From the Terribleminds challenge “Last Lines First” comes…
“Truth be told, I’m not sure any of them are actually dead.”
The mug of coffee shook in the engineer’s hands. The nails were chipped and the fingers calloused from years of cleaning, changing, tightening, and banging the many moving parts required for jump drives. The man facing the engineer, wearing vintage suspenders over a tailored shirt with an open collar, nodded slowly.
“Just… take your time, Parker. Who was the first to die?”
“Rigger. Co-pilot. He, uh… he heard something, down in the bay. He didn’t check in for hours. Mosely, he was my partner, and he went to find Rigger. He… found Rigger’s comm unit. It was covered in blood.”
The well-dressed man exchanged a look with the room’s third occupant. Nothing was said. After the engineer took a shaky sip of his coffee, he continued.
“Mosely was next, of course. He went to the head – ate too much cornbread. He always ate too much cornbread. Anyway, I heard the scream. I ran to the head, opened the door, and his toolbelt was there. The vent was hanging off of its frame. I guess… I guess whatever it was grabbed him and yanked him up through there. His toolbelt wasn’t bloody, though. There was this… goop on it.”
“Don’t know how else to describe it. Doctor Bolton took a sample, and told us later it was a ‘viscous secretion’, whatever that means. That was after two of the mining crew got snagged. We still hadn’t seen the thing. It was down to me, Captain Hammond, Akers the pilot, Doctor Bolton, Lydia the company rep, and Des the mining foreman. We were talking about abandoning ship and looking for help.”
“We… we saw Rigger.”
The man in the suspenders leaned towards Parker. “Describe exactly what you saw.”
“He was standing there, in the door to the mess hall. He had… this chunk missing from his neck. One good eye. He stared at me…” Parker gripped the mug in his hands, trying to steady them. “It was like getting stared at by an animal at a zoo. There’s something there but it’s not him. It’s not the guy I used to swap dirty jokes with over moonshine on third watch.”
“Was it just Rigger?”
“At first. He came into the room, went right for Captain Hammond. We tried to fight him off. But he was so strong. Stronger than I thought he’d be. Then Mosely came in, and… I got away. I ran.”
“Nobody can blame you for that. What happened next?”
“You need two people to activate the self-destruct. Nobody else made it out after me. So I grabbed a shuttle and flew out of there. I was never a good pilot, but we were in deep space. I just headed straight towards Proxima, and that’s when the patrol picked me up.” Parker finished his coffee. “Mister Cogburn… am I in trouble?”
Cogburn shook his head. “No, you’re not personally in trouble. The Company knows that there was nothing more you could do. But I wanted to get your story first-hand.”
Before Parker could ask why, Cogburn produced his tablet and showed the image on it to the engineer.
“The Night Raven, your prospecting vessel, was spotted by patrols on a direct course for the Sol system.”
“That’s right. If they get to Earth, they can either take control of the hub of space travel for all the colonies, or head for the surface to make more… things. We’re still not sure exactly what we’re up against here, but we do know we can’t let that ship reach Earth.”
Parker looked to the other figure facing him. “Is… is that why you’re here?”
Cogburn turned to the person next to him. “At this point, the Company is asking the United Colonial Military Command for help. Lieutenant Olsen here is in command of an Expeditionary Platoon operating out of Barnard’s.” He handed Olsen the tablet. “Do you think you’ll be able to help, Lieutenant? We need to intercept the Night Raven, capture at least one of the infected subjects, and determine the origin of this… contagion. The Company is willing to give you anything you need.”
Olsen frowned. “Are you and Parker coming?”
Cogburn shrugged. “I doubt Parker would want to come along.”
“Oh, Jesus, God, no.”
“Right. So it’d just be me. I’m the Company’s liaison and work in their R&D department. They wanted to send an executive but we were able to convince them that you’d find a brain more useful than a suit and smile.”
“You know how to handle a gun, Cogburn?”
“I’ve fired one a couple times. Never at anything living, though.”
Olsen’s face did not soften. She had yet to uncross her arms or move from her position of leaning on the desk, but she looked like the sort of solider who’d be combat-ready at the drop of a hat. Green eyes studied Cogburn from under a close-cropped mop of blonde hair, and the scar on the right side of her mouth for her lip to her chin made her scowl all the more intimidating.
“Don’t expect my men to hold your hand when things get dicey. Ship invasions are tense, close-quarter clusterfucks under the best of circumstances. I don’t like taking civvies into combat zones.”
“One: I’m not your typical civilian. Two: The Night Raven is owned by the Company and they want to protect their investment. Three: If you have to scuttle the ship, you need someone who can override the ship’s fail-safes quickly, and unless one of your soldiers is a former Company employee, that means you need me.”
Olsen snorted. “That’s extortion.”
“No, Lieutenant, those are the facts.”
“If you’re lying to me, I’ll shoot you myself.”
“Um.” Parker looked up at the two of them. “Does… this mean any of them are still alive?”
Cogburn tried to smile. “Maybe. Anything’s possible.”
“Either way,” Olsen said, “we’ll take it from here. We leave at 0800.”
July 17, 2013 at 3:44 pm
Very nice! Feels like a small piece of a much larger work. I could definitely read more of this. It just seemed to flow so perfectly.