First Officer’s Log
Operation Level: MAELSTROM Top Security
North Meridian Venus Meantime
Location: Deep Space (Between Asteroid Belt and Jovian System)
You switch on the consol with your thumb. Trying to speak, you find your voice too raspy, your throat burning from the inside out with a fiery intensity. Cough. Your swollen eyelids hang heavy over your vision. Cough again. You pull out a keyboard, sniffling as the feverish chill sends droplets of sweat down the nape of your pallid neck. You try to repress the tickle of another lurching cough building within your esophagus. Pressing your fingertips to the keys, you straighten your back, push out the folds in your uniform and begin to type.
After entering passwords and basic security information you begin.
First Officer of the maelstrom stealth-cruiser Valkyrie reporting. We have strayed deep into neutral space. The captain and most of the crew remain unconscious or dying. I am the only man on board still semi-functional. Although I have yet to isolate the contagion in the lab, I am fairly certain that we first contracted this virus after taking on supplies in deep Martian orbit, near the moon base of Phobos. Due to the secrecy of our mission we did not procure provisions through regular channels, but the captain, however, did still obtain materials through one of our own agents. Regardless, the foodstuffs must have been contaminated, whether intentionally by Martian rebels or by chance remains unknown, but the effect has proved fatal for much of the crew.
We’re still bearing a full compliment of warheads. I have attempted to rig them to detonate in the event of capture, but am as of yet unable due to the captain’s lockout codes still being active. So long as he is both alive and unconscious I will not be able to take control of the ship, even to destroy her.
Tap out of your log.
Your vision begins to blur, the green typeface against the black screen going out of focus. A red light flashes dimly from one of the control panels across the room. You stumble towards it, noticing the word COLLISION WARNING flashing across the consol. A low, sharp alarm booms in the rear of your hearing like a buzzing bullhorn fading down the corridors of the ship behind you. You blink desperately, attempting to focus your mind. Sweat dribbles down the sides of your face.
Emergency run-lights bathe the hallways in backlit shadows of emerald and ruby. The darkness of the cabins and corridors makes it even harder for you to see as you wander through shadows towards the absent pilot’s screen on the bridge. A sleek, silvery warship looms beneath the belly of the forward windows. Your mind begins to race.
Might be Reds, but they usually fly Junkers. This vessel looks smaller than your own. Definitely not Greens, the Terrans would have hailed you before now, though you still didn’t trust Terrans more than Martians regardless of who might be the current ally of the Venusian Reich. But still. Couldn’t be Reds. Those are ionic engines; you can see their blue cores pulsing out from the aft exhaust. Martian Junks used solar sails for propulsion and Reds in the outer system used rocket fuels. Basically, the equivalent of strapping oneself to an ignited bomb. You shake your head. Who could be out there?
The other vessel seems to adjust its speed, bringing the two crafts into tandem with one another. It now appears as though neither is moving at all. You continue to wonder to yourself. When did you run across this other ship? How long have you been drifting here beside it?
A small pod jettisons from the side of the pearly-grey warship.
Someone’s attempting to board. You lean on the consol beside you, nearly collapsing under another fit of spasms and coughing. Feeling for your sidearm holstered beside you chest, you advance aft through the maelstrom. The blurry run-lights swim in your vision. In the halls you pass fellow crewmen lying limply across the shadowy floors, some murmuring unconsciously, others still and palely-white in their steel-blue uniforms. Your own jacket seems to sag upon your shoulders, hastily unbuttoned from the waist to the throat. You jog towards the stern, listing to one side then the other as you lean a hand for balance against the bulkhead in an effort to stabilize your wandering gait. You cough viciously into your palm, this time your fingers tinged with blood. You swallow, the bitter metallic taste lingering on your breath.
Six years in the Legionary Service, you’ve survived boot camp, officer’s training, and two tours on Mars all just to wind up dying of some stupid disease on a stealth warship over a million kilometers from home. Now you’ll never make citizen.
Back home, there are only two kinds of people on Venus, civilians and citizens. Most are civilians. The Legionary Service is compulsory for all at age eighteen, serving for a minimum of three years. Service varied from person to person, depending on what your aptitude score ranked, the will of the Sky Marshalls, and chance. One fellow from the neighborhood back in
was stationed as an organ player and custodian for his three years. Another girl got shipped out to the fleet and was killed during an accident during basic training. What would happen to each of them, no one ever knew. Your first day you were assigned your legionary number, the mark of your entrance into adulthood. Everyone on Venus was assigned a number chronologically in order of when they entered the Service, all the way back to the beginning. You were 73546859423. Luzon City
Ambling down the murky compartments towards your final destination at the rear of the ship you think back to that momentous decision of yours three years ago. At the completion of your required term, mostly spent on various bases scattered across the home world, when most of your compatriots were finishing up and going home to jobs for the state, you opted to stay and go for citizen. To become a citizen requires twenty consecutive years in the Legionary Service. Less than 10% of the population accomplishes this goal and makes it to full citizenship. Citizens are allowed to vote, own property, have children without a permit, and hold coveted jobs listed as For Citizens Only. You signed on for the next seventeen years of your life, to go for career. A year into officer’s school the war with the Martians erupted and you learned why so few soldiers in the service completed their full terms and ultimately became citizens.
You glance down at your blue uniform now, its aquamarine reminds you of the shallow sapphire lakebeds and azure tropical skies of home. Each button on your coat stamped with the emblem of a shooting star, the symbol of the Sky Marshalls. The benevolent military dictators of Venus, the Sky Marshalls, hold society true to its primary principles of scientific progress. Solidarity. Efficiency. Conformity. In short, they think of everything. Mandatory adolescent sterilization to control population, everyone’s eggs or sperm remain in cryogenic stasis vaults until people obtain an Offspring Permit from the Breeding Department. Laboratory germinated lichens and mosses grown on Venus’ endless hydroponic farms in protein, carbohydrate, and vitamin varieties. No one ever went hungry on Venus. Even providing Hindu Brahmins to meet the psychological need for basic spirituality, Brahmin being a specialist position in the Legionary Service, like Dentist, Clerk, or Grenadier. All part of the generations’ long plan, the maturing and perfecting of the Venusian super-race.
Gods! What did it all matter now? You might be dead within the hour.
Reaching the furthest bulkhead you halt before a familiar sign overhead. Engineering. Stepping through the hatch, you seal the round door behind you, turning the manual handle. In the dank of the engine room you find a control panel with empty screens. It smells vaguely of synthetics and heated plastics, the backup lights only illuminating glimpses of fiber cables and stagnant robotics repair arms that snaked round corners into the furthest recesses of the maelstrom propulsion systems.
Turn the switch.
One by one each view screen activates, separate labels under each set: Bridge, Airlock, Hold, Sickbay, Hall 1, Hall 2, Pods. Almost no one on any planet or moon in the solar system has ever seen the insides of a maelstrom ship. From your vantage of the engineering displays, displays that the now dead engineers once used to send repair bots to the rest of the vessel for maintenance operations, the secrets of the infamous maelstrom show with full color and audio.
They had only appeared a few years ago, just before the start of the Martian War. Undetectable ships that struck without warning and then disappeared just as fast. In wide open space there’s not much to hide behind, that’s why given good enough technology just about any ship is detectable. Even planetary defenses could be viewed across the solar system with a powerful enough telescope. But the maelstroms are different.
No one knows how many exist, even within the Venusian High Command. Probably less than could be counted on one hand. Not only are these vessels undetectable, they’re difficult to spot once within visual range. The first Martians who saw them and lived referred to their color as “black holes turned inside out.” In addition, the vessels are fast, using a top secret type of fusion propulsion that left no trace in its wake, unlike rocket, ion, or nuclear systems. It remains all very mysterious, even to you now. Only the captains of each maelstrom know all the secrets of these rare vessels. You know it has something to do with the shape, a long almost cigar look, but with absolutely no sharp edges, and a composite material of such a rare and expensive concoction that supposedly they are only constructed in the high security shipyards of Mercury, a military planet of the Venusian Reich where even citizens in the Service need top brass approval to get sent there. And it is well worth the extra security, as only Venus has access to this level of technology and it has already tipped the scales of the war in favor of the Reich.
The destruction of the Martian Fleet during the first year of the war; that was due to just one maelstrom. Not the Valkyrie, anyway you don’t think it was. A standard task force of Venusian ships deployed as decoys while the numerous, though technologically inferior, Martians mounted an armada of Junks and rocket ships numbering in the high hundreds. A single maelstrom emerged in the heart of their fleet, deployed live warheads, both ions and nukes, and jumped out into deep space before they even detonated. The Reds suffered over 70% casualties. After that the fight for Mars largely became a ground war.
Since then every ghost or lost spacecraft was blamed on a maelstrom. Even their temporary allies, the Terrans claimed to have lost supply barges to unexplained hit-and-run attacks by phantom stealth-cruisers. Despite the rumors, they continue to abide by their non-aggression pact with Venus.
Your first mission on board the Valkyrie had been the final capitulation of Mars. Your maelstrom specifically launched warheads against enemy city-states and bases throughout the continent of Elysium in the northern hemisphere, obliterating
, its hidden airbase, and its 40,000 civilian population almost entirely. All Martian confederacies officially broadcasted their unconditional surrender on all frequencies the following morning. Recent as it is it feels like something that happened long ago. Krakow Town
An azure light beams on the one of the screens. Airlock. You rotate your shoulders, cracking your neck, rubbing your clammy palms against your sagging cheeks to stay conscious. The hiss of nitrogen and oxygen pipes through the surveillance sound system. Someone is boarding the ship.
A lone figure emerges through the open hatchway, a gun in hand. The intruder dons a russet pressure suit peppered with tan patches and a polarized faceplate. Suddenly pausing, the stranger raises both hands to their helmet and unclasps the headpiece. A tall, stubble-faced redhead squints around the deserted airlock.
It stinks in here he remarks.
Two more figures appear in the entranceway, both in polished cream pressure suits. One carries a pulse rifle in hand. Both appear to bear swords.
That was an unwise move one of the figures chides the man in the bronze suit.
I trust my nose over your gadgets any day.
My instruments say that there’s an unknown compound cycling through the air filters the other begins, this voice belonging to a woman. Something’s not right.
One of the most feared Venusian warships noses up on your keel and then has no welcoming party waiting to meet you onboard, the man in the russet spacesuit smirked, sounds pretty darn good to me.
Put your helm back on the woman suggests, I think we should run more tests.
We have a saying on Mars, the man replied, if you can still breathe you’re not dead yet.
Bloody primitives the other man scoffs, wagging his helmet.
So they are Reds you think to yourself. At least the first one is. But you’ve never heard of Martians like the second two. New suits, modern equipment, and swords…swords? Wait, think, think. Perspiration continues to bead along your neck as you squint at the security feed. Whites. These are the Whites of the moon of Europa. But they’ve been neutral in this conflict. Have they been working with the Martian rebels, maybe supplying them with arms? But little as you know of them, they never were heard of being fond of the Reds. Quite the opposite in fact.
Mistress, one with the pulse rifle begins, with all do respect we shouldn’t have brought him.
He has more experience with Venuisan technology the woman replies. It’s my decision.
Yes, mistress, he replies eyeing the Red. Maybe he’ll dislodge a booby trap for us.
The lead Red gives the other man a crooked grin.
Let’s explore the thing he smiles, advancing with his revolver and bare head onto the next surveillance screen. Hall 1. He peers down each direction of the long tunnel-like corridor.
By now you’ve seen their figures on multiple screens. Bridge. Sickbay. Hold. Each time finding the prostrate bodies of men and women clad in the smoky blue jumpsuits of the Legionary Service. Now they appear on a new monitor, the one that leads directly to where you sit in Engineering. Hall 2.
Soon your throat erupts with bile and foam. You can barely stifle your choking coughs. A trickle of crimson fluid runs down your chin. Both lungs seem to deflate within your chest. You haven’t felt this wretched since your second tour on Mars. Less than a year ago, you were acting centurion in your battalion. Clad in black mech suits that double as pressure suits and body armor they also increase physical fighting strength and have built in com systems. After two weeks of chasing the infamous Martian guerrillas known as Carbiñeros through the
Southern Highlands a small band ambushed half the company with powered rifles and rocket launchers. Both legs and one arm were blown off in an instant. A few months and some physical therapy later the medics finished growing flesh over your new steel limbs. By then your old command had been entirely wiped out at the Battle of Muddy Waters, but so had most of the Carbiñeros. Fleet had bombarded their positions and napalmed friendlies and hostiles alike.
That’s when you were tapped regarding a new secret assignment, one that required experience under pressure. You had that now. One under Fleet command. You’d seen enough grunt fighting, and you knew you’d need Fleet experience if you ever hoped to be promoted in either the Mech Infantry or Space Fleet. It was also an assignment you couldn’t share with friends or family, ever. You had no family, and after your second tour no friends left either. You became First Officer on the Valkyrie, security and tactical expert, and your official record classified even to some within High Command.
You do a double-take, sitting bolt upright in your chair now. You’d dozed off. Hostiles in the hallway leading to Engineering and you could barely stay awake. The burning in your lungs moves down into your stomach. You bend over in you seat. Maybe there’s still time to detonate the warheads and blow the ship. Wait no, you already tried that. Can’t do it without the captain’s codes. The Reds will probably torture me for them anyway, but it’ll do them no good. Regular ships need good pilots, but a maelstrom is different. It still needs a pilot, but the ship wont respond without commands from the captain, and the captain only. As far as you know this is part of the security of a maelstrom class vessel, one man and one man only, the captain, can actually activate the ship. Even if the Reds take her you think to yourself they wont be able to do anything with her. Who knows, maybe there’s even a built in destruct sequence if they try to manually unload the warheads without inputting the proper authorization.
Up on screen the intruders have stopped alongside a collapsed corpse. They’re standing only a few paces away from the closed hatch behind which you sit. You flick off the video screen and put on a linked earpiece. You can still hear their voices as you crawl out the back, fighting desperately not to wretch loud enough for them to hear beyond the bulkhead.
He smells like cheese the Red’s baritone echoes.
It’s common with festering wounds the female’s helmed voice replies.
But these bodies haven’t been wounded the Red says audibly manhandling a cadaver. Wait he says continuing to sniff.
I wouldn’t continue touching that the other male voice says within his helmet.
It’s the Blight.
The what? the woman asks.
You continue crawling through service tubes as you listen.
Boomers Blight, it’s a disease, endemic to Mars.
So you’ve seen this before? the female inquires.
See it? I’ve had it. Most of my platoon had it the first month of the war.
You’ve survived this? the other man says suspiciously. You lived?
Well, I wouldn’t call it living the Red replies. Gets pretty nasty for a spell. Never heard of it off-world before though.
Is it lethal then? the female demands.
You pause a moment to listen more closely.
Depends. Most in my unit pulled through, but then again we’ve lived and breathed Martian atmo our whole lives the Red explains. Not sure what the odds would be for an off-worlder.
Is there a cure?
It’s like the Chicken Pox or Scarlet Fever, you catch it once then never again.
We best have you scrubbed down and quarantined when we get back to the Takara the other man says stiffly. You could still be a carrier.
Not afraid of vermin like me are you, Maori? the Red replies.
That’s Master Maori to you the other man rebuffs.
Gentlemen, let’s stay focused the woman says commandingly.
You continue crawling again, the passageway growing dark. Eventually you find what you have been looking for. It’s a soft cushioned seat, complete with harnesses, controls, supports, and even a suit. You adjust everything, laboriously slower than you would like, but everything gets done. Taking off you earpiece the last thing you hear on it is the squeal of the hatch leading to Engineering. You sit back in your seat, depress the lever and brace yourself for the rush.
With a sudden jerk you are free, accelerating with increasing velocity to where and for how long you don’t know. Maybe now you don’t even care. But they wont torture anything out of you now. Plenty of air and feeding tubes already in place. The rest was up to luck and maybe chance now. Even if they got the security screens working in Engineering by now all they would see is a single image on one monitor of a smooth conical object ejecting into the vacuum of space. You smile to yourself and for the first time you don’t feel quite as nauseous especially when thinking of them reading the inscription beneath the video screen as you launch away. Pods.