When it comes to hitting his target, biracial military sharpshooter Spencer Blackwelder can’t miss. But when it comes to hitting the mark in other areas of his life, his aim is way off, which is definitely a problem when you’re preparing for war with an alien species.
As penance for past mistakes in friendship and in love, Blackwelder makes the bold choice to relocate to Fort Felix, a military base on Neptune’s moon, a decision that could end up costing him his life. Once there, he meets: Juan Miguel Arías, to whom he takes an immediate liking; Vernita Burton, a true friend; and the men and women of Brant Squad, a group of lovable losers that he eventually takes under his wing.
Blackwelder is surprised to discover he has something to live for again, but all of that is threatened when war finally arrives on Fort Felix’s doorstep. Can Blackwelder find the hero within in time to save his squad, his planet, and the man he loves?
Tags: POC, Sci-Fi, Space Opera, Military, LGBT
Chapter One: Out of the Dark
“All right, Jinx Squad, listen up,” said First Lieutenant Robby Macke as he stood before Sergeant Spencer Blackwelder and the other crew members. “As you know, an abandoned Elumerian starship floated into the Barack’s space sector forty-eight hours ago. It’s been subjected to long-range and short-range drone scans, and we know that the propulsion and guidance systems are damaged beyond repair. There are several vacant exterior ports, suggesting the crew evacuated. Zero life signs on board. We are the lucky squad who get to be the first to dock with it. Our mission is to search the vessel, determine its threat level, collect any useful data, and return to the Barack. Any questions?”
“Just one, sir: with those giant sat dishes Miller uses for ears, there’s no need for us to actually dock, is there? He can just conduct an audio scan from here,” said Mudunuri. The other squad members laughed as Miller, the pilot, whipped his head around to shoot Mudunuri a scathing look.
“Is this the comedy hour? Or are we here to do a job?” Blackwelder asked. “Knock it off.”
“Sorry, Sergeant Blackwelder.”
Macke smirked. “Don’t be absurd, Mudunuri; Miller couldn’t possibly pull that scan off from here. He’d need to be, what, at least three clicks closer?”
Miller shook his head from the cockpit. The other soldiers sniggered.
“Lieutenant Abernathy, com check, if you please.”
Abernathy adjusted her headset, then pressed and held a yellow button until it turned green. “This is Jinx Squad on Raider-1 to Barack actual. We’re conducting a com check; do you read, Barack?”
“Raider-1 this is Barack actual, we read you. Coms are go, over,” said a voice over the open channel.
Satisfied, Abernathy slid her hands along the console to a different cluster of brightly lit buttons. “Jinx Squad, internal com check, channel three. Confirm.”
“Coms are go,” they all said in unison. Over her shoulder, Blackwelder could see several lights flash green on Abernathy’s console.
“Coms are go, Lieutenant,” Abernathy said to Macke with a wink.
Raider-1 was a small ship with cramped quarters. There was a cargo hold beneath the floor of the ship, but its capacity was limited, not that they were expecting much of a physical salvage. Four soldiers shared the seating compartment with Blackwelder. Macke stood over the backs of the pilot and Abernathy, talking navigational tactics. They sat close together, their knees touching and occasionally banging into one another as the ship jostled. Several lit panels—some with loose-hanging cables—beeped above their heads. Expecting the atmosphere aboard the Elumerian ship to be completely inhospitable, the Allied Earth soldiers were wearing their space suits, sans helmets, and held their heavy-duty laser rifles at the ready.
The air was rife with tension; they had joked before, but Blackwelder knew it was a weak ploy to cover their mounting fear. None of them had ever stepped foot onto an alien, enemy vessel before. Blackwelder felt the concern himself, of course, but had to master it. Macke might have been the one giving the orders, but Blackwelder knew he’d be the one to keep them on point.
“Don’t forget to breathe, Jinx,” Blackwelder said to them all. “This is nothing more than a standard recon mission. You’ve trained for this.” A couple of them nodded, but they seemed little put at ease by his words. He took a quick look at Macke, though the lieutenant didn’t turn to meet his glance.
“And if any one of you shoots one of your own, I guarantee you you’ll be eating nothing but veg-ox for a week.”
A couple of them chuckled at the comment. “But what if you like veg-ox?” one of them said softly.
“Shut up, DeFrank,” Mudunuri said.
“Target in range, LT. Better get strapped in,” Miller said. On screen, Blackwelder could see a massive vessel that was rounded and bulbous on one end and through the middle, but that tapered off toward the tail. Cascading rows of spikes adorned the middle of the craft on both sides. The spikes, rounded at the edge and faintly glowing from their center, could almost be mistaken for fins. In fact, the whole ship had the look of a mutated whale, which reminded Blackwelder of the aquatic life they’d discovered years ago in some of Earth’s more polluted oceans.
Macke nodded and turned to take his seat, the only available one being next to Blackwelder. Blackwelder looked up at Macke; he kept his expression blank, but inside he was laughing. He could see a moment of nervousness sweep over Macke’s face, but he mastered it immediately and took his seat. Blackwelder couldn’t help himself; he found Macke’s discomfort utterly amusing. Raider-1 docked with the Elumerian ship shortly thereafter.
Macke stood up quickly from his seat and grabbed his helmet. “Miller, Abernathy, you stay with Raider-1 and monitor us. Mudunuri, you’re with DeFrank. Pazmiño, you’re with Sergeant. Blackwelder and Wine, you’re with me. We’ll split up, clear the ship section by section, and rendezvous on what we’re eighty-seven percent sure is the bridge. Questions?”
Mudunuri opened and closed his mouth. Blackwelder could see the confusion mounting as he childishly raised his hand. “Uh, sir? Normally in the incursion scenarios, I partner with Pazmiño.”
Jumping to his feet, Blackwelder cut across Macke before he could answer. “This isn’t a scenario, dusties! In live missions, you take the orders given to you.” He took a step closer to Macke and leaned in to whisper: “Though, sir, the familiarity of the old pairings may be an advantage for us in this situation. One less thing for them to think about. Unless there’s a particular reason you want to readjust the teams?”
Macke glanced at Abernathy, who was close enough to overhear them. Her expression was quizzical, as she too seemed to be confused by the sudden change in the lineup.
“Besides,” Blackwelder said, “it will be easier for me to keep you alive if I can watch your back.”
“Yeah, okay,” Macke said impatiently. “Old pairings: Mudunuri/ Pazmiño, DeFrank/Wine, and Wellie, you’re with me. Let’s get in there and get this done, people.”
Blackwelder and Macke approached a sealed doorway. They and the other members of Jinx Squad had been working for more than 90 minutes to clear the various areas of the starship, a task made more complicated by their inability to read the alien language that marked the corridors. Blackwelder brought up the rear as he continued to scan their periphery through the scope on his laser rifle. The helmet on his suit prevented him from bringing the scope as close to his face as he would have liked, but the screen had 3D technology that helped to compensate for the difference.
Macke reached for a panel near the door, one similarly placed to their own entry controls, but he hesitated. “Jinx Squad, check in.”
“This is Wine, sir. DeFrank and I are just about to clear what appears to be a storage unit, and will continue moving starboard toward the bridge.”
“This is Mudunuri. Pazmiño and I figured out their vertical transport system, so we’ve finished clearing the lower decks. We should be moving toward the bridge too.”
Macke nodded in satisfaction. “Good work, everyone. The sergeant and I will rendezvous with you ASAP.”
Blackwelder stared at the alien language printed above the control panel. “It’s kind of freaky,” he said, tilting his head to one side. The lettering was thin, slanted, and curved, but completely dissimilar to anything resembling Earth’s linguistic characters.
“Yeah. We have no idea what’s on the other side of this door.”
“That’s never stopped us before.”
Blackwelder couldn’t see Macke’s face, but he could feel him rolling his eyes to dramatic effect.
Macke pressed a button on the panel, and as it had for several other rooms previously, the door slid open.
The room had a high ceiling with two large, dark pink circles in it. Blackwelder presumed from their experience thus far that they were the source of the light illuminating the room. The lighting had a different effect than Blackwelder had ever seen before; instead of streaming down from the source, and casting shadows in the process, the light seemed to brighten every item and person in the room individually. It was as if, instead of projecting light, they were absorbing darkness.
Along one wall were various computer stations. On the other, there were cubbyholes that contained small metal instruments. In the science fiction he’d seen growing up, humanoid aliens always seemed to travel in ships that were at least partly organic, with fleshy, slime-covered walls. But not the Elumerians. From what he’d seen, their designs were as clean and matter-of-fact as any Allied Earth ship. The overall shape of the room and corridors seemed to be more round and less angular than human ships, but that was the only real major difference Blackwelder could immediately detect.
Weapons at the ready, Blackwelder and Macke quickly moved across this new space, splitting to pass around two nine-foot tables planted in the center of the room. At the rear of the room, a pockmarked glass-like substance separated them from what appeared to be a collection of vialed liquids.
After poking their rifles in every conceivable corner, Macke finally said, “Clear.”
“Clear,” Blackwelder repeated, lowering his weapon just slightly. He made eye contact with Macke.
Macke held his glance for a moment before looking awkwardly away. “This appears to be their medical bay,” he said stiffly.
“I’d agree with that. I’ll check the computer, see if there’s any data here we can salvage.”
“Good call.” Macke walked back toward the entrance of the room as if to keep watch.
Blackwelder pulled a data-sync disc from his pocket. It was thin, circular, and translucent black. He placed it against one of the monitors and it immediately adhered itself. Thin strokes of red outlined intricate circuitry detail that had previously been invisible, and then, like a spreading virus, the lines extended onto the screen. Fortunately, smarter people than him had designed the disc to worm its way into locked and encrypted systems and automatically retrieve data, so all he had to do was wait for it to finish its work.
He turned to Macke. “So, are we gonna talk about it? Or are you just gonna keep being weird?”
Macke whipped around, his expression deadly serious. He pointed toward his neck, where a green light shown on his suit. He tapped it twice, and it began to slowly blink. Blackwelder did the same.
“What do you think you’re doing? We were on an open channel!” Macke said.
“I figured you’d switch us to internal coms. Just trying to get your attention.”
“This is neither the time nor the place, Wellie,” Macke said as he paced near the entryway.
“I would agree, sir. Except you’re letting it affect you on-mission. So clearly we should discuss it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Switching the lineups around last minute? Are you trying to get them killed? We practice them in pairs for a reason, to develop certain routines. Routines they fall back on when they get nervous or scared, not that I should have to explain this to you right now. Who knows what we’re going to run into on this ship?”
“Well, I wouldn’t be affected if you wouldn’t keep flirting with me.”
“I am not flirting with you! We’re combing the halls of an alien ship, the first people on the Barack to do so, definitely, and probably some of the few humans to do it ever! This is terrifying and amazing, and despite the seriousness of the situation, I’m kind of having fun. And I’m here with one of my best friends!” He pointed at Macke. “So if you catch me with a smile on my face, or I’m looking at you, or whatever, it’s not because I’m flirting with you. I’m just excited.”
“Oh. Well, I guess that’s fine. Yeah, I guess it is pretty exciting.” Macke looked around. “Look, I just didn’t want you to get the wrong idea, okay? It was just a one-time thing. An accident. We were drunk.”
“The first time we hooked up was an accident, yes. But the second time was pretty intentional, on both our parts.”
Macke narrowed his eyes, his body adopting a much more defensive posture.
“Calm down, Mack. It was a just a little fun between friends, all right? No big deal. It’s not weird unless you make it weird.”
The data-sync beeped, indicating that it had completed its task. The distraction was timely as it allowed a welcomed release from the tension. Blackwelder pocketed the data-sync and moved toward the door.
“I’m just saying, though—if you wanted it to happen again, you wouldn’t necessarily need to get me drunk first. And just so you’re clear, that was me flirting.”
Macke moved his mouth as if he we about to speak, but before he could, Blackwelder slapped the blinking green light on his collar.
“Raider-one, Lieutenant Macke and I have cleared the med bay. We are heading to the bridge.”
“Copy that, Sergeant Blackwelder,” Abernathy said.
Blackwelder smirked at Macke as he exited. He brought up the rear once more as he and Macke entered the bridge. Mudunuri, Pazmiño, DeFrank, and Wine were already there. At the sight of their commanding officer, Mudunuri shot up out of the captain’s chair, where he’d apparently been pretending to helm the ship.
The bridge was unlike anything Blackwelder had previously seen. The captain’s chair, large enough to fit a being twice Mudunuri’s size, was positioned at the far front of the bridge, nearest the view screen. Every other panel and console and workstation fanned out behind it like a two-dimensional pyramid laid flat. The alien command center was as spotless as the med bay had been, but the metal used in the command center was iridescent, the colors shifting between shades along the aquamarine scale. Aside from the captain’s chair, there were no other seats; for a moment, Blackwelder felt a twinge of sympathy for an entire command crew being forced to stand throughout their shift.
DeFrank was busy at a console along the wall. She produced a data-sync similar to the one Blackwelder used in the infirmary and pressed it against the monitor.
“Data download commencing, sir,” DeFrank said. “We should be all done here in about—” She was cut off by a sudden blaring. The thin lines extending from the disc that were once red now turned green, and the disc itself turned white. An alarm sounded, and as it echoed through the halls of the empty ship, the vibrations gained potency until they returned to Blackwelder with an intensity that curled his toes inside his boots.
Blackwelder pressed his free hand to his ear in a vain attempt to dampen the sound. “The command core data must be on a different security system. It’s guarded against unidentified access.”
In front of the captain’s chair, the view screen came alive, flashing three-foot-tall letters in the alien language.
“Macke, I don’t know what you all are doing in there, but we’re getting some strange readings on Raider-1,” said Abernathy.
“We’ve tripped an alarm,” Macke said. “This place is going crazy, and we’ve got a pretty ominous-looking message on screen. What can you tell us?”
“According to the scanners, all of the starship’s available power is being transferred to the engine core, and it’s reaching critical mass. I don’t speak Elumerian, but I’m pretty sure that writing you’re seeing is a self-destruct countdown. Get your asses back here!”
“You heard her! Let’s move, people!” Macke yelled.
Once they’d exited the bridge, Jinx Squad found themselves back in the main corridor, a large hallway with bright white track lighting running along the floors and around the windows that neatly framed the glittering expanse of space just outside the ship. On the wall across from the windows, circular light sources like the ones Blackwelder had seen in the medical bay were separated by what appeared to be the letter V molded into the wall. But as the blaring alarm grew louder, the white lighting slowly turned to a neon green color, which dimmed the corridor considerably. Little dots on the Vs began to flash green as well, in time to the breaks in the alarm.
As fast as they could, the team ran, skidding into walls and doors and stacks of containers that had long since lost their purpose, while the maleficent countdown glared ominously around every corner from screens Blackwelder had assumed to be inactive on their initial pass. The alarm morphed into a shrill whistling sound that reverberated through the halls at regular intervals; Blackwelder knew it signaled their doom if they didn’t quickly reach the lower deck aft airlock, where Raider-1 was docked.
As they ran, one of the doors behind them slammed shut. Before they could register what had happened, another corridor sealed itself. Filling with dread, Blackwelder turned to his right, where the pathway would eventually lead past the medical bay that he’d explored earlier. As he looked on, two metal doors slid from their hiding places and slammed mercilessly in his face.
“The ship is sealing itself. They’re trying to trap us inside.” He had known that to be true from the moment the first door closed, but it wasn’t until he said it aloud that he truly understood, and that understanding was followed immediately by a very real sense of fear.
“This way!” DeFrank yelled, shoving Pazmiño and Wine toward an open entryway on their left. With only a few sources of the sickly green light to show the way, they ran down yet another hallway, this one crowded by large metal cylinders. Blackwelder noticed there was some sort of liquid inside the containers, and that it sloshed about inside as the containers themselves hummed menacingly. The corridor came to an end at a sealed door.
“Dammit, DeFrank! You’ve led us to a dead end!” Mudunuri shouted.
“Wine and I passed by here on our initial sweep; the water reclamation systems are through this door. We can cut through the facility to get to Raider-1!”
Wine nodded aggressively in agreement. “It’s wide open in there, so no random doors to get in the way.”
“Well, let’s get this door open,” Macke said.
“Jinx Squad, switch laser rifles to full-power high-focus. Concentrate your fire on me,” Blackwelder said. He raised his rifle, made the power adjustment, and squeezed the trigger. A dense red blast collided with the door, just inside the seam that sealed it to the wall. The metal sizzled and began to glow.
“Fire!” Macke ordered. The rest of the squad joined Blackwelder, concentrating their fire on the same spot. In seconds, the door began to melt away from the wall. As one, they slowly moved the beams up and down along the seam, until they’d broken through completely.
“Spacer!” Macke ordered. Pazmiño pulled a flat-bladed gadget from her pack and inserted it into the space between the door and the wall. The blades split into two and elongated rapidly, pushing the door open and clearing their way forward.
Once through, Blackwelder looked up; standing before him was a water tank stretching fifty feet into the air and wider around than his entire crew. And there were hundreds of them dotting the landscape of this area, the already dim green light made more eerie by the steam escaping from the vents placed all over the floor.
“The core’s almost critical!” Abernathy yelled over the coms. “You’ve got minutes at most. Get here, now!”
And again, they ran. They blindly darted around tankards, following DeFrank and Wine. Blackwelder was bolstered by the confidence-increasing blip on his com that let him know they were approaching Raider-1. At last, they reached another door, and as promised, the view screen next to it indicated that they’d reached the airlock. Repeating their previous tactic, they melted the edge of the door and returned to the chamber where they’d first set foot on the Elumerian ship.
Macke grinned and gave DeFrank a pat on the back. “We made it. Open the airlock, Miller,” Macke said. But when nothing happened, he looked concerned. “Miller? Get this thing open so we can go home.”
“I can’t! The remote access isn’t responding. We’re completely locked out.”
“No, we’re completely locked in. Get us out of here, Miller. Abernathy?” Macke said.
Abernathy shook her head. “It’s no use, Mack. We can’t get that door open from here.”
Wine reached for his laser rifle. “Let’s melt it!”
“It’s an airlock, you idiot; it’s far too thick for that,” Mudunuri said.
Blackwelder quickly scanned the contents of his pack. “Likewise, I don’t think we have enough personal ordnance to blast through it.”
Macke hesitated, then nodded to himself a couple of times. “Then you’ll have to blow it from the outside, Raider-1.”
“Are you insane? Sir,” DeFrank said, quickly correcting herself. “The explosive decompression could kill us all.”
Macke looked around the room. “We’ll be fine. Our suits will hold. We just need to strap ourselves down.”
“But sir—” DeFrank began.
“We don’t have time to argue this, Corporal! This ship’s gonna blow in a matter of seconds. The only question is whether you still want to be in this room when it happens. Now strap yourselves down!”
Blackwelder pulled a towline from his suit’s belt pack and wrapped it around his waist and arm before looping it several times around one of the chamber’s support beams. The rest of the squad quickly followed suit, and once they were all secured, Blackwelder nodded to Macke.
“Miller, blow the airlock now!”
Miller decoupled Raider-1 from the alien ship and moved it a safe distance away. Then, he turned and lined Raider-1 up with the airlock.
“Raider-1, firing in three, two, one….”
A torpedo rocketed from the small craft toward the alien ship. Inside the airlock, the impact was marked by a deafening explosion. A monstrous, purplish-orange fireball reached out of the cosmos like the hand of God as the air inside the ship briefly ignited. Deadly projectiles rushed toward them, mirroring the torpedo’s speed and intensity. Miraculously, none of them were harmed, but a sharp metal fragment embedded itself in the support beam where DeFrank and Wine had secured themselves, severing both of their lines. Helpless, the two soldiers were sucked toward the fire-tinged onslaught. Macke reached out and was just able to grab Wine’s hand, but no one was able to reach DeFrank in time. The wave of light and heat from the explosion washed over them, and once it had subsided and the vacuum of space had reasserted its dominance, DeFrank was nowhere to be found.
“DeFrank!” Wine yelled, twisting in Macke’s grasp.
“She’s gone. And we’ve got to get to the ship,” Macke said sternly, glancing over at Blackwelder.
Blackwelder released his rifle and, shooting quickly, cut each individual’s mooring with a focused laser blast before severing his own. Jinx Squad began to float aimlessly in the normalized microgravity. Pazmiño flipped around end over end now that she was cut free.
Macke flipped a switch at his belt and his position was righted, as if he were standing on solid ground. “Rotational stabilizers on!”. The others did the same. “Miller, open the lock.”
“We’re not going to make it…” Miller’s voice was shaky. “There’s no time.”
“Miller! Open the damn lock!” Macke demanded. “The rest of you, activate your Man-U’s. Full thrust. We’re going to zip right into the cargo hold. Miller, the second we’re in, you jump. You got it? Miller!”
“Yes, yes, got it.”
“We can pressurize the hold, but everything down there now will get vented,” Abernathy said.
“Better some random supplies than us. Blackwelder—” Macke began.
“I got the rear. Let’s go!”
Macke clicked a control on the inside of his right forearm, and two small holes opened on his upper back. Nitrogen shot from the openings, propelling him forward toward Raider-1 with a jolt. As the other members of Jinx Squad activated their maneuvering systems, Raider-1 realigned and dropped its rear-landing platform. As it did, several crates flew out of the opening and then drifted listless into space.
Macke was zooming toward Raider-1. Mudunuri and Pazmiño were close behind, but Wine was flipping in a spherical pattern rather than being pushed forward. Blackwelder switched his Man-U to manual control. He was still sharpshooting, except he would make his body the bullet. After carefully timing his thrusts, he shot forward quickly, catching Wine in a perpendicular position and forcing him forward. He felt the nitrogen racing to escape from his back, a sensation that reminded him of being shoved repeatedly by a large schoolyard bully. Wine’s arms were flailing, but Blackwelder could just make out Macke and the others narrowly making it into the cargo hold. Now it was his turn, and he knew this shot would take considerable skill.
He took a deep breath, calculated the distance still left between them and Raider-1, and deactivated his stabilizer. As he sensed his body becoming disconnected from the invisible restraints forcing him to stand upright, Blackwelder leaned forward and gripped Wine’s shoulder, effectively pulling them both into a “flying Superman” position. With the combined effort of both their Man-U’s, Blackwelder and Wine shot headfirst into the hold, where Macke was already waiting next to the auto-lock controls. Blackwelder crashed into Mudunuri with a painful thud, but he heard the hold slam shut behind him.
“Jump jump jump!” Macke yelled.
Raider-1 hummed loudly for a moment, and then there was a sound like bass dropping. Blackwelder was familiar with the tone, as it accompanied a ship jumping into hyperspace. He knew they’d vanished on the spot, leaving behind only debris to mark their former position. Still lying on the floor, Blackwelder finally relaxed and closed his eyes. They couldn’t have been more than a second away from witnessing the Elumerian ship being destroyed in a violent explosion that would have sent pieces of the vessel soaring through the darkness in every direction. They’d narrowly escaped with their lives. Well, most of them had.