She survived the Spiders’ virus… but is it just a stay of execution?
Carolyn Kestral’s last encounter with the hostile, spiderlike aliens known as Raians, and their attack virus—code-named Venom—didn’t kill her as expected, but all the same destroyed her career in the Orion Guard. Now the proud owner of a Quicksilver-class freighter, she gathers a small crew and goes into business on her own. But when a clandestine first run attracts the attention of the Spiders, Kestral’s crew worries that the stress could trigger the virus, turning her into a lethal human weapon at the worst possible moment…
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Preview: The Guard
When the deck heaved the second time, there had been no collision alert sounded. That was not good. It meant that the bridge was either too busy fighting off attacking Spider ships, or dealing with damage control, to have time to issue alerts.
It also meant that when the deck dropped away, it sent dozens of crewmen, many of them in full run from one place to another, pitching into the air unexpectedly. They came down everywhere, many of them tumbling into each other in alarmed, painful knots. One such group of three crewmen carrying bulky power packs sailed across the corridor, collided with the deck and slid in a tumble across the floor, to impact against the wall and pin a fourth body that had already fallen there.
The crewmen cursed and shoved as they tried to untangle themselves and their gear. They seemed to be having limited success, until a voice emanated from the body they had pinned against the wall.
“Get it together, Guardsmen!”
This seemed to do the trick, giving the crewmen the impetus to straighten themselves out and regain their feet. The last one up looked back down at the person who had been pinned to the wall, and winced in apology. “Sorry, Commander.” One of the other Guardsmen, upon seeing who they had pinned against the wall, flushed violently, and his mouth worked open and closed without uttering a sound. That was because the Commander was well-known on the ship, as beautiful a woman as she was intelligent and capable an officer, and any number of able-bodied crewmen would have given their eye-teeth to have been pressed so closely against her.
One offered a hand, and the woman on the deck used it to lever herself back to her feet. At her full height, she was as tall as the smallest of the crewmen, none of whom would be considered short by any means. Her height complemented a physical stature that had been known to reduce virile men to gibbering idiots in her presence… one of whom was apparently before her now. His mouth still opened and closed like a fish out of water, his eyes reflecting his mortification.
“S’okay,” she said to the crewmen, the mortified one especially. “Get those power packs to your stations. Go!”
The crewmen gathered up their packs and bounded off down the corridor, leaving the Commander there with the other three-dozen crewmen strewn about the deck. Most of them were on damage control, made necessary by a barrage of particle fire from the Spiders that had caused a power surge and blown out the conduits throughout the section. The Commander had been closest to the section, and she knew how close the damage was to some vital shield cooling systems they could not afford to lose. So she had immediately taken over damage control organization there.
Unfortunately, it already looked like the systems were too far gone… and if the coolant lines blew out, they would release a toxic cloud that would fill the corridor in seconds. While the Commander gave orders, she expected at any second to have to evacuate the section.
“We’re back up, Commander!”
She turned to see one of the maintenance teams slapping the covering plates back down on an access box they had just finished patching.
“All right, lock it down and get out of this section!” the Commander shouted. “I want minimum personnel in here until—”
Her orders were cut off when the deck jumped out from underneath them again. And something different: A force that struck her from behind, accompanied by a deafening noise. She was pitched into more flailing crewmen, and landed in a heap with them.
Being on top of this heap, she was up quickly this time, and swiveled her head about to assess the damage. The far end of the corridor was filled with a peculiar colored smoke, obscuring the space beyond. That wasn’t the color of the coolant, she knew.
Then she became aware of a noise… a keening, high-pitched wail that grew louder and more insistent. Her throat constricted as her emergency training kicked in.
“Hull breach!” She cried out, and pitched forward. There had been crewmen just a few meters into that cloud, and she couldn’t see them now. She had to see if anyone needed help. “Everyone out except damage control! Prepare to seal off this deck!”
She advanced into the cloud, waving her arms in an attempt to see. A slight breeze tugged at loose wisps of her hair, but it did not seem to be too insistent yet… and it wasn’t dissipating the odd cloud… so she continued, cautiously but urgently. She almost tripped over the first crewman she found, slumped against the wall. She knelt and checked his pulse, and breathed a sigh of relief to realize he was still alive. As quickly as she could, she pulled the unconscious crewman’s arm over her shoulder and used it to lever him onto her back. He was a bit larger than she was, but she managed to position him so that she could half-carry, half-drag him away.
As she turned to leave, she saw something on the opposite wall, a vague shape in the fog. She took only one step towards it, straining to make out the shape. Then she recognized the telltale nosecone protruding into the hull, the shattered glass ports on each side, and the cryptic markings ringing the ports.
She spun about fast as she could, struggling with her unconscious burden. “Somebody help me with this m—”
An incredible blow to the small of her back cut her off. The Commander went flying in one direction, her burden in another, and both of them ended up on the deck. She almost lost consciousness herself, so hard did she hit the floor… until a noise emanated from within the cloud, a tortured wail that turned her blood cold. Pure adrenalin forced her to struggle upright, and she spun around to face a nightmare.
A shape seemingly twice her size came out of the cloud, bellowing, swinging massive arms and clenched fists. No sooner had the Commander regained her feet, she doubled back down, and its first swing missed… following through, the Commander instinctively swung about to land a foot in her huge attacker’s midsection. But her attacker was fast, too: Before she knew what had happened, her foot was caught in a viselike grip, and she was yanked off the ground. The Commander felt herself swinging through the air, her regulation-cut short brunette hair almost brushing the opposite walls of the corridor. Her breath left her, her captive leg burned as if about to tear free of her hip, and she was completely disoriented. She was absolutely sure that her life was now over.
Then her foot was released, and she cartwheeled wildly through the air. She hit the wall, and this time, consciousness did leave her. The Commander slumped to the floor, limp as a rag doll.
Her attacker, meanwhile, had jumped on the poor unconscious crewman the Commander had tried to drag out of the fog, and in three swift barehanded strokes, had managed to rip off both of his arms and his head. Then it bellowed again, the noise booming through the corridor. With clearly murderous intent, it charged out of the cloud, right at the unconscious Commander.
Suddenly the corridor was filled with a flash of light. A finger-thin beam of reddish energy lanced across the corridor, catching the attacker full in the chest. There was a scream, and the smell of burning flesh, and suddenly the attacker was in several pieces. Most of those pieces continued their forward momentum, falling to the deck and skidding several meters before coming to a stop.
“Watch for more!”
Instantly the corridor was filled with people, most of them heavily armored, and carrying particle rifles and handguns. They swarmed into the corridor, brandishing their weapons and watching every unmoving body closely.
One of the soldiers stepped close enough to nudge the severed torso of the wild attacker they had just cut down. “Oh, damn… this is Drew Franks, he’s in my group quarters… look, he dismembered that guy…”
“Try not to think about it,” another soldier advised him.
They moved into the corridor only as far as the edge of the cloud. The lead soldier peered at the cloud for a moment, then hurriedly backed off, fumbling at the atmosphere mask dangling from his neck. “Venom! Everybody out! Masks on! Seal off this deck!”
The soldiers retreated, wasting no time. All were silent now, and many of them held their breath as they struggled intently with their masks. Near the leader, another soldier bent down to grab the unconscious Commander slumped against the wall.
“What are you doing?” the leader batted his hand away. “Leave ‘er!”
“Leave her, I said!” the Lieutenant snapped. “She can’t be helped… she’s already infected!”
“We can’t leave her!” the soldier protested. “That’s Commander Kestral!”
“I know,” the Lieutenant said, looking down at her. “And she’s as good as dead.”