Pfc Nathan Harper watched the radar as it searched for the United Dominion Naval supply ship Patronus. Just a few days ago he was on his way back to Eden Prime for leave, but command contacted the Kafka and requested a search and rescue operation. According to communications intercepted from the Patronus, power was cut to key systems and despite continued hailing, all reports stopped within an hour of the first request for assistance.
Most of the crew of the Kafka put their money on the ship facing a catastrophic failure leaving the ship stranded and full of the dead. Similar to when an airliner crashed back on Earth during the 20th century. Machines were destined to fail there was no alternative and although the Patronus was a UDN vessel, interstellar maintenance was challenging and often rushed.
The end result was setting up the ship for disaster at the cost of the crew.
“We’re approaching the Patronus. We’ll run a biometric scan and see what we got going on there. Not going to lie, she looks pretty banged up. Are we sure this is the ship UDN command is looking for?”
Out the view port of the bridge of the destroyer class ship Kafka, the Patronus drifted aimlessly in the blackened dark of space. Occasionally, the emergency docking lights would flicker for a brief moment before again going dark. The vessel appeared undamaged, but all it took to disable a ship was a system failure. The oxygen generators would power down and the crew would have only a few minutes to survive unless they could get to their suits in time. That would only buy a few hours of course, but that was beside the point.
The Kafka crept closer to perform the biometric scan. The scan would show if there was life and if there was, then they would board. Nathan prayed they’d be dead. Not because he wished death upon his fellow man, but he had a girl waiting for him back on Eden Prime.
Or at least he thought.
Carmela stopped writing a few months back. Occasionally, the senior officers shut down civilian communication platforms, but there hadn’t been a classified mission in almost two years. Space was beginning to get a bit boring beyond the Dominion borders. UDN leadership touted the importance of continuing to push further out into the universe, but how many lifeless rocks can you find before settling on the idea that humanity was alone?
Officer Joyce Malone was on her first command since being promoted to Ship Commander and for a grunt like Nathan that meant nothing, but annoyance. She had something to prove and it took the entire crew to make that happen.
Even if the Kafka was nothing more than a forward operating expeditionary ship.
“Harper, give me an update on the biometric scans of the Patronus. I want to know whether or not we can go aboard and I want to know yesterday!”
Nathan rolled his eyes and gave a half-hearted Yes ma’am as he watched for the results to appear on the screen. He expected nothing, but suddenly life signatures started to pop up on the screen.
“We have bio signatures!” Nathan barked. “I’m counting nearly forty of them. How big was the crew of the Patronus?”
Officer Malone leaned over his shoulder and studied the numbers. Nathan watched as her eyes darted through the report before settling in a look of mild confusion and a hint of concern.
“Ready a squadron to board the Patronus. UDN passenger logs state that there should only be thirty crewmen aboard the ship.” Malone paused for a moment before adding. “Make sure they are armed.”
The odds that the Patronus was raided were slim, but not impossible. Pirates, resistance forces and all around ne’er-do-wells roamed the expanses looking for supply ships to abscond with a small bounty. Ships with the UDN insignia were rarely attacked, but on occasion there were those out there who didn’t know what they were doing when they tangled with a Dominion vessel. Those individuals often failed to live out the year. When you mess with the only real military in the universe you will get stung.
For Nathan though, it put him in a precarious spot. He was happy to find the crew may have survived whatever had happened, but for a few bucks more a pay he had signed up to be a part of the Rapid Boarding Platoon or the RBP for short. The recruiter back on Eden Prime said it would be a rare circumstance since the war with Earth had ended decades earlier, but to expect at least once in his career.
Well, here he was suiting up in the outfit room with the rest of the RBP. Twenty men and women who were all suckered into signing up for the RBP for the bonus. Nathan had spent his on an apartment upgrade in Vesta City. Moving from a studio to a single bedroom. He barely had his bags unpacked when he was shipped out.
At least he wasn’t alone in being swooned by a quick buck.
“Anyone know what we’re getting into?” Asked Pfc Jack Song. Song joined the crew at the same time as Nathan and spent his days spacewalking the exterior of the ship ensuring proper maintenance is done. His granddad was a Dominion Medal winner during the First Solar War and his dad also won the award during the Second Solar War in the final defeat of Earth. Well, if you consider a sudden epidemic striking the planet and forcing surrender a defeat. For Jack Song, he realized he’d never live up to those standards.
The first guess came from Pfc Tanya Gibbs. Nathan always had a thing for Tanya, but she had gotten so good at spurning his advances he was convinced she was a lesbian or more likely she thought he was a creep.
“Bandits. I’d bet my month’s salary on it being bandits. We’re far enough out beyond the Dominion that those bastards will be emboldened.”
“Emboldened? Somebody has been reading a vocabulary book. Be careful if you look too smart they’ll send you to the Academy and they’ll make you into another Malone. You’ll only see turtle heads once you get those commander bars.” Song joked.
Tanya rolled her eyes.
“You and the rest of the knuckle-draggers in the UDN are just afraid of a strong woman. Earth may have been an oppressive hellhole, but at least men and women were treated like shit on equal terms.”
“Only took a few thousand years.” Nathan chimed in.
“Oh fuck you Harper. You just want to get into Tanya’s pants. Trust me you aren’t missing much.”
“Like you’d know Song. You saw me once in the coed showers and all of a sudden you’re an expert.” Tanya said as she pulled up her boots. “Although Jack has a point Nathan. You don’t want to get into these fatigues. Well don’t you worry, they’ll be vacuum packed for the boarding.”
Nathan blushed and yanked the bulky armored vest over his titanium mesh undershirt. It was a process to get combat gear on when you were boarding a potentially hostile craft. Back in basic training he was required to be combat ready in under two minutes. A space to space boarding had a little more leniency with a slower two minutes and thirty seconds.
“Enough of the chatter. I want everyone ready in thirty.”
It was Sgt. Jason Keppel. He would be leading this expedition. Keppel was a veteran of the Second Solar War and prided himself on staying an enlisted man for the length of his career. Most might consider that a failure, but he enjoyed having a rifle in his hand and a bug up his ass.
“Is that thirty seconds or minutes sarge?” Song chimed in clapping Keppel on the back.
“You funny Song. I tell you what when we get back you can laugh all you want when you’re cleaning the heads. You feel me?”
The squad laughed until Keppel’s stone cold gaze. The rest of the assembly took place in utter silence.
Nathan and the rest of Bravo squad climbed aboard the shuttle that would merge with the Patronus docking bay. He had down the process many times in simulation and once back on Eden Prime, but never in full combat compliment. He was going to get his first taste of both or so he feared.
The shuttle floated towards the Patronus with only the gentle propulsion from the plasma jets to guide it. Space was unique as it only took the slightest movement to head in any conceivable direction. For the squad aboard the shuttle it was a simple push to the docking couplers then.
Nathan studied the sensor readouts as the hydraulic boarding bridge coupled with the Patronus. There was something off about the numbers. The biometrics were mostly human, but as Malone pointed out, there was reason to be suspicious. It’s not like humans could just up and mutate. Only massive radiation levels, a virus or chemicals could change the genetic makeup of a person. Yet, there was absolutely no sign of radiation levels beyond normal, a medical emergency or a chemical leak. He could feel his knuckles tighten as he gripped the handle of his submachine gun. His knuckles turning milky white with fear as the bridge clicked into place one more time and sound of the pressure relief valves kicked in.
He began to breath heavily as he warded off outright panic. Images of his death, a brutal and bloody one, flashed before his eyes. He wasn’t a combat hardened space marine. He was a desk jockey with a chip on his shoulder. That’s all. --What the hell was he doing here?
“Keep frosty and your eyes sharp. Do not break formation and hold your fire until I say so, is that clear?”
A collective “yes sir” was the only response Keppel needed. Nathan and the others had speculated as to exactly what he did prior to joining the Kafka, but the prevailing rumor was he was a former black operative during the Second Solar War and just a crazy aging warhorse now. For Nathan, there was no one he’d rather have on his side.
The squadron entered the Patronus and that sense of dread, the kind of fear that feels like a ball and chain around your heart set in. The last time Nathan could remember firing his submachine gun or any weapon for that matter was during a drunken bachelor party back on Eden Prime. The firing range on the Kafka was open to anyone who wanted practice, but when you whole-heartedly believed that combat was light years away, you filled up your free time with the things that truly mattered in life.
Boozing and chasing girls. Hardly two things he was good at, but at least he enjoyed the practice.
The entrance was dark as the power was down to emergency generators. Nathan noted that the oxygen levels were strong, radiation levels were normal and generator levels, while low, appeared to be deliberately powered down.
“Song, Harper. Take point and go down the east wing. See if you can find a generator grid and get the lights back on in this place. I don’t want us walking into some type of trap.” Keppel ordered.
The East Wing of the Patronus was the medical wing and where the crew was likely housed. The biometric scans showed a congregation of markers here. Perhaps they were all sick? Nathan thought as he lowered his machine gun and flipped on his night vision. Flashlights would only serve to attract attention.
The hallway lights flickered and dimmed as the power seemed to be waning bit by bit. If there was a generator grid in the medical wing then he had the expertise to fix it, but that depended on when the Patronus was manufactured. Generator grids were a staple in most major centers of a ship until it became apparent during the war that saboteurs could use a single grid to override the mechanics of a vessel and take control. To increase security, it was centralized to the command deck. Nathan hoped the Patronus was past her prime.
The medical wing was a circular room with various tables for instruments, a surgical pod and a few dozen cots stationed in the middle. The medical wing lights were brighter, just slightly, due to the need to treat wounded or sick crew. The same way hospitals kept the lights on back on Eden Prime when vortex storms hit. In the medical wing, Nathan finally had an answer for where most of the crew were. The prone figures were covered in white sheets, save for their head, with a single piece of metal sticking out from their foreheads.
Song studied the men and women closely before speaking up.
“I think they are alive, but barely. Vitals are normally besides a reduced heart rate. It’s like some type of medically induced coma. Although whatever the fuck that thing is sticking out of their skulls, that can’t be good right?”
Nathan looked at the probe jammed into each of their skulls. The glassy, black probe glowed green in symbiosis with their breathing. It was as if this device and this device alone was keeping each alive. As he looked closer at each, his night vision clicked off. He fought the urge to pull out the metallic probe and stepped back to turn on his comm.
“Blasted night vision ran out of juice.”
“Did you remember to charge it?” Song asked.
“It’s been sitting on the charger for months. Just don’t get to close to those things maybe it interfered with the frequency.”
Song nodded and took a cautious step back careful not to touch any of the probes.
“Sir, this is Harper. We found at least some of the crew. They appear to be in some type of coma, but you’re not going to believe this, they aren’t hooked up to any machines save one.”
There was a slight delay in Keppel’s response as static rushed into his earpiece.
“Say again sir?”
“Alright Jack watch over the crew while I look for a generator grid. Let’s see if we can get the lights on in the ship. Do a head count will you?”
Jack nodded and his finger danced in the air as he started to count.
Nathan sighed in relief when he stumbled onto a grid near the rear entrance of the medical wing. Prying off the lid, Nathan switched on his helmet light to work the wiring. This was what he was made for in the UDN.
“Time to shine.” Nathan said and a second later the sounds of generators roaring to life were immediately followed with the overhead lights switching to full power.
“How about that?” Nathan said excitedly to Song who stood with his jaw on the floor.
The crew started to rise from their cots and as their sheets slide from their bodies, it became apparent that they were not in perfect health. Each had a smattering of wounds, some almost certainly fatal. One woman, who appeared to be an engineer based on what remained of her UDN uniform, had a hole burned clean through. Another man had his arm ripped from the socket, but Nathan swore he saw new flesh growing.
“Sir, um…the crew are…alive?” Nathan said into he comm as he and Song circled back towards the entrance. The staggering crew shuffling towards them like zombies.
“What should we do?” Nathan said lowering his submachine gun taking aim at a woman in a quartermaster’s jacket.
Song didn’t take time to answer. He just opened fire.
Nathan had never seen a person get shot up close before. He had seen the videos during a seminar on dressing field wounds, but to actually see blood and sinew spray across the floor made him gag. Each round hitting the onrushing Patronus crew with a dull and sickening thud followed by strangely and horrifying piercing sound of blood hitting the floor. Each crimson drop sending a spiraling pain from head to toe.
Suddenly someone shook his shoulder snapping him back to reality.
“What the fuck is wrong with you Harper? Get that gun in gear!”
It was Tanya and her assault rifle which by now had caused an uncontrollable ringing in his ears as the report from each deafening round screamed towards its target. Follow Tanya, without haste, by Keppel and the rest of the squadron who too came in guns drawn and triggers pulled.
And for the first time, Nathan shot another living, or so he thought, creature.
The rattle from each round sent vibrations through his forearms culminating at the base of his neck and sending a collective and exhilarating chill through the rest of his body. At first he closed his eyes, but something, perhaps sinister, perhaps not, forced them open to watch as his rounds began to crash into the Patronus crew until finally not a single one stood.
“What the hell happened here? Song? Harper?” Keppel barked grabbing Harper and shoving him aside. “Well, anything?”
Song stepped up.
“Harper fired up the grid and the next thing we knew they were on us. Mouths agape and slashing wildly at us. If you didn’t show up when you did… I don’t know that we would’ve survived.”
Tanya kicked one of the deceased crew members and the probe fell from the woman’s skull.
“What they hell is in their heads?”
Keppel pulled a latex glove from his pack, slipped it over his hand and picked up the bloody pipe studying it for a moment before clicking on his intercom.
“Malone, are you seeing this on the cams? Crew is dead, but not sure what the fuck I’m looking at?”
There was a pause, followed by static, then silence.
“Alright, saddle up we’re going to check out the rest of the ship. There’s 30 bodies here, but 10 more that we can pray are still alive.”
Nathan’s eyes darted about as the squad headed towards the command deck. They had dispatched what they had begun calling husks of the crew. If there was a haunting image that would stay with him that was it. Slack jawed and choking on their own blood, he recalled their eyes. That’s what he remembered.
The squad entered the command deck and there was no sign of the crew or what remained of it.
“We’ll have to check the quarters then engineering before returning to the Kafka. Speaking of which—”
Keppel checked the comm again.
Not even static this time. Just silence. Pure, utter silence.
Suddenly movement caught Harper’s attention near the door. Then the bay doors closed, the viewport window shutters closed and the lights dimmed.
“Head on a swivel people!” Keppel ordered.
The movement returned and Nathan swore he saw-
The light around a nearby desk bent and swayed like water. He squinted trying to get a better view of whatever it was, but he couldn’t focus on it. Then the light stopped and began to glow.
“What the fu—”
Song was cut off as a ball of blue plasma shot from the darkness striking him in the chest and sending him sprawling to the deck. The rest of the squad opened fire where the light had been including Nathan right up until their clips ran dry.
No blood, no cries of anguish and Song lay motionless on the floor.
A ring of blue lights illuminated the darkened command deck. Nathan winced at how bright each appeared, he felt the pain of the plasma as it hit him square in the chest. He saw the room spin before crashing into the captain’s chair.
The world went black.
Thud, crack, thud….
What will become of me? Will I turn into one of those husks?
The room slowly returned from darkness. His body ached and his chest burned. He tried to push himself up, but found that he could not. He was lifted to his knees and he could feel what he presumed to be a gun pressed against his head.
Thud, crack, thud…
What the hell was that noise? That guttural, maddening, thud?
Nathan looked up and saw Tanya and Keppel to his right, Song was on his left, but lay prone on the command deck floor one of those probes sticking out from his head.
“What the hell is going on here?” Nathan asked Tanya who struggled against her bonds.
A red skinned humanoid with yellow eyes came into view flanked by two more that looked just like him and then three more that weren’t quite the same.
The figure in the middle pointed to Song and the others lifted him to his knees. Nathan watched in horror as the probe was plunged into his skull.
Thud, crack, thud.
“You fucking monsters! I’ll kill you!” Keppel yelled as he found against his restraints.
The figure in the middle grinned showing a toothy maw and he crouched down in front of Keppel and much to his surprise.
“Humans display such passion don’t they? So full of vigor that comes with a young species. A species that just got its wings only a millennia ago. Look at their faces do you see the surprise that we speak their tongue?”
The creature knelt down and lifted Tanya’s chin. She tried in vain to pull away from its grip. The long fingers of the creature caressing her along her cheek.
There were ten of them watching over the captured and dead marines from the Kafka. They were hidden from sight, but not their heat signatures. Those had been picked up by the bio scanners, but Nathan began to resign himself to the fact that he was a dead man.
Or as dead as a husk could be.
“Bring the human female here for her assimilation. She can join the mouthy male and the others among our ranks.”
Tanya’s eyes welled with tears as she stared at the floor awaiting the probe. Tears traversed across her rose-colored lips before falling to the cold command deck. Nathan wanted to comfort and tell her that everything was going to be alright, but that wasn’t the truth. The truth was that she was facing a violation of what made her human. A violation of her soul and a forced change that would leave her nothing more than a drooling, lifeless monstrosity. The stuff of nightmares. He tried not to look at her that way. He tried to remember her during the times they enjoyed a drink on the Kafka bar or played a game of pool taking their crewmates hard earned cash.
The gleam of the metallic probe pulled him back into the devastating reality where he found himself. The creature lifted the tubular device high into the light then a moment later brought it down and cracked through Tanya’s skull.
“No!” He yelled. "The rest of our marines are going to finish off you off!"
"We've already taken care of your friends and their ship."
Nathan gritted his teeth in anger as the probe pushed further into Tanya’s skull sending her to the floor. She lay motionless as blood pooled on the floor before findings its path in the cracks and crevices between the desk. A crimson river of life.
“Females are especially deserved among our species human. Do not fear the inevitable because we are simply giving her and the rest of your companions’ new life. A life with purpose and meaning beyond the one you were given. As a child of Krona, they will bring a bounty of wonder into the universe. Something the human plague has failed to do.”
The image of Francisco Goya’s painting of the Titan Cronus Devouring His Son was the only thing Nathan could think about as these mysterious humanoids, calling themselves the Krona, plunged probes into the crew of the Kafka. The despicable fate of the Patronus revealed in a spectacle that would end his life.
“You mean a soulless husk? Some existence.” Nathan shot back. “Nothing more than a mindless drone.”
Nathan found himself wanting to know more about these creatures and how they knew about humanity and the desire to break his bonds and destroy them all. This was after all humanity’s first run in with intelligent, sentient beings. They have meet and categorized various flora and fauna, but never has an intelligence being, perhaps far more advanced than humanity itself, had ever been encountered before.
Yet he was faced with his own demise or what that might mean for a man forcibly converted.
“Hardly soulless human, if souls are such a thing. No repurposed to keep my species going. Now, you man be asking yourself why am I telling you all of this and the answer is quite simple. We need to leave one of you alive to go and run back to your superiors and tell them what happened.”
Nathan found himself laughing.
“They’ll never believe me. Besides when the others found out that we haven’t checked in they’ll send a full compliment of marines. You’ll never get out of her alive.”
Nathan swallowed hard as the creature grinned.
“We’ve taking care of them for you. I said we would leave one of you alive. No more and no less. Now then we must be off. We have repaired the necessary components of your ship and will remove the signal jammer once we are far enough out into slip space. Could you do us a favor?”
The creature shook his head and smiled.
“When you return to your comrades tell them everything you know. Send them here to destroy us and we shall see humanity’s true potential.”
Nathan shook as his restraints were removed. The sudden desire to lash out against the attackers was quelled as he faced down the business end of their weaponry. He doubted anyone very much would believe his story, but what else could he do? Be killed and let the next crew be enslaved? How would explain the dead crew back in the medical bay? Yet if he said nothing then he could be dooming humanity. He put away his anger and watched as the creatures, these Krona, as they called themselves possessed technology that brought the dead back to life, carried high heat plasma weaponry and personal cloaking devices. Perhaps humanity could take advantage of that after all.
When the creatures departed Nathan walked through the rest of the ship looking for anyone who may have escaped or stayed hidden throughout the assault. As he approached the med bay, he expected to see the dead crew and the river of blood from where he had shot them, but it was clean and the bodies gone.
How many times could the Krona use the dead? He wondered as he checked the crew logs. Accounting for the Krona he counted. He was alone.
He returned to the command deck and slumped down and opened the viewport. The twin panels opened to reveal the expanse of space.
Except the stars were gone and in their stead was noting more than the unceasing madness of the abyss. He stared focusing on what he thought was the same bend of light he noticed in the command deck.
No, that couldn’t be right. Nothing that size could be--
In a blinding flash, a massive spaceship came into view where the darkness had been. It was larger than two colony class ships combined. Nathan watched in horror as it wheeled to its right and fired at the Kafka. The ship collapsed into itself then exploded. The mysterious ship tilted slightly then its thrusters, burning a full power, disappeared into slip-space.
Nathan fumbled for the comm link, still staring out the viewport
“This is Pfc Nathan Harper now of the Patronus, formerly of the Kafka. If you anyone out there can here this, please respond. Humanity has made contact with intelligence life.”