Ghosts of the Federation

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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Sat Jul 09, 2016 12:43 am

I'm on summer break, so I can guarantee at least two updates this summer. Next chapter will involve some serious Advanced Edition shenanigans.
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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby Chickengames » Sun Sep 11, 2016 11:14 pm

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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Thu Sep 15, 2016 10:37 pm

In retrospect, that was a foolish guarantee. I got married in August, and I don't know where I got off thinking I'd have time.
*BUT,* the equinox is next week! It's still summer for one week! I CAN STILL TECHNICALLY FOLLOW THROUGH!

Brant jogged after Killer as she walked off the bridge and into the corridors beyond, Translator stumbling after.

“The frigate has three human crew,” Translator said. “Killer has learned a good deal of the boarding tactics and counters of this cycle, and she notes that there is no recognizable medical bay aboard their vessel. She expects things to go smoothly.”

“They’ll be ready for us. It’s our best bet, but it’s sure as hell not going to be smooth,” Brant said.

“Well, our captain is…handy,” Translator said. “Though she is particularly eager to observe you in this combat.”

Brant looked at Killer. “Seriously? That’s your priority here?”

“You must remember that we are a culture-ship, Captain Charlotte Brant. Killer, like all of us, is a scholar first and foremost.”

A section of corridor wall spread open, and the three of them hurried into a cramped room with two teleport platforms. Again, Brant was struck at how recognizable some of this tech was; if the Lanius had been around for millennia or longer, it seemed strange that they hadn’t advanced beyond what current civilizations had achieved in a few hundred years of space travel. But that wasn’t her primary concern:

“Only two of us?” she asked as she saw the platforms. “You’re not coming? How the hell are we supposed to understand each other?”

“I will be in radio contact, and I assure you that I would only be a liability in combat,” Translator said. “May I see your wrist unit? The ship has some ability to communicate through human channels, but it will help if I personally attune to your device.”

Brant took the unit off and handed it to Translator. His fingers elongated just like Killer’s had a few minutes ago, tapering off into fine wires that snaked into the unit. Translator’s eyes dimmed briefly, then he slid his fingers out and handed the device back to Brant.

“That was quick,” Brant said.

“It’s not terribly complicated technology,” Translator said. His mouth did not move this time, his voice broadcasting directly into her earpiece. “I trust you are receiving me?”

“Loud and clear,” she said. Killer had walked onto one of the transport pads. Brant wondered if the Lanius captain was really staring at them with intense hostility and impatience or if that was just the way her jagged, crystalline face normally looked. This creature would not have been Brant’s first pick for going into a desperate boarding action, but a capable fighter who she didn’t entirely trust was better in some ways than someone like 78, who she trusted entirely and who couldn’t fight worth a damn.

Killer had her phase axe in hand, looking now like just a short length of metal with a small wire sticking out of the top, waiting to be ignited. She gestured at the vacant pod next to her, and Brant was confident that she wasn’t just imagining the angry impatience she saw in that gesture.

“The captain strongly urges haste. We can remain cloaked for longer than most current craft, but not indefinitely. You must conclude your business on the Rebel vessel quickly.”

Brant hopped up on to the teleporter. “They’ve got no medbay. One way or the other, this’ll be...”

Before she could get out “quick,” Killer nodded her head, her eyes shimmering slightly, and everything got hazy for a second. Then they were in a brightly-lit, stark gray room of a human ship – the weapon control room, from the look of the panels and the targeting screen.

A crack of superheated air nearly blew out her eardrum as a laser round just missed her head, bursting a little divot into the wall in front of her. Brant spun to confront her attacker, but by the time she saw the Rebel poking out of cover behind them, Killer was closing with him like a striking serpent. The phase axe ignited, the wire at its head erupting in a fluorescent rainbow of energy, and Killer wove around the Rebel’s shots to bury that rainbow in his side, entering his chest just below the armpit. The weapon made no sound except for a light thump as the metal haft of the axe tapped against his rib cage, and the Rebel only made a slight, shocked gasp as he fell to the ground.

A little bloody wedge of flesh, bone, and organ slid out of him where the phase axe had struck, zapping everything it touched momentarily out of phase with the universe. From the look of the cross-section, Brant guessed the axe had taken a chunk out of his heart.

He wore glasses. He had dark hair in a top knot and ill-advised, spotty facial hair. He could have been anywhere from a young twenty-three to an old sixteen, but anyway he was a kid. Brant took the hurt and horror that came with killing a young boy and threw it down the stairs to the cellar of her mind, where all the hurt and horror went. There was still a lot of room down there.

Then she whistled. “They don’t call you Killer for nothing, do they?”

Killer deactivated the axe. She held up three talons to Brant, nodded at the man on the floor, and then curled one talon down.

Brant nodded. She checked her wrist unit, noting two lifeform blips heading from the bridge. She moved to take off the breather mask so she’d be able to see a little better, but her experience aboard the freighter came to mind. She checked her wrist unit, and to her surprise, she noted that the atmosphere in the room was plummeting. No way had small arms fire punctured the hull, and the blast doors for the room were still firmly shut. They could have deactivated life support, but that was a fool’s gambit without a medbay to keep the crew alive.

“The captain says the next one is all yours. She awaits your direction,” Translator said. That was odd. Brant couldn’t help but feel like the Lanius captain wasn’t quite taking their situation seriously, but then again, she had just executed a third of their opposition. Maybe the Lanius were just hard to read.

“We hold up here, then. I can still breathe, and they need to come in here to stop us from screwing with the weapons.” Speaking of which, Brant ignited her power baton and started slamming down on the targeting console. Sparks flew up and tiny spurts of flame singed her hands, but on the console was only lightly dented for all that drama. Machinery like this was built to withstand ship-to-ship ordnance and remain operable, or at least reparable. It would take the two of them some time to fully disable the weapons, and the pair heading toward them now would not be giving them that.

Brant checked her wrist unit again to confirm this. The two Rebels were still making a beeline for them, yes, but she also noticed a power spike in one room.

“What the hell is that spike?” Brant asked. “I don’t see a system I recognize. Do you?”

“Um…with respect, Captain Brant, I defer entirely to you in areas of human ship technology. Have you not been fighting the Rebels all this time?”

“Yeah, but…” Brant looked closer at the strange system. Every Federation soldier had heard rumors about the Rebel skunkworks teams and the nightmares they’d been cooking up, and Brant had read enough of their decrypted files to know the truth behind them. Were some of those projects finally ready for the field?

She gave the console one last strike, hopefully enough to have disrupted some of their weapon systems, then she charged the door. Company was coming.
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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby Chickengames » Thu Sep 22, 2016 9:07 pm

I like it so far, and congrats on getting married. The only problem is the last day of summer was yesterday.
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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby DarkPhoenix141 » Thu Nov 17, 2016 7:05 am

Gonna need to catch up on this in its entirety, because holy hell it's still going and that alone is commendable.

I applauded it before, but congrats man, I couldn't keep my own personal continuation of The Engi Conspiracy going for more than a few months.
This is no easy mission...


And remember:

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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby DarkPhoenix141 » Mon Jan 30, 2017 7:40 am

Is this dead now? It's a shame, I was looking forward to it.
This is no easy mission...


And remember:

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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Sat Feb 25, 2017 2:56 am

(It's been a busy year, but I'm still chugging away)

This part never got any easier. She’d grown confident and ferocious in close combat, and fear of death was a constant and familiar companion at this point, but she still hated this moment. Standing on unsecured ground, hearing the approaching footfalls of your enemy like the clatter of celestial dice in one more senseless, lethal crapshoot. These could be the last ten seconds of her life. She’d made the throw often enough and she was still alive, but the house always wins, doesn’t it?

Take cover, then? Or charge? No choice there, really. If there was any advantage to be had here, it was in the hope that the Rebels burst in hoping that Brant had suffocated already, or perhaps without even realizing that the air had gone rotten in here. The best odds were in hanging back, letting them come in and fill their lungs with inert gas, letting oxygen deprivation kick in before closing with full brutality.

The footfalls came closer. Brant waved Killer back and crouched behind the targeting console, taking the fallen Rebel’s side arm with her. Killer slinked back behind a supply crate in the back corner of the room. They waited. The footfalls approached.

Brant wondered if they’d take cover and this would just become an extended shootout. She realized, with an audible “Damn it,” that she’d taken cover on the wrong side of the room, that the console was fixed to the wall on her right and her left eye was gone, so she’d have to poke her whole head out of cover to see anything. Well that was no good…

She grabbed the fallen Rebel’s body and pulled him into cover with her.

The hatch hissed open, boots slapped against the floor in a sprint, energy weapons discharged with a gentle fwip. Brant kicked the fallen Rebel out of cover for at least one split second of distraction, at least one shot directed away from her. Brant vaulted over the console, firing over it as she went and leaping at the Rebels with baton thrumming in her hand.

The waiting never got easier. This part, with time and practice, had almost gotten too easy.

The Rebel captain, tall and broad-shouldered and looking every bit the stereotype grunt soldier that he’d seemed on the vid screen, was leading the charge. He cut an imposing figure, muscular and powerful, and Brant would not have wanted to close with him; fortunately, no amount of time at the gym builds resistance to directed energy blasts, and the laser round that took him in his chest brought him spluttering to the ground before he could take another step. He got off one shot on her, only an inch or so off from where she’d hit him, but an inch or two made the difference between singeing her armpit and rupturing his arteries and lungs.

The mousy communications officer had been charging in behind the captain, of such a wildly different build that Brant hadn’t even seen her until the hulking captain fell. By that point, they were practically on top of each other. The officer had been firing at the corner where Killer lurked, and swung her gun around to Brant at the last possible moment. The one shot she was able to get out would have taken Brant in the neck if the dead Rebel’s gun hadn’t been in the way, but instead it just shot the gun out of Brant’s hand.

Brant was in close quarters with the comm officer now, and on instinct, she reached out with her now-free hand and grabbed the officer’s wrist, pushing it up and pointing the gun away from her. The officer grabbed Brant’s other wrist as Brant tried to strike out with her baton, and the two stayed grappled like that, each struggling to disarm and murder the other.

Then the bad air kicked in. The officer’s breaths became shallow and quick. Her eyes were wide with the animal panic of suffocation, and her arms quavered in desperate, useless struggle. Brant saw her eyes dart to the corner, where Killer slunk out with phase axe alight.

“Drop your gun,” Brant hissed. “Disable the weapons and give us run of the ship, and I promise, we will…”

The officer looked back at Brant. Something changed in her face, but Brant couldn’t read it. “T-t-take your p-promise…” The officer paused, gasping for breath.

Killer crept up. Perhaps, Brant thought, she’ll take the offer. Perhaps I can sleep at night with one less death on my conscience. And do I actually feel good about that thought, or am I just patting myself on the back for even thinking it in the first…

“…and shove it.” And the officer gave up, letting Brant push the gun all the way back until it was pointed right in the officer’s face. And the officer pulled the trigger.

Her body went limp immediately, almost dragging Brant to the ground. Brant staggered back.

“She…” Brant started.

Killer walked up, extinguished her axe, and poked at the officer’s body with the haft. There was no movement.

“Captain Killer expresses confusion. This behavior is entirely inconsistent with the human self-preservation instinct as she’s observed it in other soldiers,” said Translator.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Brant said. Brant had seen plenty of people die, and she knew the appeal of suicide in the face of a hopeless situation. Few better. But no one had ever killed themselves at her before. She was surprised how much it stung. “Well, let’s get finished over here. Onboard computer’s still active, so we need to disable the offensive systems and neutralize whatever it is they’ve got charging over here. How long have we got before you decloak?”

“Several minutes yet. Killer should have no difficulty disabling the main guns before the ship’s computer gets off a volley, and she suggests you disable their shields. Our guns, light though they are, should be able to knock out their drone control and this mystery system in fairly short order then.”

Brant looked over at Killer and nodded. “I was thinking the same. I’ll meet you back here when it’s offline, and let me know as soon as the Kestrel shows up, right?”

“Of course. Good luck to you.”

Killer approached the console, fingers snaking out like wires and tunneling into the machinery. The sight was mesmerizing to Brant, but time was critical and she forced herself to look away and start jogging down the corridors.

Something was off about this. Something was way off. But in her experience, no matter what ugly surprises an enemy might have prepared, it was always a good idea to take out their shields. This was a fully equipped Rebel warship, better armed than any the Kestrel had yet faced, but its basic layout was familiar to Brant. She checked her wrist unit to be sure she was heading the right way, and there were no surprises. The shields room was just up ahead, and one of the main laser batteries had gone offline.

“How am I getting read-outs of the ship, by the way? Is this from you guys?” she asked.

“Quite. I’ve patched you through to our sensor array. Is it coming through in recognizable format?”

“Uh, yeah – it looks…”

Then the mystery system flickered, as a discharging weapon might. And she noticed something even more menacing about the strange system.

She stopped dead in her tracks, looking it over to make sure. “We have life signs!” she hissed into the wrist unit. “We’ve got fracking life signs over here, and they’re mobile!”

“I…don’t believe that is possible, Captain Brant. Captain Killer assures me that the human crew were eliminated with definite finality, and…oh. Oh, I see what you’re talking about now. Oh…”

Three blips were scurrying out of the mystery system, and heading in the direction of the weapons bay. This could be a lot of things – the Rebels had been working on a variety of secret projects that could transport or even rapidly produce human combatants, and she wasn’t sure which one had more dire implications, both right now in this situation and in overall strategic terms. Not that it mattered.

“Killer, can you hold out? If they can keep up the pressure like this, I don’t think we can win without taking their shields out.”

A pause. The faint clang of footsteps echoed down the corridors. Translator came back on, sounding doubtful.

“The captain concurs. She is confident she can kill several more ‘savages’, but it will be very slow going in disabling their weaponry. Our ship is likely to take fire, and she urges you to be ready when these combatants inevitably divert to protect the shields.”

Brant nodded, and kept running. She didn’t like being split up, but there wasn’t much to be done about it – if they could keep new combatants coming at this rate for any length of time, the only way to do noticeable damage to the ship systems would be by splitting up. She had little doubt that Killer, a literal scholar of combat and murder, could hold her own. What would happen in five minutes, when the Rebels decided the shields needed protecting more than the weapons, was another story.

The shields room looked very much like her own on the Kestrel, and that was probably no accident. The shield generators, humming columns of steel and ceramic lined against the wall, looked like modern Federation standard, probably built on a captured federal manufacturing world. These things were built to last; you could hit this room directly with a Hermes rocket and they would keep on ticking. It would take her at least half an hour with her baton to get even one of these generators offline, assuming her baton didn’t break first.

So she took out her multitool, flicked to the number three hexdriver, and got to work unscrewing the armor-plated paneling on one generator. Katarek had often left the screws a little loose on their own shield units, the better to quickly access them if they ever needed quick repair in a fight, and Brant found that these Rebels were of a similar mind. The screws came out easily, one, two, three, four; but there were a lot of them, four to a side on one panel on one unit. Five, six, seven, eight.

“Captain Killer has made contact with the enemy. She reports that these humans are just as brutally ugly as those you just…no, apologies, she more precisely says that they are brutally ugly in exactly the same manner as those you just killed.”

Nine, ten. “Do you mean they look the same? The ones we killed and the new arrivals?”

“Ah, yes. That would be a better way to put it. Theories?”

“The Rebels were working on flash-cloning technology. I guess they’ve fielded a prototype. My guess, they can keep these copies coming as long as they can spare the power. What’s the plan?”

“The captain is heavily engaged at the moment. She advised me to defer to your judgement in such a situation. You are the only one of us with any knowledge of contemporary ship tactics.”

Eleven. That was powerfully strange. Why would this alien trust some random hominid with her whole ship and crew? “I’ll have their shielding down by twenty-five percent in a minute.” Twelve. “As soon as you decloak, focus all your firepower on…” The clone bay to stop the waves of hostiles? The weapons bay to protect the Lanius ship? The shields to ensure they could disable everything else soon? The bridge to paralyze the ship? “…the shields. And if you could let me when you fire so I can clear the room, that would be great.”

Thirteen, fourteen.

“Acknowledged. Captain Killer has dispatched two of her opponents, but I am already detecting one fresh life sign coming from this ‘cloning bay.’ We can only maintain our cloaking field for another thirty seconds or so.”

Brant worked out the last two screws and hefted the thick, reinforced panel away, exposing the wires, circuits, and intricate heat sinks of the generator’s power feed. She stepped back a few paces, aimed her side arm, and blasted away. Sparks belched out in a great gout of orange, the generator flickering and going quiet a moment later. One down, three to go.

“I’m clearing the room. Fire when ready, and switch fire to that cloning bay if you can get another layer of shielding down.”

“Acknowledged. What if, uh, we are not able to get another layer of shielding down?”

Then we’ll probably all die, she thought. If these clones keep coming, we won’t last long over here. We need fire support, and that’s going to be way too unreliable as long as their shields are still high. I could rejoin Killer to get their weapons down, but that’s putting a lot of faith in you guys’ crappy guns. I could stay here, make sure the job gets done, but that’s putting a lot of faith in Killer standing up to three vs one.

“Depends. How much heat from this ship do you think you can handle?” Brant asked.

“Three or four volleys, five at the absolute maximum. As I said, we are poorly equipped for combat. Even now, if all of our guns connect, we will be doing minimal damage.”

“Then...” Man, Charlotte. And to think you could have married that boy from the water filtration plant back home. What would you be doing now, if that’s how things had gone? But no. You have a fiancé already. His name is Death. And he might have set a date for you two after all. “Go for the clone bay regardless. If we can’t take it out soon, we’ve got no chance of taking their weapons out before they do serious damage; and if they take out your weapons, we’ve got no chance without fire support.”

“I follow you. Cloak is dropping in several seconds. It may be prudent to clear out of the shields room in…”

Brant was already outside. “Just say ‘Get out’ next time!”

“Ah. Yes, uh…firing now!”

Brant jogged down the corridor, not at all sure how much confidence to put in the Lanius gunners. She put her hands over her ears, checking her wrist unit to make sure no clones were about to ambush her. Killer was still in the weapons room, facing off against one Rebel, with another on the way from the cloning bay. How many had she killed by this point? Five? Six?

The ship shook, a loud roar barking out from the shield room as one shot – just one, from the sound of it – pierced the shields and struck home. That in itself was not good news, a single laser round unlikely to have done much damage, but Brant’s spirits rose when she checked her wrist display.

“We’ve got fire in shields!” she reported. They must have lucked out and hit an oxygen pipe or something else that would blaze, harder and hotter than the ship could respond to automatically. It would probably gutter out in a few minutes if the bulkhead could keep it contained, but with any luck it would overheat and knock out the other shield pylons before it burnt out. “Lucky break. Monitor the shields, wait until you’ve got an extra level down, then take down that clone bay. I’m going to meet up with Killer and keep the pressure on there.”

She ran down the corridor the way she’d just come, baton crackling and sidearm leveled on halls ahead of her. The sounds of footsteps and combat echoed from the chambers ahead, and she swept around the corner ready to open fire at the first thing that moved.

There was a heavy thud up ahead, then quiet. Brant checked her wrist unit. Killer was the only thing still alive in the weapons room. Brant dashed forward and went in.

The room was an abattoir. The three corpses they’d made here earlier were still where she’d left them, dressed in their uniform grays, and each of those corpses now had two extra twins dressed in loose-fitting gowns. The first boy had his hair in a top-knot and his clones’ just hung loose around his shoulders, and the clone captains’ heads had some fuzzy growth where his original was shaven clean, but they were the same people.

It had not gone great for Killer. There was a patch in her left side that looked shattered and noticeably less shiny than the rest of her silvery body. She saw no blood, but small flakes of were periodically slipping off of the wound and drifting to the floor like ashes. Brant couldn’t make sense of it and certainly couldn’t say how serious it was, but the xenobiology course could wait for later.

“You all right?”

Killer made a fist with one three-digited hand and struck herself in the wound. A sound like a gong rang out, a flurry of metal flakes showered down, and the Lanius captain looked at Brant without a single change in her facial expression. It was a clear show of determination and resilience, but as the Lanius lumbered over to the weapons computer, she nearly toppled over. Apparently even a master warrior had a rough time going one against six. She righted herself, her movement drunken and slow, then looked accusingly at Brant.

“Captain Killer suggests that there may be a time for chit-chat when there isn’t…”

The line went dead amidst a squeal of static. Killer’s head twitched, and Brant checked her wrist. The Lanius ship had been badly hit, with damage to shields, weapons, and sensors, but the unit warned that it had lost connection with the ship.

“Translator? Translator, are you there?” she shouted.

Her readouts of the Rebel and Lanius ships fragmented, shuttered, and went blank. Brant cursed.

“Translator!” she shouted, shaking her wrist. She growled, then gave it up. Killer slammed on the weapons computer next to her, seemingly more out of frustration than any honest desire to do damage, then gripped at her wounded side and went quiet. She looked up at Brant.

“Don’t suppose you know sign language?” Brant asked.

Footsteps charged down the hall. Killer pointed at the door, then hunched over the weapons computer and let her fingers snake into it. Sparks began shooting out of it.

“Well, good enough.” Brant turned to face the door, readying her weapons. Killer would try to take out the weapons, then, hopefully before they blew up the culture-ship, and Brant would play bodyguard. They’d come three at a time, endlessly, until either Brant was overwhelmed or the Lanius gunners took out the clone bay.

Brant spat. She didn’t really know why, but it felt right.

“Let’s dance.”
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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby TheDreadedPirateTuco » Mon Feb 27, 2017 12:09 am

'Let's dance?'
That comes from a book series
was it unwind?
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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Mon Feb 27, 2017 12:17 am

TheDreadedPirateTuco wrote:'Let's dance?'
That comes from a book series
was it unwind?

It's by no means unique to any one book. As a line to start a fight with, it's common enough to have its own TV Tropes page:
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Re: Ghosts of the Federation

Postby SmoothPapaJ » Sun May 21, 2017 3:08 am

The footsteps ran right up to the edge of the closed bulkhead to the weapons room, then stopped. Brant kept her pistol trained forward, waiting for the first motion.

“Ms. Brant, I have to give it to you,” shouted the Rebel captain from the hall. “You entirely live up to your reputation.”

“So, like…are there three of you in Hell now?” Brant asked. “I gotta’ say, I find this whole business mighty disconcerting.”

“I thought I’d give you an update, seeing as we’ve knocked out your sensors. We took down one of your laser batteries and your shields are at 50%; at the rate you’re going, you’ll knock out some of our guns before the next salvo’s primed, but we’ll have more than enough to ravage your ship and knock out all of its offensive capabilities.”

He’s talking a lot. Why isn’t he in more of a rush?

“Listen – you’re both worth more to me alive than dead. You as a hostage will give us a lot of leverage with the Kestrel when it shows up, and we’ve been trying for a while to capture a live Lanius. We’re happy to just keep coming at you all day until you’re dead, but lay down your arms and step outside, and you will not be harmed.”

Is he trying to mess with me? Buy time for reinforcements to arrive? I don’t like this.

“The Fleet Admiral is a machine,” Brant shouted. “You hear me? That’s why you’re hunting us. We found out that the Rebellion’s led by an AI.”

And let that sink in, and one, two…

“You really think I’m going to…” the Rebel began, and Brant charged the bulkhead. She realized she was ceding one of her big tactical advantages by leaving the airless room, but this stank and time was not on her side anyway. The bulkhead opened at her approach, and the mousey officer and the hulking captain waited were waiting for her, both looking oddly damp in their cheap hospital gowns. Apparently their armory was exhausted: the officer was holding a bottle that had been broken in half, and the captain had a stool.

Brant fired at the captain, getting him in the shoulder but not putting him down. The officer ducked her baton swing and slashed at Brant’s side with the bottle, a swipe that could have been a minor scratch or a fatal gouge that would bleed her out in a minute – Brant frankly couldn’t tell through the adrenaline. She kept shooting at the captain with one arm and brought the baton smacking into the comm officer’s head with the other. The captain took a few more shots from Brant’s sidearm before he brought the stool down on her head.

All told, the battle had probably lasted about four seconds, and all three of them collapsed to the ground at the same time. The comm officer’s head was caved in, the Rebel captain’s chest was riddled with puncturing burns, and Brant’s aching head smacked onto the deck as she collapsed.

“So it was a chair that did it?”

Brant shook her head. She was seated at a booth in a large, dimly-lit room, filled with tables, chairs, and other booths. The room was mostly unoccupied, but as she took in her surroundings she did see that there were other folks here and there.

Katarek was sitting across from her, picking at a plate of unappealing starch. Brant rubbed her eyes in disbelief, then stopped.

“Oh, crap, I’ve got two eyes. That’s not a good sign, is it?” Brant asked.

“Nope. You’re dead, and in Hell,” Katarek confirmed. “Be warned: the buffet is not very good.”

“I…have to imagine not.” She craned her head around and saw, in an island of bright yellow light, a number of buffet stations and a salad bar. A group of people was slowly picking through it, and she recognized them as the Rebel crew plus two copies of each crew member. One, the only version of the comm officer in uniform, spotted her and gave her the finger before scooping some goopy protein onto her plate.

“But a chair, though?” Katarek pressed.

“Oh. Well, no, not even. A stool. That seems somehow more humiliating.”

A slug in an apron slithered up to their booth. In one hand it held a carafe of hot stimulant, and in the other a long bar of iron, its tip glowing dull red.

“Hot poker, ladies?”

“Sure,” Katarek said. The slug thrust the iron at her, jamming it between her abdominal plates in a gout of steam and smoke. Katarek trilled out a cry of excruciating pain, her limbs thrashing and her head banging against the back of her seat.

The slug withdrew the poker and looked pointedly at Brant.

“Um…no thank you?”

“You sure, captain? It can be just the thing,” Katarek said, composing herself.

“I’m sure.”

“Suit yourself,” Katarek said. The slug started slithering, but Kat clucked loudly and pushed her coffee cup toward the slug, who apologized and filled it before leaving.

“This isn’t really what I expected from Hell, to be honest.”

“No? Must be something else, then,” Kat said, returning to her plate of starch. “My guess? This is one of those near-death hallucinations, something your brain’s cooking up to get some important insight across to you at a crucial moment.”

A piercing scream resounded from a nearby table, accompanied by the hiss of the hot poker and the smell of cooking meat.

Brant knocked on the table and leaned forward. “The insight is probably that I need lunch. Like, I probably haven’t eaten anything in…I don’t know, a day?”

“Mmm. That must be it. You should get on that. Food is one of the best things about being alive,” Kat said. “Well, see ya. This has been a nice, straightforward hallucination.”

Brant opened her eye. Kat was gone, and the infernal buffet. All she could see was the dull gray of the starship corridor floor, and just ahead of her, a bent metal stool. Looking at it now it was clearly cheap, probably aluminum or some bargain alloy, and the impact had completely misshapen it; the Rebellion’s miserly chair budget could now be added to the list of stupid things that had randomly saved her life.

She tried to get up, gritting her teeth against the pain in her skull, but the room was spinning too much and she only managed to flop onto her side. She hit something wet and warm; looking down, she saw there was a substantial puddle of blood. The gash in her side had been bad, then. She needed a medbay or stitches soon, sooner than she could possibly get them.

Footsteps were approaching. Two sets. Or three? Fifty? Between the concussion and the blood loss, all her thoughts were swimming in molasses. Were there even footsteps or were they her own heartbeats?

“Don’t ask for that check yet, Kat,” she muttered. She brought her gun, pointing it at the hallway ahead as steadily as she could. “I think I’m coming back.”

Two fresh clones emerged from around a corner. The comm officer was wearing the same sort of gown she’d been wearing earlier and carrying a stool, and the captain was stark naked carrying a small table ahead of him like a shield. Still no sign of that third officer – shit, he was probably repairing the shields. That was no good. The Kestrel wouldn’t be able…no, wait, it was the Lanius ship, not the Kestrel. They wouldn’t be to pierce the shields if they were back at full. Hadn’t they started a fire in shields?

Focus, she thought. She aimed at the table and boosted the power output to max, hoping that a full power round would go right through the table.

In her mind’s eye, she saw the glittering bolts of energy finding their mark straight and true, taking her two targets in the head in her first two shots like a gunslinger of old Earth lore. Instead, her quaking hand and spinning vision gave her the worst five shots of her life, slapping into the walls and ceiling. She squeezed the trigger for a sixth shot, but the gun beeped in loud annoyance and did nothing. The end of the barrel was glowing dull orange; after all the use it had gotten today and going full-power for a few shots in quick succession, it had overheated. It would probably be good in ten minutes.

She debated calling for a time-out, but frankly her head hurt and she felt faint, and making her last words a stupid quip seemed empty and pointless to her.

Killer stepped out of the weapons room and threw two weapons at the onrushing clones. Her power baton struck the captain’s table, shattering it in a loud explosion and knocking the captain into the wall viciously, crumbling him like a paper doll. Her phase axe, spinning end over end, took the comm officer in the shoulder and split her diagonally clear down the middle, her body falling to the ground in two pieces. Stuff spilled out of the two halves, a lot of stuff.

Brant threw up. The reaction surprised her, but then it surprised her what an awful thing that was to see.

Killer limped ahead to retrieve her weapons, but paused to look back at Brant. As ever it was impossible to read anything in that alien face, but the pause and the studying glance seemed to at least suggest that Killer was wondering how badly hurt Brant was.

“If I don’t get stitches soon, I’m a goner,” Brant said, knowing there was no way for the Lanius to understand her but needing to say something. “The wound won’t close. I’ll bleed out, and it’ll be an eternity of lackluster salad bar and hot pokers.”

Then Brant looked down at her still-glowing pistol.

“Aw, shit. Hey, look away. I don’t expect I’m going to be very brave about this.” She waved Killer away, and the Lanius went off to collect her weapons, probably without even perceiving that Brant had made a meaningful gesture. Then Brant jammed the hot metal into her side.

I really ought to have bit down on something, right? she thought just before her teeth clamped together. At first, all she felt was a confusing coldness in her side, immediately replaced by blinding pain and a disturbingly appealing aroma of grilled meat. Maybe Kat was right about not skipping lunch, after all.

Brant opened her eye and saw Killer standing over her, one talon reaching out. Brant grabbed it and pulled herself up to her feet.

“Thanks. Uh…where to? Did you get the weapons offline?”

As if in reply, the ship shook with what sounded like a missile firing. Brant lurched toward the weapons room, but Killer grabbed her by the shoulder. The Lanius pointed at Brant’s face. Brant got the drift, and feeling around the transparent dome of her breather mask her suspicions were confirmed: the impact of the chair and floor had knocked a decent fracture into the material, enough that it was essentially useless now.

Footsteps. Off in the distance, down the corridor leading to the shields. More fracking footsteps. She was trapped in a hell of footsteps.

“Well…they’re still shooting, and they’re still coming at us. We won’t last much longer against the clones, especially if we split up. We have to go for the clone bay, then, see if we can…”

The ship rocked again, much more violently. An explosion from the weapons room nearly blew out her eardrums, and might have killed them both if the bulkhead wasn’t closed. Someone had hit the ship with a massive salvo, puncturing the shields – which were indeed back at full power, judging by the sounds of the impact – and slamming into the hull.

“Who the hell was that?” Brant asked. She pointed at Killer. “Was that you guys?”

Killer looked at her quizzically. Her cracked glass face, her black ice eyes were unreadable.

No, the culture-ship didn’t have the weapons for a strike like that. Translator had made that clear. So that meant it was either Lanius reinforcements, some particularly ballsy pirates, or…

The latest clone of the scruffy Rebel gunner, the one they’d killed when they first beamed on, the one who’d probably just brought their shields back online, rounded the corner down the corridor. He looked like the antagonist of an Ancient Earth horror vid, dressed in a loose green hospital gown, his hair unkempt and a knife gleaming in his hand. Brant raised her pistol at him, but it made the same annoying beep and did nothing. He charged.

Then the air sparkled and hissed, and Ensign Toh and Commander 78 were standing there. Before Brant could process this enough to debate whether it was real or a blood loss hallucination, the scruffy Rebel let out a yelp and stopped short in his charge, nearly slamming face-first into the ensign. He tried to scramble off the way he’d come, but 78 took him in the back of the leg with a pistol shot. He stumbled, falling face-first, and Toh strode up and stepped on his neck.

78’s face flickered with a rainbow of emotions, probably the same cocktail of relief and concern and joy and pain going through her own head. She felt a need to resume routine, to compliment his shot and receive his sheepish admission that he’d been aiming for center mass instead of the legs, to joke that a real rescue would involve a tall white horse and what the hell was this amateur shit? But now was no time.

“Medical status?” 78 asked.

“Bad, but I’ll make it to extraction,” she said.

Toh gave the Rebel one last stomp for certainty, then turned back to them. Immediately he started to shake and back away, like a giant stone lady spotting a giant stone mouse across the room. She thought for a second that her wounds might be much worse then she’d thought, but then she realized he wasn’t looking at her. He was face-to-face with a Lanius, a devil from his people’s oldest stories.

“This is Killer. She’s friendly – I don’t know, it’s complicated,” Brant said. “Listen, they’ve got a flash-cloning bay. Their whole crew will be back up and fighting in a few minutes. We need a plan.”

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