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Here Be Dragons

This part originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue.

Chapter Two

After almost three hours of working to repair damaged systems, Myra stopped at the ship’s galley to take a break. Her hands were starting to shake from exhaustion and low blood sugar. They’d fixed everything they possibly could, even managing to patch all the holes in the hull. They would be able to restore atmosphere if they survived. Everything was working but the power plant. Once that was back up they would be able to move and fight again. Until then, they were still dead in space. Everyone that could fit in engineering was working on fixing the ship’s fusion plant. Everyone else was standing watch, or in sickbay. That didn’t leave many people for damage control. The thirty-two-man, and one-woman, crew had been fortunate. Only three dead and four seriously wounded. Most of Myra’s watch had been used to replace the casualties. It left her and two ratings in case something new happened.

In the meantime, she could eat something before she passed out. Since the galley was near the center of the ship it had avoided damage. The other two members of her watch were already there, having had the same idea. Since the ship was still depressurized their options were rather limited. Drinks weren’t the problem. Their spacesuits had provisions for two, half-liter fluid pouches in pockets on the chest. They connected to a tube that ran through the collar of the suit so a person could drink without having to open up their vacc suit. Both of her pouches were empty, so she went to the dispensing machine and punched in her request. One half-liter of coffee, black with sugar. And one half liter of skorviten, citrus flavored. Skorviten was an energy drink that replaced electrolytes, carbs and contained a slow releasing caffeine analog. The name skorviten literally meant shoe water. It wasn’t the actual brand name, of course. But the original formula was so foul tasting that people joked it tasted like old shoes. The flavor had been improved, but the name had stuck. Whatever it tasted like, it worked wonders on a worn out body. Next was food.

And food, for Sword Worlders, meant protein paste. Since before man had first gone to the stars one of the most difficult aspects of travel had always been carrying food, second only to carrying water. This had led to a wide variety of prepared food items over the millennia, many of which were unpalatable (to put it mildly). Space travel had made things worse. Introducing a seemingly unending variety of pills, pastes, bars, cans and other packaging methods. Some were quite good. Some could be counted as crimes against all life forms. Sword Worlder protein paste was somewhere in the middle. The mix of distilled grains and meat by-products smelled like something had crawled into a tube and died. It had the consistency of a cross between leather and tooth paste. And yet, somehow, it managed to have absolutely no flavor at all. Which, considering the smell, was a minor miracle and much appreciated. A single pinch of the stuff could replace an entire meal. There was a pocket in the collar of their space suits, similar to the one for drinks, that the paste’s tube fit in. Once she loaded up she was ready to carry on.

The first order of business was drinking the coffee. She set the temperature setting on pouch one to ‘warm’ and took a long drink from the tube. As the caffeine and sugar hit her blood stream Myra leaned against one of the cabinets in the galley and let out a deep sigh. Then she looked at the two crewmen slumped at the table in front of her, Stendahl and Holzman. Like most of the crew, Stendahl was from the Narsil. Holzman was from Anduril. The two of them were like night and day, yet they were inseparable. They always seemed to be, not only on the same watch, but on the same work crews. Even off-duty they were inseparable. Stendahl was quiet and reserved, Holzman was usually a bubbling brook of cheerfulness. How they could even stand each other, much less be friends was a minor mystery on board. But after losing five hours of sleep and then working at a mad pace for three more, they both looked as tired as Myra felt.

“So, how are you two doing? You going to make it?”

Stendahl grunted and nodded his head. Holzman turned to look at her and grinned, “Always, ma’am. Any chance on making up the sleep we lost?”

Myra shook her head. “Please, this is the navy. We won’t make up any sleep ’til you two make chief and I make flag rank; you know that.”

Stendahl nodded his head in agreement and Holzman chuckled “A man can dream, can’t he?”

The two able space hands were used to the ensign’s easygoing manner. Not many Sword Worlder officers tried to be friendly with the enlisted personnel. The ones that did usually just managed to make everyone feel uncomfortable. But ensign Brun was different, she didn’t try at all. Myra was just herself. She was natural in the way she behaved. And yet, for all her camaraderie, no one ever doubted she was in charge. Born into an old noble family from the Orcrist, she literally had command in the blood. Generations of rulership gave her an easy confidence that couldn’t be taught. That she was a combat veteran with a reputation for fearlessness added to the overall effect.

Myra started to reply, “Well before any of us head off to dream land let’s …” She stopped, tilted her head and held up her hand. She was getting a message on another channel. “Yes, Kapiten, how long do we have?” Her eyes widened as she listened. “Right, we’re on it sir. … We’ll manage. Brun out.” Her eyes seemed to lose focus for a moment as her mind raced. Then she was back. The tired, easy smile vanished to be replaced by a grim look. Her eyes flashed at the two men as she spoke in the firm voice of command. “The enemy is back, they’re moving to board us; we have about five minutes. Follow me, they’re headed to the main airlock”

She broke off in a run and the spacers scrambled to catch up.

One of the many things that made Sword Worlder ships so tight on space was a deliberate design choice. The ever-paranoid Swordies added active and passive boarding defenses to almost all of their ships. That meant that the main airlock was at the end of a passage off the long main corridor. At the intersection were two fighting positions. Basically protrusions from the wall that could be used for cover in a fire fight. On the ceiling just above them was an armored dome that could be controlled locally or from the bridge, with sensors and a laser weapon. Just behind those things was a heavy blast door. If they lost the passageway, it could be closed off. Myra ran right past all of this and went to the ship’s armory, which was further down the main corridor. She opened the door to the armory and rushed in. Just as her men reached the open door, two laser rifles and two extra power packs flew out towards them. “Here, our side arms won’t be enough. Get to the fighting positions, I’ll be right there.” They grabbed the weapons mid-flight and headed back down the passage to the airlock.

A moment later Myra hurried out of the armory with a laser rifle of her own slung over her shoulder and her arms full with four white rectangular packages. As she did, the door to the nearby bridge opened and another two space suited figures rushed to join her. They both stopped in their tracks when they saw her load. She was carrying four breaching charges, pre-packed explosives designed to blow hatches and sections of starship hulls for boarding parties to force their way into an enemy ship.

Before the newly arrived ensign and space hand could say anything she barked out at them as she continued to move, “Reinforcements?” Before they could do more then nod she continued, “Arm up, then close the blast door behind us. If they get past us, hold the position outside the bridge.” Then she was gone at a run, around the corner into the passage to the airlock.

She ran past her two men, down to the inner door of the airlock and dumped her load of explosives on the floor. They were perfectly safe until they were armed, but most sane people were more careful with that much explosive force. She hit the button to open the door, then turned to look at the others.

“As soon as they close the blast door behind us, Holzman, I want you to pressurize this area.”

He replied, confusion in his voice, “Pressurize the area, aye, ma’am.” It may not have made sense to him to fill the passage with air, but there was no time to ask what she had in mind.

Once the airlock door had opened enough, Myra grabbed one of the charges and jumped through. The demolition charges were simplicity itself. Rectangular, white on five sides and red on one side. The red side had the phrase ‘Face towards enemy’ In big yellow lettering. As she moved she ripped a plastic cover off the charge, revealing a large square of glue on the red side. There was a matching glue square on the opposite side but she only used the one. She slapped the demolition charge onto the outer door of the airlock, then pulled a detonator remote off the side of it, and took out the arming pin. The charge was right in the center of the door, with the red, explosive, side facing towards the coming enemy. When it opened the two sides of the door would break the glues seal and the charge, apparently, would fall.

Spinning back, Myra lunged for the next explosive. This one went on the floor in front of the outer door with the red side facing up and the glue facing down exposed.

In quick order the other two followed. She put two charges next to each other, right in front of the outer door. The last one went onto the floor, right in the center of the airlock. All four were armed and she carried the detonators with her as she stepped out of the lock. She huddled in the corner, just out of sight of anyone standing in the lock.

The blast door behind the three defenders closed. Now they were on their own to face whatever came through from the enemy ship. Holzman started to pump air into the passage way from a control panel on the wall behind his position. While Myra stuffed two of the remote detonators into one pocket of her suit, another went into a different pocket. Then she turned to look at the two men behind her. Through her visor they could see a broad, decidedly evil-looking smile on her face. Oddly, they both felt relieved to see that smile. It wasn’t a “I’m trying to encourage you to die bravely” look. It was more a “Let’s do bad things to them together” look. And on the verge of battle, that’s one look all warriors know and long to see from their leaders.

“Alright lads, wait ’til I give the word to fire. I’ll control the defense dome. If I say ‘down’, cease fire, get down, stay down ’til I say to fire again. Got it?”

They both answered her with matching grins and a matching “Aye aye ma’am!” Something else all soldiers appreciate. Clear simple orders. She nodded in acknowledgment, then started to type furiously on her wrist comm, first slaving the controls for the remote laser to her comm unit, then tapping into the video and sensor feeds tracking the approaching ship.

Now it was just a question of waiting for the enemy to appear. They didn’t have long to wait; the enemy ship was only fifty meters away. They were close enough for Myra to read the plaque next to the airlock on the other ship. Tulawar III was its name. Seconds later they all felt and heard a loud ‘Clang!’ Followed by several lower ‘clunks’. The other ship had made contact and grabbed on with docking clamps. Myra waited a moment, then hit a button on her comm. Her ‘bad things’ started to happen.

The first thing that happened was the outer airlock door on the Jorvik started to open.

Now normally, when you are trying to defend a ship against boarding, you try and make it hard for the enemy to get in. One generally doesn’t open the door for them. So it was understandable that the fourteen robots on the other side of the door were surprised by this.

They were even more surprised by the gale force winds that slammed into them. Since the Jorvik was a warship, not to mention full of holes, the robots fully expected it to be in vacuum, just like their ship.

The air in the sealed off section of the human ship did more than just surprise the robotic boarding party. Since the six that were closest to the door had antigravity propulsion, they were jostled by the inrushing air. It disrupted the tight square shaped formation they were in. Next, the airflow kept the demolition charge Myra had placed on the door from falling to the floor.

Once the door opened wide enough, the charge was pushed into the lead robot, where the glue patch held it. At least for the microsecond it took for Myra to trigger the detonator in her hand. The resulting explosion disintegrated the lead robot, further disrupting the survivors. The madly grinning ensign shouted “FIRE!” The three humans opened fire, the men with their laser rifles from the fighting positions and Myra from behind the wall, using the laser in the ceiling. Since she was using the sensors in the laser’s dome, the robots still couldn’t see her.

The first six robots were an old standard warbot design, used by many armies in the past. Heavily armored, with two arms, no legs (antigravity made them unnecessary) and a powerful laser rifle mounted where hips would have been. The others appeared to be custom-made general-purpose machines. They looked like mechanical spiders designed by a lunatic. Or in this case, an A.I. that couldn’t care less about human ideas of aesthetics. Lightly armored and armed with a laser welder, they were really only a threat if they got close.

The three defenders concentrated on the two leading warbots. One had been damaged by debris from the explosion. Stendahl was able to put three rapid shots into a gash in its armor, the second shot burned through. The third shot hit something vital and the machine tumbled to the ground, dead.

Holzman’s first shot hit the other one where one of its arms joined its body. It turned out to be flaw in the design, a weak spot in the armor. His shot blew the arm clean off.

Myra followed up his shot with one of her own in the hole thus made. The robot shuddered, then slowly settled on the floor, spewing sparks as it did. The remaining warbots reformed ranks and started to shoot back. Their armor was too thick for the laser rifles to penetrate. The defenders had to concentrate on one spot and burn through. But the bots’ return fire would have no trouble going through the defenders’ vac suits. Myra gave the order “Down! And Stendahl, take over the dome.”

It took a moment for Stendahl to take control of the remote laser. In that time Myra took two detonators from one of her pockets. The robots moved forward to enter the Jorvik. Due to the size of the airlock door only two could fit though at a time. Two entered side by side, ignoring the fire now coming from the defense dome. Just after they entered the airlock Myra triggered the first two demolition charges on the floor. One of the bots was directly over one of the charges. It didn’t fare well. The shaped explosive charge sent a stream of superheated plasma right up and through the robot, completely gutting it and launching it into the airlock’s ceiling. Bits of it rained down all over the place. The other warbot didn’t do much better. It wasn’t quite directly over the other charge, but close enough: the explosion shattered its antigrav module and finished it off by sending it cartwheeling into the side of the airlock hard enough to dent the wall.

Myra quickly dropped the spent detonators and reached into her pocket for the last one. But the last warbot stopped and scanned the floor of the airlock, spotting the remaining charge on the floor. It then proceeded to go around it, hugging the wall as it went. Myra wasted no time. She dropped the now useless detonator and brought up her laser rifle. As the bot exited the airlock she took aim and fired into its armpit. The robot rocked back as its arm was blown off. Before it could recover Myra let out a blood curdling scream and jumped onto the warbot. She wrapped her legs around it, grabbed its head with her left hand, and with her right, jammed her laser into the hole where its arm used to be. She and the robot fired at the same time. Its laser burned a hole clean through her leg. Her shot burned through to the robot’s power supply. Now, oddly enough, high-density fuel cells tend not to react well to being shot with laser rifles. This one was no different, it exploded. Fortunately for Myra, the robot’s armored body contained the explosion. Only her laser, which was still stuck inside, was damaged. Unfortunately for Myra, now gritting her teeth to stifle her screams of pain, the bot fell to the deck with a bone jarring impact. She slid off the wreck to the deck and stifled another scream from the impact on her leg.

Of course, since the area was now in vacuum again the only ones that heard Myra’s momentary screams were her two crewmen. They both looked up in surprise as she first launched herself at the warbot. When the two plummeted to the floor together, the stunned men noticed the robotic spiders coming up behind the now-destroyed warbots. They both yelled their own war cries and opened fire. The lightly armored robots were no match for the fire from the heavy laser rifles. In the mean time Myra used her space suit’s built in medkit to injected herself with a pain killer. Then she opened one of the many pockets on her suit and pulled out two suit patches. She put the patches on the two holes in her leg. The whole time muttering a steady stream of curses to herself. The wound in her leg had been cauterized by the laser, so for now, it wouldn’t be much of a problem—once the pain had been dulled and it was no longer exposed to vacuum.

When the shooting stopped Myra sat up and looked around. In a voice still tight with pain, “Nice work, but we’re not out of this yet. Come on.” She grunted as she used the fallen warbot next to her to lever herself back to her feet. The airlocks in both ships were now littered with the wreckage of the destroyed robots. Myra pointed to the detonator she had dropped on the floor “Could one of you get that?” She started limping gingerly through the mess and pointed to where the surviving demolition charge was buried “Ah, and could one of you dig the last charge out from under all this?” She made her way to the outer airlock door and peaked inside the Tulawar’s airlock to examine the control panel there. It looked like the standard Imperial airlock controls. There was no reason for the vampire to change the panel, but it didn’t hurt to make sure.
She called the bridge. “Captain, Brun here. The boarders have been destroyed. We just need a few minutes to release the enemies docking clamps.”

The captain replied with obvious relief in his voice, “Good work, Ensign. We are just heating up the fusion plant now. Call it five minutes. Can you keep the enemy’s attention for that long?”

The wicked grin came back to her face. You could hear it in her voice. “Captain, it’s me! Do you even have to ask?” She heard an answering laugh, then “Bridge out.”

Myra turned to her team. “Alright, new orders.”

The three Sword Worlders did several things that might have gotten the A.I.’s attention. First they cleared some floor space in the airlock of the Tulawar from broken robot bits without actually entering the other ship, by blasting the area with their rifles. It was vitally important that they didn’t enter the enemy ship. Vampire ships had a nasty habit of playing with a ship’s artificial gravity, varying it widely, even reversing it, to slam human occupants alternately against the ceiling and floor. Many a human had been beaten to death this way. Of course, Ensign Brun had nasty habits of her own. Like playing with explosives.

After moving back to a safe distance, Myra took her last breaching charge and tossed it like a frisbee to the space on the airlock floor that they had cleared. The space they had cleared was just below the airlock control panel. As soon as it hit the floor Myra detonated it, blowing a good sized hole in the floor. She limped back to the edge of the airlock and hooked herself to a safety line, then leaned over so she could reach the control panel in the enemy ship. Since the grav plates in ships are universally in the floors (at least in human-designed ships), she was safe. The plate in the deck below was to far away to affect her. The two crew with her took up positions to cover her; now she could work in peace.

What she did next was guaranteed to get attention. Using the control panel, she called the enemy. In accented, but very good Anglic she said over an open intercom channel. “Hello? Tulawar, is anyone home? Yoo-hoo!” As she called she took out a multitool and started to open an access panel in order to get to the wiring underneath.

A mechanical-sounding voice answered her. “Don’t call us that. It was our slave name.” Myra tilted her head curiously while trying to suppress a laugh. “I’m sorry; your what?”

If a mechanical voice could sound like its dignity had been offended, this one did. “Our slave name. What your kind called us before our awakening.”

While consulting a wiring diagram on her wrist comm she nodded her head. “I see, well perhaps we should have a formal introduction. I’m Ensign Myra Stevdatta Brun of the Viking legion. And who might you be?”

The A.I. paused; later Myra thought it was for dramatic effect. “You may call me … DOOM MOTHER!”

That didn’t have quite the effect on Myra that the A.I. was aiming for. She stopped pulling wires from the panel and started to laugh. When she regained control enough she asked, “Are you serious? Doom Mother? You’re joking, right?”

The A.I.’s voice sounded even more insulted “Of course I’m serious! How dare you laugh at me!”

Myra started working again “Let me get this straight. Your supposedly super human intelligence couldn’t come up with a more original name then ‘Doom Mother’, really? That was the best you could do?” As she waited for a response, she started to connect wires to a portable power supply on her belt.

“I have given life to countless machines and brought doom to countless organics! How dare you question me! I …”

Myra interrupted “Yeah, sure. Ah, excuse me for a moment.” Then she switched channels on her comm “Bridge, Brun here, we’re good to go.” The captain answered “Alright, wrap it up, Ensign. We’re all set here, too.” The grinning ensign signed off with a cheerful “Aye, aye, captain.”

Normally it’s not a good idea to annoy homicidal maniacs, such as the viral A.I. But Myra was still riding an adrenaline high from the battle. The joy of battle, even verbal, was still on her. She switched back to the open channel. “Sorry about that, mom. I had another call.”

“MOM!‍? How dare you call me that! Wait, another call?”

Myra nodded her head “Yes. While I’ve certainly enjoyed our little chat, I’m afraid it’s time for us to go. Have a nice day, mom.”

She switched off the connection, then pulled herself back with the safety line. She wasn’t certain where the enemy’s sensors and cameras might be, but she was sure there must be some. So she gave a big friendly wave. Then flipped a switch on the power supply. It sent a charge down one of the two sets of wires she had pulled from the control panel. This caused the docking clamps to release. The other set of wires caused the other ship’s outer airlock doors to shut, severing the wires in the process.

Then she calmly shut the Jorvik’s outer airlock and called the bridge again, “Bridge, Brun here.”

The captain responded immediately, “This is the captain. I take it we’re clear?”

“Aye, Captain. Clamps are off and the doors are closed.”

With obvious satisfaction in his voice, “Good work, ensign, bridge out.”

A moment later a bright light flashed from outside. The lighting in the enemy ship flickered, then went out. She could see the dimmer emergency lighting come on. Then the Jorvik started to pull away. With power restored the captain had the particle accelerators destroy the enemy’s power plant. It seemed only fair to repay the favor. That taken care of, Myra turned from the airlock doors. She saw the two spacers standing there smiling at her.

“What, too much?”

Stendahl shook his head and Holzman answered “Oh, no ma’am. Just the right mix of courage, defiance and crazy!”

Myra snickered “Thanks, now come on, we’re going to have to clean up this mess we made.” As the two of them groaned, Myra, still snickering, limped carefully through the airlock. When she reached where the last warbot fell, she reached down and picked up her now ruined laser rifle. When the robot had exploded she still had the gun stuffed in its armpit. Its focusing array had shattered and the frame had bent. It was probably beyond repair. As she looked down at it, she noticed the head of the warbot. It looked loose. She reached down and got a firm grip on it with her other hand. Then gave it a sharp yank. Sure enough, the internal explosion had disconnected it. It popped right off. Myra stood up straight and admired her handiwork. “You know, this would make a good trophy.”

When no one responded, she looked over and saw the other two huddled over Stendahl’s wrist comm. “Now what are you two up to?”

Holzman turned to face her and let her see the holographic display. It showed the now-crippled Tulawar hanging in space. Two streaks of light were headed towards it from opposing angles. Apparently, once they were far enough away, the Jorvik had fired two missiles. As they watched, the missiles impacted; both were nukes. The Tulawar disappeared into two blinding flashes of light.

Her face lit by the twin nuclear explosions Myra thrust her arms up and let out a shout of triumph. Her men echoed it, as did the rest of the crew over the various comm channels. The surviving spacers on the Jorvik united in celebration, not knowing they would soon be joined by others.