“Wake up, prisoner,” a loud voice said. It sounded like sandpaper to Rick’s ears. Rick rolled onto his side, back aching from the steel slab bed that the Martians had in their brig. He sat up and shook his head. The sedatives they pumped him with were wearing off and left him with dry eyes and stiff muscles. Synthetic Martian opioids, thought Rick. He stood up, stretching his arms to the side. The high-density steel and ceramic door slid open and a guard stepped in. He patted Rick down, and cuffed his wrists. He was shorter than Rick, but heavier. Maybe a hundred kilos of pure muscle. The guy probably defecated muscle. Rick smiled at the thought.
“Something funny prisoner?” the guard said. Bricketts was stencilled on his breast pocket, along with Red Rage on the sleeve.
“No sir,” Rick said. A bag was shoved over his head and he was lead down a series of halls. Rick Ellesmere was the captain of the Terra Navy ship Nunavut. Two days before, his ship was boarded by the Martian ship Red Rage for firing at their fusion reactor engine. The Martians boarded the Nunavut suited up in Martian combat armor so strong that the plasma guns that Rick’s crew used did nothing more than chip the paint. The Martians were unforgiving in combat, and followed the laws to the letter.
Rick suddenly felt himself pushed into a cold metal chair, and had the bag pulled off his head. The bright light assaulted his eyes. He squinted, trying to turn away, but the light seemed to be coming from everywhere. Rick heard someone pull out a chair close by. The muscled guard who brought him in strapped his hands to the table, tightening his restraints just a little too much.
“Could y’all turn the bloody lights down?” a harsh British accent said through the bright glare. Through the cloud in his head, Rick recognized the accent as Martian. Mars was colonized by the British, Germans, and most of Texas which gave way to a harsh British accent with Texan slang. The lights came down, and Rick’s eyes began to focus on the man sitting across the table from him.
“Captain Richard Ellesmere, of the Nunavut. Do you know why you’re here?” the voice asked. As Rick’s eyes focused he saw Captain Orwell Price stenciled on the man’s breast pocket. His jacket was decorated with medals, they glinted and reflected the light back into Rick’s eyes. He squinted and turned away.
“Not really,” he croaked.
“Ah, you’re not quite up from our containment cocktail. Bricketts, give Captain Ellesmere a little jolt. I need him fully conscious,” Price said. Rick felt a pin prick his forearm and felt both ice and fire running from his arm and spreading through his body. His vision snapped out of the haze it was in, the light stopped hurting his eyes, and his muscles felt elastic instead of stiff. He inhaled sharply and exhaled slowly. A long metallic groan was heard somewhere far off in the ship.
“Better?” Price asked.
“Much,” Rick said, clearing his throat.
“Now, do you know why you’re here?” Price asked again.
“From what I remember, you boarded my ship with your soldiers, killed my crew, and ran out of charge before you got to me because I’m the only one left,” Rick said.
“Wrong,” Price frowned. He stood up. “You’re here because your ship was taking pot shots at our reactor, which interplanetary law describes as an act of war. We were legally allowed to use maximum force to disable your ship from destroying us.”
“By killing my crew?”
“By disabling your ability to continue your assault.”
“We were trying to save your ship from being destroyed,” Rick said.
“By destroying our ship’s reactor?”
“No, by trying to shoot off the thing eating at it,” Rick said, raising his voice to match Price’s volume.
“Protocol requires ships to initiate communication before weapons are fired. Why didn’t you give us a call? You disobeyed interplanetary law,” Price spat. This guy was a hard-ass about the law, Rick thought. But then, the Martians wrote the next best book on war after Sun Tzu. They weren’t the biggest naval power in the solar system for nothing.
“We sent you several com requests before we started shooting,” Rick said.
“We received no such requests. Nothing was logged; we can prove nothing was sent,” Price said, slowing down at the end.
“If there was enough time, I’d show you the requests sent from our ship’s computers. The thing was tearing into your reactor core. It’s probably still up there,” Rick said, speaking quickly. The ship groaned again and the lights flickered.
“Bricketts, what the hell is going on out there?” Price barked at Bricketts, Rick’s escort guard.
“I’ll go look,” he said and slipped out of the room.
“It’s definitely still up there,” Rick said quietly.
“What are you talking about? Our shipboard sensors detected nothing on our ship,” Price said.
“You won’t detect anything. This thing, I think I know what it is. What was your ships mission, Captain?” Rick said, looking over at the door.
“Our mission is none of your business, Captain,” Price said enunciating every syllable in “captain”.
“Captain Price, with all due respect,” Rick began to say. The lights flickered again and the ship groaned louder, sounding like a giant with a stomach ache.
“Bricketts!” Price shouted, “What the hell is going on out there?” No one replied.
“Captain,” Rick said. He tried to stand but was stopped by the restraints; he sat back down. “Captain, we don’t have a lot of time. I need to know where you were before I explain what I think is going on.”
Captain Price turned to Rick, “What are you talking about?”
“Where was your ship coming from, Captain?” Rick said as the lights turned off for a moment and turned back on.
“We were examining Saturn’s inner rings for a potential habitable zone. We found a locality where no harsh radiation existed and our science team went to examine it,” Price said, a hint of worry starting to creep into his voice. The ship shook suddenly but lightly, like an aftershock of a far-off earthquake.
Rick shook his head, “Saturn’s inner rings are a garbage dump for a failed Terran military experiment. And now it seems that they all didn’t die.”
“What didn’t die?”
“Terra was attempting to create a super-soldier. A genetically overhauled humanoid that could survive in space without a suit, suck up radio waves and IR, and survive high G travel that would normally kill a human. It was supposed to survive standard plasma rounds, and repair itself when it was hit with tungsten slugs. And we built it,” Rick said in a grave voice. “I was part of the project. I was also captain of the ship that took them out to the rings to be destroyed. But we didn’t kill them all when we left them.”
“You’re saying you created a super-soldier that could destroy a ship and an entire army, while being undetected by standard targeting and sensing equipment, and you didn’t destroy them all?” Price said in disbelief.
Rick nodded. “The plan was to let them all out of the airlock to be drawn in to Saturn’s gravity, and then kick on our reactor exhaust to torch them into their component atoms. One may have drifted out of the blast zone. We didn’t check, we high-tailed it out of there after we realized they couldn’t be controlled. It was what made us end the project back on Terra,” Rick said solemnly.
“And you saw one eating into my ship and decided not to tell me?” Price was shouting.
“We tried, but the super-soldier must’ve eaten our IR beam. I told you, we sent you several communication requests but got no reply,” Rick said. Outside the room, an tri-tone alarm sounded. Bricketts burst into the room.
“Captain, we have to go,” he looked at Rick and back at the Price, “Now.”
“What’s the problem?” Price said, standing up from the table.
“We have a breach near the reactor.”
“Bring me with you. I might know how to stop it,” Rick said.
“What is it?” Price said.
“Cameras are showing something that looks like an alien, sir,” Bricketts said.
“Captain Price, bring me with you,” Rick repeated.
“You will be escorted back to your cell in the brig until this is taken care of,” Price said sternly, not even looking at Rick.
“You don’t understand. It won’t react to simple plasma or tungsten slugs. You can’t kill it with just your guns,” Rick said.
“Captain Ellesmere, the Martian Navy is quite well equipped to take down any threat,” Price removed Rick’s restraints that held him to the table and took him towards the door where Bricketts also took hold of him.
“No, you don’t understand,” Rick said again, struggling to get out of Price’s and Bricketts’ grip. “This thing will kill you all.”
“If it will kill us, then having you with us will not help slow it down, Captain Ellesmere. We’re going to take you back to your cell,” Price started. The ship made another long mechanical groaning sound. It grew louder, and the LEDs in the ships ceiling began to grow brighter.
“Captain Price, you’re not listening!” Rick shouted as he broke free of their grasp. “Untie me right now and I will help lead this ship to safety. This is a war machine that was engineered to survive massive barrages of attacks. It can not be controlled. It is smarter than you. It is stronger than you. It is better than everyone on this ship.”
“And how do you know?” Price snapped back, his jaw clenched. The ship groaned louder. The walls and floors were beginning to vibrate.
“It was my idea. I helped design it,” Rick said. “You need me to stop it.”
The groaning stopped. The lights went out. The ship went silent. Somewhere towards the back of the ship, something was stomping. Someone shot off a few rounds of their gun, screamed, and went quiet.
Captain Price cursed under his breath. “Fine,” he said. “You’re coming with us.”
The Martian armor made Rick feel like he was wearing his father’s suit, except that this suit had plated armour that slid around more than it should. Rick thought it was a little big.
“Does it fit alright?” Price asked, as he fitted himself with the same armour.
“It’s a little big,” Rick replied.
“Most of our soldiers are larger than you. Keep that light steady, Bricketts,” Price called over to the stocky guard. He apologized and adjusted the flashlight. “What’s the plan?”
“Do we still have internal comms?” Rick asked.
“Are these suits vacuum rated?”
“Where is the super-soldier right now?”
Bricketts opened his communicator and made a quick call.
“The thing is in the reactor bay. Report says it’s got one of our men in there with it,” Bricketts said.
“Can you see his vitals from the suit?” Rick asked.
“Vitals coming up blank.”
“He’s dead?” Price asked.
“Likely, but the super-soldier eats radio waves, so they could be alive without transmitting anything. Do you have cameras in the reactor bay?” Rick said.
“Yes, but the power’s down. We won’t be able to pull it up on the screen. Why is the power down?” Price asked, tapping at a terminal’s keyboard.
“The super-soldier is soaking up the radioactive energy. It’s a strengthening mechanism we put into it. It takes in radiation for when it’s flying through space. All that power from the reactor is feeding it,” Rick said. He looked around the armory for an access panel. When he found it, he called to Bricketts, “Flip on the ships batteries if you can access them from here.”
“I’m not an engineer. I’m just security,” Bricketts said coming up to the panel.
“Damnit Bricketts, just do as he says,” called Price, strapping on his helmet. A minute later, the back-up power came back on. “We should head to the operations deck. We can get a better view up there,” Price said. He waved Rick and Bricketts over and they made their way up through the ship.
The operations deck had a full wall of screens and terminals, all flickering to life. Price walked over to one and pulled up the camera for the reactor bay. Inside, the super-soldier was tearing through the reactor shielding, pounding at the layers of metal and ceramic with its massive fists, and then peeling it open like an onion. It looked like a man, rippling with muscles too large to be normal, with a large forehead, and large hands with claw-like fingers. Black fluid was leaking out of its mouth and its eyes were bug-like and as black as the void outside.
“Oh my god,” Price said in disbelief.
A door opened on the left side of the room and three soldiers ran in, with their plasma rifles ready. One bent down to check on the already dead soldier who was in the room before. He shook his head. One of the three yelled something at the super-soldier. It stopped and stared in their direction as if they were speaking another language. The Martian soldiers readied their weapons but the super-soldier didn’t move. One of the Martians started firing at the super-soldier which recoiled when the shots started hitting it. The plasma rays tore open its skin sending black globules of chitinous filament glittering out behind it. The super-soldier’s flesh closed around the wound almost as quickly as it was created.
“It can’t be stopped by plasma,” Rick said.
“Gunderson, get your men out of that reactor bay now!” Price shouted into his communicator.
Static crackled over the radio. “It absorbs radio waves,” Rick said. “You won’t be able to contact them inside that room.”
On the screen, the Martian soldiers opened fire on the super-soldier. The shots didn’t seem to bother it. The super-soldier leapt up and held onto the wall. It crawled up to the ceiling like a spider and then sat there for a moment absorbing the plasma rays.
“Oh no,” Rick muttered absent mindedly. Both Price and Bricketts looked at him.
“What?” said Price.
Rick didn’t have time to answer. The super-soldier’s back ripped open and thick black tentacles unfurled reaching down and grabbing two of the Martian soldiers around their waists. Bricketts yelled, Price stepped back from the screen and yelled at Rick, “What the hell is that?”
“This was one of the reasons we had to cancel the project. It became much too strong and unpredictable for us to control. It could modify its body at will. It’s a by-product of the regeneration modification we gave it,” Rick said, sorrow in his voice.
“It can grow tentacles and you neglected to tell me?” Price growled. On the screen, the super-soldier squeezed one soldier so tightly that he split in half. The other one was being flailed around the reactor bay, smashing into everything. The third soldier, dropped his plasma rifle and pulled out a tungsten slug-throwing assault rifle and began to pepper the tentacles with rounds. Black dust sprayed out around the bullet wounds and one tentacle fell off.
“Do you still have my ship?” Rick asked.
“Now is not the time to be asking that,” Price snapped.
“Do you still have it though?”
“Yes, we shut it down and are currently towing it under our ship. Why?”
“I have a plan,” Price said, adjusting the armour he was wearing. “These super-soldiers feed off radiation and oxygen,” he said as he watched more soldiers run into the room to their death. Price told Bricketts to halt all remaining soldiers going into the reactor bay, and Bricketts got busy on his communicator.
“They feed off radiation because when they travel from ship to ship, which was our original plan for deployment, they’d use energy coming off the ships and from the sun to keep them fueled.”
“So how does that help?” asked Price.
“They need radiation because in the vacuum of space, they’re essentially powerless. They were designed for shipboard combat or station combat; not space combat. They’re almost in sleep mode in a vacuum, but radiation keeps them fueled,” Rick explained.
“In the presence of both air and radiation, these guys are unstoppable,” he continued. “We can take away the air, but their defenses are going to stay strong despite them not being able to attack much. We can take away the radiation, but they’d still be able to unleash their violent fury, at the cost of lesser defense.”
“So we need to take away both,” Price said, as he began to understand Rick’s plan.
“Exactly. We need to take away both,” Rick finished.
“But we can’t eject core,” Price said. “We wouldn’t be able to get back.”
“That’s why we’d use my ship. You need to start evacuating your men to my ship,” Rick said.
“But how would we destroy the super-soldier?” Price asked.
“We have to evacuate the air in the reactor bay by blowing out the back airlock. That will slow the super-soldier down. It will just passively absorb the radiation, keeping it alive, but it will be weaker. That’s when we move everyone over to my ship to start booting up that reactor. Then we need to eject your core. The super-soldier will follow that core, and then we blast it with my ship’s exhaust plume. That should kill it,” Rick explained.
“We should wait to get my men out of the reactor bay first,” Price said.
“If they go out, there’s a chance that the super-soldier would follow.”
“I can’t leave any men behind.”
“Listen Captain Price, I know this is a hard decision to make. But you need to think of the rest of your crew and yourself. If that super-soldier gets into the ship, the rest of us are going to die,” Rick grabbed Captain Price by the shoulders. “You need to begin the evacuation now.”
Captain Price was tense, and then like a wave washing over him, he accepted the choice he had to make. His head drooped low and he turned to Bricketts, “Bricketts, open the reactor bay airlock.”
Rick and Price turned to the screen. A warning light began to flash yellow in the reactor bay and a siren sounded. The remaining few soldiers ran to the door leading out of the reactor bay and were pounding on the door, begging to be let out. The super-soldier grabbed one of them with his remaining black tentacle and threw him across the room with inhuman strength. Then the airlock opened, taking most of the back wall with it and the remaining soldiers were sucked out into the void of space. Price let out a pained sigh.
“It had to be done,” Rick said placing a hand back on Price’s shoulder. The super-soldier’s tentacle retracted into its body and it climbed down the wall to hug the reactor casing. Its skin lost its fleshy colour and turned grey.
“What’s it doing?” Price asked.
“Hibernating. We need to get everyone to my ship now,” Rick said.
Price sighed and gave the order for everyone on the Red Rage to evacuate to the Nunavut.
“Can you eject the core from the operations deck?” Rick asked.
“No, it can only be done from the reactor bay,” Price said.
Rick cursed, “I’ll eject it. Get your crew to my ship. We won’t have communication capabilities, so you’ll have to watch for the core, and the super-soldier.”
“Are you sure you can do it?” Price asked.
“I designed the thing, I should be the one to finish it,” Rick said. “Just get me the right tools and I’ll get at it.”
Bricketts lead Rick to the airlock door between the rest of the ship and the reactor bay.
“You sure you can do this?” he asked.
“It shouldn’t be too hard,” Rick said.
“I’ll start cycling the airlock now,” and Bricketts pressed a few buttons on a panel next to the door. When the light above the door flashed yellow (meaning it was ready) he nodded at Rick. “Good luck, Captain. See you on the other side.”
“I’ll come back. It’s my ship you’re driving home.”
“But you’re still technically our prisoner.”
“I’m sure I can convince Captain Price to let this one go,” Rick said with a grin. He strapped his helmet on and activated the vacuum setting. He felt the oxygen flow through the tubes and into his mask. He gave Bricketts a thumbs-up and entered the airlock.
The reactor bay was silent. There was no air to carry sound. Rick was in the back end of a ship speeding through the cosmos. The view reminded him of his childhood when he’d drive out to the Banff mountains to watch the stars, since the light pollution in Calgary made seeing anything other than Luna and Venus impossible. The view was breathtaking. Most of his time aboard the Nunavut was spent staring at screens and false representations of the galaxy. He savoured the moment. It may be his last.
As he crept towards the reactor, the super-soldier’s back flexed, black ridges roiling around under the newly repaired flesh. Rick walked in a wide circle around the outer shell of the core housing and the super-soldier, looking for the access panel to eject it. His suit sent up an alert saying he was being hit with a higher-than-normal amount of radiation and gave him ten minutes until adverse effects would start showing. He ignored it. On his second pass around the core housing, he found it. The access panel was hidden behind the super-soldier’s left leg. Great, he thought. He stepped over to the panel, walking slowly to minimize the vibrations going through the hull of the ship.
Rick crouched down, his throat tight with fear, his heart beating heavily in his chest. These soldiers were designed to not harm those they recognized as friends, which would have made them excellent first-line soldiers in a battle, but the success rate of the friend-or-foe recognition modification was around 20%. And to add to that, Rick was wearing Martian armour. If this thing noticed him, recognized him as an enemy force, it would all be over. Since there was no air, it would be a slower death, like being trampled by bulls instead of by a train. He reached out, and softly shifted the super-soldier’s shin up. He didn’t have to move it far, it just had to be out of the way for the panel to open. The super-soldier’s back pulsed and its leg shifted. The back of Rick’s neck felt damp and cold.
He opened the panel slowly, logged in to the terminal and began punching in the commands to eject the reactor core. Before he could enter the override code that Bricketts gave him, the super-soldier turned its head towards Rick. It saw him and bared its long sharp teeth. If there was an atmosphere in here, Rick knew it would be screaming. A shiver ran down his spine. He froze in place while in his suit he was shifting through menus in the helmet to pump himself amphetamines to make himself speed up.
When he felt the rush of ice and fire through his body, he began mashing at the keyboard to type in the override code to eject the core. Before he could hit enter to accept the code, the super-soldier kicked him across the room. He slammed into the wall, but managed to click his magnetic boots on to stop him from sliding out of the back of the ship. The super-soldier slid off the other side of the reactor module and for a moment, Rick couldn’t see him. He started to move back to the terminal. At the terminal, he hit enter so the ship would accept the override and eject the reactor core. It counted down from three, two, one, and then a large glowing cylinder about the size of a truck tire shot out the back. The super-soldier looked off in its direction, tilted its head, and then looked back at Rick.
He’s not taking it, Rick thought. Why isn’t he taking it? The super-soldier crawled towards Rick, its hands puncturing the floor to create handholds for itself. It moved slowly, the absence of radiation and oxygen greatly reducing its abilities. Rick pulled out a slug-throwing pistol that was in the suit and shot at the super-soldier. The bullet holes didn’t close this time, which was a good sign. He emptied the clip at it, but it kept crawling. It was getting closer now, maybe twenty feet away. Rick was flashing through options in his head. Grab the soldier and fly out the back with it, or let it get me. Either way, I’m done.
Taking a deep breath, Rick threw the pistol at the super-soldier. When it bounced off its shoulder, it turned to look at it out the window. Its large bug eyes squinted at the pistol as it tumbled out the back of the ship. Rick reached inside his belt and pulled the wrench he used to open the access panel with. He threw it at the super-soldier, who watched it tumble out the back. Rick scrambled up the wall using his magnetic boots and as he was climbing a shelf on the wall knocked his spare oxygen bulb off his belt. The bulb tumbled towards the back of the ship and shattered, and the super-soldier crawled over to it.
Rick watched the super-soldier try to soak up the liquid oxygen that was quickly evaporating, and it gave him an idea. He scrolled through a menu in his helmet system to pump his suit full of oxygen, and he felt like he was inside a balloon. Then he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and removed the oxygen bulb from his suit. His suit started blaring critical warning alerts saying he had a handful of seconds left of oxygen. He tossed the oxygen bulb towards the edge of the ship, and the super-soldier reached for it with its left hand and lost its grip of the ship with its right. It flew out of the ship into the void stretching to reach the bulb.
Rick, took the last breath of oxygen in his suit, climbed towards the airlock door near the other side of the room. His magnetic boots slowed him down more than if he hadn’t needed them. His lungs were screaming for air. Black spots appeared around the edges of his vision. He felt the ship buck as the Nunavut kicked on its exhaust plume to disintegrate the super-soldier. He reached for the airlock panel, missing it by what he thought was a few inches.
Rick stepped forward again, flailing his arm out to the panel and missing; he was still too far. He tried to gasp for air, but there was none left. Everything began to look like he was in a long dark tunnel, like he was looking through a telescope the wrong way. His chest felt like it was going to explode. Reaching out for the panel one last time, he missed and numbness washed over him. Everything went dark.