The Camulus Incursion: Part 4 New Year's Day

CHAPTER VII

January 1, 2081. 0953 hours Zulu.

Walking into the wardroom, Chrissie did not expect the reception. Not one of the women. Instead, Marcellus, Simmonds, Aleksandr, Kapten Wiroyoputra and the two Master Sergeants sat around a small table in a tight circle. They watched her arrive.

“We no longer stand for senior officers on this craft, Colonel?”

“Atten-tion.”

Marcellus, Aleksandr and Simmonds were quick to their feet; the other three contemptuous in their tardiness. Chrissie waited until they were in position.

“Thank you, as you were. ...”

The men slumped into their seats.

“... perhaps some are feeling the effects of a heavy night. Still, we have a job to do.”
Simmonds spoke first.

“General, if I may, we are aware that you are arranging a, err, posse of crew members this morning, we have made our services available to assist.”

“Fine, although due to the menace we may encounter, I do not accept the nomination of the Colonel or Wing Commander as part of the mission.”

“Well General, with respect ...”

“I am certain of your respect, Commander, but I don’t intend risking the leadership of the craft. Hundreds of years of commonsense argue against it.”

It was a game. No way would Simmonds want to be on this operation and no way would he be of any use.

Likewise, it was stupid that the craft’s command could be so risked. Chrissie knew Marcellus and Simmonds were staring each other down, waiting for the other to blink.

Gabi and Hannie appeared behind Chrissie as she spoke the last words, Chrissie then turned to direct them to sit in the vacant seats along the bulkhead. As they walked Simmonds came forward.

“Very well, General, then the Kapten, Lieutenant Konrad and Master Sergeants Fletcher and Stewart will be available as volunteers, I will return to the flight deck.”

“Thank you, Commander.”

Simmonds saluted and began to walk to the hatch. His departure halted by the arrival of Cathy and Alexius, their broad frames easing through the hatch. Chrissie watched him wait patiently to proceed then signalled to the two arrivals to sit next to the other two women. Marcellus remained seated with his hands folded in his lap.

For a moment there was an air of expectation, Chrissie looked at her watch. 0959. Then a sound from the hatch as a dissembled Senior Airman McCloud moved through and in a vague look took up a position next to Hannie.

“Crew, may I take the opportunity to wish you a happy new year. Some of you may know that during the evening the OPG attended upon us and a junior officer escorted to Phobos for questioning. So far as I’m concerned that has nothing to do with the mission we have to perform today, let’s put it out of our minds and focus on the task at hand.”

Chrissie moved to an auto-board.

“There has been much said aboard this craft as to what we may or should be looking for. I will put it to you in the fewest words possible. Today we scour this ship to identify any incursion by any other being or entity upon this craft. While there is a particular focus on the aft cargo holds, I want every nook and cranny searched for any evidence that something is here that shouldn’t be.”

Fletcher spoke.

“That assumes we are not looking for an assailant among the crew.”

“Master Sergeant, I am not required to support any order with a reason, however, in the spirit of good faith, I can inform you that today involves an aspect of elimination. If we are to show, at this point, that any member of crew is liable, I want to show before then that it is not possible that any other being outside the crew could have been involved.”

Fletcher was a dog at a bone.

“By ‘being’ I’m supposing you mean an alien or some other force.”

“I’m not a believer in aliens.”

Stewart took the lead from his mate.

“Then it could be a possible enemy incursion, General?”

“Our job is to rule things in or out, not play guessing games. ...”

The room returned to silence.

“... Good. I have to admit that until about ten minutes ago, I had a good idea of my teams for today but that has changed as we have the benefit of further volunteers.”
Darma spoke.

“General, if I may assist ...”

He did not wait for the obligatory response.

“... I have served for many years with Kopassus, I would be honored to lead a patrol today.”

“Thanks, Kapten, I had you in mind.”

Chrissie turned and exchanged a nod with Gabi. Pushing a button on a desk behind her, the auto-board came alive, a 3D image of the inside of the craft displayed.

“We will form into three groups. Major Hartley, Master Sergeants Fletcher and Stewart and Senior Airman Henry will commence at the bow of the craft and work aft. ...”

Chrissie pointed to the auto-board and the position of take up.

“... Kapten Wiroyoputra, Warrant Officer du Plessis, and the Senior Airmen Dubois and McCloud will commence at the aft and work their way forward. Now the last two incidents were here and here. I want you to get to here, as far to the stern as possible, before starting to come back.”

Darma nodded.

“Understood.”

“The other group will be Lieutenant Konrad and myself. We will perform a co-ordination and communication role. Lieutenant Konrad will also monitor three drones that have been placed into the vents and shafts and will travel, at our pace, through the craft. That way nothing should avoid us.”
Darma spoke.

“General, we will need these diagrams ...”

“Yes, the Lieutenant will load them to your hand-pods, as well as our egress codes. I also require full battle dress with auxiliary breathing apparatus. Colonel Aries has agreed for each of you to carry a heavy weapon, so proceed to the armory once you have kitted up. Finally, you must be at your station ready to proceed at 1100 sharp. At that time, the craft will go onto orange alert and full lockdown ordered. You will then begin your search; the only access through the hatches will be by use of the codes that are being provided. Any questions?”

Silence.

“None? Good. Also I want this over within ninety minutes. Dismissed and get a move on.”

The crew minus Aleksandr pushed through the hatch. Marcellus rose and spoke to Chrissie.

“Best I get to the armory and inform them of what I had, err, agreed to.”

“Very good Colonel, after all, the morning can be full of little surprises.”

“Thank you General, good luck.”

Aleksandr began to follow the Colonel. Chrissie intercepted him, her right hand on his shoulder easily halting his progress.

“Lieutenant, just wait.”

“Ma’am?”

“I want you kitted up but I don’t want you carrying a weapon.”

“No ma’am.”

“When you’re ready report back here, this will be our central ops.”

“Ma’am.”

Aleksandr didn’t bother to ask. Chrissie wasn’t going to volunteer that she thought a weapon would distract him from his task least of all he may suddenly feel he was Matt Dillinger. The Lieutenant was one whose skills were a bonus in the technology age; whether he could handle a firearm was, at best, moot.

In the fifty minutes she allowed herself, the General attended on the quartermaster for an armor vest and breathing apparatus. Marcellus was at the armory and supervised the dispatch of a Lulach 1A: 5K rounds per minute, firing micro-explosive tipped ordnance with a power of a thousand pounds per inch at two hundred yards. A two handed weapon the USAF boasts is deadlier in space than a trekkie’s phaser.

Clicking on the screens in the wardroom, Chrissie and Aleksandr could monitor the vision from the cameras embedded in the helmets of the patrol leaders. In addition to the breathing apparatus, body armor and helmet, each squad member wore fire and percussion retarding full head and hand coverings, thigh/knee/shin protection and additional padding at the knees and elbows. Each also wore headsets and microphones, although only the patrol leaders and the General would hear the commands given by the different squads.

“General, we have a problem with the camera on Drone 3.”

“Where’s that, Lieutenant?”

“Umm, aft cooling vent, err, ...”

He went to the image on the image on the auto-board.

“... here ma’am.”

“You tested it didn’t you?”

“It was fine two minutes ago, ma’am.”

“Shit. Okay, keep working on it.”

Much of Aleksandr’s kit sat in a pile on a chair. It was easier; he was already working up a sweat as he pushed buttons and shook his head, unable to fathom why the drone was blind and stuck.

“Alpha to Patrol Charlie, come in Kapten.”

“Reading you General.”

“The drone that should be above you in the cooling vent is not transmitting.”

“Received, is it able to move?”

Aleksandr nodded.

“Yes, apparently, but we have no vision of the vent.”

“Received.”

“It may be a dead spot, we’ll try and move it along the vent and it should resolve itself. Continue as ordered.”

“Received, out.”

Chrissie signalled to Aleksandr to manoeuvre the drone further along the vent. He shook his head but got it going. As he started to nod with satisfaction, the alarm went and the deck flashed orange. The emergency lighting took over as the main lights were shutdown. All hatches were automatically locked. The squads began to move. Then things changed.

“I’m sorry, General. The others are working, but this thing just doesn’t want to function.”

Chrissie looked at the three small monitors. The 3D images of two were crisp and clean, the drones moving at about ten yards a minute through the vents. The third screen blank.

“Alpha to Patrol Charlie.”

“Reading you General.”

“The drone has failed, Kapten, we have no eyes above you.”

“Received and understood. Out.”

Chrissie watched the patrols move through the corridors, through hatches, checking anything that could be opened or closed – from holds to cabins to lockers. It was excruciating.

“Alpha to Patrol Bravo.”

“Reading you General.”

“Major we need to pick the pace up.”

“Received and out.”

Chrissie shook her head. One thing she had to admit about the Kapten, he was thorough while keeping the patrol moving. The sergeants were lead in Gabi’s saddle bags.

She checked the time. 1142.

The sound of shrieking metal.

Wiroyoputra began to scream into the transmitter. The picture erupted, first of debris and falling material; then it was as if the Kapten was being lifted and shaken like a rag doll.

A woman’s voice.

“Mai Day, Mai Day, we’re under attack!”

“Charlie, Charlie this is Alpha what is happening.”

The woman was yelling – a southern accent.

“Fire, fuck it, fire!”

Through the screams of Wiroyoputra came the loud ‘buzz’ of the Lulach 1A discharging a venomous stream of explosive ordnance.

The woman again, it must be Cathy.

“Fuck, it’s not working.”

The vision was no help. It just showed the camera shaking; Wiroyoputra’s screams filled the air.

“Charlie, Charlie this is Alpha how many assailants?”

“One.”

Chrissie swore. This can’t happen.

“Bravo patrol this is Alpha, abandon mission. Proceed to reinforce Charlie patrol immediate, repeat immediate.”

“Received, what’s happening?”

“Patrol under attack, one assailant. Out.”

The flight deck had caught up with the vision. The lights now flashed red. A siren-like wail overcame anything being transmitted. Chrissie slammed her fist into a table, smashing through it.

“Fuck this is all I fucking need.”

Cathy again.

“Alpha, Alpha this is Charlie, we need help.”

“Bravo is on the way, Charlie, stay with it.”

Then new vision. It was Hannie. Wiroyoputra’s camera began to still. Hannie was in front of an assailant unleashing one, two, three hard kicks. Into what? Olive green, stretched, covering what is it? Legs?

Aleksandr spoke, as cool as Sunday church.

“It’s a pair of legs, General, it has the Kapten pinned.”

Cathy yelled.

“Arghh, fuck, fuck, my arm, fuck, my arm.”

The vision was still except for the percussion on each of Hannie’s kicks. Wiroyoputra had stopped screaming,
his head slumped, the vision swirling. Then it was a close up of the floor. Chrissie swore.

“Fuck it ... Charlie, Charlie this is Alpha, how are you Cathy?”

“Aw, I’m fucked! Go Hannie, get it Hannie!”

There was a noise like metal grinding and ceramics cracking.

The unmistakable accent of Hannie du Plessis.

“It has gone into the ceiling. McCloud, McCloud here now, get me up.”

On screen the vision suddenly changed. It was the contorted face of Cathy Dubois. She held her left arm across her vest, the sleeve soaked in blood. Looking at the camera she shook her head.

“Alpha, the Kapten is dead.”

“Received.”

Chrissie swore again; then heard Hannie.

“McCloud, hurry.”

“Alpha this is Charlie ...”

Cathy again, pain in her voice.

“... how long to reinforcements?”

“Received, stand by. Bravo Patrol this is Alpha, ETA at incursion point.”

“Thirty seconds, General.”

Chrissie’s head swung around to reconcile the vision with the auto-board. It didn’t gel.

“Charlie this is Alpha, within the minute Cathy, hold on.”

“Received, Warrant Officer du Plessis has gone after the assailant.”

“Not alone, it’s suicide. Alpha to Charlie. Du Plessis, abandon pursuit. Repeat abandon pursuit, that is an order.”

“Received Alpha.”

Hannie sounded pissed. Chrissie didn’t care; this was no time for dead heroes. She tapped Aleksandr on the shoulder.

“I better get down there. Stay here, Lieutenant and monitor as if your life depends on it.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Pulling her fire and percussion retarding balaclava on over her short cropped brown hair, the Lulach 1A was swung behind the shoulder, she elected to put her gloves on as she ran the corridor.
It took an eternity but no more than ninety seconds. Her watch showed 1149. Seven minutes had gone by since the attack.

And no one knew what the fuck was going on.

She expected a nervous airman to jump out with a weapon trained as she approached but the red light gave the sense of a weird calm. The massive silhouette of Gabi Hartley was closest to her.

“Report, Patrol Bravo.”

Gabi swung around, her weapon ready but not aimed. A perfunctory salute.

“General, the Kapten is deceased.”

“Crushing injury?”

“It appears so, although, umm ...”

“Some ordnance as well?”

“... Yes ma’am, but that doesn’t appear the cause.”

Chrissie turned to see Senior Airman Dubois sitting with her back to the bulkhead, the pain apparent on her face. Alexius and Lauren were sitting either side of her.

“What about Cathy?”

“Ordnance again ma’am; a serious injury to the forearm, although not life threatening.”

“Medicals?”

“Lieutenant Konrad attended to that, ma’am, he told me you were on your way.”
Hannie entered the conversation.

“General, I can indicate that the assailant appears to be human in the sense of having humanoid features, although as it wore a breathing apparatus and head protection as well as a form of space outfit.”

“Colored olive green?”

“Correct.”

“How tall would you say?”

“Umm, maybe seven foot, possibly a little less, it, err, swung sort of downward, the feet didn’t touch the ground.”

Lauren’s voice had an edge of panic.

“That’s right, it just crashed through and grabbed the captain between its legs.”

“What, while holding onto the ceiling?”

“It was massive, ma’am; a true super human being.”

Chrissie nodded and offered a half smile.

“Yes, it sounds like a cyborg.”

Now it was the ice cool Hannie who was flustered..

“Ma’am, the ordnance we used is meant to defeat any cyborg and my kicks, well, ...”

“They proved our most effective weapon.”

“... ma’am, they were not striking metal. It was like, like when I was training with you.”

“This is a conversation we don’t need to have. ...”

Chrissie turned and switched on her mic.

“... Command to Alpha ... Aleksandr that’s you.”

“Read you, General.”

“Lieutenant, arrange for Lieutenant Li to attend on me pronto and I want a shuttle up here from Phobos to take Kapten Wiroyoputra back for port mortem. Also I want the OPG forensic team up here.”

“I’ve done that, General. The OPG will be on the same flight as the medivac for Senior Airman Dubois.”

“Very good. Could you advise Colonel Aries.”

“He’s on his way there, ma’am. ETA about a minute.”

“Received. Thank you, Aleksandr.”

The General strode to Cathy. The arm wore a blood-soaked bandage, the trousers also sodden.

“How is it, Senior?”

The question to Cathy drew a response from Alexius.

“She’s had a shot of hetramorphin, General, she won’t even recognise you.”

“Good thing, do you want to go to Phobos with her?”

“If I may, ma’am, I’d appreciate it.”

Chrissie squatted and felt Cathy’s left hand, it was cold, lifeless.

“I think she’ll appreciate it when she comes out of surgery. I hope there’s enough left to save.”

Alexius put an arm around Cathy’s huge shoulders and pulled her close. It would be hard; as she recovered from the injury she would have to cope with withdrawal from the soup, then the realisation of what happened, the mental anguish, the long rehabilitation, the fear that she may never be able to lift again and the courage to overcome it.

Voices behind, Gabi had engaged with Marcellus and was giving him a brief run down as Chrissie walked toward them. Two medics strode straight to Cathy. There were others, armed in full battle dress. Gabi waved her right hand.

“No more, stand back. This is supposed to be a crime scene.”

“In the military we just fight enemies and not worry how it looks after.”

The comment came from the Warrant Officer, now leaning on the bulkhead next to Lauren. The officers ignored her. Lieutenant Li had arrived and she engaged Chrissie.

“General, you sent for me.”

“Lieutenant, this hole in the ceiling leads into cooling vent A-3. Here ...

Chrissie showed on her hand-pod the whereabouts of the vent and their location on the 3D diagram.

“... now, I’ll expand the image because your task is simple. I want you to get to here and retrieve a failed drone. You’ll be fitted with a camera and mic, call sign patrol delta.”

“Umm, about fifty yards from here, it should not be difficult.”

Chrissie turned.

“Warrant Officer, you will accompany the Lieutenant. You don’t need to carry a weapon as you come with the most effective ones we have.”

Hannie looked unimpressed.

“Umm, General, that is fine, but shouldn’t we be looking for the assailant?”

“I’m sure that’s what it wants us to do.”

“Understood.”

While they talked, Gabi removed the camera and mic from the dead Kapten and began to strap up the Lieutenant.

“Now, we’re giving you back up. Vent A 3 follows the corridor aft to the stern, as you move along, I will be below you with Master Sergeant Fletcher and Senior Airman McCloud. ...”

Chrissie glanced at Lauren who shook her head.

“... Command to Alpha.”

“Reading you, General.”

“Lieutenant, the image on your second monitor is now that of Patrol Delta, make sure you watch the auto-board and if my position and that of Delta’s varies by more than two yards, yell at me.”

“Received and understood. Out.”

Lauren was next to Chrissie, a panicked face.

“General, I, I’m not sure ...”

“You wounded, Senior?”

“Err, no.”

“Get your kit back on, I want you ready in thirty seconds.”

Hannie lifted Jian into the ceiling hole; she was about to jump up and pull herself in when Gabi lifted her. Chrissie looked at Marcellus who was returning from the medics.

“I reckon she could’ve pulled herself up there no worries at all.”

“Is that what this is about?”

“It’s about finding your dead drone, Colonel.”

“Of course.”

Chrissie pulled turned and signalled to Fletcher and McCloud to move out. They would walk slowly at the crawling pace Jian and Hannie would travel.

Six minutes in, thirty yards walked.

“Alpha to Command.”

“Reading you Lieutenant.”

“Delta has located the drone, General, it’s crushed.”

“Tell them to pull it out; it’s only about four hundred pounds.”

“Received and out.”

Chrissie turned and slung her weapon over her shoulder.

“That’s it, we’re done.”

Lauren spoke.

“They found the drone?”

“They found it and are bringing it back to the ceiling hole. ...”

The young woman smiled.

“... much relieved are you, Lauren?”

“Oh, yeah, phew. Glad that’s over.”

Fletcher gave her a look of contempt, for once Chrissie would agree with him.

The support team returned to the incident scene, not concerned with the pace of the returning search and recover duo. Marcellus was on a call. Chrissie and the others removed their balaclavas and gloves. The day was almost cooked.

“Someone want to catch this thing?”

The voice of Lieutenant Li from the ceiling hole; the General was closest and put her arms out to catch the large oval shaped object dropped from the hole, followed by the Lieutenant. Chrissie turned it over and around.

“It did a fine job on this thing.”

In an athletic pose of lowering herself with one arm, swinging then dropping on her feet, Hannie’s icy stretched hard against the skin and muscle underneath, the lat spread pushing out below the arm holding onto the ceiling, even the cords of bulging veins could be seen interspersing the tightly defined mounds. As much as the men might want to deny it, they watched every move of the show until the final dismount and her inch perfect landing next to the General. With hands on slim hips she spoke.

“Crushed in one action I would say, much like the injury to Kapten Wiroyoputra.”

“Major, do you think the boffins at Cydonia 6 could work that out?”

“It’s worth asking.”

Marcellus caught Chrissie’s eye and motioned her to a quiet place.

“What’s up, Colonel?”

“Your quarters at 1330, General?”

“Sure, unless something else breaks.”

“It already has, I’ll see you then.”

He strode off away from those still present. Four orderlies were needed to transport Cathy’s stretcher, such was the bulk of her muscle that will soon begin to slowly waste. Alexius followed. The Master Sergeants sought to be dismissed which they were. The Major could do nothing more and with the four hundred pound drone tucked under her arm, left to prepare for a post mortem on Phobos. Lauren just wanted to be gone.

“Command to Alpha.”

“Reading you General.”

“Stand down and close up operations, Aleksandr, we’re finished.”

“Received and out.”

Chrissie stood gazing into the hole above her. How could something so big and strong fit into that space?

She was becoming very fucking worried.

CHAPTER VIII

January 1, 2081. 1332 hours Zulu.

“Enjoy your lunch, General?”

“What do they call that fruit? Space pineapple?”

“Something like that. One of few things they can grow in the Phobos dome with native soil plus some nutrients.”

“Quite nice.”

“So you’ve looked on your pod for your marching orders, General Matterson?”

“One for the drama aren’t you?”

“Aleksandr told me that Lauren’s shitting herself.”

“She blew the girl’s arm off, she should be.”

“Who’re going to meet down there?”

“General Woodruff, umm, the Under Secretary of Defense, Assistant Secretary of State, couple of congressmen and senators.”

“Damn, bad timing.”

“You’re telling me? Woodruff is all about covering her ass, the politicians want it all finished and the State Department is going to have kittens with an Indonesian officer getting killed.”

On the day Lieutenant General M. Kathleen Woodruff became Commanding Officer of SPACECOMM she ordered a review of the contents of the ‘soup’ as she believed it wasn’t strong enough. A devotee of the ‘big is best’ approach to female space recruitment, she proudly holds the title as America’s strongest over 50.

Man or woman.

“Alright, when’s the shuttle here?

“1415 port dock for embarkation.”

“You gotta change into your dress uniform anyway, so where’s the cream?”

“What for?”

“What do you think? I’ll rub it in.”

“Oh.”

His chivalry surprised her. She thought of debating the need, but really appreciated his effort.

The process was the reverse of the day before. The boots came off and with them socks and trousers. Marcellus told her he’d work around the g-string, white today, and finished the thigh and buttocks in less than two minutes.

“You understand I knew nothing of that little surprise this morning, Chrissie. Simmonds had a delegation in my face soon as I hit the mess.”

“Hey, Colonel, I’m not surprised with anything that goes down with that pompous prick. He’s so out of line.”

“Running out of officers, that’s my problem.”

“You’re good with space politics, my friend, you always have been.”

“I do what I can to get by I think.”

“Better than that. If I had your gift of the gab I’d be leading a division massed somewhere on the Yalu River. Instead, I’m up the back end of Mars, sitting on my cute, hard ass waiting for my beloved leader to jam her iron fist right up inside it.”

“Getting a bit kinky there, General.”

“Why, what can you offer?”

She smiled at him, for no other reason than he kept her feet on firm ground.

“When you getting back?”

“Fucked if I’m staying there over night; I told them I want a shuttle back after the meeting.”

“Come and see me, I’ll be awake.”

“I’ll take you up on that, Colonel.”

Chrissie put on her skirt and pumps. Pulling off her top and as Marcellus rubbed the cream on her obliques the elephant in the room raised its trunk.

“Did you really care about the drone or did you think that in all the confusion du Plessis would fuck up and show her incision skills?”

“I knew the drone was dead, but I still wouldn’t mind seeing if the Brits can make anything of it. As for Hannie, she just confirmed what I already knew.”

“That she killed Kovacs.”

“I checked the manifests and schedules for the period before and after the first assault. There was a special shuttle from Phobos that came in at 2000, supposed to have been responding to an urgent nitrogen leak in the forward hold. Guess who was the duty maintenance officer when the report was made at 1745?”

“Simonwicz.”

“And you and I know, Marc, that these juiced up strength queens can rip a pipe off a bulkhead any time it suits them.”

“So joining the dots, du Plessis stows away, sneaks in, she and Eva go a huntin’ men, pick out Kovacs, maybe another. But something goes wrong.”

“What I don’t know. Still, I’ve got a real dog of a dilemma. ...”

She stood facing him, hands on the hips of her beautiful buff brown body.

“... Hannie’s a good soldier and I ain’t got too many good soldiers.”

Chrissie turned away and dug into her kit bag.

“Where the fuck has that bra gone?”

“Don’t ask me, I don’t wear one.”

“I’m serious, Marc, I don’t have time for this.”

Chrissie searched as she scurried about the room, her firm breasts swaying against the inertia of her muscular torso. Marcellus lazily watched her, uncertain of where to train his focus – the DDs (an easy choice), the massive muscularity of the shoulders, arms, chest and abs (an obvious choice), or his most favorite muscles of them all, the calves.

“Fuck this Marc where’s it gone.”

“Go without Chrissie, no one’ll tell, if they look at all they’ll just think it’s your chest muscles.”

“What, jiggling around? Oh, fuck it!”

Chrissie pulled on the white shirt and the light gray tunic over the top. She smiled at him.

“Okay, Colonel, if you choose to accompany me to the dock, I expect that you will do so walking three paces behind.”

“I’ve just seen all there is to see, General, why you so convinced I just want to see your calves?”

She threw her arms over his shoulders.

“’Cause you’re a leg man, Marcellus Aries; I can pick you off like the top of a beer bottle.”

He slipped his hand inside her oversized tunic, feeling the untethered breast and growing nipple. His voice teased at her.

“So what do you make of this then?”

“Other than a court martial? Maybe I’ll see you about 2300 and we’ll both find out.”

He stole a kiss. She would have lingered but he withdrew and stepped back. Turning sharp she pushed the cap over her brown hair and made for the hatch – making damn sure those calves pushed out hard at every step.

Senior Airman Lauren McCloud stood alone on the deck, the three chevrons on the right arm of her tunic misshapen by the fabric as the muscles beneath moved in time to her hand movements. She was talking to no one at all but with all the urgency needed to convince herself of her story.

“Oh, General, Colonel, am I so glad to see you.”

Chrissie’s response was cold.

“It’s usual procedure, Senior, when a colleague is wounded in action by his or her own side. There are always questions to be asked and answered.”

“Geez, I hope they can save her arm.”

“She’s already lost it.”

Marcellus shook his head.

“1403 and no docking crew.”

“I’m behind you, sir.”

It was the same senior airman from the previous day, the same lack of professional courtesy and disinterest in acknowledging the officers on deck. Marcellus ignored him, wished Lauren a happy new year and offered some reassuring words. She gushed a little. Chrissie stood by passively, trying her best to slay the green-eyed monster within.

As the hatch opened, Lauren and Chrissie saluted Marcellus and prepared to embark. But no one was expecting what, or more correctly, who was on the other side.

Easing her way through the opened hatch was the broad form of LTGEN Woodruff. Dressed in the same oversized tunic worn by the other women, in the face and neck Woodruff looked her 52 years. Her short cropped hair was naturally gray albeit darker than her outfit, yet in all other aspects she looked identical to Lauren, even their height was the same.

“Atten-tion.”

The General spoke in a deep, raspy voice.

“As you were, please, this is an informal visit. ...”

She spied Chrissie at the far right of the group.

“... ah, Christina, looking forward to your briefing this evening; I’m sure you’ll satisfy us that the Indonesian Kapten’s death was not a by-product of a flawed deployment.”

“I trust I can satisfy you, General.”

As she moved away the older woman’s eyes focused on the six rows of ribbons below the USMC badge and above Christina Matterson’s left breast pocket. They may have shared common campaign and service decorations but the combat awards, the Navy Cross (with star), the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart (with star) were only worn by the younger of the two.

Woodruff turned to the Colonel and smiled.

“Colonel Aries, it’s great to see you again.”

She reached out for Marcellus and felt his upper arms with each hand.

“Likewise, General, and a happy new year to you.”

Marcellus returned the smile; Chrissie was to wonder if his amorous conquests were becoming a procession.

“Happy new year to you, Marc ...”

She prised her eyes off the Colonel and turned to Lauren.

... and of course, Senior Airman McCloud. Congratulations on your recent promotion, Lauren.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Now Lauren you and I have much to discuss so we must get moving. Are you ready, Christina?”

“Certainly.”

“Well, hop to it, the Senior and I will follow.”

For Marcellus it was a smorgasbord of pumps and knee length skirts, bulging, bare calves pushing the women’s bodies over the threshold and into the hatch. For Chrissie it was clear that Woodruff had made the flight to coach up her prize recruit, to keep her calm and the mind clear. The report would end up so sanitized that she expected SPACECOMM would even suggest Cathy Dubois had shot herself.

There was no doubt in the Commanding Officer’s mind that all must be done to protect the strength queen. Not just for the good of Camulus and Lauren McCloud. But for Katie Woodruff and her little plan of creating a space force of quasi-amazons, genetically perfect and chemically enhanced. She couldn’t afford for Lauren to be the first in the row of dominoes.

As it was, the dignitaries had a delayed departure from Mars Base – Cydonia 1 (the administrative seat of the American space bases). The briefing pushed back to 1930, Chrissie cooled her size 14 heels in the officer’s entertainment area for a short while but the prospect of old digital downloads from the ‘rise of Bollywood’ era of the 2020s just didn’t appeal. Instead she sought out the duty officer, then the sergeant-at-arms. An hour or three spent on the shooting range is never wasted. It was interesting too. She was the only woman. Once the tunic was removed and thrown over her cap, junior officers would approach her as if she was new staff. She didn’t mind, they complimented her shooting, gawked up at her shoulders, stared at her tits. It was good for an almost-forty year old’s ego. They said the women don’t bother to practice enough. Chrissie couldn’t agree more.

In the military, awards are given for courage, valor, bravery under fire, acts beyond the call of duty. Someone who has never been in a firefight cannot hope to understand the sense of fear, confusion and controlled panic that moves like a ghost among the combatants. In the end, the best preparation comes through hours of hard training. With years of experience serving as a mentor, Christina Matterson had a one hundred per cent belief that training and more training was the way to ensure that victory is snatched from the jaws of havoc.

Sitting outside the Base Commander’s wardroom, Chrissie thought hard on how she could make the point without insulting Woodruff. Even then she assumed she could only make such an assertion if this wasn’t a hatchet job, SPACECOMM putting her general's star on the guillotine so as to keep favor with the Indonesians – the energy barons of the Pacific rim. After all, she was a marine not an air force fly-girl. She didn’t have too many allies above the ozone layer.

The meeting broke up at 2315. A new crew had to be arranged for the shuttle. Chrissie boarded at 0045. Thirty seconds behind her came the form of Katie Woodruff.

“Christina, I couldn’t let you return without having a chat.”

“I guess I’m just relieved you’re letting me return.”

The commanding officer took a seat in the front row next to the Brigadier General, leaving a vacant seat between them to allow for ‘shoulder room’. Lauren was staying overnight for ‘further inquiries’. Woodruff would return to Phobos with the shuttle crew.

“I was impressed with your dedication to self improvement this afternoon.”

“Wearing braid on the cap doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep up my skills.”

“Well, I guess you don’t have to do the same gym time as the rest of us.”
Woodruff leaned across the middle seat, forcing a smile. The comment reeked of sarcasm. Chrissie returned fire.

“I’ll tell you what I did see this afternoon down in the officers’ rec area, General.”

“Humor me.”

“A story on the last hundred years of the Olympics, starting with all that shit about the synthetic steroids the old communist bloc countries pumped into their athletes. ...”

“Ah, here we go.”

“... All government sanctioned and medically supervised.”

“Well we’re a hundred years on, Chrissie, the science is a lot better now. No acne, no coronaries ...”

Chrissie looked to the front and shook her head.

“... Alright, alright, would it help if I said I agree with you and part of the reason those delegates are up here is to look at the program.”

The younger woman gave her own sarcastic laugh.

“Lauren would have been an interesting slab of beef for them to inspect.”

“When she started with us three years ago she was 182 pounds and her best deadlift was 650 pounds. Great numbers but look at her now. She’s added thirty per cent to her body mass in flint hard muscle and is within two hundred of deadlifting the ton. Of course, that’s nothing compared to you ...”

“Leave me out of this, Katie, you know my story.”

“... sure, but you shouldn’t deprive those who want to do it. Like Lauren.”

“Like Cathy Dubois. And that’s my point; they do the gym but what of their other skills?”

“It’s the tech age in deep space. Computers do the combat for them.”

“Not yesterday they didn’t.”

“Well then we have the marines to come and save us, don’t we?”

The conversation was within a sentence of turning nasty. Woodruff sighed. It was time to take a backward step.

“I’m sorry, Chrissie. It’s just ... such a delicate time. We’ve got the President just re-elected on an end-the-war platform. We’ve got a space program that’s chewing up a mountain of dollars. A lot of people are very nervous.”

“Mm, not least the men of the Camulus.”

“The men everywhere are nervous. That’s the problem.”

“I know. Katie there’s something I didn’t tell the delegates about.”

“About the arrest of Simonwicz? They’ve been told that’s nothing to do with you.”

“Yeah, I mean the whole thing that’s going on. I’ve been thinking a lot about it.”

“Good. We’re paying you to think and we’re also paying you to do.”

“Katie, have you thought ... if the Chinese have managed to get an intruder on board, why they haven’t bothered to blow the crap out of the craft or go on a killing spree or destroy any of the Martian lunar bases for that matter?”

“Yep.”

“Oh, okay then, what do you think?”

“Simple. But I want to hear a marine’s take on it.”

“Alright, well, I reckon it’s all about fear. The Chinese worked out after Demios that they couldn’t take us on in space. They’ve resorted to piracy inside the asteroid belt but haven’t broken skin around Mars until a fortnight ago.”

“True.”

“So what’s our biggest weakness, Katie?”

“Tell me.”

“Same as our biggest strength: the women.”

“For the sake of playing devil’s advocate, Chrissie, how do you explain that?”

“It’s all in the soup. The men get an aerobic supplement to be sure but their mandated exercise routine is different...”

Chrissie paused. With a hand, Katie signalled for her to keep talking.

“... Okay, so there becomes this strength imbalance and the increase in libido. Then we have these instances of the women imposing themselves on the men, physically, maybe even rape.”

“No, no, sorry, I can’t allow that conclusion.”

“Fine, then for some reason, maybe just idle gossip, the men of Camulus and the Martian lunar bases start getting very edgy about their uber-women. Whatever the cause, once Kovacs then the next two get murdered, the men’s paranoia accelerates. They all suckle each other and the fear takes hold.”

“So what, you haven’t linked it to the Chinese.”

“Bear with me. The incursion is not designed to blow up a craft or wipe out a base. It’s aimed right at the men’s morale because only men are targeted and the fatal injuries are inflicted by physical strength alone not weapons. The whole thing is made to look like it’s done by some crazy super woman.”

“So why would the Chinese do that?”

“Because they know that if they blow up one craft another will replace it. If they start driving a wedge between the crew, the morale will collapse and ultimately it will be us wanting to finish the fighting, thus conceding more in the treaty than we should.”

Katie smiled and rested her head back on the seat rest.

“Chrissie, once the good people of our United States made their democratic choice on the first Tuesday of November it was always going to be a new paradigm. The Chinese are not stupid. They have the technology, they have the will, they have the patience and they know that our Government is running very short on all three.”

“So what do I do?”

“Kill it.”

“Kill it?”

“Kill everything that gets in your way. But there’s just one thing you need to know.”

“Tell me.”

“Politically, you have about 48 hours left. After that I won’t be able to give you the support you need.”

“Okay, you do what you can.”

“And there’s one more thing. At 1200 Zulu tomorrow, the British Government will be announcing a ceasefire before asking their King to call an early election.”

“Shit that’s drastic.”

“It’s a minority government and the Brits have had it with this war. The Prime Minister knows that if the parliament has its way, he’ll have to resign and the other lot will get a shot.”

“And that’s a problem ...”

“It’s a problem because the trans-Atlantic relationship is at its lowest point since the Civil War. The Brits are saying we’ve been too dilatory in negotiations and that’s fucking up their trade with Asia. Now they’re going out and if we don’t go with them, well, we won’t have that choice.”

“They’ve bailed on us.”

“Not only that, Christina, with it goes any assistance from Cydonia 6.”

“And my strongest of strong right arms.”

“Sorry?”

“Umm, Major Gabi Hartley, she’s a pathologist who’s also a commando, she did the post-mortem on Darma Wiroyoputra.”

“Have you seen that yet?”

“No.”

“I’ll follow it up for you.”

“Sure. Thanks, Katie.”

“My pleasure.”

The two women had known each other for ten, maybe fifteen years. Yet there was no small talk. No need to pretend. No need to promise to ‘catch up’ or talk about life ‘at home’. Chrissie didn’t care what her CO was thinking. She tried to force militaria from her mind. She wanted to think of Marcellus. Would he still be awake? Would it matter if he wasn’t? Was she just as primal in her urges as the most souped up of the strength queens?

As they docked they spoke again. The farewells were cordial and Chrissie alighted from the shuttle. It was 0110 hours.

Over the threshold onto the deck of the port dock, the senior airman had been replaced by a staff sergeant, another airman assisted him and behind them were two airmen in full battle fatigues with Lulach 1As held at stand by.

The sergeant spoke.

“Greetings, General. I have an escort here for your safety.”

“Escort? Thank you Staff Sergeant, but I don’t need an escort.”

“The Wing Commander insists on all women being escorted while moving about on board, ma’am, regardless of rank.”

Her mind was screaming: is this a fucking mutiny?

“Colonel Aries is still in command I presume?”

“He’s been off duty this evening, ma’am, these orders were given at 2000 hours.”

The sergeant nodded and the two ‘escorts’ moved in front of her. Chrissie reached forward and gripped the closest Lulach 1A with her left hand between the firing mechanism and the front stock. With both hands the airman tried to wrest control of the firearm. She squeezed and the metallic mid section of the weapon crumbled into a dozen or more bits. The airman stood staring agape; a piece of weapon in each hand. The other man clicked off the safety and trained the barrel at her.

“Make sure you get me in the face, Airman. If you damage this tunic I’ll do to your throat what I did to that gun.”

“Airmen, stand at ease!”

The sergeant barked in haste. His eyes bulging, he knew one back hander from this massive woman would send him to the Promised Land. It was time for tactical retreat.

The airmen stood back. Chrissie turned to the NCO.

“Staff Sergeant, you’ve followed your orders for which you should be commended. However, I would recommend you allow me to proceed unhindered and unescorted.”

He nodded to the escorts. They stood at attention.

“Thank you. As you were.”

Chrissie walked off the dock. She was going straight to the Colonel’s cabin, her emotions beginning to swell at the thought of finding Marcellus nursing a skull full of ordnance.

Around the corner, down the corridor and there it was. The cabin with guard posted. Her stomach cramped. She wanted to be sick.

“Good morning, Airman, err, Colonel in residence?”

“I believe, umm, he’s asleep, ma’am.”

“He is expecting me, so ...”

“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but the hatch is locked and ... I have orders.”

“Well, if it’s locked, your orders must be not to let anyone out rather than stopping anyone from going in. Am I right?”

“Err, no. Umm, you can’t enter ma’am.”

Without any confidence, the airman tried to look threatening. She smiled down from her ‘pumped’ height of 6’6”.

“Yeah, sure ...”

Chrissie eased her right arm and shoulder against the hatch: accompanied by a quick ‘shriek’ she sheared the automated locking mechanism.

“... but it wasn’t too secure anyhow.”

“Fuck, how did ...”

She pushed the hatch open a little way as bits of metal feel into the corridor.

“Ah, Airman what you have to know is that I’m perhaps ten thousand, maybe a hundred thousand times stronger than you. But let’s not quibble about some zeros. What I want is for you to stay where you are and pretend like nothing has happened. Can you do that?”

“Umm, yeah ... yes, ma’am”

“Good, I’ll see you at a more social hour.”

“Oh, ma’am?”

“Yes?”

“The, err, pieces of the hatch, ma’am.”

He pointed to the four pieces in the corridor. Chrissie smiled, bent from inside the threshold and scooped them up, without fanfare she grimaced as her right hand closed hard around them.

“From dust we are made and to dust we shall return.”

She opened the hand, it was covered in dirt. The Airman gulped. She smiled again and slid the hatch closed.

The cabin smelt a little boozy. That should be a good sign. The emergency light was just enough for her to find Marcellus and check him. Sound asleep in his double sized bunk, he was turned on his side breathing heavy through his nose. She checked his head and face, there was no injury. Taking a liberty, she eased off the blankets. He was naked, unharmed. And still sound asleep. She resolved not to wake him but had done too much to just walk away.

At his table sat an empty bottle of Chilean shiraz and an empty and half full glass. She stripped, throwing the garments in a pile on a chair. She eased her naked brown flesh next to Marcellus who still didn’t move. Physically she eclipsed him in every way except for height; it was easy to just slip her arm over his torso and a leg over his hip. As if on cue she was consumed by tiredness, within the minute she was fast asleep.

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Comments

Very good. (But I'm puzzled that they didn't go after the unknown killer in the air vent. Would you sleep on a space station if an unknown killer was on the loose? In fact I went back to be sure I hadn't missed it being captured.)

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