Taylor’s Watch (Pax)

When she decides to retire from Brunswick’s special forces, Captain Audra Taylor easily lands a paper pushing job on a gate control station, but when the Unity decides to start a galactic war, Taylor finds herself at the very tip of the spear. With the first shots fired in her control room, Taylor isn’t sure she will survive. As her station is boarded and Unity forces flood the system, Taylor confronts the stark reality of her own defeat. Refusing to give in, she fights her way across her own station in a desperate attempt to stop the enemy.

Best described as “Die Hard on a Space Station,” the short story Taylor’s Watch is part of Erik Weck’s Pax Imperium universe, which also includes Aetna AdriftBrody: Hope Unconquered, and He Dug the Grave Himself.

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Taylor’s Watch

Erik Wecks

Captain Audra Taylor of the Brunswick Gate Command watched as the two kilometer wide Wales Interstellar Gate changed destinations. The gate provided the only link between the Wales system and the rest of the Pax Empire. Without disturbing the placid void in any dramatic way, the gate seamlessly bent space-time until it touched the event horizon of the receiving gate and ripped open. The lack of drama accompanying this wonder always amazed Taylor. There should have been swirling colors of liquid pooled light, or a giant flash, or something when the gate switched between its fifteen available partners. There was no such thing. Instead, the only evidence came from the change in stars which could be seen through it. Of course, it was nearly impossible to see those from the command station which sat at an almost perpendicular angle to the circular gate. At home, on one of the nearby residential stations, she had a much better view from her living room windows. Interstellar gates had a way of attracting interest. In total, there were some forty-three thousand people living near the Wales Gate working on eight different stations, and that didn’t count the military personnel on the nearby allied fleet.

The young man next to Taylor spoke. “Captain, we have a good lock on New Bangalore One. ETA for the departure of the Olympus Mons is two minutes, seven seconds.”

Taylor turned to look at her flight controller Owen Shields. “Very well. Tell Captain Spykerman he has clearance to proceed and get him locked into the navigation computer.”

Taylor smiled to herself. No matter how many times she watched it, the high speed transit of ships like the Olympus Mons always fascinated her. Threading a needle at .1 C made everything else look easy.

She looked around the room. Four years ago, she wasn’t sure she was going to like retirement, but now she had grown quite fond of her staff. When she and Hartman decided to have a child, it had meant at least one of them would have to give up their career in Brunswick’s elite special forces. To his credit, Hartman didn’t ask her to make the sacrifice alone.

The timing had turned out to be perfect. Under the prodding of Allied Central Command, Brunswick nationalized the control of its three gates just as Taylor left special forces. Appointing a former special forces captain to head security at the Wales gate made for great political theater. Taylor landed the paper pushing position with ease.

Hartman opened a consulting business.

When one child turned out to be twins, Hartman’s consulting job took a back seat to becoming the primary caregiver. The transition had been rough on both of them, but after three years, things were finally settling out. Hartman seemed content with his new role as the father of two daughters—most of the time—and he still did some consulting for the military on the side.

Both of them continued to train hard and keep up with the old gang. The small nation of Brunswick wasn’t exactly a military power in the Pax, so the commando community was a tight knit group. It wasn’t uncommon for one of their buddies to spend a little extra time on their station when entering or exiting the system.

The tiny gate command station and all its seventy-eight full-time and forty-two part-time personnel had become Taylor’s special concern. The station’s primary mission was to serve as the traffic control and operations center for the gate.

The space she commanded looked very much like any other control center on a starship, except less spartan, and more cluttered. It even had a captain’s chair up at the back. Taylor never used it. She preferred roaming the room, looking over the shoulders of her staff, offering a gentle word of correction here or a statement of praise there.

The room itself was perhaps thirty by twenty with big panels of clear poly-windows at the back so that tourists and occasional dignitaries could come and stare at them while they worked. They used to give tours on a routine basis, but that was stopped right around the time Taylor took over. Allied Central Command objected that such tours posed a security threat. Up front, similar sized windows gave Taylor a good look at the gate she commanded. Gate command always felt like a bit of a fishbowl to Taylor.

Laid out in tiers, some twenty or so work stations sat in three rows. During busy times, there might have been as many as fifteen people sitting at desks up and down the room, managing traffic, changing the gate’s destination, and monitoring its function, but right now, the slate gray carbon fiber desks sat mostly empty. It was a quiet shift, with only six staff on duty in the command center with another fifteen scattered throughout the rest of the station. She was covering for one of her shift managers who was away on leave.

Taylor looked around the room at her staff and smiled. They were a good group of kids, most of them fresh recruits doing their two years of mandatory service. Until she had taken this job, she had never thought of herself as a people person, but now she was mama bear to a whole crew of wetbacks who could barely figure out which direction was up.

Taylor’s heads-up started chirping. She looked at the number on the transparent screen covering her left eye. It was Hartman. She decided she would wait until the Olympus Mons finished its transit. She silenced the ring and put the device back. Within a couple of seconds it started to ring again, with the text “Urgent” next to Hartman’s ID. Irritated, Taylor turned and looked at her second, an NCO named Toby. She rolled her eyes as she put on the heads-up and said to him. “You have the bridge.”

Then she turned back to watch the gate. When she answered, her voice was less than kind. “Yes?”

“Have you seen the news?”

“No. Look, honey, can this wait?”

“There was an attack on the conference. It looks like a nuke.”

“What conference?”

“The allied economic summit. You know, where all the heads of state were.”

Taylor felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. “What? How long ago?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“I haven’t heard anything from Central Command yet.”

“Figures.”

“Keep me informed, would you?”

“Sure thing.”

Taylor disconnected her heads-up. She was just about to turn and say something to her staff when she heard the ‘twok’ of the silenced mag pistol and the zip of the round. Time seemed to slow. Her traffic controller, Shields, fell forward onto his desk. The small hole in his temple offered only a trickle of blood.

Even as Shields fell forward, Taylor’s special forces training took over. She got prone before she had figured out where the shot had come from.

The shot meant for her head passed just over her. It came so close, Taylor felt it go by. Lying on the ground near the instrument panel, she flipped her heads-up down over one eye, and took her sidearm out from its holster on her hip.

Brunswick wasn’t exactly the cream of the crop militarily. Even with her special forces training, Taylor had never killed anyone as part of her job. Now, ironically, the retirement job she had taken with Gate Command was going to be the place where she would have to shoot someone, and it would end up being a colleague.

By this time, others in the room were screaming, and Taylor heard crashes as some of them collapsed on the floor. From the location of the quiet weapon, the shooter had to be her second in command, Toby. Instinctively, she knew enough not to yell at Toby and give away her position. It was possible that he thought her dead. She listened to him methodically shoot the other unarmed staff in the room. Her stomach clenched. She had to do something.

The whole situation bothered her. Toby never did anything quietly. Single, young, and brash, he was as boisterous as they came. If Toby were to have a psychotic episode, it wouldn’t be this quiet, thought Taylor. He would rant. This doesn’t make sense. Then she wondered if any mass shooting ever did make sense to anyone except the shooter. Is he a spy? Is this related to New Zurich?

Staying low so she couldn’t be seen, Taylor moved to the left and ducked behind a new instrument panel, changing her position before she popped up. Toby was waiting. He had his gun pointed almost straight at her. He adjusted his aim and fired even before she could bring her gun to bear. Once again, her quick reactions saved her. The round grazed her cheek.

The cries in the control center continued for only a few seconds more. Taylor hid and tried to figure out her options. There had been only six other staff in the room when the shooting started. From her position, she could see someone, probably Wendy, lying sprawled behind a nearby desk.

Taylor brought up the security system on her heads-up display and ground her teeth. Toby had beaten her to them. Each of the four cameras in the center had been trained on her position. It explained why he was ready for her when she came up from behind the desk. She tried to reposition one, but it refused to move. However Toby had done it, he now had control and had locked her out.

Well, that’s one advantage I can take away from him, she thought as she lifted her weapon and took out the camera directly across from her. Her fletch gun wasn’t silenced and made a distinctive pop as she fired a single round into the camera.

She needed to get help to the control room. She attempted to broadcast an all-channels bulletin on the station’s emergency channel. “Shots fired. Shots fired in the control center. All available secur…” She broke off. She should have heard her own voice echoing off the PA. She didn’t. The shooter, Toby or whoever he really was, had disabled that as well.

It all seemed way above Toby’s pay grade. He was the kid who spent most of his weekends playing virtual games in intraspace. She doubted that he would be so quick or thoughtful enough to disable the PA, at least on his own. Taylor wondered how many more there were on her station.

The internal timer of her close quarters combat training started telling her that she needed to change positions soon or risk being shot where she hid. She also needed a way to get some intelligence. She moved, taking the direction she thought least expected—deeper into the room. She had guessed right. The shooter had his gun aimed between her and the door, expecting her to make a break for the exit. However, he wasn’t where she thought he would be, either. As she crouched behind the new panel of instruments, she fired her gun at a second camera, destroying it. The front half of the wide room now provided a safe area where she could hide without surveillance. She was frightened by how close he had been to her when she had last moved.

Think, Audra! Think. He’s got control of the PA and the security cameras. He’s hacked the system somehow. How can you even the odds? Taylor moved and fired at the same time. Ducking out from the cover of the instrument panel, she put her back against the wall. Her aim was off. However, her opponent’s was also, but not by as much. Her second shot took longer. She missed. He did not. The round hit her in the flesh of her right shoulder. She screamed. He only had to duck behind cover.

Taylor palmed the lock on the door next to her, while keeping her gun trained across the room. The door slid open and she moved inside. She closed it and then set the lock. Looking around the room, she found the security camera in the corner and took it out. For a minute, she sat huddled against the wall, adrenaline rushing and trying to breathe.

#

Taylor decided she really hadn’t done herself any huge favors when she had gone deeper into the room. In essence, she had created her own prison and neutralized herself as a threat. However, since the shooter had control of the security system, the PA, and who knows what else, she decided that the server room wasn’t such a bad place to hide. She had no illusions that she could fix the problems, although one of her IT techs might have been able to do that. Taylor’s throat constricted when she realized Greg lay dead on the floor in the room next door. For a second, she didn’t know how to process that, and her emotions threatened to undo her.

Her heads-up pinged, disturbing her introspection. Hartman’s ID came up on the screen.

She answered and started talking, trying to convey the urgency of her situation. “There’s a guy in the control center shooting. He’s quick. He took out all the other personnel.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Are you OK?”

Good old no-drama Hartman, thought Taylor. She looked at her shoulder. The wound seemed small and had passed clean through, just missing her collarbone. There was no sign that it had hit any major blood vessels. Moving it burned like fire, but it wasn’t bleeding much at all, not like it should have been. “Yeah, I think so. I got hit in the shoulder with some kind of tech round. The wound isn’t bleeding much, but it went through.”

“Nanites?”

“Probably.”

“You’ll be all right. Your defense bots should handle them fine. Hang in there, Tiger.”

“Shit, Hartman. This is it, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. I think it is.”

“Hartman, I’ve locked myself in the server room. Look outside for me, would you?”

“Just a second.” There was a pause before Hartman’s voice came back on the line. “Yeah, they’re coming. The gate just went active, and there’s one big fucker coming through right now. It looks like a Unity Mothership.”

“Hartman, whoever the shooter is, he’s blocked the PA system. I can’t sound general quarters on my station. We’re sitting ducks.”

“Send a stationwide message and label it urgent. That ought to get someone’s attention.”

Taylor tried to access the email system, but got an “offline for maintenance” message. “No good. He’s taken that offline as well.”

“I’ll try to raise someone from here.”

“Thanks. Make sure no one tries to retake the control center alone. This guy is good, almost supernaturally fast. He’s faster than I am. We’re going to have to overwhelm him with numbers.” Taylor paused before she spoke again. “Make sure you take care of the girls, Hartman. Keep them safe.”

“I will. Look, I’m coming to get you.”

“No! Don’t! The gate is compromised, and if I can’t get it back, you know what I have to do next.”

Silence greeted this statement.

“Stay with the girls, Hartman.”

Taylor could tell that Hartman was trying to keep all the emotion out of his voice when he next spoke. For all his bravado, he had cried like a baby at their wedding.  “Audra, stay alive for us, you hear me? Your girls need a mother. You come home to us.”

“I love you all. I’ll come home. I promise.” Taylor disconnected before Hartman could speak again. She couldn’t think further about her family without compromising her ability to act.

Using her heads-up, she again tried to send a message to station personnel. The computer greeted her, saying she could not access the communications system because it was down for maintenance. Frustrated, she took off her heads-up, dropped it on the deck, and smashed it with the heel of her boot. No need to broadcast my position every few nanoseconds, she thought. Time to even the odds. The fact that going without a heads-up meant that Hartman couldn’t call her and distract her from the choices she needed to make also played a role in her decision, but Taylor didn’t really acknowledge that. She was too busy trying not to think about her girls.

She took a deep breath, controlled her fear and frustration, and then trotted back to the shelving units closest to the door. Just as she was laying her sidearm down on a shelf, she distinctly heard the quiet sounds of someone trying to force the door. She jumped back and aimed her gun, crouching behind a rack of servers. She would have fired, but her round wouldn’t have penetrated. The carbon fiber and steel blast door was designed to make the server room the last room to depressurize in case of attack. It also made it one of the toughest doors on the station. It was unlikely anyone would force it open.

In a moment or two, the noise stopped, and after another thirty seconds, Taylor went back to the shelving unit, put her weapon down again, and flipped the bright red breaker which disabled the connection between the station servers and the communications array, effectively isolating the station from intraspace and hopefully stopping the cyber-attack.

Taylor stared at the switch for a second. Flipping it hadn’t felt like nearly enough. Besides, if Toby—or whoever it is—gets in the room, all they need do is flip the switch again, and the station will be vulnerable. Taylor stepped back, set her fletch weapon to maximum damage, and discharged two rounds. Inspecting the new hole in the wall of her server room, she thought, That ought to slow them down.

Unfortunately, disconnecting the station servers from the communications array did nothing to render the gate useless. Those systems were designed to be air gapped and invulnerable to attack from intraspace, but considering how fast the Korpi bastard in her control center had opened the gate to let the enemy past the moat, Taylor wondered if that assumption hadn’t worked out either.

She spoke to the computer. “Computer, access the station PA system.”

The melodic bass of the male voice answered back, “Access Denied.”

Fuck, she thought. “Computer, access station text com systems.”

“Station text com systems down for maintenance.”

Taylor clenched her jaw. That had not gone as planned. Brunswick military protocols for a cyber attack said that cutting off communications with intraspace should get back control of the computing system. Of course, protocols and the battlefield exist in different universes, thought Taylor. Once hacked, always hacked. The only thing you can do with an infected system is nuke it from orbit. She had been in the military long enough to recognize that what was supposed to happen never did.

Taylor tried one more time, but with little hope. “Computer, there is a fire in the control center. Flood the compartment with xenon gas, authorization code alpha two five lima tango.”

“Captain Audra Taylor has been denied access to all command and control fuctions as of 22:35 UTC.”

Taylor felt her face flush. “On whose authorization?”

“On the authorization of Brunswick Military Command.”

“Fuck you, computer.”

“I apologize for upsetting you. If you feel this decision was made in error, I would be happy to file a formal complaint for you.”

Desperate and angry, Taylor groped in her head for a means by which she could strike back. She needed to do something. It took a moment to come up with a plan, and when she did, it smacked of desperation. However, Taylor had to admit to herself she was desperate, and she wasn’t likely to get out of the server room alive anyway. She needed to do something to alert the other personnel on the station that a problem existed.

Taylor had just run the four steps to the other end of the small server room when the door slid open. She had milliseconds to react. However, this time she had the jump on her assailant, as he was looking the other way when he entered. She fired first, but he adjusted to her position even while she was still raising her weapon. She was pretty sure she only nicked him in the side. However, it was enough for now. He screamed and quickly retreated, closing the door behind him.

Breathing hard, Taylor felt her hands start to shake as adrenaline and fear coursed through her veins. Who are you? And what are you? She was now convinced the shooter couldn’t have been Toby. He had adjusted at a seemingly impossible speed. Her shot had been aimed at the center of his chest, and she barely hit him. How the hell did he get the door open with the hand pad locked?

Taylor stepped back across the room and shot out the pad on the door. She didn’t want to be surprised again, and she had no intention of trying to fight her way through the control center with some kind of drugged up, supernatural freak in her way. She didn’t think she could win.

She then went back and started flipping power switches on the servers. The lights went out, and she stood there in the dark, counting to thirty as slowly as her adrenaline would allow. Emergency lighting flipped on just as she started to bring the servers back online.

All right, computer, let’s see how well you clean up that mess. If Hartman wasn’t able to get a message through, that ought to get their attention. Hopefully someone will look out a window.

Taylor had no idea what a full system reboot would do to the security system. She guessed that a few other items, like environmental, would come back first, but she had no intention of waiting around to find out. They had simulated this once, a while back. Full control of the station wouldn’t be restored for nearly an hour, which meant she could expect it to take much longer in real space. She hoped that would give someone on board a chance to fight back.

A sadness about the staff in the control center rose up from out of nowhere. True to her training, Taylor converted it to a palpable rage and a will to live. The Korpis weren’t going to have it all their way today. For the sake of those who had died, she couldn’t let that happen.

#

Taylor started to hunt for a way out of the room.

The command center, and the staff offices, along with the server room, all shared the same bulkhead. The server room had been reinforced. Data mostly traveled around the station in the cloud, but there were a few items which still required cables on purpose—like the connection to the communications array—and those had to cross the bulkheads somewhere. Taylor stepped to a nearby wall, got down on her hands and knees, and unsealed a small access port. The opening was only about two feet by two feet. It was really only big enough for her head. If she squeezed, her shoulders might fit, but she wasn’t going to be happy about it. Looking ahead, she saw that the tube came to a “T.” It gave her an idea.

She pulled her head back out and took off her holster and belt. She didn’t want them to get hung up on anything. She considered stripping off her boots and clothing as well but decided against it. She would just have to chance it that her belt loops and bootlaces wouldn’t get caught in the tight space. She carried her knife and gun in either hand. Still wary of the door, she turned around and backed herself into the tube feet first. She managed not to scream too loudly as she had to squeeze her wounded shoulder to get in. It hurt like hell, and she saw stars, but she kept at it. Using her good arm, she pulled the door shut, hoping to make it less obvious where she had gone. Going in feet first also meant that at least she had her gun pointed in the right direction for the moment.

Taylor continued to force herself backwards on her stomach, gritting her teeth against the pain. When she felt her feet hit the “T” behind her she swung them in the direction she didn’t want to go and then continued until her whole body had been forced around the corner. She crawled forward. Taylor wasn’t one for claustrophobia, but she wasn’t exactly happy, either. She needed a quick exit and had guessed that the closest one would be in the maintenance room just off the main corridor.

It took her almost ten minutes to reach the access hatch for the next room over. By that time, the station servers should have finished rebooting all the environmental systems.

She was just trying to pry it open with her knife when the first boom hit the station. She felt the station sway and buck a little. Boarding parties, she thought. So the Korpis do want to take her whole. Well, we’ll see what I can do about it once I get out of this damn tube. The battle for control of the Wales Gate was only fifteen minutes old, and she had already lost her command to the enemy, along with her control center crew. Now she was stuck in a maintenance tube while her station was boarded and the enemy flooded into the system through the gate.

Taylor felt her anger rise again. She wasn’t acquitting herself very well as a commander. That stops now.

Behind her, she thought she could hear someone kicking open the hatch she had used. She needed to get out quickly or the Toby-spy would simply intercept her as she exited. It took a little work, but Taylor was finally able to get the hatch open and kick her way forward to freedom in a janitor’s closet right alongside the main corridor of her small station. After checking her wounded shoulder, which was painful but not dangerous, she crept to the door.

With the power down, the electric door had to be forced open. Taylor cracked the door and looked out. The emergency lights were still on in the hallway.

As she looked, Taylor noticed beams of light moving toward her from around a corner in the direction of one of the docking clamps. She left the door slightly ajar, got herself in a good position facing the hall, and crouched down in a corner where she would be able to see who was on her station.

If it was the Korpis, there wasn’t much hope for her in a room-to-room search, but she might just take a couple with her. Unless they’re all hyped up on stims like that guy in ops, then I’m just totally fucked. Soon she could hear the heavy clomp of boots. She tensed, her heart racing. Now, she could see the lights from inside the closet where she crouched.

Using the lights suggested the troops weren’t in stealth mode, which meant they weren’t likely special forces. On the other hand, they weren’t making a whole lot of noise, either. It wasn’t until they reached the room right next to her closet that Taylor recognized they were going room to room, searching everything they could. She felt her feet tingle as her adrenaline kicked in again. It would be unlikely that they had met anyone before now. There wasn’t much between her and the docking clamp, just a few supply rooms.

She tightened the grip on her gun and waited until she saw the door start to open before she took her first shot. She aimed at the lead soldier, who wasn’t quite as ready as she was. The shot shattered the visor of the soldier’s pressure suit, and he crumpled to the ground.

Taylor got a break then. The second soldier was so frightened that his shots went wide.

She started to move, even as she aimed and fired. The second soldier fell as well.

Taylor tugged a grenade off the belt of the first.

If it were a standard Unity squad at full strength, there would be four more of them. Her training told her that they wouldn’t wait. Someone was going to toss a grenade her way soon or shoot her through the door. She had seconds—less than seconds.

With one fluid motion, she flipped the arm switch on the grenade and tossed it out into the hall without even checking its settings. Someone in the hall screamed something Taylor didn’t understand.  She crouched in the corner of the closet and covered her head. It was going to be close—really too close for the flimsy wall she cowered behind. Taylor waited an eternal three count before the damn thing went off.

It turned out to be set as a gravity grenade. For a moment, Taylor felt herself pressed so hard against the wall between her and the corridor she thought her ribs might break. Then as suddenly as it began, the pressure released. She couldn’t breathe, but she didn’t let that stop her. She got to her feet and started firing at the bodies piled in a heap in the center of the corridor. She fired perhaps three times when the sidearm in her hand vibrated. She only had two shots left. She stopped shooting and doubled over trying to inhale.

There had been no need to fire. The grenade had been enough. Without the protection she had received from the wall, the Korpi soldiers in the corridor hadn’t been able to resist the pull. They now lay together in an indistinguishable bloody heap, bodies turned inside out in places. Taylor turned away from the blue, twisted face staring out at her from behind one of the visors. He hadn’t died comfortably. Between puking up her breakfast and trying to get a breath, it took a full minute or more for Taylor to get back some semblance of order.

#

In the darkened corridor, she felt exposed. She wanted to go to ground as quickly as possible, to get away from the security systems that could come online at any moment.

However, all the Korpi soldiers had been wearing pressure suits. There was nothing particularly special in that. That was standard procedure for a marine assault squad in any modern military. In fact, if Taylor had seen the attack coming, the first thing on her check list would have been to depressurize the station herself. Explosive decompression did bad things to station personnel and equipment, so in case of battle, most ships and military stations decompressed preemptively before things got ugly. She and her staff drilled regularly on how to get into pressure suits. The staff record was three minutes, forty-seven seconds.

Seeing the dead Korpis all in pressure suits reminded her of her major vulnerability. In fact, she wondered why the bastard in the control center hadn’t decompressed the station before now. If it were done with little or no warning, it could easily catch some of her crew. She wondered if her server reset had done some good after all. 

Taylor decided she wasn’t going to wait around until someone exploited that advantage. She dropped her sidearm, rescued an assault rifle and another grenade from one of the soldiers in the closet, and took off running.

She backtracked, figuring it was the least likely place to run into other Unity soldiers. A little way down on the right, Taylor found the room she wanted. She almost palmed the door lock on an equipment room before she remembered that the system wasn’t likely to work with the computer just coming back online, and even if it did, she didn’t want to give away her location to Korpi Fuck-Face in the control center. She popped open the manual number panel on the wall next to the door and punched in the access code.

The pad flashed green, but the door didn’t open.

Taylor kept quiet in order not to expose her position any more than necessary but cussed a blue streak in her head. She stepped back from the door. She had been shown how to do this once a long time ago in her training. She took careful aim at the left side of the door frame at what she guessed was the right height and fired. The door seemed to move a little and she was able to force it open enough to get her fingers in and then wrench it back into its pocket.

She ran to find a locker which contained the right sized suit. She quickly unstrapped her boots and kicked them off. She was just struggling into the pants of the pressure suit when she heard the roar and felt the air in her compartment start to move. The door tried to seal itself but couldn’t because of the way Taylor had opened it.

Come on, Audra, move! She took several deep breaths, trying to saturate her brain and lungs with oxygen. She stood up, shoving on the top half of the suit, ignoring the pain from her wounded shoulder, and pressed the seal button. She was supposed to do a check to make sure the suit had sealed correctly but she skipped it. Instead, she put on the heads-up that went with the suit, and bit down on the HeFAR.  The ‘helmet and fresh air respirator’ spread a tight polymer over her face and hair, then attached itself at the back of her collar. Momentarily blinded, she groped for the gloves laid out on the bench. In the helmet, she could no longer hear the diminishing wind, but she noticed that the pressure pulling her toward the door had started to slow.

Still blinded by the curing helmet, she found her gloves and picked them up. Her hands felt stiff and started to swell from the low pressure in the room. She grunted as she put on the first glove. It was the second that was the hardest to get on. Her hand was so swollen it didn’t want to go in. She forced herself to ignore the pain and jam it into the glove. She guessed she might have some bruises, but bruises were the last of her concerns right now. Taylor sealed the last bit of her suit, and then pressurized it. Her left hand stung a little, but she could move her fingers, so she thought it would probably be OK.

So now she had a gimpy right shoulder and a bad left hand. Nothing to really get in my way, she thought. She powered up the heads-up which controlled the suit. It took only a second or two for the bio sensors in her blood to trigger the suit’s EMT functions. Several warning lights came up, and the suit started ticking off in her ear all the things wrong with her. A needle jabbed her in the neck, injecting medical nanites designed to enhance her own defense bots and fix the problems.

Taylor wasn’t paying attention to the suit’s medical concerns. Disable medical warnings, she thought. The suit responded to the command and silenced the warnings, taking them off the heads-up display. Maintain strict communications silence. Do not accept incoming data without my authorization. Acknowledge.

The suit chirped its compliance and then said in her ear, “Communications isolation established.”

If they can hack the computers on the station, they can hack my suit, thought Taylor.

Now that she had the suit sealed and a moment to think, she looked around the room. This wasn’t exactly how an assault on her station was supposed to happen, but there was an ancient military saying, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

She made a decision about where she was going to go, grabbed an allied assault weapon and three grenades, and then headed back into the corridor.

This  time she was able to pay a little better attention to her surroundings. She stopped by one of the grand windows and took a quick look outside. She needed intelligence.

In the dark void of space, chaos reigned. Korpi ships continued to flood through the gate. She couldn’t see much more than that. The allied fleet must have been off somewhere to the right because most of the enemy firepower seemed to be headed in that direction. Missile exhaust plumes and the spark of fighter engines all raced away from the Korpi fleet. It didn’t look like things were going all that well for the Allies. None of the Unity ships were playing much defense.

The lack of counterattack, and the Unity dreadnought class defender parked right near her station, told her all she needed to know. She was already trapped behind enemy lines. They felt they had the station under control and intended to use it to their advantage.

Taylor had to change that.

She left the window once again and headed cautiously back down the corridor the way she had come, assault rifle at the ready, worried she might run into more troops or, worse yet, some frightened cadet on her own staff who might shoot first and ask questions later.

#

Just past the heap of twisted bodies on the floor, Taylor opened the door to the stairwell next to the lifts. On the landing, she debated again. She really wanted to head straight down to engineering. That was where she could stop the invasion of the system by shutting down the gate, but she wouldn’t do anyone any good getting killed before she got there. No, I need to get some help first, and that means the marines upstairs.

Taking the stairs two at a time, she went up one level from the promenade. In the void created by her now airless station, she felt the vibrations of battle through her boots, rather than hearing them.

She opened the door a crack, cautiously extending a fiber optic camera out into the room so she could get a look around. At first, she couldn’t see much. The door on the seventh floor opened into the huge main hangar. The station’s security office and its marine detachment were located off to her left at the end of the hangar. Allied security doctrines said the hangar would be a high value target for the Unity assault teams.

The camera picked up a Korpi mobile gun platform working its way forward across the open space. The thing was built like a miniature armored hover tank, and although her guys were pounding it, nothing seemed to be making a dent. It kept moving forward, firing occasionally.

Taylor asked the fiber camera to bring up an intraspace overlay so she could see the data connections in the room. She looked at the data streams and zoomed in on one. The controller for the mobile platform had located herself all the way across the other side of the huge room behind a shipping container.

Taylor kept watching while she got the rifle off her back and set up the sniper tripod. She got prone on the floor and wedged the door open just a few inches with her knife. She slaved her heads-up to the scope on the weapon and took a look.

Taylor couldn’t really see much of the controller. She had herself almost totally barricaded in that corner.

The marines wouldn’t be able to see the controller at all from the end of the room near the security offices, but Taylor’s position closer to the middle of the room allowed her a bad shot once in a while.

Taylor looked up. Overhead, the Korpi controller had smartly launched a drone for protection. Without it, the controller might have been vulnerable to a self-propelled grenade, but the automated rail guns on a drone did a pretty good job taking out grenades before they got to their target.

Just before Taylor had left special ops, she had been given a few smart grenades with onboard AI to test out. They were supposed to be able to get around Korpi drones. What I wouldn’t do to have a couple of those on my station right now, she thought. Unfortunately, even four years later, they weren’t yet standard issue.

Taylor slowed down her breath and tried to calm her heartbeat. She leaned into the weapon, sinking the butt into her shoulder. Her shoulder screamed at her, and she took a moment, breathing deeply to get control of the pain and block it out. She flipped the load to armor piercing, aimed the weapon, and turned on the barrel tracking just before she fired.

The drone hovering above the controller fell to the earth. It didn’t take long for her marines to notice.

They had three grenades flying at the controller before Taylor could even think about reaching for one of hers. At least one of the three hit home. The controller slumped over and quit moving.

The tank stopped and just floated there in the center of the room, not far from where Taylor was located. While she was looking at it, a series of rounds hit the door where she hid, making it move. Someone had found her. Taylor tried not to notice. The door was hardened. It would take more than assault rifle rounds to penetrate.

She turned on the heat camera on her rifle and started scanning the far end of the room. There were several bodies lying on the ground not moving. Her marines seemed to be accounting for themselves quite well. It took her a little while before she saw the sniper and spotter hidden in the mezzanine on the far side of the bay. From up there, they had a pretty good angle on her team.

Audra closed her eye again and squeezed the trigger. She missed, and she must have exposed herself because the sniper turned her direction right away. She fired again just as the sniper seemed to hone in on her. This time her aim was true, and she took out the sniper and then the spotter before either of them could fire a shot.

Mopping up the rest took another five minutes. When Taylor seemed pretty sure that she wasn’t going to get shot, she ducked, and ran out into the hangar. A wary young marine pointed a gun at her before she lifted her hands in the air and screamed “Don’t shoot!” It was only after she shouted that she remembered her suit had been isolated.

She turned on her com system back on even as recognition dawned, the young marine quickly dropped her aim, “Mother Mary,” she muttered under her breath. She looked terrified.

Taylor hurried to get behind the line of barricades the marines from her station had set at their end of the hall. The scene was ugly. Of the eight Marines on duty today, four were dead and another of them would be soon enough. The three remaining marines seemed scared out of their minds. A corporal was now in charge since the second lieutenant on duty was dead.

The station wasn’t exactly an armed fortress. They carried very little heavy ordnance. Allied defense strategists always assumed they’d have warning before the war started. It presumed the gate control station would be surrounded by Allied ships if anything went down. The station itself only had a light contingent of marines, many of whom were dead on the floor, and only two defense drones, one of which lay in a heap in the corner.

The other still hovered overhead. Taylor sent it hand signals which brought it back to earth. No use wasting its energy reserves when I might need that thing.

After thinking for a moment, Taylor took the corporal by the shoulder and turned him away from the carnage. He seemed to be staring at the dead a little too much for her comfort. She didn’t need him breaking down on her right now. “Corporal Richards, attention!”

Richards snapped to attention and saluted Taylor. It was a formality not always practiced on the relaxed station, but right now Taylor felt she needed to keep the young man focused.

Taylor returned the salute and was surprised to hear herself barking orders like the best drill sergeant. “I need you and your team to head down to ops. We’ve got a bad guy in there. Be careful with him. Don’t go small—go big. He killed all the command crew. I need you to take him out, while I get down to engineering.” She doubted herself. Maybe she ought to go to ops with them. Then she remembered the tank still hovering in the center of the room, gun aimed in their direction. She pointed at it. “Can you drive that thing, Richards?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered confidently. “I can drive it if I can find the key to slave it to my suit.”

Pointing to the corner where the controller had hidden, she added, “Good! Try to find the and slave that thing to your heads-up. I want you to take it with you. Don’t mess around with that guy in ops. You break shit! You hear me? This station can be repaired, but that guy is something else. I think he’s hyped up on stims because he moves fast, so I don’t want to come back to a neat and tidy ops center and him still alive.”

“Yes, Ma’am! We’ll either wreck him or make sure he doesn’t have a functional control room.”

Taylor nodded. She liked Richards. He was quick. “Now, listen. Station systems are compromised. They had a major cyber-attack going, so I cut our connection to the outside world and did a hot server restart. We have local intraspace only, but that doesn’t mean all the shit got cleared out of the servers. There’s probably bots and trojans just waiting to jump in your suit with you. Get your suits isolated from the station and keep them that way. I don’t know what kind of AI they’re using, but it looks quick. It had me locked out of the system within about five minutes of this whole thing going down. This station’s going to be cranky for a while until we get it back under our control and we have a chance to start over with the servers. OK?”

The young lieutenant nodded.

“I have to get to engineering and see what the state of things is down there. We need to get the gate shut off as soon as we can so that we can beat the shit out of the Korpis that are in system. That’s my job. When you take care of that guy in ops, I want you to come down and meet me in engineering. Those are our two priorities right now. We need ops back, and we need engineering.”

“What about protecting the hangar here?”

“The hangar’s not our highest priority. The Korpis aren’t following the playbook. They’re taking over the rest of the station and just bypassing the hangar. We need to quit playing by the rules and take the fight to them. Understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am!”

“Good! Now get going.”

The young marine snapped another quick salute which Taylor returned and then gestured to the two other marines who remained alive. All three headed to the far end of the hangar.

Taylor picked up the now compacted drone from the floor. Folded, it was only about two and a half feet long and two feet wide. Reaching over her shoulder, she snapped it onto the back of her pressure suit and established a communications link with it through her heads-up. Then she ducked into the marine armory and picked up a couple of remote scout cameras. She wanted to have a better look around down on the engineering level before she exited the stairwell.

Some part of her realized that she wasn’t truly much better off than if she hadn’t come up the stairs. She still didn’t have anyone to go with her to engineering, and it was likely to be crawling with Korpis down there.

On the other hand, she did have a group of marines now in control of a hover tank and headed to take care of the guy in ops. That was good and probably made the delay worth it.

She looked around briefly at the marines dead on the floor near her and shook her head. I just hope engineering is having a better day than the rest of us, she thought. Then she took off running before her brain could process what it had seen.

#

Taylor looked gun first down the long flights of grated metal stairs which led to the lower decks. The regular lighting started to return as she stared. She watched it rise from the bottom and climb to her, deck by deck. She needed to get to engineering which lay at the bottom. Thankfully, the stairway remained empty.

She was just about to start heading down when a calm male voice interrupted her thoughts. “Captain Taylor. I would like to negotiate the surrender of you and your staff.”

Instinctively, Taylor twisted around in the stairwell, aiming her gun at the door behind her. No one was there. For a minute, she crouched in the corner trying to figure out how the Korpis had overridden her heads-up device. She decided not to answer.

After a few seconds of silence, the voice continued in her heads-up  “I must say, I am impressed. Your team has posed a challenge, which I did not foresee. Your destruction of the communications array and the server reset have put us back somewhat, so I am not able to greet you in person, but I want you to know you cannot win.”

How the hell do they know so much about me? And how are they communicating with my suit without my authorization? Taylor looked around and, in the corner, noticed that the security camera seemed to be working again.

She told the heads-up to power down. It didn’t respond.

She asked it to bring up an intraspace overlay again. There was a thin stream of heavily encrypted data flowing to the external camera on her suit from the camera in the corner and also from the nearby intraspace connection. Somehow they had hacked her heads-up through the camera on her suit.

Looking at the data stream, things started to make sense—the security cameras in the control center, the quick lock from the system. There’s a fucking cyber-agent aboard my station! They’re on board! This wasn’t an attack from intraspace.

“The station and all its contents are now now under Unity control, and the only way you are going to see your children again is to surrender.” Here the voice paused.

White hot rage filled Taylor. “My children have nothing to do with this! You leave them out of it!”

The voice continued in the same fashion. “The Unity is not the horrible evil empire you’ve been led to believe by your leaders. We handle our prisoners in a civilized manner. We intend no harm to your children. We just want you to see them again.”

Desperate with a rage and fury she didn’t know existed, she fought for control. She knew if she lashed out she would only give the Korpi bastard an advantage. The mother in her won out. “I don’t know who you are, or how you’re overriding all my systems, or how you even got on board my station, but fuck you to hell! My children will be proud of their mother! Surrender is not an option, so suit up and come hunt me yourself.”

The voice remained gratingly calm. “Temper, temper, Captain Taylor. Hmm, I see you sent me a little welcoming committee. Captain Taylor, I’m disappointed. By now you should know that you’ll have to do better than three poorly armed marines and my own hover tank to stop me. You’re only delaying your own inevitable defeat. If you want to keep your promise to your husband, then you need to surrender.”

Taylor shot out the security camera and the access point next to it. She stood at the top of the stairs, breathing hard. The spy in the control center is the cyber-agent? That’s impossible, thought Taylor, Agents have to be in intraspace. They don’t walk around in meatspace.

Taylor used the handle of her knife to bust in the external camera on her suit. She wanted to make sure the agent, whoever he was, wouldn’t be able to get into her head that way again.

She took the drone off her back and programmed it to hunt cameras and data connections to intraspace in the stairwell. Then she set it free. She watched it systematically take out the cameras and connection points near each door as it moved down toward engineering.

She kept the intraspace overlay on and had her weapon aimed at the drone. The last thing she wanted was for the agent to hack that thing and send it back her way, but there didn’t appear to be an attack on the drone itself. Taylor casually stepped up on the railing and jumped, falling the seven stories to the bottom of the stairwell in a few seconds. Her suit kept her from tumbling and slowed her fall at the bottom. She landed on both feet and then one knee, her weapon aimed at the door. The drone lay on the ground next to her.

She crept to the door and took one of the miniature scout cameras out of her pocket and let it go. This particular model used a tiny, low gravity field to float and propel itself where it wished. The whole device wasn’t more than an inch long. It fit easily in a pocket and so was hard to notice. It also used an entangled particle data system to communicate, so in theory, it couldn’t be hacked. Taylor took the dongle for her part of the EP communications system and plugged it into one of the data ports on her suit. Then she cracked the door and let the camera go.

She sat in the corner of the stairwell as she used the heads-up to direct the camera. From the stairwell door next to the lifts, it was a straight shot down the hall into engineering. It didn’t take Taylor long to figure out that there was still a fight going on down there. A Korpi close to the door threw a gravity grenade which went off a few seconds later. Several electronic items in the room ended up crammed together in no man’s land between the door the Korpis held and her engineering team, located deeper in the room.

The camera seemed to fuzz out for a second and then went black. Taylor wondered if the grenade had affected it.

As the door opened, she instantly raised her rifle as Hartman entered the stairwell.

Taylor’s heart beat in her throat. “Holy fuck, Hartman. What are you doing here?”

“You need to think about our children, Audra. We want you to come home to us.”

It was only then that Taylor noticed Hartman wasn’t wearing a pressure suit.

“Fuck You!” she screamed.

With her resistance, the attack on her mind only seemed to grow stronger. She saw images of her children, sometimes dead and sometimes grown up without her, then grieving at their mother’s memorial. Then it was Hartman’s turn. He stood beside a flag draped coffin and received her dress boots from a serious looking soldier before the coffin was launched into space. These images seemed fuzzy—real enough to touch the deepest primitive animal parts of Taylor’s mind and terrify her but still dreamlike. It felt to Taylor like a true waking nightmare.

Then the images became vivid, crystal clear, and she saw in detail how the three marines sent to the ops center died. She watched as the mobile gun platform turned on them before they even got close to ops. It quit responding to their control and instead fired on all of them quickly, slicing huge gashes in their suits and denying them life giving air.

The voice of the spy appeared in her head—not in the heads-up but in her mind. “Captain Taylor, some of these things have already come to pass. Some of them need never come to pass. So much is in your control. You have a responsibility to think about more than just your own life. If you want to throw that away on a suicide mission, that is your decision, but you must consider your children—if not them, your husband and your crew. Don’t waste their lives as well. Bring them home.”

Taylor screamed in terror. How have you done this? Stop. You can’t hurt my children. They’re innocent, and I am a soldier. Make this stop.

The small part of her mind not locked in the grip of the all powerful fear whispered back to her, You have to make it stop, Audra. He won’t stop.

She had heard about Unity mindjacks before. In fact, during training for special forces, part of her interrogation resistance training had been to allow herself to willingly be mindjacked. That experience had been earth shattering enough, but Taylor now knew it was a mild flight of fancy compared to the real thing.

Intellectually, she knew that the horrible deaths of her children playing over and over again in her mind were only illusions. They weren’t real, but her body didn’t think so. It reacted as if such things were taking place in front of her. Her resistance training seemed useless—worse than useless—and impossible to implement.

Taylor tried to feel her teeth even as tears flowed freely from her eyes. She could feel her body shaking in terror.

The voice returned. “Captain Taylor. Tell your troops to stand down. Order your forces in engineering to surrender. There is no need for you or your family to suffer. All you have to do is say the word, and the nightmare will end.”

Taylor thought that even through the living nightmare, she could feel the thing she hoped was between her teeth. In her dream state, she tried to exhale and then bit down hard, hoping that in the real world she had also done the same. She knew she had done it correctly when she felt the polymer of her HeFAR disappear. She only had a few seconds to get this right.

She concentrated, ignoring the vivid image of Hartman, now suited, begging her to stop and surrender for the sake of her girls. She imagined swiping the top of her head with her hand and then tried to carry it out. It didn’t work, and she couldn’t tell for sure, but she didn’t think that she had even been able to move her hand. She tried again.

In the dream in front of her, her little babies gasped for air even as they floated in the void of space.

She was beginning to feel her lungs burn. That was a good sign. It meant the dream state hallucinations created by the mind hack couldn’t fully cover up reality. It also meant she had some control of the dreams before her eyes.

Desperate for air and afraid she might pass out, Taylor once again imagined herself brushing the top of her head. Even as her babies turned blue in front of her, she managed to knock off the heads-up.

Taylor’s consciousness snapped back to reality. She was sitting at the bottom of the stairs on her station, tears blocking her sight, with no air to breathe.

She made sure that the cursed heads-up wasn’t still sitting on her head and bit down on the HeFAR between her teeth. The polymer once again expanded over her face and sealed her head in a cocoon of fresh air. Taylor tried to breathe. She tried to make her lungs expand, but completely emptied of air, they wouldn’t move. She gasped and gasped. Her eyes fluttered. She wondered if she might pass out before she got a full breath. Finally, she felt her lungs expand in her chest, taking in the life-giving combination of oxygen and nitrogen provided by the HeFAR.

#

For a few minutes, Taylor sat in the corner at the bottom of the staircase totally spent, no longer caring about the station or even her own personnel trapped in engineering. Her soul ached with residual terror from the mindjack.

When she finally did pay attention to the world, she found the heads-up sitting on the floor right in front of her. She quickly stood and mashed it into the concrete with her boot, shattering it into a thousand pieces. That’s the second time I’ve done that today, she thought. Without the heads-up, she wouldn’t be nearly as effective of a soldier. She regretted that, but without it, she couldn’t be mindjacked again.

And after what I’ve seen today, I’m not sure I want to be a soldier anymore. As she stared at the pieces of her heads-up spread out on the floor, all the glory and honor she had wished to find for herself through service and combat seemed to ebb slowly from her soul. A burden seemed to lift. It wasn’t that she didn’t value these things any more. No, they were still essential tools of the job—glory was her right hand and honor her left. They were just no longer the preeminent motivators for her choices. They felt like a cocoon that she had wrapped herself in and suddenly shed.

No longer afraid to look death in the face, she saw again in her mind’s eye the four Unity soldiers she had killed with the gravity grenade. There was no glory in that, Taylor thought. They had families as well, who would miss them. For a few seconds, she felt a surprising empathy for them.

Not for the first time, Taylor doubted whether or not she would make it through the day. She decided she probably wouldn’t, and in a funny way, that settled her fears more than anything else could have. For some reason, knowing that she wasn’t going to live took a lot of the fear out of the images which had been played over and over in her head during the mindjack. There wasn’t a need to fight death any longer. It was coming for her. It would come for her children. It was only a matter of when. She didn’t need to try to keep it at bay, because today she couldn’t. Today, she would probably die.

Lifting her head from the scattered pieces on the floor, she thought, But before I die, I have a job to do.

Considering her situation, Taylor decided secrecy wasn’t much of an option any longer. If she had any hope of completing her task and stopping the invasion of the system, then she needed to get into engineering as quickly as possible. 

Better go big then, thought Taylor as she picked up the drone sitting next to her on the floor. Since the Korpis hold the front door, I’ll have to use the side door. Then, speaking to the drone, she said, “However, you, my friend, are expendable. I need you to provide me with some serious cover.”

Taylor programmed the drone using hand signals and then opened the door, releasing the hovering object into the hallway. Immediately, it zoomed toward the entrance of engineering and started firing into the back of the Korpi team holed up there.

Taylor didn’t stay around to see the show. She followed the drone and then made a quick left down a hallway even as it started shooting. A ways down she punched the keypad on the engineering loading dock and entered the sizable warehouse. In the corner, she quickly climbed to the rafters, where a giant crane waited to lift huge pieces of equipment into the air so they could be transported through the closed equipment doors of the engineering compartment next door.

Along the catwalk lay a door between the two compartments. The catwalk gave crane operators a bird’s-eye view of their work while taking cargo into the next room. Taylor opened the door and, getting prone, cautiously slipped into the engineering section of her station. The catwalk didn’t really provide her with much cover. Luckily there was an I-beam nearby which provided something, still not as much as she would have liked, but something.

Taylor assessed the situation in the room below. There were bodies down there. Hard to say whose they were yet, but from the looks of it, more of hers than theirs. She could also see her drone flopping about on the floor, wounded and out of action for the moment. Drones like that carried microscopic self-repair bots, which could sometimes patch things up or create a short cut to get the thing airborne again. If she were the Korpis, she would have made sure it was good and dead, but they were a little occupied right now, so she didn’t blame them for the mistake.

Excepting the docking bay, engineering was the largest compartment in the station. It was pretty narrow at the inner end which orbited closer to the center axis. On the back end, where the power plant and the giant gravity manipulators lay, the room took up almost a third of the station’s circumference. From the looks of it, the battle had started near the door, but her troops had given way, and now the battle was more spread out toward the far end of the room. Located in the middle of the room, she was right on the enemy’s flank.

Taylor didn’t wait. She unlocked the safety on her weapon and took aim below, managing to get off two clean kills before the six remaining Korpis found her location. She was soon pinned down on the catwalk while anti-personnel rounds sprayed the wall behind her and the I-beam in front of her. It won’t be long now, she thought. One of these rounds is going to take me out. If not the round then the shrapnel. However, rather than cowering in fear, she managed somehow to keep firing until the weapon in her hand vibrated, telling her she was out of ammo. She reached for the second clip on her belt while gunfire continued unabated.

The pressure hadn’t really let up on her staff down at the other end of the facility, either. They seemed to be cowering behind some of the control boxes for the power plant. Not exactly the ideal location, if they don’t want to die in an explosion, thought Taylor.

Instead of choosing the clip of ammo, she reached for a grenade. She turned the damage to maximum and set the distance and direction on the dials. Then she simply let go. The grenade zoomed out of her hand and landed in the middle of the Korpis holed up behind the half-opened metal crates for the new Mandelbrot gravity unit. The traditional shrapnel grenade did the trick, ripping through the pressure suits of four of the six Korpis. Seeing what happened, her staff pressed home their advantage, even while she was reloading. They finished off the survivors without her.

Taylor stood from where she had been hiding behind the I-beam and warily descended the stairs into engineering. Her chief engineer ran up in her suit and, recognizing her commanding officer, saluted. She said something, but without her heads-up, Taylor couldn’t hear her at all. Taylor returned the salute, pointed to her HeFAR, and signaled her lack of a heads-up.

Barker, her engineer, nodded, then touched the reactive arm of Taylor’s pressure suit. A touch on the arm was designed to allow a private conversation between two suited officers which couldn’t be intercepted by the enemy or overheard by their troops. “I said, hell of a day to start a war, Captain Taylor,” while she gave a wry grin.

Taylor didn’t smile. She was beyond smiling and doubted she would ever smile again. Instead, she got right to the point. “The station’s lost, Barker. It’s time to deny it to the enemy and then get off.”

“‘I’ll set up the self-destruct sequence, Captain.”

Taylor shook her head. “I don’t want you to use the self-destruct system in the computer….”

While they were talking, Taylor had been facing further into the room where the other two surviving members of the engineering team were standing behind them. Taylor watched as one appeared to scream in his HeFAR while bringing up his weapon. Taylor couldn’t hear it, but Barker must have because she was starting to turn around when Taylor threw her to the ground, landing on top of her and screaming, “Mindjack!”

The young engineer sent a spray of weapons fire over their heads. 

Taylor fumbled for her weapon. He walked toward them, screaming the whole time. He was just getting ready to fire again as they lay helpless on the floor, when he stopped and collapsed to the deck. Behind him, the other surviving member of the engineering team lowered her weapon.

Shaken again, Taylor rolled off Barker and lay there on the deck trying to control her breathing and keep her emotions in check. She kept her eyes closed and said. “Barker, there’s an agent on the station, and he’s mindjacking people! You have to get rid of the heads-up!”

Taylor felt Barker start to lift her from the deck. “Understood. Not much point to them now anyway.” Barker’s tone carried an underlying note of bitterness. “I don’t have any staff left to talk to.”

It took a minute, but Barker and her remaining crew member each exhaled, deflated their HeFARs and then removed their heads-up devices. The worst part by far for both of them was trying to get a breath of air once the HeFARs were back in place. They looked like dying fish.  At least they didn’t have to do the whole thing while mindjacked, thought Taylor.

After that, their work went pretty smoothly. Taylor explained her concerns about using the built in self-destruct with an agent on board. Whoever he was, he had been able to do a lot of things no one thought possible and that left all systems vulnerable to override, including the self-destruct mechanisms.

They quickly figured out a workaround. They could manually cause a runaway overload of one of the station’s fusion reactors. Barker explained to Taylor that the process wouldn’t take much time to set up or execute. They could remove a few safety valves and then just flood the fusion chamber with hydrogen to overheat the reactor core, which would then break containment. There would be an explosion inside engineering. Simulations of similar meltdowns showed it wouldn’t be enough to break down the integrity of the hull, at least not at first. It was the residual heat trapped in the superheated plasma of hydrogen and helium atoms that would be the real problem. Circuits would fry and things would melt before the hot gas eventually found its way into space.

Barker assured her that such an event would be “just the ticket.”

Taylor agreed to the plan. The fly in the ointment was that someone would have to stay behind to manually start the overload, to pull the lever on a gas pipe to flood the system. That person wouldn’t have much time to escape, probably not enough. If she were lucky, she might make it off the station, but beyond that, chances were almost nil. Superheated gases released into space dissipated quite quickly but probably not quickly enough for anyone drifting a few tens of feet away.

There wasn’t really much of a debate about who would stay behind, and how it would get done. Taylor volunteered, and Barker made little pretense of arguing the point. She’s still trying to stay alive. I know I’m already dead, thought Taylor. There was only one escape trunk in engineering, and Taylor didn’t want all three of them to chance dying. Someone had to get out and let the Allied fleet know how this had happened. The plan was for Barker and her crew member to take the escape pod after they set up the overload. Taylor would then open the valve, run like hell for the airlock, and jump. If things went just right, Barker would come back and pick her up.

While they worked on setting up the overload, Taylor explained to Barker just what message she wanted to get back to the allied fleet. It was vital that the fleet understand how the Korpis were using their cyber-agents and how good they were. Taylor detailed as much as she could of the ‘supernatural’ behavior of the agent and how, as impossible as it seemed, he appeared to be able to act in meatspace and intraspace at the same time.

When all was said and done, Taylor wasn’t very satisfied that her message would get through. It would be best if she got away herself. She might even submit to brain scans so that the fleet could see what she had seen today, but that couldn’t be helped. It wouldn’t do any good to escape but leave the gate open, flooding Korpi forces into the system.

Taylor watched Barker button up the escape trunk and launch the vehicle. It surprised her how little dread she felt. She didn’t feel anything, except cold and heartless. She turned and walked back to the far end of the compartment.

She was just preparing to open the valve when she was greeted by a sidearm pointed at her head. Someone in a pressure suit reached out to touch her. The agent’s voice echoed in her suit. “Captain Taylor, you have fought remarkably well today. I am surprised. We didn’t expect that much from you.”

Taylor tried not to let it freak her out. She looked at the agent, who still kept the pretense of being Toby, and said, “Well, next time, you won’t make that mistake, will you?”

The agent smiled. “Indeed, if there were a next time, I would not. I would shoot you first and then your controller, but there won’t be a next time.” He paused for a second. “Before you die, I thought I owed it to you to show you my face.”

The Toby face started to melt, collecting as a surprisingly small congealed mass underneath the chin of the agent in his Unity helmet. His hair was darker than Toby’s. He had brown skin and almond eyes. “I am agent Elijah Summers of the Unity Central Intelligence Directorate. Thank you, Captain Taylor, for the game of cat and mouse today. You have been a worthy opponent. There is no shame in your death.”

Taylor didn’t respond. She felt nothing at this point, only empty. She contemplated lunging at the handle on the overload, guessing she had a good chance of opening it before she died at Summer’s hand. She was just about to do so when her drone appeared behind Summers’.

Damn, she thought. Apparently those things can fix themselves.

It turned.

Summers must have seen its reflection in her HeFAR, or perhaps he had some innate ability to sense electronics. He faced it so fast that it took a second for Taylor to realize that it had happened. He still had his sidearm pointed at her, but it was enough.

Taylor grabbed the lever and pulled, beginning the overload. She started to run.

Summers pointed his hand at the drone, and it simply fell out of the sky without firing a shot.

Taylor didn’t really have time to think about that, but something in her mind flagged it as impossible.

By the time she was heading around the corner, Summers had already turned back toward where she had been standing and tracked the now open pipe down to the reactor. Recognition dawned, and he took off running down the other side of the engineering compartment.

Summers outraced Taylor back toward the entrance. Quickly noting that the escape vehicle was missing from its berth, he went out the door and headed up the stairs. A normal human probably wouldn’t make it to those escape pods, but Taylor wasn’t so sure about Summers.

Taylor made a quick left into the airlock and pounded on the button, hoping that her pounding would cause it to cycle faster. She felt amused at her own behavior. She had already died. She didn’t really have a prayer, and yet she ran to escape an explosion she couldn’t truly outrun.

#

When the airlock cycled open, it surprised her how hesitant she was to jump out into the void. Even knowing full well that behind her lay certain death, Taylor had a reluctance to jump away from the solid platform of the station. She pushed off as hard as she could with her feet. From there she had a choice to make. She could use the remaining power in her suit to continue to supply the HeFAR with its oxygen and scrubbers, or she could use the power to dead stick her way as far as possible from the station, increasing her chances of survival from the explosion but denying her the ability to breathe soon thereafter.

Taylor decided that breathing would have to come later. She throttled up the remaining power in her suit. She had no idea how much she had left because she didn’t have a heads-up display to tell her. She also lost her ability to navigate well without the heads-up. Instead, she had to navigate by picking a star which she guessed to be the opposite direction from the station and used the dead-stick embedded in her right glove to fly toward it. She couldn’t turn her head and check that she was flying the right direction without risk of adding a spin to her direction of travel, and Taylor didn’t want to do that.

The suit used up its energy in short order, perhaps in ten seconds at the most. Taylor guessed that slowing her after she jumped down seven flights of stairs had used up a lot of its anti-grav maneuverability.

As it started to sputter out, she was able to turn and face the station which was still disturbingly close. Distances were hard to judge in space, but Taylor’s best guess was that it lay only a hundred meters away, and it certainly wasn’t shrinking rapidly.

Low oxygen warnings started in her suit.

Taylor saw a blinding flash come from the lower levels of the station. She could see a blue green glow from behind the closed airlock door, which was now only a pin prick. Taylor turned her head slowly toward the gate off to her left and watched it blink out, cutting a Unity destroyer in half.

Something inside her relaxed, even as she started to breathe faster. She had accomplished her mission. For now, she had stopped the invasion of Wales. It remained to be seen if the allied fleet could retake control of the gate before the Unity mothership got its own control center calibrated and up and running, but that was somebody else’s problem, and she wouldn’t be there to find out what happened.

A bright light caused her to turn back toward the station. The bottom half had started to glow. Taylor watched as the engineering compartment made of steel and carbon fiber melted, drooping like a piece of taffy. The hull ruptured, spilling an expanding cloud of hot gasses into space. The end of the room closest to where the reactor would have been glowed white hot. Taylor raised her hand to cover her eyes.

When the cloud of plasma reached her, Taylor thought she would die instantly. The pain from the heat was searing. Behind her closed eyes, she figured her suit would soon fail.

She was panting now. When a HeFAR went dead, it didn’t leave much air to breath. Taylor’s heart raced, fluttering in her chest, looking for oxygen in her bloodstream which didn’t exist. As the glow subsided, Taylor opened her eyes, but it wasn’t long before her vision began to narrow. When a shadow blocked out the blinding glow of the bottom half of her station, she wasn’t sure if she passing out or if something had blocked her view. She struggled for consciousness, resisting the urge to allow things to fade to black.

Taylor had just enough awareness to recognize one of her station’s escape pods coming to pick her up. Barker…, she thought. Or maybe Summers. Well, perhaps I’m going to live through the day after all. Oh, well. I’m not sure what good it will do. I’m as good as dead already on the inside, and I think some piece of me always will be.

The world went black then for a while, without even the light of the stars or the sound of her suit to keep her company…

“Captain Taylor? Can you hear me? Wake up!”

on March 12 • by

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