“I believe the price was five hundred thousand, Captain Turney?” asks Wolff. He looks at me with those dark eyes and that thin-lipped smile, the credit chip held out towards me, and, for a moment I can’t decide which I want to do more; kill this guy or run away screaming.
We’re in his lab, and it’s full of nice clean white fittings and there are benches loaded with high-end gear and processors doing complicated stuff I probably wouldn’t understand, being just a lowly ship’s captain on a courier mission to the back-end of nowhere and all. There are even some of those big round liquid stasis drums in there, filled with what look a lot like human limbs, but covered in weird cancerous growths. The doc looks the part too, in his clean white coat, buttoned up high under his chin, his black hair all slicked back, cut neat and tight. But there’s just something about this guy that gives me the creeps.
It’s like he’s too clean, somehow. There’s not a speck of dirt on him, not a hair out of place. Reminds me of something a sergeant I knew in the CCM said once - the only clean people in this Corporation are the ones who’ve scrubbed a lot of dirt off. That guy’s dead now and I have a funny feeling I could be following him if I’m not careful here.
“No, Doctor” I say, forcing politeness, “The price we agreed was seven hundred and fifty thousand. My gratitude and discretion comes free.”
“Of course,” says the Doctor, bowing his head ever so slightly. He reprograms the chip and hands it to me again and I take it, being careful not to make physical contact with his slender white hands. He holds onto the chip for a second longer than necessary and those cold dark eyes fix with mine. “Be assured though, Captain Turney, your discretion is exactly what I am paying for.”
“Relax, Doctor,” I say, “Nobody will know I was ever here.”
The secrecy in this place is amazing. It’s a Black Site, the Black Site as far as I want to know, and officially it does not exist. You hear rumours about places like this all the time in the GCPS though. Places the Council sends its worst enemies, the people deemed too dangerous for holiday camps like the prison on Perestia. The places all the really ugly tech gets researched and developed. But it’s so far out of the way you’d really only find it if you knew what you were looking for.
Being inside a hollowed-out asteroid in the middle of nowhere helps with that.
It took us a few days to slide here from our meeting with the Grip. We travelled ‘Faster than Light, Better than Light!’, just like the ads for McKinley drives say, and it’s definitely the fastest mode of travel known to man. But you still have to navigate around little things like stars and planets, and there are only so many ‘safe’ points you can slide to between where we picked up our cargo and where we are now.
Then, when we got here, the security was so tight I had to anchor the Harridan several hundred kilometres away and shuttle the cargo over here alone. No other crew allowed and definitely no weapons.
Most of the time, the stuff I collect from Forge Father ships goes direct to the Enforcers. I ferry it to their Wyverns, sometimes out near the Death Arc, sometimes closer to the Core. They won’t collect it themselves - I guess they’re afraid the Forge Fathers might switch their armour off or something. But sometimes, just occasionally, I get told to bring it somewhere like this. Not an Enforcer in sight, just lots of labs and techs and the occasional really creepy guy like Wolff. I don’t know what they’re doing with this stuff, but I’m guessing it’s something that just might void whatever contracts the GCPS has with the dwarves. I don’t care. I’m getting paid. I’d just like to leave as soon as possible.
I’m pocketing the chip when I hear the first impact. There’s a heavy thud, it sounds metallic, and the glassware on the doc’s shelves rattles a little.
There are more thuds, and the lights in the room flicker a little. Then I hear the sound of alarms.
“Um, what’s that?” I say.
“The incursion alarm,” says the doc as he runs to the screen mounted above his desk. “We’re under attack!”
When I got here, less than an hour ago, the main landing bay was a picture of order and calm. It’s a big space, dominated on one side by a wide rectangular opening with a selective field holding the atmosphere in but letting small ships through. The Site has its own pool of shuttles and mine was towed over next to some of them for unloading by Wolff’s staff. Dozens of workers and various tenders and fuel-mechs were going about their business, making repairs and generally keeping the place running, moving stacks of cargo and dock equipment across the broad apron and guiding shuttles in and out of landing spots.
When I get back there, it has become a warzone.
Scores of marines from the Site’s garrison are hastily deploying two lines of porta-cades, one a few meters in front of the other, facing the space-side entrance across the apron. The ‘cades are waist-high slabs of metal and a few heavy weapons are being set up behind the back line.
These are not green troops. I recognise many the campaign badges some of them wear, including a few fellow Hellview vets. But the attack on the Site has clearly taken them by surprise as much as everyone else. Most of them are only armed with G87 rifles. I doubt this kind of thing happens here very often.
Two piles of burning wreckage on my left are all that is left of a pair of shuttles. My own is somewhere on their far side but my view is obscured by the smoke so I have no way of knowing if it is still space-worthy.
There are small fires everywhere across the apron as well. At least five large service mechs are down, one on its side, smoke streaming from their ruined shells towards the atmosphere recyclers in the dock’s roof.
On the way up here from the lab levels I could hear more thudding impacts as something, pounded the surface of the Site. There was the sound of the local defence net guns firing too, but they have all gone silent now.
Safe from the Site’s guns, a squadron of heavy combat landers is flying through the dock’s entrance and firing their retros hard as they touch down on the deck, whipping the smoke and debris into thick swirling clouds. I know the lander patterns from a dozen corporate warzones I've been in. But the troops bursting from their assault ramps are like nothing I have ever seen before.
Just when you think you’ve done it all, the universe throws something in your face to remind you how dangerous it really is.
These things are like animals, but human too. They look like their bones are too big for their skin, their frames distended and distorted with spikes of off-white puncturing the joints. They wear torn and worn corporate military uniforms and weapons, but in their eyes is a feral rage and hunger.
Some take up positions behind the debris of broken tenders and machinery on the deck and fire their weapons, rifles and grenade launchers, at the marines. Others simply run in mobs towards them, spittle flying from their sharp-toothed mouths and long-clawed hands reaching out in front of them.
The marines focus their fire on one of these charging groups, a furious volley that cuts down at least a dozen. The rest keep coming though, some of them seeming to shrug off wounds that would drop a human soldier. They swarm over the nearest ‘cade and tear into the five men team behind it with tooth and claw.
But that isn’t the worst thing I see on the battlefield.
Behind them come bigger horrors. Bigger than a man, bigger than a Teraton even, these things are almost completely covered in plates of bone. It looks organic, but diseased somehow, cancerous, and crested with jagged spikes. Their faces are shockingly human and I wonder if they are some kind of mutation. The kind of thing they might make on a place like this.
There are at least three of them, but they move so fast, leaping from side to side and evading the marines’ fire, it is impossible to be sure. I see one mount a ‘cade and grab the first marine it can, crushing his head in a giant fist. Another marine is impaled on wicked claws and thrown like a grenade at the team in the next position in the line.
The remainder of the team turn and try to run then, but it is too late. My eyes meet those of one of the doomed marines for just a moment and I see the desperation there. Then he is hauled back by the straps on his webbing and the leaper fastens its jaws on the back of his neck, severing his spinal cord instantly in a spray of blood and spinal fluid.
I have seen enough. Too much, in fact, and I start crawling. If I can just get to my shuttle, I might still make it out of here. To the Harridan if she is still where I anchored her. Anywhere but here.
I move along the back line of ‘cades, the sounds of battle filling the air around me. I thought I had left all this behind when I rotated into the fleet. But the shouts, the screams, the sounds of orders being given and weapons charging and firing is disturbingly familiar. Not comforting, just, like being home again.
I dive across a gap in the cover, laser rounds crackling through the air above my head, and I sprawl on the deck. Before I can get up though, I hear a cry of pain and then I am flattened as a body falls on top of me. One of the marines manning the ‘cade I am behind has been hit and his dead weight pins me down. His blood pools around me, making my hands slick as I struggle to get free. Panic threatens to overtake me.
I hear a loud explosion then, from somewhere ahead, from the direction I was heading in before I got stopped.
I can see under the fuselage of the burning shuttles now and my heart sinks as I realise it is my own ship that has been hit. It might have been a stray grenade round or a secondary explosion from the other ships, but I can see its crumpled nose and the burning forward thrusters and I know now there is no way I can fly it out of here. I am trapped in this hell.
I lay there for a moment, cursing the situation, cursing Wolff for bringing me here, but mostly myself and my greed. I knew the risks, but I took the job anyway. And now it’s going to kill me.
I am so wrapped up in my anger with myself I don’t realise I am alone behind the ‘cade until I finally struggle out from under the corpse of the dead marine. His team-mates have run and I see they are not the only ones.
The front line has been almost entirely overrun. There are dead and dying everywhere and a wave of revulsion washes over me when I realise some of the uglies are eating their victims.
Then I hear it. A coarse heavy breathing, a low bestial growl from somewhere behind me.
I turn, slowly, and look up into the face of death.
The leaper crouches on the top edge of the ‘cade and leers down at me. It is a beast, savage and primal, with blood on its face and scorch marks on the web of bony armour covering its massive body. I can see now how its carapace has grown out of its musculature, like organic cancerous growths, but somehow out of control. It could be human if it weren’t for that.
Up close like this, I can see intelligence in its bloodshot eyes too. It knows exactly what it is doing, how terrified I am of it. It is measuring me, enjoying its power over me.
Its jaws open and it begins to reach out one of those terrible clawed hands, as if it is going to just pick me up and consume me at its leisure. Fear grips me, paralyses me and, for a moment there, I nearly let it.
But then I realise I have been running from this most of my life. I ran from my home and into a corporate marine uniform. Then I ran from the horrors I saw in service and into flying cargo missions. Always running. And yet still I find myself here. Have I been running in the wrong direction all this time?
Before the leaper can grab me I duck down and pick up the dead marine’s weapon. I don’t even check to see if it’s loaded. I just fire it from a kneeling position, point blank, into this evil thing’s ghoulish face.
Rage and hatred pour out of me as I shoot. The monster howls as its face disintegrates under the weight of fire and I scream with it. I let it all go. I won’t run away any more. If I am going to die, I’ll do it charging.
I don’t stop firing until all that is left is a smoking crater and the leaper falls backwards, crashing to the deck on the far side of the ‘cade. Then I strip the grenade pack from the dead marine and hurl it, overarm, towards a gang of uglies devouring a pile of bodies next to a solid fuel drum and fire at them with my rifle.
I am lucky. One of my rounds hits something, either the grenades or the fuel, I can’t tell which, and there is a booming explosion that shakes the deck plating all around me. The uglies are vaporised and I am knocked off my feet, stunned for a second by the blast.
It did the trick though.
I see the remaining marine teams cheering and reinforcements start to arrive from the elevators behind us. I get back to my feet and move forwards, firing my rifle and shouting old battle cries as I go.
“Hellview!” I shout.
The other vets rally behind me, yelling out the names of battles they have fought in in the past and we advance together.
We move forwards, not trying just to hold the line or to escape now. We know we will probably die here. But still we advance. We will fight. We will win or die trying.
The firefight is furious. Rounds crack past me, around me, one even hits my arm, staggering me, but I don’t care. I kill one, two, three uglies, and I can hear more marine teams forming up on me and I keep moving. We are going to retake this bay.
We push the uglies back, out of their positions, back towards their ships, and exterminate them one by one, mob by mob. More men and women do die - the fight is not easy - and the hangar begins to fill with the haze of discharged weapons and broken bodies. But we do it. A lander is destroyed by the combined fire of several heavy weapons teams just as we kill the last leaper, forcing it into a corner by sheer weight of fire and then eviscerating it with our rifles and knives.
More than a hundred marines started the battle for this hangar. Maybe thirty of us are still standing now, panting, gasping, covered in sweat and blood, as we look at the smoking, steaming corpse of the thing we have finally killed.
A ragged cheer goes up as we realise we have won.
This round at least. As I look out through the atmosphere field, separating us from the vast black space outside the Site, I can see a dozen ships nearby. Many are civilian, but there are one or two bulkier warships out there too. Ships like that could carry thousands of troops. Now I know how they got here.
I remember the intelligence I saw in the leaper’s eyes. Whatever these things are they were able to find a GCPS Black Site, take out its defence net with a preliminary bombardment and then launch a co-ordinated assault. Wherever they go next, I hope the Harridan is going in the opposite direction.
I know I won’t be on her though. I can see the lights of another line of landers streaming in towards us here on the Site. More of these things are coming. Maybe even worse things. We have only minutes before they are here in the bay.
A corporal in a bloodied uniform walks up to me and salutes. I am so tired I salute back by instinct before I remember I am not in uniform and don’t really need to.
“Sir, what are we gonna do?” he asks.
I look at him, at his young face, wearied, but ready to go on. Not quitting. There are a dozen others behind him, looking at me too. And I smile. I am where I am meant to be.
“Get everyone back into position,” I say. “We’re going to kill them all.”