And then came Chapter 29: After These Messages…
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The previous novel, Biotech Legacy: Stars Rain Down, is currently available exclusively through Amazon.
After These Messages
Rolling hills and broken ravines stretched out, darkly lit in starlight and the weak glow of an all too distant sun. Larry Hopkins trotted along at a steady military jog, and had been for several long klicks. That came after having covered roughly the same distance on his way through the outpost and out through a surface hatch.
His remaining equipment included two grenades, one mostly discharged Lancer carbine which he’d taken to calling Stan, and a red key that hung about his neck like an albatross. He had to hope the monster was down for good, because this arsenal had proven mostly useless.
But he his mission was almost complete. The false rocks up ahead covered the station’s hangar doors, and external controls would be hidden nearby. He’d finally get a chance to catch his breath and rest his burning thighs.
The circular hatch was fifty meters across, and even up close it was difficult to identify. The fake rocks and pebbly surface were the right colors but just a little too smooth and too ordered.
That just left finding the terminal. Larry activated his transponder and hoped the computer was still functioning well enough to ping him back. He waited. A reply tone came.
Larry’s helmet highlighted the terminal’s location and he trotted over. When he was standing over it, he realized there was an obvious handle that he probably should have spotted earlier.
In another moment, he had the service door open and dropped inside. He leaned against the wall, roused the sleeping computer and started typing at a nice even pace. Login, Administration, System Overrides, Manual Hatch Control, Unlock…
His eyelids began to droop right about the time the lock came undone with a loud clank. He selected the Emergency Release option and triumphantly slapped Enter.
A message flashed on screen. !!!Power Grid Disrupted — No Power To Hatch!!!
He managed not to curse, and his dear departed mother would’ve been pleased. Instead, he used his phone to call home.
“Thank Cthulhu you’re alive,” Jansen said. Larry didn’t reply immediately and he went on. “Unless you’re not Hop. Are you the alien? Did you take over his body? I’m with the galactic police, so it’s illegal to lie to me.”
Larry sighed loudly.
Jansen said, “Oh, hey Hop.”
“We’ve got a problem,” Larry replied. “I got the door unlocked, but, uh… the station glitched and tried to fire again. The doors don’t have enough juice now.”
“Reroute through the…”
“Whatever you’re going to say, it’s broken. It’s all broken, Nils.” All except one thing, Larry thought as he clutched the red key.
“So, what then?”
“You guys have to push it open with The Beagle. The panels are loose… you should be able to nudge it and squeeze through.”
“Eh, I think we can manage that,” Jansen said.
Marco chimed in, “Easy as pie!”
“Good,” Larry said. He jumped up and pulled himself out of the service door. It didn’t take long to notice trouble was on its way.
A slender figure jutted out from the horizon, chased by a cloud of dust. It was sprinting with the smooth grace of a cheetah racing after a wounded antelope.
“Guys,” Larry said. “Hurry. This dang thing is about to kill me.”
He shoulder rolled behind a fake rock, pulled out his carbine and tried to breathe steady. However many shots he had left, they’d have to be enough.
Marco slid into the pilot’s seat, where Hopkins’ wide ass was usually parked. He keyed in his command code and the console lit-up, reporting the status of The Beagle’s many different systems. He brought the powerplant to full, grabbed the yoke and lifted his ship off the tarmac.
Jansen jumped into his own seat to the left and started going over the sensor scans. “Hop was right. Locks are off. Just nudge up under one of the panels, and give it around three-percent throttle.”
“Aye, Aye,” Marco said, and grimaced briefly.
He brought The Beagle in surgically, tapped the nose to the hatch and pushed. Metal hinges and actuators whined at his touch, until the hunk of armor finally began to move.
He saw stars on the other side.
The Beagle’s hull let out a high-pitched moan as it scraped by, and Marco hoped the cost of repainting wouldn’t be taken out of his pay… not that he received any.
The blocky shuttle finally came free and Marco leveled it out. He rotated slowly to survey the area, but couldn’t find Hopkins anywhere. There were too many blobby rock formations the size and shape of Hopkins, which left him searching for the one blob in motion.
“Got him,” Jansen said. “And whatever’s chasing him is coming in hot.”
The sensor lock appeared on Marco’s display, a multi-colored group of concentric rings that spun and pulsed to mark the spot. He leaned forward on the yoke and The Beagle burst into motion.
The shuttle cruised lower over the rocks, and their objectives quickly came into sight. Larry Hopkins was hauling ass, juking and weaving from cover to cover and tossing in a surprisingly awesome shoulder roll here and there, all while the reedy alien rampaged after him, blasting rocks to smithereens to clear its way.
“Why didn’t they put guns on this thing?” Marco said through his teeth.
“Just a guess,” Jansen replied, “but probably for the same reason they locked the weapons cabinet and threw away the key.”
Damn that horrible day.
Marco twisted the yoke and brought The Beagle around in a sharp turn, and the stomping monster was so blinded by rage that it paid no attention. Then Marco twisted the yoke downward, slamming the enemy under the shuttle’s nose.
Rock exploded and rained down in a wide half-circle. Screens showed that The Beagle’s reactive armor had absorbed the impact, but the sound nevertheless made Marco’s stomach flip a somersault.
He put the shuttle in reverse and backed up for thirty meters, then set down blind in a small clearing. The whole time, he watched the maroon colored foe pick itself up off the ground and take aim.
The monster’s first blast hit a moment later, rocking The Beagle on its feet. The armor held, but it couldn’t stand many more like that.
Marco dragged a finger across the glass and The Beagle’s rear ramp came down, venting atmosphere to the desolate surface of Charon in a haunting cloud. Then he transferred extra power to armor and said, “You’re up, Jansen.”
Nils Jansen leapt out of his seat, sprinted toward the rear of the ship, then jumped and slid down the ramp. He hit the gravel running, aided by his helmet’s low-light mode which recast the world in shades of amber.
He stopped short of The Beagle’s nose, while another bright bolt struck the ship and splashed off like a shower of hot magma. At the edge of the rock thicket, Hopkins’ rotund form appeared and dashed toward the ship with surprising speed.
Jansen waved him on. “Come on… Come on!”
Hopkins reached out and Jansen took hold of his hand, then dragged him back toward the ramp.
“We have to stop it!” Hopkins cried over the comms.
Jansen said calmly, “I know.”
“Self-destruct,” Hopkins huffed between breaths, while gripping a key hanging around his neck.
Another blast rocked The Beagle and Jansen’s lip curled. He stopped in his tracks and shoved Hopkins behind The Beagle’s landing skid. Then he waited one breath, drew his pistol, turned and squeezed the trigger.
A beam streaked out of the tip, as thin as a knitting needle and bright as a signal flare. Through the rain of freshly exploded rock, the beam drew a straight line that ended in the monster’s glowing red eye.
Life went out of the thing mid-stride and it crashed to the ground limply, limbs flailing as it tumbled end over end through the debris. It reminded Jansen entirely too much of a motorcycle accident he witnessed once in horror.
“God damned cowboy,” Hopkins grumbled.
Jansen smirked. “Always thought of myself as more of a 1970s movie cop, but whatever.” He twirled the Lancer around his finger and dropped it back in the holster.
Marco came running around the back of the ship a second later. “Nice shot, Nils,” he said over the comms.
“To be fair, you softened him up,” Jansen replied with mock modesty. “So… it’s dead, right? Right?”
Marco was panting when he reached them. His cardio was simply atrocious. “Dead as a doornail,” he said hoarsely. He put one hand on a thigh for support, and made a pantomime gun with the other. “Boom! Headsh…”
“No,” Jansen said, cutting him off. “Don’t say that. Never that.”
Hopkins looked testy, with his whale-man flippers crossed for some reason Jansen couldn’t imagine. The red key still dangled from his neck.
“Where’d ya get that?” Jansen asked.
Stalling was not one of Larry Hopkins’ strong suits. It was rather like the rest of his suits: not strong at all, and rather more blubbery and spineless.
“Motherfucking weapons locker,” Jansen said. “If you made it to the security station, why didn’t you come back with the demolition charges?”
“Damned thing wouldn’t leave me alone,” Hopkins said, pointing at the smoking corpse. “Hounded me all over the lower decks. And what do you mean, bring back the demolition charges?”
Jansen looked over at Marco, who’d just caught his breath and was beginning to stand nearly as upright as an australopithecine, or perhaps a cromagnon.
Jansen pointed and said, “You owe me a bottle of hooch, Captain Marco.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Marco said. “Hop, did you get our messages?”
Hopkins’ face turned red as a fire-engine. One that had somehow caught fire.
Jansen felt his stomach drop.
“You, uhh…” Jansen said, “Ya mind reading ’em now?”
Jansen watched Larry Hopkins’ eyes go wide as the whale-man read through the collection of emergency transmissions. Jansen knew from having written them that they explained how he’d tapped into a backup sensor network and discovered that the thing was destroying computer systems left and right, then politely asked Hopkins to please, please, please, for the love of all that is holy, turn off his phone.
There were other details, like the fall-back plan to acquire demolition charges from the security station, blow the hatch and escape while the station self-destructed, but that all seemed a bit extraneous compared to the deadly important bit about the phone.
Marco winked. “You can leave the bottle on my doorstep, Jansen. I prefer expensive vodka… ya know, if any still exists.”
“I don’t get it,” Jansen said.
Hopkins said, “Look, I was…”
Jansen quieted him with an upraised finger. “Not that… expensive vodka. The more it costs, the less it tastes like anything at all. Why not just get cheap grain alcohol?”
“Style,” Marco said lasciviously.
And Jansen shook his head. He glanced over at the corpse he’d just made, and tried not to beam with pride. “So, what do we do with Señor Ugly Puss?”
“Put him on ice and haul him back to the Fleet,” Marco said. “Gotta figure out who came knocking on our door.”
“Ooh, good one,” Jansen said. “Very dramatic.”
“We should scavenge its ship,” Hopkins added. “Bring back whatever fits in the hold.”
Marco nodded, and after a second, Jansen did too. Then the three stood silent and motionless, none of them in any rush to collect the fallen, and quite likely foul-smelling, beast.
And thus ends the stooges’ latest adventure in space. Coming up Thursday, we’ll take a look at Chapter 30: Little Fugue, featuring Jack Hernandez and Kai. Be here, or be a regular quadrilateral!
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