By Christopher Verspeak
I am in hell. I am on Hellview, except it isn’t called that yet. But that is what it is.
A heat ray lances into the ammo containers to my right and I scramble out of the dugout, yelling at the others to follow me as I go. I escape death by milliseconds as the frag grenades ignite in the superheat and the little shelter my team carved out of the mud is filled with spinning shards of white hot metal.
I am lucky. I had just run back to my squad’s position, relaying orders from the commander that we were to hold tight when the enemy attacked. So it was easier for me to get back out again. Last in, first out. The other men who were with me, the men I had trained, marched, and bled with, are all gone now. They are dust, carried away on the hot wind that blows across the scarred surface of this world.
Rockets and lasers and the roaring contrails of rockets fill the skies above me as I crawl away and burnt air fills my lungs. The noise is deafening and the lights threaten to blind. From my right comes the heavy laser fire and the sound of mortars and heavy shell systems. Blue lines stitch out into the smoky haze of the enemy’s positions. From my left the lines of tracer and flashes of detonation are answered with red and white lines of heat and even more powerful laser weapons, weapons I can barely imagine, can barely believe exist. They are - inhuman.
Plumes of dirt erupt around me and I am showered in debris as it falls back to the ground. I scramble across on hands and knees. I am an ant on an anthill that crumbles all around me, frantically trying to avoid the foot of an angry god as he stamps out the world.
My armour and uniform snags on broken weaponry and shell casings and my gloves get tangled in sharp razorwire and dead soldiers. There is another dugout ahead, maybe ten yards away, and I crawl towards it, head low, muscles tight.
Suddenly the shooting stops and so do I, immobilised by the silence. All I can hear now is that hot wind, blowing thick strands of smoke across the battlefield like ghostly nets of grey. I can smell the det-powder and oil and blood that marks every field of war. It stings my nose and I feel tears filling my eyes.
Then, walking through the smoke, I see them.
Dark silhouettes, moving across the no-man’s land towards me. There are dozens of them. They are humanoid, but more squat than a man and broader in the shoulders. Their armour is all-encasing; thick, angular plates that look almost boxy in the pale morning light. It appears functional, simple even. But this is the hallmark of our enemy - simple on the surface, cunningly engineered beneath. This armour, the enemy’s strength, their weaponry, everything about them is more sophisticated and powerful than anything we could have imagined. I know their weapons will split me apart like a grape in a fist if I stay still any longer. I push off from where I have been crouched.
“Coming in!” I yell. I can see the helmets and backs of the men in the trench I am trying to reach. I need to warn them I am a friendly, need to make sure I don’t cheat death by alien hands only to die on the end of a human soldier’s bayonet or pistol. I have to warn them, to tell them to move, to get out, to fire at the advancing enemy. All I can manage is to drag myself along on my stomach, my fingers digging handholds in the wet dirt to haul my exhausted and terrified body along.
None of them turn as I slide into the shelter on my chestplate, dark red mud piling up between my collar and my chin. I spit some out of my mouth as I roll onto my back and lay in the little trench, panting, sweating, and swearing.
Still no one moves and I force myself up to my feet again, un-slinging my rifle and checking it is armed and ready to fire. I am horrified to see the ammo counter now reads empty.
“Someone give me a charger, quick.” I say. The men in the trench are all facing out towards the advancing enemy and I notice now their rifles are also slung, or set on the ground besides them.
“Hey,” I say, “What’s going on? Stand to!”
I grab the nearest soldier by the shoulder. I don’t understand why they aren’t shooting. The enemy are less than twenty yards from our lines now. Why is there no artillery support either?
I turn the man around but when he faces me, he has no face. Just a skull, a leering empty rictus grin of whitened teeth below two empty sockets. I throw the corpse to the ground and grab the next man. He too is already dead, has been for a long time. I turn the others round, one by one, panic setting in because they are all dead. All these men I fought with on Hellview are dead.
I am alone. I am too late. I could not save them.
No. Not quite alone.
I hear a soft humming noise above me and I look up from the bones of the dead on the floor of the trench to see that the enemy has arrived. Despite being barely half my height, he looms over me as he stands on the edge of the trench. His armour is a pale gold, where it is not smeared with blood and mud. It is plain, but up close I can see hints of the intricacy beneath it. On his chestplate is a single emblem, a sigil, perhaps a unit marking. It looks like a dragon, snarling, with lips pulled back to reveal curved golden teeth. Its jaws are open, stretched wide around the outline of a planet.
He raises the barrel of his weapon and aims it at me. I am paralysed by fear as I watch it start to glow red and I hear a building, whining tone. The mouth of the weapon seems to transform as it gets hotter, growing fangs and evil red eyes, becoming the monster on its owner’s armour. I want to turn and run, but it is too late. The beast roars at me, bathing me in heat and blinding me forever.
I awaken, sweating but not screaming. Not this time at least.
The nightmares aren’t new. I’ve been having them ever since the corporation rotated me out of frontline service and into the fleet, really. Sometimes they are about actual battles I’ve fought in, sometimes they’re more random. Sometimes they’re a mix, like the one I’m trying to forget right now.
It feels like they have gotten worse recently though and I think I might not be the only person aboard having them. I’ve seen the sunken eyes on some of my crew and tempers have seemed unusually short recently. People are on edge.
Perhaps that’s not surprising, given the job we have to do today. The people we have to do it with. Yesterday’s adversary is today’s opportunity. I think I saw that on some corporate literature once.
The vidscreen is already on, lighting up my quarters with a promo for a new colony freighter that’s breaking orbit in the next few days. They’re always recruiting for those things, calling for bold young adventurous types to go out and seize whatever new world the GCPS has claimed. I was one of them, once.
I left my home world at eighteen, eager to escape the mundanity of life on a second sphere world. Corporate space was growing fast, lots of new worlds to explore and stake a claim on. So I joined a corporate military. The recruiting sergeant promised me action and adventure for the rest of my life. What he didn’t tell me was that life could also be really, really short. But I did my time and survived it, mostly intact. I saw a lot of worlds. But Hellview - that was the end for me. After that place, I rotated out of front line service and into the merchant arm.
I roll out of my bunk, stagger into the cubicle and go through my ablutions, a routine ingrained by years in the military. Wash, shave, teeth. Basic hygiene, nothing fancy. A woman I knew gave me some kind of perfume years ago. I think she worked for the factory that made it so she got it cheap. It sits unused, gathering dust and grime under my mirror. Just like me.
I wash the dried sweat away but I leave the perfume alone. I’m Captain John Turney, veteran. I’m supposed to be rough around the edges. Instead, I throw some painkillers from the clean glass bottle on the other side of the sink down my throat and wash them down with caff from the auto-dispenser beside the bunk.
The intercom on the bulkhead whistles and I wince at the pain in my head. I hit the ‘Answer’ button with my palm.
“Captain, it’s de Freitas. You’d better get down here. They’re early.”
I clear my throat, feeling the painkiller start to kick in.
“Acknowledged. On my way.”
I dress, a pair of fatigues and a jacket over my shirt and leave my quarters. The vidscreen is now showing a commercial for the same painkillers I use. It makes me feel good to know I’m supporting the company.
The Harridan is not a huge ship, not compared to the long-distance haulers that pull most of the goods around GCPS space at subluminal speeds anyway. But there are still a few decks between me and the dock. No elevators though, so I have to slide down a few ladders and open and re-seal a few pressure hatches along the way. The sounds of the ship are all around me as I do, the hum of power conduits, the hiss of cooling fluids, the rattle of life support. There is a maze between the decks of the ship, miles of pipes and wiring keeping us going through space.
We are about as big as you can be and still use a McKinley drive to slide along gravity wells between systems and just big enough to accommodate the Forge Father vessel that is touching down in the bay as I get there.
The Sturdy Grip looks like a pile of metal bricks as it settles on the deck. Long flat sides, layers of thick armour, literally bristling with more than a dozen heavy weapons emplacements. But I also know that its engines, though smaller, are more powerful than ours and its weaponry could quite easily blow us out of the sky. Simple on the surface, cunningly engineered beneath.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about them, but power seems to be the only thing the Forge Fathers respect. We showed them we had power on worlds like Hellview, refused to back down, showed them how far we’d go to win. Because of that, these days we’re trading partners.
The Forge Fathers marching down their ship’s loading ramp now are still fully armoured though. There are seven of them that I can see. Six are in pairs, pulling heavy-looking crates that move above the deck on suspensor fields.
Corporate space, human space, is a big place with a lot of worlds and there are nearly as many individual corporations within it. They make everything from starships to wall planners, and there are plenty that make guns and explosives to supply the various private military forces the corporations run, including my ship. But none of the armaments we make are as good as the ones the Forge Fathers turn out.
One of the dwarves approaches me. His helmet hangs from his waist and his white-bearded face is lined and creased but also open and friendly. I wonder for a moment how many centuries he has seen.
He smiles and extends a hand. I let my front knee bend a little as I match the gesture.
“John Turney,” I say, “Welcome aboard the Harridan.”
His hand is strong and bigger than mine and more calloused. Forge Father leaders still work for a living. I like and respect that about them.
“Thank you, Captain. You can call me Brukelyn. We’re a little off schedule, I know, so thank you for letting us aboard.”
After a moment I realise he has just given me what amounts to an apology for not being strictly on time. The dwarves are sticklers for detail.
“Of course. We’re more than happy to get underway sooner.”
The dwarf grunts as we watch the others return to their ship and pull more of the crates down from their hold.
“Got somewhere else you’d rather be?” he says.
“Let’s just say I’d rather not hang around in this neighbourhood any longer than I have to.”
This kind of business, this kind of cargo, the GCPS prefers it to stay away from the more ‘civilised’ spheres and the Core, so it gets done on the fringe. We are uncomfortably close to the Death Arc and rumour has it there are worse things than pirates on the loose out here.
A dozen crates have been brought out of the dwarf ship now and another Forge Father approaches us. He hands me a data screen and I press my thumb to it. The implant beneath my skin registers with the device. Receipt of the cargo acknowledged, the dwarf walks back to his ship.
Brukelyn turns to me and extends his hand again and I take it, but without looking. I am transfixed, watching the Forge Father with the data screen as he walks away from me and ascends the ramp into his ship again.
“I’d say it was a pleasure, but let’s not overstate things.” Brukelyn says. I nod agreement and then he is gone.
The ship’s ramp closes and its repulse engines light up. It manoeuvres towards the exit port as server mechs wheel out of their compartment to move the crates into secure storage areas. I head for my quarters again, ignoring de Freitas as she tries to ask me for orders.
Back in my cubicle I swallow more painkillers and grip the basin with white knuckles as I stare at myself in the mirror above it.
The armour looked different from how I remember it, how I dream it so many nights. But that sigil. A dragon swallowing a world. The Forge Fathers I fought on Hellview wore it. And so did the one I just saw in my hold.
It was him. It had to be him. But it couldn’t be. We killed them all.