of its lack: a star straight ahead of us winked out, as something darker came between its light and me. A binary star ahead of it went out, too. So did the yellowish dot I knew to be Jupiter. Either that thing is a lot bigger than a freighter, or…

A cloud of oddly glinting, tiny things suddenly pattered across my visor and suit like sand on a breeze. I broke out in goosebumps all over again.

“Roddy, you getting another wave of sand?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “I’m hearing it all over the hull. Is it in the airlock?”

“Yeah. We’ll have to bio-purge the airlock when we get back.”

“I heard that loud and clear. T-minus 25 minutes.”

“All right, boys,” I said. “Hands off. Let’s go.”

We sailed out into the darkness. Seeing the stars suddenly replace the deck beneath your feet is the moment that separates marauders from everyone else. I live for it.

The only sound was my breathing. The only sensation was the deepening cold, that pinched the skin under every contact on my suit. It normally took longer to feel the pinch—heat doesn’t radiate well in space, because there’s no air to carry the heat away from you. But the closer we got to the looming black spot in space, the colder I got. The waves of sand got thicker and came closer together. I kept having to pulse my jets. Normally just one or two hits would get us all the way to a target. But we were meeting enough resistance that my jets consumed fuel fast. At this rate, we’d have to be careful about having enough to get back.

“Christ it’s cold,” Mike said.

“I think this sand is allowing our heat to bleed off quicker,” Chen said.

“Agreed. Mind your fuel consumption, people.”

“Aye.”

The target steadily eroded our field of vision. Every star and planet in front of us disappeared as it loomed large enough to extend past our visors. Yet I still couldn’t see a name or registry, or even a light. Hell, I couldn’t even see the thing’s hull. All I could see was the billowing sand, like a black-on-black version of our ship’s algae layer. Roddy clicked off time checks, and yet I could still see no details of what kind of ship we were headed toward. I debated whether this was some kind of new attempt at chaff tech from the megacorp labs on Earth. If it was, they were making some serious headway in messing with Mars, but they weren’t completely invisible to sensors yet. They were just...really freaky in person.

“Ma’am,” Chen said, his voice subdued. “I’m not liking this.”

“Me neither,” I said. “All the more reason to figure out what these assholes are using.”

“And take it,” Mike added.

Roddy said, “You should be making contact anytime now. What the hell is that hissing noise?”

“Sand,” I said. It was pushing so hard against me that I got heat warnings from my jets. I was pulsing them continuously, like walking against a headwind. I seriously considered whether I was risking a rupture even in an armored suit. The sand flooding over my visor made me feel like I’d become miniaturized and stuck my head under the bottleneck of an hourglass. I flipped on my helmet lights--normally a giant no-no on a maraud--but I couldn’t see a thing. “It’s getting really thick. I don’t think I’d know I was going to make contact until I—”

I was in the lead, and was the first to break through the sand-waves. My jets shoved against the sudden lack of resistance. I shot forward into an empty space, pitch-black where my helmet lights weren’t. I had exactly enough time to realize that the surface in front of me wasn’t metal before I slammed into it on all fours...and sank into it up past my wrists and knees.

I was usually the person who was really good at making other people scream over comms. But this time, it was me screaming. “WAVE OFF WAVE OFF!” I reversed my jets and tried to pull away, but the stuff I’d hit was like sludge. It acted as if zero gravity didn’t apply to it—like it had its own gravity pulling toward its center. A drop of my own sweat shot forward off my face and hit the inside of my visor. The only thing I could do was hope my fireteam was far enough back to save themselves...and maybe rescue me.

Because I had no idea what the fuck I’d just hit, but it wasn’t a ship. And it really wasn’t human.

HorrorSci Fi

About the author

Kathryn Carson

I have MS, Hashimoto's, and a black belt in taekwondo. I'm also an ocular melanoma survivor. This explains why my writing might be kind of obsessed with apocalypse--societal, religious, and personal.

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