Last Flight of the Star Jumpers
From where Master Sergeant Tau Gwembe stood, electromagnet boots the only thing keeping him from floating off the hull of his squad’s transport, the freighter was nothing more than a massive black space where no background stars could be seen. The readout on his helmet’s HUD told him his transport had matched the freighter’s trajectory and they were holding steady at a velocity of eight kilometers per second, 200 meters off the freighter’s starboard side.
But it couldn’t tell him what was waiting for them inside.
“Go,” he whispered.
Two of his soldiers jumped, their leap accelerated by the vacuum wave thrusters in the soles of their boots. The vibration of vacuum waves – what they called “yume” for short – conducted through the hull and rattled Tau’s spacesuit. The soldiers’ slim, shadow-gray suits disappeared into the blackness.
“Alpha Dog, I have a question,” Yaz said, her voice almost too quiet to hear. “Why are we whispering?”
“Cut it out, Yaz,” Tau said.
“It’s standard operating procedure,” the sniper they called Jab whispered in his light Indian accent. He lay with his back magnetically secured to the hull so he didn’t have to awkwardly aim his long Yume-C rifle directly over his head.
“Is it?” Yaz asked. “Did they give us like a handbook or something?”
“Special forces are supposed to be quiet when sneaking up on the enemy,” Jab said.
“Yeah. I think it’s so they don’t hear us coming.”
“Oh, that’s important. I guess. Wait. Did the bad guys figure out how to intercept narrow-beam transmissions?”
“No, but voices carry, you know.”
“Voices carry across a couple hundred meters of vacuum?”
Tau flicked off his microphone. He was left in utter silence save the huffs of breath against the inside of his face shield. He’d never minded his squad joking around in the past, their job had become so routine it hardly mattered. Whether they were called in to take care of pirates, smugglers, or separatists, when a squad of Star Jumpers boarded a ship, the bad guys floated their guns and put their hands in the air. The Jumpers’ reputation did the work for them. No one had fought back in years.
But something was different this time. Smugglers always took roundabout routes to avoid being spotted. Pirates always sold their stolen cargo outside of Sol System. Separatists always made friendly radio chatter to appear like just another commercial ship. But this freighter was on a direct trajectory to enter Earth orbit within a half hour and had been ignoring all attempts to communicate. Comm pings had shown the freighter’s communications equipment was functioning, so it wasn’t a technical problem. Tau had been trying to make sense of it for the handful of hours since they’d been ordered to fly out and intercept. He couldn’t figure any way the facts added up.
Tau switched his microphone back on. “Sitrep,” he said.
The reply crackled into Tau’s helmet comm. “Almost there… Locked.” There was a moment of pause before the soldier spoke again. “Clear.”
“Second pair, go,” Tau ordered.
Two more soldiers jumped.
“Alpha… I can’t really cover them when I can’t see anything,” Jab said.
Tau stared into the black void half his squad had already disappeared into. Jab was right, standard cover tactics didn’t make sense when you couldn’t get eyes on the team members you were meant to be covering.
“Second pair?” Tau said.
“Locked,” came the reply, heavy with static.
“Fireteam Bravo you’re jumping with me,” Tau said.
Jab used a couple orienting bursts from the yume thrusters in the palms of his gloves to get his feet mag-locked to the surface and handed his sniper rifle to Yaz, who secured it to his back.
“Go,” Tau said, leaping in synch with a quick thrust from his boots. The buzz of yume waves raced up his legs. The four members of Yaz’s fireteam followed him.
The starless patch of sky above him grew larger until his entire field of vision was pure black save the blue glow of numbers in the lower corner of his visor. The digits rushed downward, counting off the meters until he hit the side of the freighter. With a few bursts from his gloves, Tau re-oriented himself, flying feet-first.
“Alpha, are we really breaking standard procedure?” Jab asked.
“I didn’t like the situation,” Tau replied.
“Since when do you care about standard procedure?” Yaz asked.
The pop and hiss of comm static grew thicker as they approached the freighter.
“I didn’t say I did,” Jab said, “I’m just giddy that for once, Alpha decided—”
“The Star Jumpers need to evolve,” Tau said. His HUD showed a couple dozen meters. He let out a decelerating thrust from his boots, just enough for his legs to absorb the last of his momentum as he landed against the freighter’s hull. “I keep telling the brass—”
“We don’t know how the pirates and the terrorists will adapt,” Yaz said in the gruff tone and cadence she used for imitating him. She continued in an uptight voice, mocking the man they called Colonel Larry, “Training for every outlandish scenario your mind can dream up is a waste of our most precious resource: time.” She touched down next to Tau and continued in his voice, “Those people live in space, they’ll improvise new tactics faster than we can keep up.” The faint glow of her HUD provided just enough light to put a gleam in her eye as she finished the argument in Colonel Larry’s voice, “Gwembe, sometimes I think you didn’t ever really want to be a squad leader. Now why would that be?”
She’d taken the joke too far, but if she hadn’t, she wouldn’t be Yaz. If they hadn’t been in the middle of a mission he would have dressed her down for that. No, he wouldn’t have. Somehow, she managed to be charming even when she was intentionally irritating.
“Be a smartass all you want, Yaz, you know I’m right,” Tau said.
“I hope you are right,” Jab said through static strong enough that his words were hard to make out. He pulled the short Yume-10 rifle off his back. “Someone trying to pull a new trick on us is the only thing that’s gonna keep me from falling asleep on the job.”
“Alpha Dog, you only put Jab on my fireteam because he’s Indian, didn’t you?” Yaz asked.
“I put hm on your team because he’s the only soldier I got who’s a bigger pain in the ass than you,” Tau replied. He crouched down next to Dizzy, their breach specialist, who was working on overriding the freighter’s outer airlock door. Dizzy held a laser torch at the ready because the easy way never actually worked.
“I’m not even Indian, you know,” Yaz said. “My father’s from Bangladesh. Entirely different country.”
“You know I already know that, Yaz,” Tau said. “Everybody quiet.”
The outer airlock door slid open, which was unexpected. Hijackers always locked out manual airlock controls. The mission was already too easy, and Tau didn’t like it one bit. An airlock opening would pop up on all the control screens on the freighter’s bridge. If whoever was in control of this ship didn’t know Tau’s squad was coming before, they sure knew it now.
For all their joking, the squad moved tactically and efficiently when it counted. Dizzy yanked himself through the hatch first to begin work on overriding the inner airlock door. The rest of Fireteam Charlie followed in order. By the time Tau pulled himself into the airlock, Dizzy was ready, but held off until the four members of Fireteam Bravo squeezed in and the outer door closed.
Tau took a quick look through the inner airlock window. Beyond it lay an industrial corridor typical of freighters: metal on all sides, grated to reduce mass, the floor only distinguished by its lack of support beams, the ceiling only distinguished by the cold-white glow of circular lights evenly spaced down its length.
The inner door opened with a gasp, air rushing into the airlock. Dizzy lead Fireteam Charlie through feet first, one at a time, locking their boots to the wall opposite. Two of the soldiers trained their Yume-10 rifles down the corridor to the left, the other two to the right.
Someone tried to speak but static overwhelmed their words. Commercial vessels were lined with jamming equipment so pirates or terrorists couldn’t have an inside man using his own communication device to help coordinate a hijacking. Dizzy, realizing his words weren’t getting through, looked up at Tau and signaled “clear.”
Tau jumped through the airlock door and locked his boots to the wall. Half the light panels had been smashed out and the far end of the corridor disappeared into uneven lighting. Black scorch marks darkened the wall in multiple places. A cardboard box and bits of trash floated in the air.
Dizzy flipped open his face shield. “Something went down here,” he said, voice low.
Tau and the first four soldiers stepped down from the wall and onto the floor. He signaled Bravo team to enter.
While Yaz led Fireteam Bravo through the inner airlock door, Tau pulled up the schematics for this model of freighter on his HUD. Standard operating procedure was to take control of the ship’s bridge, that gave you as much control of the situation as you were going to get. His HUD would show him the quickest route.
With comms non-functional, the squad members raised their face shields. Tau silently pointed and the squad set off, Dizzy taking point, all rifles at high ready – pressed against their shoulders, eyes trained down the sights, scanning the corridor’s shadows for any hint of movement. Their helmet computers read the pressure on the soles of their boots and automatically switched the electromagnets off and on, allowing the soldiers to creep forward just as quickly as they could have under gravity. Yaz’s Bravo Team walked backwards to cover the squad’s rear. Dizzy had to knock the occasional bit of floating trash aside as he stalked forward. The broken lighting gave occasional glimpses of dents and scrapes on the walls.
Company workers were given detailed training on what to do in the event of a hijacking, and foremost among their orders was “don’t try to fight.” Their best chance of survival was to cooperate and let the professionals handle the bad guys. This freighter was either full of men with testosterone problems, or whatever happened here spooked the crew badly enough that they panicked.
A soft sound, like a trickle of water, caught Tau’s attention. He held up a fist to halt his squad. As the noise grew louder, it resolved into endless distinct clacks, like hundreds of fingernails tapping against each other without rhythm or pattern.
Yaz looked at Tau and mouthed the words, “What the hell?”
Something leapt out of the darkness and wrapped itself around Dizzy.
“You’re soldiers!” the figure exclaimed in a breathless voice. It was a man in a maintenance outfit, hair disheveled, a week’s worth of stubble on his face, cheeks sunken and eyes strained as if he hadn’t slept in days. “You gotta get me off the ship!”
Dizzy shoved the man off of him. “What the hell’s going on here?” he demanded.
A second figure flew out of the shadows, throwing itself at Dizzy. Tau had just enough time to see the thing was an inhuman shape, spinning like a disk, before it ripped straight through Dizzy’s clavicle, spraying blood into the air.
Dizzy’s anguished scream overpowered the soldiers’ shouts. Tau thrust his rifle against his shoulder and spun to get a read on the form. Now floating nearly motionless in the better lit part of the corridor, Tau’s eyes struggled to make sense of the thing’s shape. It was a blob, maybe twice the diameter of a human head, with jellyfish tentacles streaming out from the center mass in every dimension, some as long as a man’s arm. The body and tentacles were so dark in their aqua color they were nearly charcoal gray, with an iridescent sheen of aqua flashing off their surfaces. Droplets of Dizzy’s dark-red blood painted its tentacles and floated in the air. The thing hung in the middle of the soldiers, a placement that prevented them from firing on it for fear of hitting each other in the crossfire.
“Jab!” Tau yelled.
“On it!” he called back. Tau kept his eye trained on the thing, but the sounds coming from behind told him Jab had opened his backpack med kit and set into stopping Dizzy’s blood loss even before Tau had opened his mouth.
A twitch of the thing’s tentacles made the soldiers flinch back. Its movements brought the same clacking noise they’d heard before. The thing had curled the top of a tentacle around a gap in the grating. Across its body, fist-sized holes opened and closed, the surface drawing back to an interior dark enough that no details could be seen. Whether they were eyes or mouths or something else entirely, Tau had no idea.
The thing flung itself at Yaz. Its body flattened and elongated, warped by the centrifugal force of its spin, all of the tentacles aligning to whip in circles like the teeth of a buzz saw. Yaz arched her upper body to one side, throwing her rifle up to block the attack. The whirling limbs clanged against her Yume-10 with a sound like a piece of metal shoved into a fan, cutting the rifle in half. She floated the rifle and engaged her boot and glove thrusters, rippling the air with the deep rumble of yume waves, throwing herself one way and the creature the other.
Tau tracked the thing down the sights of his rifle. He got a clear shot and took it.
The instant Tau pulled the trigger, the thing slapped a tentacle against the wall and changed its momentum. The blur of Tau’s yume beam shot past the creature, the beam’s deep buzz disappearing down the corridor. Tau fired again and again, his beam’s heavy vibrations echoing off the walls. The thing seemed to know its survival depended on never continuing in a straight line for more than a fraction of a second. It dodged every shot.
Tau floated his rifle, stomped one boot behind him, mag-locked his feet to the surface, and fired his glove thrusters. The waves knocked the thing far enough down the corridor to present an open shot for his entire squad. None of them hesitated. A half-dozen yume rifles fired in quick succession, warping the air, overwhelming Tau’s ears with their chest-rumbling buzz. They ripped the creature apart.
As the reverberation of the last shot faded away, Tau drew and exhaled a long breath. The corridor before him was littered with chunks of the thing’s body and globs of fluids in black, dark yellow, green, and off-white. Which, if any, of those was the thing’s blood, Tau had no idea. One piece of the creature, a nearly intact tentacle, began to wiggle, as if alive and still looking to attack. As it floated past him, Tau got just close enough to see that the tentacle’s surface was not pliable, continuous skin, but rather looked to be thousands of interlocking triangular pieces, each rigid like a crab shell.
The squad stayed alert, half aiming their rifles down the corridor in one direction, half in the other.
Tau turned. From the look on Jab’s face he knew straight away – Dizzy was dead.
Yaz started toward him, “Dizzy… dammit, no. Dizzy!”
“I’m sorry,” Jab said.
Tau sucked in a breath, fighting to keep his throat from closing into a sob. His squad needed him to keep his head on straight. Grieving would have to wait.
Yaz spun, seized the worker by the collar, and slammed him against the wall.
“What the hell was that thing?” she yelled through her teeth. “Are there more of them?”
“Yes,” the worker said.
“No idea. Could be hundreds by now. You gotta get me off this ship.”
“Hundreds?” Jab said.
“How could you not know?” Yaz asked.
“Every time one of those jellyfish things feeds, it pops off a couple of tentacles and those grow into new jellyfish creatures,” he said. “I hadn’t left that closet for days until I heard you.”
“Feed on what?” Yaz asked.
The man started at her. “When this started a few days ago, there was only one jellyfish and more than a hundred crew. I’m probably the only one left.”
Yaz’s mouth twisted down in revulsion.
The ship had to be on autopilot, which meant that if they didn’t stop it, the freighter would enter Earth orbit in less than twenty minutes and land at Achebe Port, Kenya a handful of minutes after that. Images of the jellyfish creatures running wild through downtown Nairobi flashed through Tau’s mind. People ripped apart in the streets by the thousands, the creatures feeding and replicating until they became an endless swarm that devoured every living thing on the continent.
Earth had to be warned. If the Star Jumpers couldn’t get control of the ship, the freighter needed to be shot out of the sky. Tau opened a channel to their transport ship’s pilot. Static squawked back at him. That left one clear tactical objective.
“We take the bridge,” Tau said.
“Master Sergeant, are you serious?” Jab asked.
“We run this same as any other mission,” Tau said. “Take the bridge, control the ship, control the situation.”
“Roger that,” Yaz said. She snatched Dizzy’s rifle out of the air. Jab put Dizzy’s body over one shoulder, holding it down with one arm and wielding a rifle with the other. Tau placed the worker’s hand on his shoulder and motioned his squad forward.
“Please,” the man said, holding on to Tau, his body trailing behind. “Can’t you get me off the ship, first? I don’t want to get eaten by the jellies. I’ve seen it. It’s horrible. Please.”
Tau shook his head. “No time. What’s your name?”
“Oliver,” the man replied.
“How’d that jellyfish thing get on your ship?” Tau asked.
“Don’t know,” Oliver said. “We were in deep space, between systems, when it first attacked.”
The clacking noise of another creature yanked a gasp from Oliver’s throat.
Monk, the squad’s heavy gunner, pulled the wide-barreled Yume-A2 from her back and looked at Tau, who shook his head.
“The corridor’s too tight,” he said. “The bounceback will knock us all on our butts.”
“Rather be on my butt than six feet under,” she said.
“Keep it ready,” Tau said. “But no firing unless I give the say so and make damn sure it’s aimed directly down the corridor.”
The squad continued forward, moving as quickly and quietly as possible, rifles at high ready. Tau signaled directions until they reached the final dark corridor before the passageway that would give them a direct line of sight to the bridge. He faced his squad.
“We can’t let them get to Earth,” he said, careful to keep emotion out of his voice. “No matter what it takes… not one of those things gets off this ship. No matter what it takes.”
In turn, Tau met the eyes of the seven remaining members of his squad. Each nodded.
“You understand what I’m saying?” Tau asked. “You understand what I’m asking of you right now?”
“Tau…” Yaz said. “Everyone understands.”
“But there’s gotta be more of those jellyfish somewhere out there,” Jab said. “Even if we keep this horde from getting to Earth, if none of us are left alive to warn everyone what’s waiting out there between the stars… Sooner or later they take another ship and find their way to Earth.”
Yaz slowly nodded. “The next Jumper squad to come across them won’t be any more prepared than us.” She looked at Tau with a grim smile. “You officially won your argument with Colonel Larry.”
For a moment, the enormity of it all overwhelmed Tau. He bit his teeth against each other and said, “We don’t have to kill every jellyfish on this ship, we just have to take the bridge and get a message out. Whatever happens after that, at least Earth will know.” Tau removed Oliver’s hand from his shoulder. “Stay here. We’ll get you when the bridge is clear.”
Jab thrust Dizzy’s dead body onto Oliver. “And hold onto Dizzy.”
Oliver reeled back, face twisting.
“Hey, this man gave his life to rescue you and your crew,” Jab said. “We’re not gonna leave him behind.”
Tau pressed his back to the wall. He thrust his head around the corner just long enough to get a glimpse. Like the other corridors, the broken lighting and hard shadows made it difficult to see clearly. A number of jellyfish hung onto the series of archways leading to the door of the bridge, some half the size of the first creature they encountered, some more than twice as large. Tau yanked his head back.
“There’s eight or so of them,” he whispered. “All different sizes. They’re around the door, but it’s open. About two dozen meters between us and them.”
Yaz cursed in whatever language people spoke in Bangladesh. “Open door sounds like a lure,” she said.
“If this was a trap they wouldn’t be out in the open where we could see them,” Jab said.
“Flashbang,” Tau said, sticking out his hand. Yaz pulled one of the small silver cylinders off her belt and handed it to him. Tau activated it and stepped out just far enough to toss it underhand. It floated through the air, timer silently counting down, drifting into the center of the mass of jellyfish. Tau jumped back behind the wall. A blinding flare and clap of thunder erupted from the intersection.
The soldiers stormed the corridor, sighting creatures and firing as fast as their fingers could pull the triggers. The jellyfish seemed stunned by the flashbang, floating in the air with little movement and no direction. The barrage of howling yume beams ripped the creatures apart, bits of flesh shredding and globs of fluid scattering until none of the jellyfish were left in one piece.
“Cease fire,” Tau called out.
The air stilled as the last of the beams dissipated. There were no more jellyfish, just chunks of their limbs and pieces of their innards floating in the corridor. Tau signaled Bravo Team to cover the rear. He fought to keep his breath calm in hopes he’d hear if any more of the creatures were coming their way.
“Why haven’t more come out of the bridge?” Yaz whispered.
“They might have gotten enough of the flashbang that they’re stunned, too,” Jab said.
“Or they’re smart enough to know better than to charge armed soldiers,” Yaz said.
The idea that the jellyfish might be intelligent enough to think tactically froze him, but only for a moment. He didn’t really have a choice. They needed to press their advantage, and do it quickly.
“Forward. Double time,” he ordered.
The soldiers advanced as a team, fast walking, rifles at high ready, quietly as they could without sacrificing speed. Tau, in the middle, strained to look past the globs of jellyfish parts and the heads of the three soldiers in front of him, eyes searching for any sign of movement in the small bit of the bridge he could see. Monk slowed just as she reached the entrance to the bridge and looked back over her shoulder for the go signal. As soon as she turned her head, her eyes grew wide.
Instantly, Tau realized his mistake.
The monstrous creatures leapt out from behind the corridor’s arches, attacking the squad from all sides, the clack of their tentacles like the rush of a river.
Soldiers screamed in surprise and fear and pain. Rifle beams and thruster waves rippled the air, overwhelming Tau’s ears. A shredding pain gouged deep across his thigh, another across his back. Soldiers flailed and threw their bodies in every direction, desperately trying to get away from the swarm of thrashing jellyfish tentacles. In the choppy light, warp of yume waves, and frenetic movement, Tau’s eyes couldn’t sort out what was what. Pieces of dead jellyfish, lives ones on the attack, the bodies of his teammates, streams of blood from both humans and jellyfish – it all spun around him too fast.
A jellyfish leapt for his face. Tau jerked backward and threw a blast from his glove on pure instinct. The wave knocked the creature back and cleared the air in front of him just enough for Tau to get his bearings. More of the things crawled out of the door to the bridge. It made his tactical decision easy.
“Fall back!” he yelled.
Tau punched and shot and kicked jellyfish back with boot thrusters, but he could not make progress. His soldiers were trying to fight their way back, but it was all they could do just to stay alive. One of them floated in the air, no longer fighting, while jellyfish ripped open the soldier’s suit and attached to his body. The soldier was dead and the creatures were feeding. The tentacles of one of the feeding jellyfish ballooned grotesquely in places, like a snake that had swallowed a rabbit that was bigger around than its body. Tau shot the creature full of holes.
A yume beam punched through the stomach of one of the soldiers, spraying blood out the man’s back.
“Check your targets! Check your targets!” Tau screamed. He doubted anyone could hear him through the commotion.
Monk, one jellyfish wrapped around her chest and another around her arm, fought to raise her bulky Yume-A2 rifle.
“No!” Tau yelled.
In Monk’s struggle with the jellyfish, the rifle wound up pointed directly at the wall when the tip of the creature’s tentacle reached inside the trigger guard.
The explosive wave shattered all of Tau’s senses. He must have been thrown by the blast, but his eyes were shocked into blindness and his ears could hear nothing save the buzzing of his skull. He could get no feeling for anything around him. He might be dead, crushed against a wall, for all he could tell.
Tau had no idea how long he floated, stunned, before a voice broke through the muffle of his ears, screaming, “Tau! Tau!”
He forced his eyes open. Yaz was yanking him through the air. They were still in the corridor. The bodies of soldiers and jellyfish lay scattered through the air, half of them struggling to move, half not moving at all. Yaz grabbed another soldier by his backpack and yume-kicked off the wall. Two more men managed to get away with them.
Oliver floated in the air, curled into a ball with his head ducked down, eyes squeezed tight, hands over his ears. Jab grabbed him by the shoulder and Oliver flinched in fear.
“What was that explosion?” Oliver said. “Are they dead?”
Jab grabbed Oliver under the armpits and squatted horizontally, feet against a wall in preparation to jump.
“What about Dizzy’s body?” Oliver said. “You said we weren’t gonna leave him behind.”
“We’re gonna leave him behind,” Jab said.
He yume-jumped off the wall, the two racing away down the corridor. Yaz did the same, groaning under the strain of keeping her grip as the inertia of two grown men pulled against her sudden acceleration. They slammed into the wall at the end of the corridor. Yaz didn’t let go of either man, quickly recovering and yume-jumping again. She zig-zagged through the corridors, putting as much distance as possible between them and the horde of creatures.
“We’re clear,” Tau said, gently pulling free of Yaz’s grip. “We gotta regroup.”
Tau had four soldiers left: Jab and Bad Hand, who were his two snipers, Swank, and, thank God, Yaz. She had drops of blood floating out of a gash on her cheek and the A2 tucked under one armpit. Dangerous as it was, they might need it yet. It was impressive that she’d had the presence of mind to snatch it out of the air while pulling her teammates to safety. It was a hell of an odd time for Tau to find himself lamenting that he was ten years too old for her.
“What now?” Yaz asked.
“We gotta hope we can get to one of the airlocks,” Tau said. “We gotta get to the transport and relay a message to Earth to shoot this freighter out of the sky.”
“Whoa, what?” Oliver said. “We’re still on this freighter.”
Tau led the way on foot, following the directions of his HUD, snaking from one corridor to the next, rifle at high ready, finger tense against the trigger. They reached an airlock at the intersection of three corridors. Not a defendable position. At least all the corridors were a few dozen meters long. If the jellyfish attacked, they’d see it coming. As Yaz worked the inner door controls, her teammates covered each of the corridors at the end of their rifles.
“Swank, you’re jumping,” Tau said.
Movement drew his eye. At the end of one corridor, a jellyfish crawled around the corner and hung from the ceiling. Jab fired a shot that blew off one of the creature’s tentacles. It reeled back but did not retreat. A second jellyfish joined it.
“Yaz!” Tau yelled.
“I know!” she replied.
The inner airlock door slid open and Swank leapt in. Yaz shut it behind him and spun with her weapon up, sighting the creatures and firing off her first shot in the space of a breath. More of the jellyfish joined the two at the end of the corridor. One of the jellyfish flung itself at them. It became a vertical whirling disk, seen edge-on. Yaz and Jab fired on it, but their shots missed its thin profile until it was almost on top of them. Their last few shots tore the creature apart an instant before it reached them. They spun away to avoid the chunks of flesh and liquid carried forward by momentum.
Tau glanced through the airlock window just in time to see thruster waves fire against the glass and Swank shoot into space, the Star Jumper transport ship in the distance behind him. With some luck they might be able to hold off the creatures long enough for their pilot to dock with the airlock and move Oliver across to their ship. If there were any other survivors still on the freighter there was nothing more that could be done for them.
Tau huffed out a relieved breath. At the very least, their transport ship would send out a warning. Earth would know—
A jellyfish came flying in from the left side of Tau’s view and slammed into Swank, wrapping its long tentacles around his body and knocking him off trajectory. Blood sprayed into the vacuum of space. Swank and the creature spun out of sight.
“No!” Tau yelled. He flipped on his comm. “Swank! Swank!”
All that came back to Tau was static.
A jellyfish leapt into the airlock from the outside, coming straight at Tau and ramming the tip of one tentacle through the window. Tau threw himself back in surprise. The high hiss of air escaping through the hole in the glass was overpowered by the soldiers opening fire again. Tau spun and jammed the stock of this rifle against his shoulder. What little remained of his squad were shooting in different directions. The jellyfish were coming at them from two corridors now.
Tau fired off a few shots before yelling, “Fall back!”
His squad scampered backward, continuing to fire. As Yaz pulled even with the airlock window, the jellyfish inside ripped its tentacle back, shattering the glass outward. Air whipped past the soldiers and out the airlock with a hollow whoosh. Yaz spun just in time to see the creature lunge for her, but its attack was slowed fighting the rush of wind. She hit it with a dozen beams, shredding it into fragments.
The squad continued back, firing at the handful of jellyfish that crawled across the ceiling and leapt from wall to wall. Tau pulled the freighter plans up on his HUD and searched for any other airlocks they might be able to reach. None. It was just as well, Tau suspected if they made it outside they’d just be walking into the same ambush that had been waiting for Swank.
What could they do to get a message out? There must have been a half-dozen places on the ship with long-distance communication ability, but none they were likely to get to. They were being pushed to the rear of the ship, cut off from everything save the cargo holds and the engine room.
“Oliver!” Tau yelled. “If we can get to the engine room, can we shut down the magnetic coils?”
“What? No!” Oliver yelled back. “The entire ship would turn into a nuclear fireball!”
“That’s the idea,” Tau said.
“No, they’ve got safeguards against crap like that.”
“Damn,” Tau said. “But we could disable the fusion reactor, right?”
“Yeah, we could disable it or alter the thrust,” Oliver said.
“We can alter thrust? Including trajectory? You’re sure of that?”
“Won’t have navigation instruments so our steering won’t be too precise, but yeah.”
Tau yelled to his three remaining soldiers. “With me, fast as you can!”
He didn’t have to tell them what he really meant was “fast as you can move backwards while firing.” The creatures kept coming, more and more of them crawling into the corridor, covering the walls and ceiling and floor. There were too many, the squad wouldn’t make it to the engine room before being overrun.
“Flashbang!” Yaz called out, and whipped one of the small cylinders down the hallway. Everyone spun, covering their eyes and ears against the blinding snap of light and ear-splitting crack of thunder. Tau glanced at Yaz’s belt – she only had one flashbang left.
The team made some distance before the jellyfish regained their senses and charged again. By the time the soldiers reached the door to the engine room, the corridor was so thick with them that any rifle shot could hardly help but hit one of the creatures.
Tau hauled Oliver into the cavernous engine room while Yaz, Jab, and Bad Hand stood just inside the doorway, filling the corridor with the rumble of yume beams. He could make no sense of the jumble of machinery that made up the ship’s reactor, interwoven into the rough shape of a column stretching the entire twenty meters to the ceiling and eight meters in diameter, filling up a third of the room. The space was dimly lit by lights shining up from the handful of walkways that circled the column and what little fusion flickered out of the reactor while the ship was not thrusting.
“Can you crash the ship?” Tau asked.
“Into what?” Oliver asked.
“Okay, but then… how do we get off?”
Oliver’s face twisted. “But… I could steer us away from Earth,” he said. “How long until another team of Star Jumpers comes?”
“Too long,” Tau said. “We’d get overrun long before they got here and then the autopilot would steer this thing back to Earth.”
“But you said there’s more of those things somewhere out there,” Oliver said. “Even if we kill all these…”
Tau nodded. “I know. But there’s nothing we can do about that. We have to take care of the immediate threat and pray the next time this happens someone finds a way to send out a warning.”
Oliver’s mouth opened and closed, no words coming out.
“There is no way off this ship,” Tau said. “We are either going to be the heroes who saved humanity or the cowards who doomed it, but no matter what, we will not survive.”
Oliver’s chin trembled, but Tau could see it in the man’s eyes – he was starting to accept that Tau was right.
Tau said, “Before we die, we have one last job to do: point this ship toward the Earth and fire those engines.”
Oliver nodded, tears forming.
Tau said, “What do you need from me?”
Oliver shook his head. He looked up at an instrument panel in the middle of a walkway five meters above them. “Even after I fire the engines, if they wreck the control panel or damage the engines too much it throws off our trajectory and we miss the Earth. You have to keep them out of here until we crash. Understand?”
“Roger that,” Tau said.
Oliver leapt for the walkway, grabbed hold of a railing, and pulled himself to the panel.
“Tau!” Yaz yelled. “A-two!”
Jab and Bad Hand had already turned away and covered their ears. Yaz had her body halfway behind the doorway, the Yume-A2 in her hands, carefully levelling it to aim directly down the corridor. She thrust the end of the barrel as far out of the engine room as she could manage. Tau spun and covered his ears.
The thunder of the wave shook Tau’s entire body. He turned to see the first dozen meters of the corridor had been cleared of jellyfish, their innards smeared across the walls. But those further along the corridor had only been knocked back and were regaining their wits. They rushed forward, tumbling over each other to get at the soldiers.
“Damn,” Yaz said. She floated the A2 and lifted her Yume-10. Jab and Bad Hand joined her, opening fire with their sniper rifles. The A2 only had so many shots until it ran dry. Yaz could pull that trick a handful more times, but after that there’d be nothing left to do but try to pick off the creatures one by one.
“Hey!” Oliver yelled. “Hey Alpha… guy…!”
Tau jumped, grabbed a railing and pulled himself down onto the walkway where Oliver floated in front of the control panel.
“It’s not working,” Oliver said, voice raised to be heard above the deep screech of yume beams.
“What? Why not?” Tau asked.
“There’s safeguards against crashes built into the bridge controls,” Oliver said, “It’s auto-rejecting the trajectory.”
“Is there any way—?”
“We can cut the data lines,” Oliver said. “Between here and the bridge.”
“Show me where.”
Oliver tilted his head up and swiveled it back and forth, searching.
“Uh… jeez,” he said.
“A-two!” Yaz yelled from below.
Tau and Oliver covered their ears. A deep roar shook the entire room.
“We don’t got a lot of time,” Tau said.
“Just rip out all that,” Oliver said, sweeping his hand across dozens of colored pipes that blanketed the ceiling twenty meters above their heads.
Tau muttered a curse and leapt. He re-oriented and landed with his feet against the ceiling, magnetically locking his boots against the metal pipes. The Yume-10’s beams were designed to dissipate over distance to avoid breaching the hull of a ship, but close up the beam was concentrated enough to puncture metal. Tau fired a shot. It punched a hole clean through the pipe, but a small one.
“Bad Hand!” Tau yelled. “Get up here!”
Bad Hand looked back and forth between the corridor and Tau.
“Go!” Yaz yelled.
Bad Hand jumped, flipping himself over in mid-air and landing next to Tau.
“We need to shred the wires inside all these pipes,” Tau said.
The pair opened fire, Bad Hand’s sniper rifle doing a more effective job than Tau’s weapon. Still, it was taking too long. The jellyfish threatened to overrun the engine room at any second.
“A-two!” Yaz called again.
Tau didn’t stop to cover his ears. He kept firing into the pipes as the blast shook the metal under his feet. When he’d cut through all the pipes directly under him, Tau looked up. Bad Hand was almost through the last set. Yaz and Jab were holding the door. They might make it yet.
Bad Hand’s sniper rifle had blasted clear through the pipes and the ceiling in a jagged line. He stopped firing.
“Good. Get back to—” Tau began.
Jellyfish tentacles erupted through the crack and seized Bad Hand, crushing him against the ceiling before he could utter anything more than a gasp. The soldier’s bones cracked and blood gushed from his body. Tau opened fire into the tangle of arms.
The ceiling ruptured, a dozen jellyfish spinning out in all directions, filling the air with the clack of their tentacles. Tau yume-kicked away, rifle aimed between his feet, firing wildly, howling in warning to his team. One of the creatures flung itself directly at him. Just before it would have shredded his leg, he managed to shove one boot in its path and fire a thruster wave to knock it back, sending himself spinning. He bounced off the floor shoulder-first. For a second he could do nothing but try to draw air into his lungs as he slowly drifted upward.
Still struggling to breathe, Tau snatched the last flashbang off Yaz’s belt. She spun to look at him.
“What…?” she began.
Tau flung the flashbang up into a cloud of jellyfish.
“Oh hell,” Yaz said, then spun away, clamping her eyes shut.
The explosion carried little concussive force, but the burst of light shone through Tau’s eyelids. When he looked back up, every jellyfish in the room was floating aimlessly, stunned. But it would only last for a second.
More jellyfish poured out of the crack in the ceiling. Yaz punched Jab in the chest, nodded up at the creatures and yelled, “Go! I’m right behind you!”
Jab leapt upward with a yume-jump, aiming along his rifle sight and picking off jellyfish as he flew. Tau followed, doing the same. An instant later, the thunder of the A2 vibrated him right down to the teeth.
A reactor panel shattered under a creature’s tentacles, sparks and metal debris exploding outward. Were they attacking the reactor on purpose? The thought would have shocked Tau with fear if he’d had even one second between trigger pulls to register an emotion.
Somehow, Tau managed to spot Bad Hand’s sniper rifle floating through the middle of the room. He snatched it and kicked off the reactor structure, directing himself back to the control panel.
Tau landed directly behind Oliver, doing the best he could to shield the man’s body with his own. Wielding a rifle in each hand, he filled the air around them with yume beams.
“You got it or not?” Tau yelled.
“Just need a minute…” Oliver said, eyes locked on the control panel, fingers moving frantically.
“It look to you like we got a minute?” Tau said.
He fired both rifles up at a jellyfish spinning directly for them. A second jellyfish targeted them. Then a third and a fourth. He’d never get them all in time.
Yaz shouldered him aside and unleashed a boom from the A2. The jellyfish flying for them were crushed and flung backward. Even in the massive engine room, the bounceback still rattled Tau’s skull.
“Thank y—” Tau began.
Yaz grabbed the back of his helmet, pulled him down, and kissed him.
“Well,” she said, “we’ve pretty much run out of time for you to make a move on me, so I had to take matters into my own hands.”
“But… I’m your superior officer,” Tau said.
Yaz floated the A2 and whipped a Yume-10 up against her shoulder, opening fire. “Sorry, it’s too late to talk dirty to me now.”
Tau put his back against Yaz’s and fired into the swirl of jellyfish spinning past in every direction.
“Whoa…” Oliver muttered.
“What?” Tau yelled. “You got it?”
“I can launch the black box from here. With all the flight data and video recordings. It won’t survive our impact with Earth but I could eject it before we crash. It’s got a beacon. They’ll find it, they’ll see the jellies.”
“So do it.”
“I’ll have to back out of this control set…”
“No! We got less than five minutes before this ship enters orbit and starts landing procedure. Fire the engines first. Then the black box. Got it?”
“Alpha!” Jab hollered.
Tau stopped firing just long enough look down. A jellyfish was entering the room, a creature so large it had to thrust two of its tentacles through the door before squeezing its body through. The bulk of its mass expanded as it pushed clear of the doorway. The giant slapped arms against the floor to pull itself forward, each impact rattling the walkway.
Jab fired at the creature, every shot popping a hole that spurted fluid. The wounds were tiny on the monstrous jellyfish. It continued forward, swinging a tentacle that barely missed the soldier. Tau and Yaz directed their shots at the giant. It lumbered forward as if their yume beams were beneath its notice.
Jab backed away, shooting as fast as his rifle could fire. A jellyfish struck him from behind, knocking the rifle from his hand and opening a bloody gash across his back. He threw himself forward, snatching his rifle out of the air, spinning, and opening fire on the creature that had wounded him. The tentacle of the giant jellyfish snapped tight around his chest.
Yaz pulled herself over the side of the walkway and kicked off. She pulled the A2 up and took aim at the center of the giant’s mass. The instant she got close enough that Jab was outside the weapon’s blast cone, she pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. The A2 had run dry.
Yaz floated the weapon and fired all four glove and boot thrusters, but the maneuver didn’t get her far enough fast enough. One of the giant’s tentacles swatted her out of the air, throwing her across the room and bouncing her off the far wall.
The giant slammed Jab against the floor. The soldier’s body broke in too many ways. He went limp. The surface of the giant’s body opened in multiple places at once as the tentacles ripped Jab into two pieces. It scooped Jab’s body halves into the openings.
The giant lunged forward, slamming an enormous tentacle against the walkway, crushing it into a V shape. Tau, still mag-locked, was jerked down, awkwardly attached to one slope. Oliver, who floated free, startled to see the walkway bend beneath him. Tau concentrated his fire on the giant’s tentacle, causing the limb to flinch back. A jellyfish came spinning down at Oliver from above. Tau was forced to refocus his aim, his beams cutting it apart just in time. Only chunks of flesh and blood remained, momentum splattering those pieces across the control panel. Oliver wiped a hand across the screen and kept working.
Below, the giant’s tentacle swung for Yaz again. She yume-kicked off the ground and riddled the limb with holes.
“Yaz!” Tau yelled.
Continuing upward, Yaz looked at Tau, who held up a gloved fist, the hum of a charge building. She nodded without hesitation, though a flash of emotion played itself across the twist of her lips. Yaz shoved off a walkway and flew past the giant, just out of reach, shooting into its core. With his free hand, Tau took shots at every jellyfish that caught his eye.
Tau’s HUD warned him that his left glove was building up a dangerous charge, indicator light changing from yellow to orange. He pushed it into the red, the vibration in his glove deepening until it numbed his hand straight down to the bones.
A yelp from below yanked Tau’s attention back to the giant. It had Yaz in one tentacle and was about to crush her. Tau yume-jumped at a downward angle off the railing, directly at the giant, praying it would expose its mouth again. It did.
With a howl of rage and fear, Tau flew with his left arm straight out, ramming it as deep as he could into the giant’s open mouth and letting go of the glove’s charge.
The yume explosion stunned Tau’s brain, disrupting all of his senses. His mind barely registered that he’d been pitched backward. His back slammed against an unmoving beam, sending him spiraling off. He triggered his suit’s auto-stabilize function. Some malfunction signal lit on his HUD and it took longer than expected for him to stop spinning. When he regained enough control of his thoughts to check if his body was all in one piece, he realized it was not. His left forearm was misshapen, the bones of his hand crushed to the point it was unrecognizable. Somewhere in his mind he knew he should be in pain, but he felt nothing.
A groan from Yaz pulled his attention up. She floated, her body slowly regaining movement, the limp tentacle of the giant hovering lifelessly next to her. The beast was still in one piece, but its body bulged in odd disfigurations and fluids flowed from its mouth.
“Tau?” Yaz said, her lungs fighting to squeeze out the single word.
Tau only managed to grunt in reply.
“Thanks,” Yaz said.
A roar filled Tau’s ears. His body slammed to the floor. He opened his eyes to see the room filled with brightly dancing flickers of warm light. Dozens of jellyfish rained down on him. His brain registered gravity pushing him against the ground. The ship was accelerating.
One of the jellyfish fell directly toward Tau’s face. He rolled out of the way as the thing thudded against the floor. It hopped back up and sprung off its tentacles, leaping for his face. He knocked it back with his remaining glove thruster. It wouldn’t take but a second to recover and come back for him. Where the hell was his rifle?
Oliver screamed. The acceleration had knocked him off the sloped walkway and onto the floor. By the time Tau spotted him, the jellyfish had already ripped him apart.
Tau struggled to get off the floor. He still needed to keep the jellyfish from doing too much damage before the ship crashed. He still needed to launch the black box. He had to find his rifle and climb up to the control panel.
The buzz of yume beams made his head swivel. Yaz was on her feet, picking off jellyfish as they climbed the reactor. Tau fought to get up, but the ship was under more than one gravity of acceleration – or at least it felt like it. As beat up and exhausted as Tau was, he had no way to judge what a gravity should feel like. He pulled up gravity on his HUD. It read 1.4 g and climbing.
Tau yume-jumped, thankful that his suit was designed to read the force of gravity against his boot soles and auto-adjust thrust. He stumbled down onto the section of walkway that was still mostly horizontal, falling to his knees. A jellyfish dropped next to him and bounced right back up, spinning forward, its clacking tentacles lashing out. A yume beam from below punched through the dead center of its body. The creature’s momentum threw it against Tau, knocking him over, but the slack tentacles didn’t cut any deeper than his suit fabric.
“What the hell are you doing?” Yaz yelled up at him.
“I can launch the black box from here!” Tau yelled back. “We can warn Earth!”
Yaz yume-jumped up to the walkway, rifle firing the whole way. Tau yanked the glove off his one useable hand with his teeth and worked the control panel as Yaz stood with her back to his, firing and endless volley of shots. The roar of the fusion engine grew louder, the strain on Tau’s muscles heavier, by the second. They were almost at double Earth gravity.
“You figure it out?” Yaz yelled.
“Yeah,” Tau answered.
“Include a message. Tell Colonel Larry, ‘Kiss my ass.’”
Tau pressed the record button, “This message is for Colonel Anton Lawrence. Yaz says kiss her ass.”
“No! Kiss your ass.”
“Kiss both our asses,” Tau yelled into the control panel. “And the ass of every member of Jump Team Red who died today. That’s 18 butt cheeks – kiss ‘em all!”
Tau mashed the launch button with his thumb. The control panel indicated the freighter’s black box had been jettisoned into space.
Jellyfish toppled from the side of the reactor, crashing off the walkway, thudding to the floor. Acceleration passed two and a half g. Tau collapsed to his knees, laboring to draw breath. The creatures continued to lumber forward, fighting with all they had to climb the walkway, but they made no progress. Yaz’s rifle went silent.
She dropped down in front of Tau, bringing the two face to face.
“You do have a sense of humor,” she said. “Always knew it.”
“Thank you,” he said. “For everything.”
An overwhelming rumble shook the room like an earthquake. They’d hit Earth’s atmosphere. Tau and Yaz floated up off the walkway as the decelerating force of air resistance balanced the acceleration of the ship’s thrust and they became weightless again.
It would only be a few seconds, now.
Tau wrapped Yaz in a hug. She clung to him, gripping with all her strength, helmet pressed against his shoulder.
“Love you, Yasmine,” he said.
“Love you, too, sarge.”