‘The Watchers’ is a short story set in the universe of ‘Shallow Space’, exploring the worlds and people of this upcoming computer game. The story is available in ‘Factions’ available on Amazon now. For more information on Shallow Space, visit our website.
For other chapters, click on the links below:
Part 9: The Fortress
Part 8: The Journey Home
Part 7: The Illicit Route
Part 6: The Big Rock
Part 5: The Sanctuary
Part 4: The Limp Home.
Part 3: The Flight.
Part 2: The Investigation.
Part 1: The Find
3: The Flight
Digger launched from the chair a split second before his heart leapt from his chest. He bounded down the stairs, grabbed the half-full crystal and ran for the door, his back already damp with sweat. He was through the bridge doors before he remembered his radio. He ripped it from his belt.
Bones’ voice rose. “You found Zombies?”
“These fuckers are real life. Get back to the Asteria. Now!”
Bones grunted. “Just two more screws.”
“I’m leaving you behind you stupid bastard.”
Running and yelling was too much for Digger’s lungs. He clipped the radio to his belt and concentrated on oxygenating his muscles. The back of his neck crawled as if someone was watching him. The ship had made him nervous before. Now, he was outright. flapping.
He turned left at a junction, toward a blocked door, swore and doubled back. Was he lost? No, he’d just taken the wrong turn. The next corridor, with a single light panel confirmed his location. He went right, straight, right again, then left, weaving down the corridors, trying to work out who was tracking the ship. Had they set it adrift? Had they removed all the crew?
The ship shivered around him. A distant tremor rose from the lower decks. He felt it more than heard it, his own breath ragged in his ears. The ship seemed to be awakening from some slumber, inert systems reigniting: Propulsion, air conditioning, heat dispersement.
The hiss of equalising air pressure echoed down the corridor, sending a cold shiver through his chest.
The noises weren’t coming from this ship.
They were coming from outside.
They were being boarded.
He grabbed his radio. “Bones!”
Static screeched back at him. Jamming. He threw the radio aside. He ran harder, arms pumping hard, breath reverberating down the narrow corridors, grav boots sucking and releasing. He wasn’t far now. A few more corners-
-The wall exploded above his head.
Adrenaline exploded through Digger’s chest. He fell back, slamming hard into the grating. His hand clawed for purchase as his heels skidded back and forth. His right foot dug in, he launched backward, and the grating ripped apart beneath him. His knee fell into the void. Hot sharp metal tore at his pressure suit. Animal instinct took over. Pain was irrelevant; survival was everything. Percussive booms rocked the corridor. Walls disintegrated around him. He dived around the corner, catching a glance of two black figures with big ugly guns. With his chest heaving and throat rasping he reached for his missing radio. Dammit, where was Bones?
Digger pushed against the wall to stand. Hyperventilating, he peeked around the corner again.
They were coming. Slowly, walking in a squat, upper body perfectly still, rail guns steady as rock. Cold-blooded killers.
Diggers shaking hands fell to his belt. He had no weapons. All he had left was his tool bag and a half used packet of Advil. Perhaps he could feed them the whole half packet, lull them into a sense of pain free nirvana.
Or he could run.
Digger turned toward his own corridor.
Two booms rang out. Different. Higher pitched. Not as powerful. He leaned back out. The two black clad men were face down, guns extended in mirror images of each other. Small clouds of grey smoke wafted from their backs.
“You waiting for a damn invitation?” Bones’ voice screeched out in his attempt at a whisper. He was at the far end, his Garrards extended, a wisp of smoke at each barrel. “Let’s go,” he said, waving one at Digger.
Bones led, Garrards out front, sweeping each new corridor before returning to the centre. For years Digger had endured Bones’ old gunslinger stories – Oberon, Valhalla, Tombstone, but now he was extremely grateful for Bones’ previous experience.
They stopped at the last corner before the airlock. Bones nodded to Digger who leaned around the edge. There were no guards. A trick, surely? But they couldn’t just hang about waiting to be surrounded and shot to death.
Digger shrugged and Bones leapt out long and a little bit graceful before his grav boots sucked him down. He charged forward, short gasping breaths, Digger right behind him.
The air lock was open. At both doors. That told Digger two things, both of which scared him. First, whoever these people were they either had incredible hacking skills to defuse the safely protocols, or they had high-level command codes, and two: They were on the Asteria.
“Real quiet, like,” Digger whispered to Bones. They both stepped into the airlock, gathering at the second door.
This was the time of maximum danger. While floating down the chute they were prisoners to their own inertia. No magnetic floor to react against. No gravity to push them one way or the other. Sitting ducks. Well, slowly drifting ducks. Not enviable ducks, that was for sure.
Bones leapt off. Digger shrugged again and followed suit.
Digger stared at the Asteria’s open airlock, watching for movement. The light inside was muted, filled with shadows. Already he could smell the familiar scents of his ship coming toward him. The thick greasy smell that Bones brought with him whenever he came back from the orlop, the slight chemical tang of the processed air working through expired air filters. A hint of his last vacuum dried ration pack. ‘Kumara’ with a touch of ‘pork’. It was quiet in the chute.
A shadow moved beyond the open door.
Digger’s heart raced, butterflies flapping through his chest. He reached out for the chute’s fabric edge but it bowed to his hand pressure. It provided no friction.
A black-clad head appeared in the opening.
Boom! A tongue of fire spewed from a Garrard and the head snapped backward, an arc of globular blood spewing out and around, forming a cloud of haemoglobin.
Bones flew backward, out of sight and Digger reached the Asteria’s airlock, sending the cloud of blood billowing away. He gripped his grav boots on the hull and shoved the headless corpse out into the chute.
Bones appeared next to him, panting slightly. He nodded in greeting, squeezed his foot into the handle, bent around edge, stuck both Garrard’s through the opening and let it rip.
The noise bounced through the chute, deafening Digger, the light from the bullets flashing behind the airlock door’s window.
The guns clicked empty. Bones was already moving inside. Digger slithered in after. With feet on steel he wrenched the airlock shut and surveyed the damage.
Bullet holes in the wall, bullet holes in the ceiling, who knew what damage behind the walls, and two drifting dead bodies. Their blood cloud would clog up the air conditioners. One problem at a time, he reminded himself.
“Check the Orlop,” he instructed Bones. “I’ll sweep the cockpit.”
Bones nodded, holstered the Garrards, and was gone.
Digger’s boots clanged on the decking as jumped through the narrow hatches and ran along the decking. Then he reared up, realising how much noise he was making. If there was still someone on board. . .
He stopped beside the cockpit hatch, smelling, listening. Smells floated freely in zero gravity. Pressure suits had a faint rubbery tang to them. A beating hard and breathing gave a room a certain life, a sixth sense feeling, like when you knew you were being watched.
But the cockpit felt empty. A black clad soldier could be hunkered down in there though, barely breathing, calm and quiet, waiting for the chance to kill him.
He searched for a weapon. Bones’ ‘sensor relay whacker’ pole was velcroed to the corner wall. Digger slowly reached out, closed his fingers around its centre and pulled it back to his chest. He took a deep breath, tensed his legs and lunged through the hatch.
The cockpit was empty.
Digger released the pole, an embarrassed laugh escaping his mouth. He belted into his seat then comm’d Bones. “How’s it down there?”
“Fine and dandy. You?”
“Best you look for underhanded influence on your pilot systems instead?”
Digger flicked off the comm with a grunt. Last time he checked on his friend’s welfare. He unstrapped and checked under the panel. The wiring was a mess, but it was a known mess. He knew what every wire did. Not because he was some sparky egg-head, but because he’d been forced to learn or die at various times over the ships life.
Nothing was out of place, or hooked up wrong. The cockpit looked clean. In a manner of speaking.
Next step, get the hell out of Dodge. But to where?
A dull bang reverberated through the hull. The black clad figures, banging on the airlock.
They were trying to get back in.
He flicked the comm back on. “We’re going!” He retracted the chute, fired the engines and spun around.
Three frozen bodies tumbled past the viewport. Their expressions were stretched in horror, their eye sockets empty, their faces and hands bloated with ice. Dem da breaks.
Bones appeared in the hatch. “If they weren’t onto us before, they will be now.”
“I know, I know. Any ideas?”
A large accretion asteroid loomed ahead. Digger pushed the Asteria out of a collision course.
“Into the dust?” Bones asked.
Digger tried to think of the system. There were three waygates in the Messiers system. The one they’d left, linked to Oberon, the one they had been heading for, linked to Landnamabok, and the third, linked to Incorporated Space. He checked the system map. It orbited Scott, a Hot-Jupiter on the far side of the accretion disk.
It was the closest.
Digger turned to Bones. “I’ve got a plan.”
“There’s three of them back there,” Bones said, voice level, as Digger swung them past another accretion rock.
Digger swished at the sweat pooling on his face, half choking, half blinding him. “A towel for fucks sake!”
Bones pointed to the left. “Watch out!”
Digger swung down and away, trusting his co-pilot rather than waste time confirming the threat. He continued driving down through the accretion disk. A rock to the right exploded, shredded by mass driver pellets. Digger swore and swung back up. He inched the thrust up another notch. Every extra percent of speed made it that much harder to fight inertia and dodge the asteroids, but those pellets were getting too close to the Asteria’s jaxie.
“How far?” Digger rasped. He was panting. He’d never flown this hard in his life. Not even when the Kildred pirate clan had mistaken him for an opposition’s courier. The strain was taking its toll.
And not just on him. The engines hiccuped and instead of breaking left, the ship continued straight.
Digger blanched. He pulled harder left, the engines regathered, and he over corrected. The Asteria slew back and forth then rocked as more pellets slammed into the rear armour.
“They’re closing,” Bones whispered.
“How bloody manoeuvrable are those fuckers?”
Bones watched the scanner as Digger flipped them around and behind a large accretion rock. “I’d say ‘very’.”
Digger humpfed then twisted around another rock. Well, the Asteria was no ordinary ship either. She was herd together with duct tape and a prayer because Digger’s money went in upgrades, not overhauls. Upgrades designed solely to increase the likelihood of not dying on the fringe of civilisation.
The ship rocked again. “Five hundred metres,” Bones dead-panned.
“Close enough for the Jumping Jacks?”
Now Bones smiled wide, exposing his chiselled yellow teeth. “Always close enough to use a Jumping Jack.”
Digger managed a half smile. “Dump em!”
Bones lifted the lid on a toggle switch then flicked it across. The groan of depressurisation sounded through the hull, the released air like a section reaction thruster, slewing across their vector. Digger risked a glance at the sensors. Where before there had been three blips amongst the rock, now there were dozens. Scrap cargo containers, old gear shafts, a few rotator couplings. Oh, and four Jumping Jacks.
The three incoming ships entered the new debris field. Bones brought up a rear view. Digger concentrated on flying straight but risked the odd glance at Bones’ screen, which flashed white.
He held the controls tighter; Bones gripped his chair. The Jumping Jacks on proximity released a torrent of shrapnel in all directions. The shockwave was supposed to be strong enough to fling the debris as shrapnel as well. They were a gruesome and effective device, but the only draw back was that ‘all directions’ included toward the Asteria.
The Asteria bucked downward, the blast smashing them like a hand swiping at a fly. Klaxons raged. Smoke poured from the air vents. The light panel exploded in sparks. Red lighting swelled to take its place.
Digger breathed in deep while Bones whooped. “Hoo Wee! That’s how we did it on Montague, baby! Tore those fuckers a new one!”
Another rock reared up ahead. Digger pushed the controls right but they kept going straight.
Digger blanched, his eyes widening in slow realisation. “Oh no. Oh no. Come on girl. Not now.” He pushed the control stick against the casing as if extra encouragement would alter the digital output.
“Baby, baby, Daddy needs to live a few more seconds.” Craters, fissures and ravines filled the viewport. Digger’s heart tremored as he stared transfixed. He felt Bones grasp his forearm.
The engines coughed. The ship slewed sideways. The rock grew larger. Grey, littered with holes like a giant piece of dirty pumice. There were arches and canyons. There were big elliptic structures and misshapen towers of cooled magma. They flashed past, in front, to the sides, below.
The ship lurched. Vibrations shook his chair, the controls, the ship. His vision blurred.
The view was grey. His throat was hoarse. He was screaming. He could feel the controls wrenching from their socket.
His world was still.
His scream faded into silence. His arms ached.
Space ahead was clear. They’d left the accretion disk. Finally, he turned to Bones with raised eyebrows. “Holy shit?”
Bones smirked. His forehead vein was at odds with his apparent calmness. “You scream like a girl.”
“The best screamers I know are women. I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Bones snorted and turned back to his panel. “I’ve got damage across a dozen systems here. Funny how you are happy to cause damage but not happy to help fix it.”
Digger rubbed his face. He felt exhausted. And he needed to pee. “If we can get to the Waygate then repairs can wait till Landnamabok.”
“Waygate locked in. Activation request sent. Should be dialled in by the time we get there.”
“Let’s go for no more surprises before then.”
Bones glanced at the sensor sweep and cocked his head.
Digger’s throat clenched. “See something?”
Bones shrugged. “Nah, just imagining it. Or it’s gone now. We’re clear.”