This story is brought to you by FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: YOUR VERY OWN SPACE OPERA at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds. This is kind of building in the world touched on by the Ragged Abyss story, though takes place a bit in the future. Hope you enjoy! –FY
Klaxons blared throughout the ship, echoing down twisting hallways and through cramped quarters. Dozens of crew members surged to their feet. The Captain found a new quarry. Time to hunt.
“Ready the aft cannons!” Her voice crackled over the loudspeaker, filled with exuberant joy.
Remington Harto rushed to his battle station, his tattered cruise ship uniform hanging loosely around his newly toned frame. He glanced at the other gunners as he slid into his chair. Mostly fresh faces, though not necessarily young. A gray beard sat only a few feet down from him, just as low as Remington on the totem pole, and Lieutenant Nuvella, the woman leading their little squad, looked so young that even MilSec would have told her to come back after a few years. But that young face was split by a deep scar. Experience was all that mattered on the Strange Aeon.
Three clicks and a scan of his thumb print brought the weapon to life. The monitor on the targeting computer lit up, showing a clear view of the wide expanse of space.
“Three minutes to intercept!”
Remington wondered, not for the first time, how many of his crew mates joined of their own volition, and how man joined as the alternative to a fiery death. So far, none of his fellow recruits had opened up about their past.
“Aye aye, Captain!” Nuvella spoke into the comm. “Aft cannons are primed and ready for your command.”
A ship finally drifted into Remington’s view. He blinked. A children’s educational transport. This couldn’t be the target. So far he’d blasted a cruise ship almost identical to the one he’d been plucked from, a research vessel, and a cargo ship. He kept his eyes peeled for another ship.
“Two minutes to intercept! Lock targets!”
No other ships. No time. He locked on to the engines, ready to disable the transport’s only means of escape so the boarding party could clear out the crew and take back anything valuable. Maybe the kids were important hostages. He zoomed in the camera close enough to see some of the bodies milling around the viewports. Nothing but ordinary looking children.
“New orders, boys and girls.” Nuvella pressed a button to reset the team’s target locks. “We bring this bird down.”
Remington realized the squeak of protest came from his mouth. Nuvella marched to his console. “Is there a problem, Mister Harto?”
“Of course there’s a fucking problem. That’s a bunch of kids out there!”
“Lock on the main cabin. That’s an order.”
Remington gulped. “No.”
“One minute to intercept!”
Nuvella moved faster than Remington could really register. One moment her arms were folded in front of her, the next he felt the cold barrel of her laser pistol against the back of his neck. “I would advise you reconsider, Harto. Tick tock.”
Remington focused on the targeting computer, determined that his last vision would be of them instead of his executioner. His eyes blurred. With tears? But in that blur he saw something else, something more than a flying school bus. The children’s faces were slack and expressionless, they moved like marionettes dangling on loose strings. Their flesh sagged, rotten and diseased. He zoomed out, trying to escape the monstrous sight. The cold clinical steel of the spacecraft had been replaced with something resembling a giant worm, smooth pale flesh and glistening teeth filling the viewer. He blinked and a simple bus stared back at him.
Remington aimed without bothering to engage the targeting lock. The computer couldn’t see the gaping maw etched in his memory.
His finger squeezed the trigger over and over again. Harder and faster and more times than needed. Five blasts tore through the front of the other ship before Nuvella’s hand came down on his shoulder.
Remington went limp. “What the fuck was that?” he whispered.
The young officer grabbed his jaw, forcing him to meet her eyes. She grunted, apparently satisfied with what she saw. “It was what it was. You can’t trust your eyes out here. You can only trust the Captain.”
Remington shivered. He hadn’t noticed Nuvella walk away, but suddenly she was back, holding a metal pin, a sunburst inset with an open eye, similar to the two on her own collar. “Take this, and take the rest of the day off. I’d tell you to get some sleep, but you won’t.”
Remington closed his eyes, visions of rotting children dancing through his mind. “Yeah. Probably not.”
She pressed the pin into his hand. “Tomorrow you’ll report to the officers mess for your new assignment. Congratulations, Ensign Harto.”
Remington squeezed the pin tight, letting the sharp edges bite into his hand. Spikes of pain shot up his arm. He closed his eyes, opened them again, hoping that he’d find himself in his bed back home, somewhere safe. Nothing changed. He wondered what in the hell he had gotten himself into.