If a problem can be shot, blown up, or otherwise destroyed, Ranger Marcus Maximus is an expert at that. Keeping a ship of scared civilians from tearing itself apart is not that kind of problem.
After an unexpected attack on a backwater fuel mining station, one thousand refugees are packed cheek to elbow aboard the Demos. They are forced to hide in the depths of space until help can come, but who is help and who will kill them is a judgement call for the captain, and less people every day agree on who the captain should be.
Marcus has to decide who to side with and who to betray because the wrong captain might just turn him over for the bounty on his head.
Marcus sat beneath the shadow of a gas giant, surrounded by metal skulls. He held a gun in his hands, ripped from the arm of one of the enemy war machines. The thing fired needles, or maybe they were micro-flechettes. From the spare magazine, he couldn’t tell if they were a metal alloy or some kind of nano-material. The munitions cracked between his trembling fingers, but he had seen them pierce body armor. The man inside had burst into blood like a balloon.
Marcus squeezed his hand into a fist as tight as he could, until it felt like he would rip the environmental suit. When the shakes subsided, he put his mind back to the gun. It had no trigger that he could find. The firing mechanism was entirely digital, which explained why it had locked up under the assault of the attack scripts. They had been lucky the ship’s defenses were out of date. Luckier than the dead Camrians strewn across the hangar bay. He tried not to look at his own handiwork.
Marcus felt only one step removed from the corpses as he sat upon a collapsed bulkhead. He had been hit by bullets, tossed by explosions, and singed by fire; but, that hadn’t been enough to put him in the ground. His armor sat heavy upon him, and he couldn’t even take off his helmet. The internal systems warned of unidentified neurotoxins in the air, which left him rebreathing his own sweat.
Ranger Levy whooped as he got the flood lights to power on. Beams of artificial daylight blasted across the battlefield, painting the walls with shadows. He leapt down from the control booth, landing on the smoking ruin of some kind of fighter plane. Marcus didn’t know whether it was a manned craft, or just an elaborate way of launching missiles. What he did know was that something inside it had caught fire, and the smoke ate the paint from Levy’s armor. His comrade had to scrape it off as he said, “And here I was starting to think the locals were blind.”
Marcus tossed the gun back to the metal goliath he had taken it from. The steel face grimaced back at him. “Would have been easier for us had they been.”
“We’re never that lucky though, are we? Come on, we have to keep moving.” Levy said, turning his head up. The charge field overhead kept crackling and flickering, letting the moon’s hydrocarbon atmosphere leak in. Eventually, the fuel to air mixture would be just right and the whole place would explode. Not even corpses would be left.
Marcus turned his head up too. He could only see the planet by how he couldn’t see the stars. The huge mass had seemed so important on the star charts, and he still couldn’t see it. The local star may as well have not existed. None of its light reached so far out.
The burning trails of ships crossed the void like shooting stars. The Camrians had given up on the moon, but he didn’t let himself hope that they were retreating. There was no way they were that lucky. It would be some other battlefield, some other star, some other year. For once though, Marcus knew where that would be. “Does it feel like we’re getting to the end of the war?”
Levy shrugged. “We have to be, by now. Earth has been working to break the stasis for centuries now. Got that Manhattan Project Two coming along.”
“Weren’t we that project?”
“Project Three then. Pretty soon Earth is going to retaliate and put an end to the war. We just have to keep buying them time.”
“We’ve been buying them time for centuries.”
Levy slapped him in the shoulder. “Means we’re good at it. We’re experts. The best there is at all things warfare. Now come on. We’ve got ships to catch. I’m thinking the old boarding rocket special. What about you?”
“Levy, those ships have nuclear missiles headed for Earth. How many of us are even left? Do we have enough?”
Levy turned his head up, counted the ships, and said, “Enough for one each, I reckon. Won’t be our first time. Good thing we’ve had practice at it.” The other Ranger laughed.
Marcus sighed and got to his feet. He felt heavy despite the low gravity. For a moment, he was reminded of the myth of Atlas holding up the heavens. The ancients could never of known how weighty the heavens were with the trillions of people needing protection. “I guess we don’t have much of a choice.”
“You could always run away. Get yourself a girl, ditch the armor, settle down…”
Marcus put his hand on Levy’s shoulder. “You know that’s not an option for us,” he said, and headed off to the next in a long line of battlefields.
About the Author
James likes to think about worlds that don’t exist. Growing up on a diet of video games, anime, and the internet, ending up as an engineer was accidental. At least it helps write about computer systems and robots. The covid pandemic re-ignited his childhood dream of being an author, dating back to when he was a child sitting on his grandfather’s knee making up stories. Now, he has a head full of stories he wants to tell, and the freedom to do so.