100 million miles from Jupiter orbit
I hate scientists.
Here we are, pelting toward an asteroid that isn’t supposed to be here, and they stand clustered together around a vid screen whispering amongst themselves. They look excited. Absolutely titillated over the appearance of something that could kill us all. Asteroids are never just a single chunk of rock hurtling through space. They carry a debris field with them, and at the speed we’re moving, even a smaller piece of space junk could tear a hole the size of a tractor-trailer through our ship.
I glance around the command room. The crew members are strapping themselves into their battle stations, preparing for an unplanned high-G maneuver. If space has taught us anything, it’s that when things don’t go exactly to plan, people die. The scientists are the most intelligent people on this ship, but it only took me a day to realize they were mostly book smart. Common sense? They’ve never heard of it. Which means they’re too stupid to strap themselves in like everyone else, so I’m stuck here with them.
This is your own damn fault, I remind myself. I just had to mouth off to my lieutenant. Couldn’t let her be wrong about some trivial matter. Nope. Had to correct her in front of everyone in my unit. And now here I am with this shit duty guarding a bunch of clueless brainiacs.
The three scientists shuffle closer together and start whispering furiously. They look like they might be playing rock, paper, scissors. I don’t like this. Any moment now, one of them is going to turn toward the captain and say something stupid. I just know it.
Right on cue, a dark-haired white man, David, breaks away from their little group and marches toward the captain’s chair. He wears a pair of pressed dockers, thick glasses, and a look of determination. The other two scientists stare at his back with an intensity that unnerves me. One of them mouths You got this at him. Yeah, this definitely won’t end well.
I step in front of David, barring his way.
He stops short and blinks up at me. “Oh, um, hello, Corporal Booker. If you don’t mind, I need to have a quick word with the captain.”
“The captain is busy,” I tell him.
Proving my point, the captain barks out another series of orders from behind me.
I take a step toward David, noting the way his pupils dilate and his scent turns acrid as a small tendril of fear worms through it. Normally, I don’t use my genetically altered size to intimidate people who are smaller than me – that’s a dick move, and since I don’t have a dick, I try to avoid acting like one – but we’ve been on this ship for two months now, and the scientists have been nothing but a monumental pain in everyone’s asses, mine most of all.
Keep them from causing any more trouble, my lieutenant snapped at me during morning mess.
David seems to gather himself, drawing up to his full height. He barely reaches my chin.
“Listen, Dr. Ross,” I say, cutting him off before he can get another word out. “There is no way in hell the captain is going to fly closer to that asteroid just so you and your friends can get a better look at it.”
I can tell from David’s sheepish look that I hit the nail on the head. They probably wanted to see if it had ice on it. Or assess whether it might have broken off from one of Jupiter’s known orbital asteroids, the Jupiter trojans: Achilles, Agamemnon, and Hector. Part of me gets it; they’re scientists on a mission of a lifetime. They should geek out over something like this. But the fact that their logic never seems to outweigh their excitement is what keeps getting them, and therefore me, into trouble.
I glance at the captain. He stands behind the bridge, looking utterly unapproachable. The overhead lights shine off his bald head, their yellow glow making his dark brown skin look like it has caramel highlights. If I let David near him right now, he will chew me out in front of everyone, and I’ve already put up with enough bullshit for one trip, thank you very much.
I turn back to the scientist. “Do you really think he’d risk his ship just so you can get a better look at a space rock?”
David’s cheeks turn pink as he glances past me. He lifts a finger and pushes his glasses up his nose. “We wouldn’t need to get that close. Just near enough that our spectrometer –”
“Captain! We might have a problem!” a woman yells.
I glance in her direction. She’s seated along the far wall, where crew members face vid screens filled with charts and radar readings and camera feeds.
“Put it on the big screen,” the captain tells her.
She flicks her fingers over her console, up and to the right, and the large overhead screen sparks to life. Now all of us can see what she sees. At first, I don’t know what got her all riled up. The video feed is trained on the asteroid, but it just looks like a regular asteroid to me.
I see it a heartbeat later. There, on the lower left-hand side of the feed, something is moving in a way it shouldn’t. It’s not some space rock caught up in the asteroid’s pull; it’s moving counter to the asteroid. As we watch, it alters course around a particularly large chunk of debris.
Beside me, David sucks in a sharp breath. “Is that a ship?”
“I don’t know,” I say, shifting my gaze to the captain.
His face is grim. “Farley!” he barks at another crew member. “Give me a reading.”
A young, pimple-faced man turns around in his seat. His eyes are wide in what might be shock. His scent doesn’t carry across the room, but it’s clear to anyone looking he’s freaking out. “Nothing, sir. They’re not showing up on radar.”
“It might just be a rock that got bounced off something,” another crew member says from nearby. They don’t sound convinced.
On the screen, blue flares out behind the unidentified object, like an engine just kicked on.
“Farley,” the captain bites out.
The kid turns back to his screen and shakes his head. “Still no readings from it, sir.”
David shifts closer to me and drops his voice to a whisper. “Stealth tech.”
Fuck. I grab his arm and lead him toward his colleagues. “Show’s over, folks. We need to get back to your quarters.”
The woman scientist, Hannah, or Dr. Stevens if you want to get formal, glances longingly at the big screen. Her green eyes sparkle with excitement, and her short dark hair swings around her chin as she turns to me. “But -”
“Captain!” someone shouts, just as someone else screams, “Shot fired!”
Alarm bells blare through the cabin.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I shove David in front of me and glare at the others. “Move! Now!” My voice is loud and filled with the hard edge of command. For once, none of them put up a fight.
I follow them out of the door, ignoring the shouts coming from the bridge behind us. Someone just shot at us, and we have a limited amount of time to prepare for the impact. If we couldn’t even detect this unidentified enemy vessel, I doubt we’ll be able to dodge their weapons. The scientists’ quarters are clear across the ship. There’s no way we’ll get there before we’re hit.
“Pick up the pace,” I bark.
They speed walk ahead of me, uncharacteristically quiet. For that, I’m thankful. We’re not alone in the hallway. Other passengers and crew members hurry past. They think we’re preparing for a course correction. They have no idea what kind of shit is heading our way.
“Keep your mouths shut and keep moving,” I say. If one of the scientists tries to warn someone, we could end up panicking everyone in the hall, and then we’ll never get to safety. It’s not that I don’t care about these other people – I do, really, and I feel like garbage for not warning them – but my orders are clear: the scientists’ safety is my only duty on board this ship.
“Take a left at the next passage,” I tell the small group of doctors. There’s a shelter in place (SIP) room halfway down it. SIP rooms dot the ship, used in situations just like this one – when an emergency happens, and you need a safe place to ride things out.
A speaker overhead crackles and flares to life. “Battle stations! Battle stations! This is not a drill!”
I race past the scientists, faster than a human should be able to run. One of them gasps. I guess they haven’t seen a shock troop sprint before.
I slam my hand against a wall panel, and a door whooshes open. “In here!”
The scientists rush forward, nearly clogging the entrance in their haste to get inside. Several other people are running by in the hallway, passengers and other crew members, and now that I’ve secured the safety of the brainiacs, I can help them. I shove whoever I can reach into the SIP room.
A redheaded woman tries to fight me when I grab her. “I need to get to my bunk!”
I fist my hand in her shirt and haul her toward the door. “You won’t make it.”
“Let me go!”
She squirms against my grip, trying to pull free. One foot lashes out and kicks at my shin. I barely feel it. My armor is a poly blend of titanium and hardened plastic, light enough that it doesn’t weigh me down, dense enough to make Kevlar look like cotton. She hisses in a breath, tears springing to her eyes, and stops struggling. She probably just broke a toe.
I shove her into the room.
An alarm bell blares, nearly bursting my hyper-sensitive eardrums. It’s all the warning I have before the ship rocks sideways. I go airborne, slamming into the far wall. My shoulder takes the brunt of the hit, armor absorbing some of the shock but not enough to keep my bones from grinding together.
My training takes over, and I shove off the wall and race into the shelter room, slamming my hand on the button that shuts the door. These rooms are self-contained. Seats line one of the walls, and I’m relieved to see the scientists picking themselves up from the floor and hurriedly strapping themselves into them. Their common sense must have finally kicked in.
I glance past them, taking inventory of the room. Overhead, panels line the walls. Inside those cabinets are enough supplies to last a group this size a month. There’s a toilet room to my left, a shower stall to my right, an oxygen scrubber, and a high-tech waste purifier that will turn used water and even piss into potable drinking water. All of this runs off our own little generator, powered by a mini nuclear reactor that’s protected from tampering by an EMP-resistant case. I really hope we won’t need any of it.
“What’s happening?” a man asks.
I turn toward him. He’s a light-skinned black man wearing a crew uniform, and he stares at me as if I have all the answers. I break eye contact and glance at his chest. The name tag on his jumpsuit reads Jackson. I look toward the others. Besides Jackson, there’s my three pain-in-the-ass scientists, the redhead woman who tried to fight me, an older Latino gentleman with gray hair, and a tiny, mouse-like girl who can’t be a day over twenty. All of them are staring at me where I stand guard by the door. Great. Guess I’ve just been unanimously promoted to Fearless Leader.
I click my heels together, turning on my gravity boots, anchoring myself to the floor in case the ship lurches out from under us again. “Strap yourselves in. We’re being attacked.”
Copyright © 2021 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.