Papal Space Crusaders
Literary Issue: Short Story by Kathryn Zurmehly
He was so sick of sad stories.
“Get your head out of the clouds.”
“We’re in a vacuum. There are no clouds.”
Max’s blank faceplate jerked towards him slightly and Chris was certain he rolled his eyes. The other man adjusted his grip on the external airlock handle and said, “Open the hatch already.”
The timer on Chris’ helmet display ticked down ever closer to zero. “A few seconds.”
The grumbling sigh that he was sure the other man made didn’t get transmitted.
A woman had married this guy. It was amazing.
This operation was supposed to be bloodless. It only stayed that way if they followed the timeline. The crew needed to be up front at dinner so the two of them could get at the engine.
Big corporate clone haulers like this had small crews because so much space and energy were required to grow the fetuses and large crews made ships both more expensive and slower. This one, generically named Pioneer, had a crew of only four: captain, pilot, engineer, and an natal intensive care unit tech specialist. They ate together based on the local time of their home station.
It was an expected to be an easy cruise for those four. Everyone knew the Church condemned cloning; it was one of the few offenses subject to automatic excommunication. But they also knew that the Church’s Hospitaller forces hit fortified indoctrination facilities or waged wars with prison states. They didn’t appear to do anything about the business of cloning. It was a complaint for some and a cheerful fact for others. Of course, in reality the Hospitaller forces were covertly doing quite a lot. If it was so widely known it would compromise their strategic advantage over the clone slavers.
The risk of accident, now that was something else. Someday someone was going to wonder why it was these clone haulers had such safety terrible records.
The timer clicked down to zero. “Mark,” Chris said and hit the button on the breaching mechanism. The rectangular line of epoxy changed into a short-lived powerful acid and ate through the door.
The two Hospitaller agents snagged the hatch as soon as it was loose and swapped places with it, allowing the chunk of metal to drift away into space as they slipped into the airlock. The secondary seal slammed into place behind them, nearly taking off the back of their heads.
No alarm sounded. Max had managed to access the door’s systems externally and kill that system for this auxiliary airlock, pretty simple as it was in the aft. Chris checked his weapons in case today decided to be unpredictable as Max moved to hack the internal door.
It would be good, he thought, not to be the source of any sad stories today. At least not any bloody ones.
The internal airlock slid open after a moment and the warmth of the ship’s atmosphere hit them. The temperature display on his helmet ratcheted up like it had been hooked up to a caffeine IV.
Max grunted. “If we kept it this hot, the Prior would have a cow.”
“Most of it is proximity to the reactor,” Chris told him, carefully exiting the airlock. Gravity was probably close to Mars standard from the feel of it, at least here. The reactor chamber was right in front of them, a huge column that dominated the room, and the walls were lined with screens and workstations. It was all very sleek and white- the hallmark of Pygmalion Consortium design. The black angular armor of the two Hospitaller agents seemed to mar it just by being there.
The thought made Chris grin to himself. A quick scan had nothing in the room pinging his infrared sensors as living. “All clear.” He let his rifle hang from its sling and reset the mission timer. “All yours.” He bounded to the room’s entrance, looking through its glass window at an angle.
He found himself staring right into the rotating cylindrical torus of the fetus transport chamber. Clone transport ships were not complicated, and this was why. If you were growing a soldier or five hundred to sell, you wanted Earth-normal conditions as much as possible and that took a lot of energy. It was why these ships had small crews, it was why their jump drives were so small, it was why they had to drop into systems to realign before their next jump.
It was why the Hospitallers were able to steal them and spare these small lives from slavery.
Maybe not from war. Chris was here, after all. Though he’d chosen it.
Considering the way the people are and had always been, maybe no one ever really escaped from war.
“We’re in atmosphere now, so be extra careful to avoid the clouds,” Max called over his shoulder.
“You got that program installed yet?”
“This ship is from Natal Six, not Five.”
Which was a whole system away. The crew was functioning on a totally different planetary time than expected.
As if on cue, one of the crew came floating through the transport chamber, nose in a tablet, guiding himself using the railing on the stationary walkway through the ship’s center.
Chris threw himself back from the window, stumbling as he misjudged the effects of the one-third Earth gravity. He caught sight of the ledge above the door. “Up,” he grunted, scrambling up the rounded edge with the assistance of muscles trained to much higher gravity than this.
Max huffed as he joined him. “Up,” he stated as the two jammed themselves carefully between the doorframe’s top and the ceiling. It was tight in every direction and Chris wondered if Max was jamming his elbow into his armored diaphragm by accident or on purpose.
“Would you ever think to look up on your own ship?”
“Well, you’re a trained killer.” The crewman thunked to the floor as the door opened, eyes still on his tablet. It looked like he was watching some sort of movie trailer compilation, probably from the latest comms burst to the ship between jumps. “This guy isn’t.”
“Just a slaver.”
“Let’s do this the way the Sir Sy planned it.” The weight of Max’s unseen incredulous glare made him want to shrug, but he didn’t dare move and risk making noise. “With some adjustments.”
Below the engineer idly read a few status reports and beat a silvery high-tech coffee maker into submission. “You’re disinvited from dinner,” Max growled.
“I don’t think that falls under your authority.”
“I’ll make a recommendation to command.” The other man shifted ever so slightly. His left shoulder, injured before Chris had known him, was probably locking up. “We need to trigger something to get them into the escape pod. A reactor breach alarm isn’t going to work when the engineer is standing next to the reactor.”
“Right.” They watched the engineer scowl over his coffee at what Chris assumed was something Max had done to the ship’s systems. “Aliens.”
“I thought you were for not killing the slavers.”
“All we need to do is give them a story to tell. Maybe it will scare them out of this business.”
“Not if there’s no blood involved.”
“Consider it a challenge.” He watched the engineer settle in and start to edit some code. He never entirely understood what Max did to the systems, but it evidently wasn’t just one thing. “Uh, can you do something about the lights?”
“Hang on.” Max went still, using the eye-motion controls on his helmet display.
A long minute passed as the engineer below typed away. He stabbed enter suddenly and with a lot of passion.
The lights went out.
“The hell?” the man yelled in the near dark. The screens were still on, as were the rows of green indicator lights on the reactor’s control panel, but their light was feeble compared to the room’s normal bright lights.
Max jerked his head and Chris dropped to the floor with a sigh. This could start with blood or it could start with fear. His choice.
These people, they were just corporate drones, making a living, not thinking about their cloning and slaving as monstrous. That didn’t make it any less monstrous, but all they saw of it was sleek white walls and rows of blinking status lights in the transport torus.
Maybe that made it all a sadder story, that a plain horror could be somehow hidden so well from those who lived in the middle of it, who lived off it. It wasn’t a new story.
Chris crouched in silence as the engineer started furiously trying to persuade the ship into turning the lights back on. The rattle of the keyboard masked his own footsteps. Hospitaller armor wasn’t massive and clunky, but it wasn’t meant for this sort of stealth, either.
He paused as he loomed over the unarmored man. The slaver.
His arm snaked around the man’s throat and he locked him into a chokehold, pulling him out of reach of the keyboard and screens. Bare hands scrabbled uselessly against black armor.
The man went still and Chris lowered him to the floor, laying him on his side. Max dropped to the floor and toed the engineer none too gently. “Alive.”
“The Prior prefers this bloodless.”
It wasn’t like he could argue that. “Okay, then, how do we get him to the escape pod and scare the other three into it?”
“You hit the lights in the whole ship?”
“There wasn’t really an option. Well, let’s lock the door for now.” He dropped into the engineer’s chair, the weight of the armor making it creak in protest, and hit a few keys. He drummed his fingers on the dash next to the keyboard. “What,” he said thoughtfully, “would aliens do when trying to abduct a crew of slavers for horrifying experiments?” The hum of the ship filled the silence for a moment. “Gravity.”
Chris grabbed the desk just as everything began to float. The engineer’s limp body floated off the deck while his now abandoned coffee made itself into a little hovering sphere as it drifted away from its just as unmoored mug.
The ship’s bridge was probably in total chaos now between the darkness and the gravity. “I don’t think the crew is having a good day,” Chris said, pushing off the desk to snag the floating engineer. Zero gravity maneuvering was always so weird. The body and mind weren’t really meant for it. He used his free hand to shove himself and the limp crewmember to the door.
“I killed internal comms, too,” Max said, joining him and hitting the switch for the door, “They’re headed this way unless heads got bumped.”
They both pushed themselves gently into the darkened transport chamber and very, very carefully, let the engineer go. Well, Chris more carefully than Max. If the guy’s skull got caved in because of a zero-G collision with the hull, it would be messy, but Max wouldn’t feel anything was lost.
Maybe he was right. Maybe that unconscious man had lost everything there was to lose but his life. But there was no way of knowing that.
The status lights of the natal intensive care units still all showed green. “You didn’t cut those systems?”
“They’re separate. Besides, those kids have it hard enough without developmental problems.”
Both agents pushed off the central walkway facing each other. Chris’ eyes had adjusted, as had his helmet display, so he could make out the shapes of the railing and his teammate in the dark. “So the goal is to freak them out and make them grab their buddy as they high-tail it to the escape pod.”
Max tapped the butt of his rifle exaggerating the motion so Chris could see in the dim light. “That’s much harder than killing them.”
“Yeah, well. That wasn’t what we were going to do anyway.” One guy. One guy had walked into the engine room and here they were. “Can you lock them out of the engine room and get control of the bridge door?”
The door at the other end of the long walkway opened noisily. Flashlights cut through the darkness in broad sweeps. “Yeah. Can you be scary?”
“I thought that was the point of the faceless armor.” He drifted to a wall and grabbed the handle of one of the natal intensive care unit tanks, letting the wall’s rotation carry him upward. The centrifugal force of the rotation took some of the work of the transport chamber’s gravity generators and it was going to make this interesting. His heat sensors let him see that Max locked the engine room door, then swung himself under the walkway to use it to guide him across to the bow section door.
A light beam passed over him. He held his breath but any attention he might have gotten was immediately taken away. “Werner!” one of the crew, a woman, shouted. The lights converged on the still and barely drifting engineer and the other three crew scrambled over to him. Only one seemed to be any good at moving in zero-G.
Chris braced himself as the woman began checking over their buddy. The others had to scramble at the rail to stop moving. One man’s legs stuck out into darkness and Chris decided it was time to play on primal fears.
He lined himself up and launched himself across the chamber, snagging at the man’s dangling foot to drag him off the rail. He let go but ended up holding onto his shoe as he sailed back into the dark.
Eh, shoe. Chris hurled it down to bounce hard against the walkway, accelerating his own flight to the wall. He scrambled to catch himself on a handle. Physics without gravity, fun times. He settled in to watch and wait.
The man he’d pulled off the railing flailed. “Alec! What was that?”
The confused reply was very heavily accented, but it was clear the guy didn’t know. The others dragged him back to the railing, chattering and visibly afraid, clutching each other and their unconscious engineer. Chris grinned to himself.
“Can you please pick up the pace?” Max growled over comms, “Yes, you can be scary and steal a shoe, congratulations.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He worked his way across the walls, moving counter to their rapid rotation. “Hey, is there a mag strip on that walkway?”
“Standard thing, yeah.”
As the crew worked their way back, one of the crewmen looked around nervously, his flashlight flickering every way but up. “You’ve heard…sometimes ships get disabled on this route…”
“Do monsters try to drag you into the dark on these ships?” the one Chris had grabbed, Alec, snapped.
“You just drifted farther than you meant to,” the woman told him, “That’s all it was. Let’s get Joln up to the bridge.”
“Yeah, we’re in our jump window,” the last man said, “The drive should be cool enough. I just need to check the orientation and we can kiss this system goodbye.”
“But why is Joln passed out? Why did the gravity cut out?” Alec demanded as the crew began moving towards the bridge door. Chris followed them from above. Their flashlights fell on the sleek white door ahead, though Alec’s swept all over, searching.
This would be more fun with more risk, though truth be told there was plenty, just not to Chris and Max right here and now. If the clone transport crew figured out who they were, the Hospitallers would be in for it from a whole new angle- with whole new terrors. A Consortium fighting for its survival or, at least, reprisal was going to pull out all its little horror story stops.
Max was right. It would be easier if they just killed them.
For the two agents, and in material terms. But these people would still be dead and even Consortium corporate drones had families and friends. Not knowing better wasn’t an excuse, but…they clearly cared for their buddy. It seemed wrong to dash that all away when they could solve this in an admittedly more complicated way.
Chris made sure his rifle was locked onto his back, then twisted so his feet were pointed toward the walkway. It didn’t take a big push to send him flying to the walkway.
He slammed into the metal with a reverberating thump and triggered the magnetic lock in his boots. The strip wouldn’t be very wide, but he was hoping he wouldn’t be doing much walking. At least the required penguin-hobble wouldn’t look very human.
The flashlights slowly converged on him in slow silent terror.
Chris held absolutely still, letting them take in his dark featureless faceplate. The black angular armor was mostly lost to the dark, turning Chris into a vague and strange shadow-on-shadow, its matte surface reflecting nothing.
Carefully, he took a lunging step forward.
The trio began dragging themselves back to the bridge in a frenzy. The woman pushed off the railing to sail ahead.
Leaving their engineer behind. Chris sighed and stepped forward to push the man gently after them before disengaging the mag-lock on his boots. He swung himself under the walkway and kicked himself towards where Max waited with a data pad linked to an opened panel. Above them, the frenzied crew tried to get the door to cooperate.
“Keep the door from closing?”
“Already on it,” Max said, stopping himself next to his partner, “You want to reinforce the point or should I?”
“Wouldn’t want to risk messing up your streak.”
Chris peeked up to see they’d finally wrangled their engineer, who seemed to be stirring. “Open it.”
The door slid open and the crew piled through, forgetting for a moment that gravity was off for the whole ship. One of them slammed the button to close it behind them. Max let it go a third of the way shut, then stopped it.
Chris threw himself upward and slammed his left arm hard on the walkway just shy of the door.
His elbow howled and he hissed between his teeth. Ow, ow, ow.
He got the result he wanted, at least. Screams and the sounds of a mad dash for the escape pod door.
“Come on,” Max said, “Come on. There you go.” The sound of the escape pod door sealing seemed loud in the still dark ship. “Go knock on that door, make them put a little hustle into it.”
Chris pulled himself up and kicked himself to the sealed escape pod. Junk floated all over, including trash from the kitchen. Chris knocked away an empty wrapper and slammed his fist against the door, jarring his injured elbow.
When the escape pod disengaged, it boosted away and sent the whole transport ship backward, sending the ship whirling while everything else flew wherever it wanted. Chris latched onto the door, yanking on that bad elbow and trying not to be sick, as everything settled out into a stable orbit, junk whirling and twirling everywhere.
“And they’re away.” Max came drifting by like some sort of nightmare seal. “That was a lot more work than it should have been.”
Chris let go of the door and held his elbow to his chest. “Might have broken something.” Probably not- the gel layer in the armor was there to prevent that sort of thing- but it felt like it.
“You chose this route.” Max jammed himself into the tiny cockpit and hit some buttons. The trash and Chris hit the deck immediately and the lights came on. Chris only kept his feet thanks to muscle memory from old training. “Serves you right.”
“Human lives beat out my broken bones.” Chris slumped against the edge of the cockpit, watching as Max fiddled with the ship’s systems. “Looks like they’re headed to the far side of the system. Hope they don’t burn out the pod’s power reserves before they remember to turn on the emergency beacon.”
“That’d be poetic justice.”
“They’re just people, Max.”
“So are we. For all you know, one of those people was crewing the ship that was hauling your fetal self to a life of slavery in service of some banana republic dictator with more uranium than ethics.”
That would have been twenty-four years ago, so unlikely, but Chris got the point. “They might not stay this way.”
“They probably will.” He entered in a course correction and the ship’s various jets kicked in to line her up for the jump to their insertion craft’s rendezvous point. As they shut off, Max sighed, looking up at Chris for a moment. “But I get it. Still think it’s stupid, and so does your arm, but I get it. The Prior will be happier with your plan than mine, anyway.”
“Not too happy. Spreading superstition and all.”
“It was that or blood. Sir Sy will make your case.” Max flipped through a list of status reports on the touchscreen of the pilot’s main console. “Eh, never gets the connection to the torus systems back quite right. Hate these infernal ships in every way. Go check on the transport chamber, make sure the kids are actually okay. I’m taking us to jump in ten. The tanks should be fine but…”
“Yeah.” Chris left the other man to the cockpit and headed back to the transport torus, crushing random trash beneath his boots. He felt gravity lighten as he neared the door, then it was gone as he got through it.
Row upon row upon row of green lights looked in on him from every angle, not a single one amber or red. He let go of the walkway’s railing and let himself drift.
They’d be free now, these boys. Like he and all the men who were, effectively, his brothers. Some had chosen peaceful lives and some had chosen this war as he had. Some had mistaken freedom for license and for many of those, the universe was busy breaking them under its boot.
Maybe they would have sad stories, but not today. Today, they’d been snatched from the jaws of the Enemy. Maybe so had that crew of four out in their escape pod.
It was enough for today.