Afloat in the dark of space, nothing but the hull of the ship and the power of the mages keeping the air inside it stands between life and death. A battered Human ship escapes dire straits and stumbles upon a secret hidden on the borders of three nations, that could bring war to the galaxy like never seen before.
Gloom settled on six men in the corridor. The only light in the dim hallway came from the softly glowing panel near the end, at the gate lock. Rufus turned and looked behind him at the five footmen following his lead, kneeling or hunched against the wall. None of them showed the anxious energy coursing through their veins by checking their weapons one final time or adjusting the straps on their shields. Rufus knew they felt it, he could see it in their eyes, but their experience stilled them before the coming fight.
Rufus looked down at his own bared sword, its point held just above the steel deck plating so as not to damage either the sword or the deck before it was necessary. The power indicator gem in the pommel pulsed a gentle yellow of standby, as if he would ever need to look at it to know if the weapon was active. Strapped to his other arm, his round shield glinted as it reflected the faint blinking lights of the gate lock panel, though it was too dark to make out the arming sigil of his house blazoned on its front. He gripped the handle, and the straps automatically tightened, the golden voidwyrm on its front pulsing with light. At the sudden light, the squad around him stirred, coming to their feet, their armor clinking.
“Sorry,” Rufus grinned sheepishly at them, “Just wanted to see the sigil.” He looked past them, at a sixth man further down the hall. “Percival, any news?”
The balding mage at the far end of the hall sat hunched against the bulkhead, eyes scrunched up in concentration and fingers rubbing his temples in little circles. After a moment of silence he spoke.
“Hard to say,” Percival said at last, ceasing his head massage and opening his eyes to peer through the gloom at the soldiers, who shuffled so they each could see him.
“There’s a lot of interference, but I don’t think it’s going too well.” He put his fingers back to his head and scrunched his eyes up again.
“Where did they even come from?” Eska, the soldier next to Rufus, spoke as she leaned against the wall.
“Gravepods, probably,” another soldier named Heath replied, craning his neck to look up at her from where he knelt on the floor, leaning on his knee.
Eska rolled her eyes. “The answer to every mystery isn’t Gravepods, you superstitious guk.”
“Whoa-ho-ho!” Heath chuckled as he drew out the word. “Just because I was right that one time—”
“You were right that one time,” Rufus cut him off.
“And I have a feeling that—”
“Lord Bostur has called for the reserves,” Percival’s voice cracked as he interrupted the conversation. Rufus shook his head. Shouldn’t have lost focus, he mentally kicked himself. Eska saw it and punched him in the shoulder, “Come on sarge, head in the fight.”
Percival abruptly stood up, brushing the dust from his gray robe. “Prepare to repel boarders,” he said in a quiet voice, looking to Rufus.
Rufus looked down at his sword, pulsing gentle yellow, then around at his squad of five.
“Alvor Squad, overcharge,” Rufus said and held out his sword, pommel first, toward Percival. They shuffled around, their grim expressions disappearing as they slid their visors down to seal their suits and follow his action. Percival grimaced.
“Are you sure, captain?” He asked, “you know those suits won’t protect you from all the radiation.”
“If Lord Bostur needs the reserves, he needs them running hot,” Rufus pushed his sword out again.
“O-okay,” Percival stammered. He placed one hand on the pommel of Rufus’ sword, and another on the one of the man next to him and just above the jeweled pommel. He sucked in a deep breath, then gritted his teeth. A buzzing sensation crept up Rufus’ arm, deep into his chest. It tingled out through his arms and legs, making the hair stand up against the skin-tight undersuit of his armor. His sword began to grow warm in his hand, even through his thick gauntlet. The power indicator gem gleamed a brilliant yellow, then bled to orange. Rufus felt a knot forming in his gut, twisting as the power flowed from the mage into his weapon.
When the power gem turned a bright crimson, Percival let go and the buzzing sensation stopped. The pommel gem remained red. He repeated the action on each soldier’s weapon until the corridor was bathed in dim red light.
“How long do we have,” Rufus said.
“Let me see,” Percival replied, closing his eyes. “There are two knights coming through, then you’ll have about forty-five seconds.”
Eska moved to the panel on the wall and tapped it a few times, preparing it for the quick-cycle procedure. In a few seconds, a clang of metal signaled the outer door locking, and the inner door slid open. Two hulking figures stood inside, their bulky voidplate suits dented and blackened from sword and magic. One of the knights leaned on the other. The lower leg of her armor suit hung slack, dragging as it reacted sluggishly to her movements. Percival bustled past the squad of soldiers to examine the wounded knight’s leg.
“It’s functional,” the knight muttered, her voice rasping with strain. “Painblockers are kicking in now.” Her partner let her down to the deck, propping her against the wall.
“Functional,” Percival muttered as he knelt and reached around to grip the charging handle on the back of her hip. Then he began to recharge her suit through it.
The other knight towered over Rufus, the red glow bathing the chamber throwing him into sinister shadow. Rufus squinted at the nameplate on the chest of his armor which said “CK21” in bold block lettering. He knew that CK21 was Andrus Rhoanvar. “Overcharge, good,” Andrus’ voice blared through the helm, sounding like rock grinding on steel. “We need you out there.”
“We know,” Rufus replied. “Form up and energize.”
Andrus turned to face his companion. “You good?”
Before she could speak, Percival stood and spoke. “I’ll send her out if I can get her suit moving again, but I doubt it.”
Andrus tilted his head and looked past him. She shrugged.
“Fine,” he said, and turned away.
Rufus and his team fanned out behind Andrus, each twisting the gem on the pommel of their sword. The blades lit with sparks, power arcing and snapping, throwing flickering shadows on the wall.
All was silent, save the snap and crackle of the activated weapons and the deep thrum of power from Percival, who had returned to his work. Then, they heard the outer gate lock snap open.
Percival jumped up from where he was crouched. “Not ours,” he yelled over the buzz of weapons.
“Prepare to repel boarders,” Andrus grunted.
“For the queen,” Rufus said.
“For the queen,” they echoed.
The inner door opened, and they charged.
Three steps to full speed. Eight steps forward. The towering knight Andrus in his heavily armored suit of voidplate took huge strides that put him out in front of Alvor squad as they drew closer to the enemy, nine men in battered voidsuits
Andrus charged right through the first two men, flinging them back against the now closed outer gate lock behind them. Rufus held his shield out in front of him, the voidwyrm sigil on its front gleaming, and threw his shoulder into it as he drove it into the chest of the man in front of him. The impact jarred Rufus to a stop, but the enemy soldier staggered backward a few steps and went down hard on his back. The man rolled to get up, but Andrus’ huge armored foot kicked him in the face. He dropped to the deck limp, his neck twisted at an odd angle.
Beside him, Eska was locked in a shoving match with her opponent, their shields grinding against each other as they tried to use their weapons to attack. Left handed, Eska was using her short sword to harass her opponent, sparks flying as it scraped and slashed at his armor. Meanwhile, the man struggled to use his longer javelin against her. Rufus’ charge had pushed him farther into the small gate lock room than Eska, but the enemy had turned his body so that her charge brought her between him and Rufus.
Rufus looked around. Andrus was engaged with the two men he had knocked over in the initial charge, and on his other side the rest of Alvor squad tangled with the other five enemies. One of the rebels was crawling away from the skirmish, blood pouring from a slash in his leg, when all of a sudden a tiny bolt of light zipped past the fighting men and flew straight into him. He spasmed, his body convulsing as a shower of sparks exploded from the impact. After a second, he lay still, smoke curling out from all the joints in his armor.
“Mage!” He heard a rebel cry out in panic, just before Heath drove his sword into the man’s chest. After that, the last seven men in the boarding party broke. Four of them died immediately as Alvor squad took advantage of their momentary distraction to strike them down, their overcharged blades slicing through the enemy’s armor far easier than usual. The last three enemies followed the first four in the next few seconds.
“Report,” Rufus called out in the sudden silence, looking around the little gate lock room.
“AS-1, green,” Heath responded, standing up from where he was crouched over a fallen soldier. His armor was streaked in red.
“AS-2, green,” the next man said. Each footman followed in order, ending with Andrus.
Rufus turned to look back through the inner gate lock, and spotted Percival standing just down the corridor. The mage’s chest heaved, and he was holding his caster, one end of the contraption trailing a line of smoke.
“Nice shot,” Rufus called to him. “You OK?”
Percival looked at him. “I, uh, yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m just not used to channeling like that; I joined logistics for a reason.” He put his free hand on his knee and leaned over to suck in a deep breath. “And that reason is that I am weak,” he said with a half-hearted grin.
“Either way, it broke them. Thanks.”
Percival put two fingers to his brow, now beaded with sweat, and gave a little salute. “I’ll weave you into communications as soon as I catch my breath.”
“Good,” Rufus turned back to the panel at the door and jabbed the blue button.
“I don’t think they were ready for a full squad with a knight either,” AS-5, Ulfgin, said.
“They don’t matter any more, soldier.” Andrus growled and kicked a body and its weapon out of the way, as the inner door to the gate lock shut.
Rufus looked down at the dead, faces hidden behind their helms. When you couldn’t see their faces, he could almost forget they were real people. He noticed one man propped up against the wall, blood dripping from a hole in the throat to run down over the smooth chest plate of his armor, highlighting the lack of a sigil emblazoning the front. Rebels, he thought as he looked around at the others, noting old dents and scrapes on their armor, but which clan? The gate lock sealed behind them and began sucking out the air. As it did, the scrape of boots against the deck and the dull sounds of rustling armor died away, replaced by the eerie, total silence of space. The only sound Rufus could hear was the quiet rustle of his own movements resonating through his suit; a weird sensation, as his body interpreted motions that usually made sound into something that almost felt like hearing, but wasn’t quite.
“Comm check,” a voice murmured in his ear. Percival, inside the gate lock, was weaving them into the comms.
“AS-1, Comm check green,” Rufus replied. A few seconds passed, and a little click sounded as his suit comms connected to the rest of his squad.
The outer gate lock, having finished its air cycle, slid open, and the men stepped out onto the hull of the ship.
Soldiers in huge armored suits dotted the hull, clashing in small groups in the open or near gate locks. Above each fight was a little cloud formed by the dead, drifting away from wherever they had died as their suits lost power and stopped sticking to the ship’s hull. The biggest fights were around the three long, skinny boarding pods attached to the hull of the Auriga, Rufus’ home and seat of the noble House of Cheynval.
“Where to?” Eska’s disembodied voice sounded in Rufus’ helm.
“Percival, do you have any orders?” Andrus asked. His head swiveled around, surveying the scattered battlefield around them.
“Please hold,” Percival responded.
“Squad, discharge,” Rufus ordered, seeing no immediate threats. He twisted the pommel gem of his sword back into place and stuck the weapon to a magnetic clip on his hip. Around him the rest did the same, except for Andrus, whose massive broadsword rested on his shoulder.
“Aft gate lock 23.”
Everyone turned toward the aft of the ship. Far down the ship, a huge melee was taking place around the indicated gate lock, partially obscured by the curve of the hull.
“Double-time,” Percival’s voice cracked the silence, and they all jumped to comply. Rufus’ boots pounded out a staccato beat against the steel hull of the ship.
“Redfoot Squad is pinned against the gate lock.”
“How many are left?” Eska said, her voice rattling as she sprinted along ahead of Rufus, her legs pumping double speed to keep up with the taller and longer-legged hulk of Andrus’ voidplate suit, even as the rest of the men began to lag one step behind, then two.
“I don’t know, but not many. They—” Percival stopped mid-sentence.
That’s a bad sign, Rufus thought, keeping his eyes focused over Eska’s shoulder and on the destination.
“They’ve broken through,” Andrus said. “My suit’s got visor mags.”
Nobles and their tech, Rufus gritted his teeth.
A chorus of curses went up from the squad. They all instinctively put on an extra burst of speed.
“What’s inside that gate lock?” Rufus asked. Please not engineering or hydrop—.
“Hydroponics,” Ulfgin replied before Percival could say anything. “I visit my nephew at work there and I always pass that gate lock.”
“Damn it,” Andrus cursed. “It’s a single lock, I can see it now! I won’t fit through it in my armor.”
“Uh,” Percival stammered for a moment. “Hold on.”
Andrus slowed while the rest of them sprinted onward, passing him and nearing their destination.
“Aft gate lock 25 is large enough for your suit. I’ve marked it for you,” Percival said.
Andrus began running again, this time toward a different gate lock on the hull of the ship. “Find and delay them, I’ll meet you inside.”
“Good,” Rufus replied. Together, they reached the gate lock. Rufus kept his eyes straight ahead, trying not to identify any of the bodies floating around them. Time for grief later. The panel beside the gate lock door showed a yellow light: in progress.
“They’re just inside the gate lock,” Rufus said, indicating the panel. “Andrus, they’re just ahead of us. We can—” He cut off as a tremor ran through the deck under his feet.
“Everyone feel that?” Raeadine and Bernyr, the fifth and sixth members of the squad, asked in unison.
In front of them, the panel blinked the dreaded orange failure/breach/leak light.
Heath echoed Rufus’ thoughts: “What now?”