Volume 11, Issue 3, September 10, 2016
Commander Aldo Kinnear sprawled on the Rec Room bench, bruised, exhausted and scared. A soldier of the Fris navy, the long-time enemy of humankind, sat opposite, equally bruised. Perhaps it was also exhausted and scared, but Aldo was unable to read any emotion in the harsh, grey, jagged features. They were both armed, yet neither raised a weapon.
The bulkheads of the Lightship Neophyte creaked and groaned. The ancient engines throbbed. In Aldo's imagination, the rhythmic vibrations felt through the decks of the old ship were its heartbeat, the quiet sibilance of the life support its breath. Neophyte was old, dying, but not yet dead.
It had been Aldo's job to finish it off. He had not expected it to fight back.
"This ship began broadcasting in 4052. That's two years before the war began." Aldo looked up from the data screen and smiled at Lieutenant Caulfield across the Rec Room. "Don't you find that fascinating Eliot?" he said. "This ship was operational long before any of us were born!"
Eliot Caulfield, sitting on the worn, thinly padded bench that ran around three walls of the room, returned the smile of his superior officer.
"We've been here less than three hours and already you're accessing the historical records of the place," he said, pausing to take a sip of tepid coffee. "Isn't that just a little sad?"
Aldo looked at the Beverage Dispenser that clunked and rattled when preparing a drink. He looked at the deck panels, several of them with loose corners. He looked at the stained table tops, the dim lighting, the bench that Eliot sat on, reminiscent of the lecture theatres at the Academy. Finally, he looked back to the small data screen rising out of the counter top, and the ingrained dust in its edges.
"This whole place is history," he said.
"Once we've done our job, it'll be ancient history," said Eliot. "The only fascinating thing about this place is that it's survived two hundred years of war with barely a scratch."
"Two hundred and six years," said Aldo. "Just to be superseded by Automatic Buoys."
"According to this, she's been attacked by the Fris thirteen times," said Aldo, reading from the screen as the lines scrolled upwards. "Over half of those times the crew of the Neophyte has been found dead, but the Fris never destroyed her, and never attempted to hold her either. She's been repaired, re-crewed and started up again."
"It makes you wonder what the Fris have been up to," said Eliot, taking another sip of coffee. "For that matter, thirteen is not that many times over the two hundred-odd years she's been here."
"Looks like the Fris waited some time before each attack," said Aldo.
"None of which matters," said Eliot. "Because we're here to shut her down for the final time and then she's off to the scrapheap."
Both of them started involuntarily as the bulkhead around them moaned and creaked, the sound echoing along the corridors outside the Rec Room long after it had stopped.
"I guess she didn't like me saying that," said Eliot, regaining his composure and laughing, unconvincingly.
Aldo said nothing.
"We should have known," said Aldo, muttering the words to himself. "We should have guessed."
His fingers tightened on the Browning automatic in his fist as he saw the Fris shift in its seat opposite. With less than a magazine of smart-bullets remaining, he would need to use them wisely. The Fris's energy weapon was almost depleted, he was reasonably certain of that. But he did not intend to take any chances.
The Fris did not raise its weapon, nor did it show any signs of aggression, only of weariness. When it spoke, its voice was deep, almost growling. But the Galactic was clear and perfectly pronounced, with a slight accent that Aldo could not identify.
"My people believe this place to be cursed. Haunted."
"And yet you forcefully boarded us to take control of her," said Aldo, his finger sliding from the trigger of the Browning to the trigger-guard. He was still cautious, suspicious, but he no longer believed a firefight was about to break out.
The Fris shrugged, a curiously human gesture that made Aldo strangely uncomfortable.
"Not all of us are superstitious," it said. "But finding a like-minded crew can be difficult."
There was a stutter in the throb of the engines, a shiver through the deck beneath their feet.
Aldo listened intently, but the engines settled back into their regular rhythm and he let out a breath he had not known he'd been holding. If the engines failed, the life support would follow. And he had left his Environment Suit in his cabin.
"This ship will die soon," said the Fris.
"Then why attack us?" Aldo's voice was raised, but he could not control it. "Why, time and again, have you tried to take her over?"
"We are at war," said the Fris, no change in the volume or tone of its voice. "This place is strategically important. The Automatic Buoys are better protected and harder to control."
There might have been some truth in the answer, Aldo knew, but it was by no means the whole story. Thirteen attempts, fourteen including this one, and each a disaster for both attacker and defender. When there had been survivors, they seemed disoriented, making little sense, telling impossible stories. All but one were hospitalised, permanently, in padded cells. The other had committed suicide before they could reach him.
So far, Aldo was a survivor. But he was already beginning to doubt the reality of his experiences.
The error in judgement lay in believing there was no imminent threat. After all, the last time the Fris had attacked had been almost twenty years ago. The Lightship was in the process of being decommissioned. Why would there be any danger? Consequently, when he settled for a short sleep after a hard day of inventory, Aldo stripped down to his shorts and t-shirt before climbing into the bunk he had assigned himself.
The two-pitch scream of the alarm dragged him from a much needed sleep. Exhausted, he dragged on his trousers and hurried out the door still fastening them. There was no time to find any other clothes.
He caught up with Eliot en-route to the Control Room. Eliot was fully dressed in his Environment Suit and Aldo caught the brief look of surprise on his face. He considered trying to explain, but decided there were more important matters to deal with.
"Who's on duty?" he said as they hurried along the corridor.
"O'Connor," said Eliot. "He's steady. He wouldn't have hit the alarm without good reason."
Sergeant Mason O'Connor had been in Aldo's command for over a year. Eliot's assessment was justified.
O'Connor was at the old but functional main desk as they entered the Control Room. He wasted no time in explaining the alarm.
"There's a Fris ship heading in," he said, indicating the faded but readable scanner screen behind him. "This piece of junk didn't pick it up until it was almost on top of us. They have cloaking, but nothing a modern scanner wouldn't have seen through."
"Forget the shortcomings of the equipment Sergeant," said Aldo, leaning in to read the scanner. "Were they engaged by Neophyte's auto-defence system?"
"Negative sir," said O'Connor, a slight sneer on his face. "The auto-defence system malfunctioned before even taking a shot. We're a sitting duck."
"They could sit out there and take pot shots at us," said Eliot. "Destroy us piece by piece."
"I take it you've sent a distress signal to Command?" said Aldo, ignoring Eliot's prediction of imminent doom and speaking to O'Connor.
"Yes sir," said O'Connor. "The moment after I hit the alarm."
"Any reply yet?" Aldo held on to what little hope he could find.
"They're scrambling a squadron sir," said O'Connor. "But it won't reach us for at least two days. There's nothing closer. No patrols, no exercises. We're at the back end of the galaxy here."
With the tiny spark of hope dying inside him, Aldo straightened from the scanner.
"I don't think they'll stand off and destroy us," he said. "Historically, every attack on this Lightship by the Fris has been an attempt to take her over, more or less in one piece."
"You think they'll board us?" said Eliot.
"You know, if Command went back to giving us our own ships, instead of hiring express freighters to do a 'drop and run', we would have been able to escape. But I guess saving money is more important than saving lives."
Aldo said nothing, finding it difficult to fault Eliot's cynicism. But they were professionals, and it was not for him to question those above him, only to lead those below as best he could.
The rest of the seven-man decommissioning crew had reached the Control Room while he was examining the scanner. He noted, with some embarrassment, that all but him were in correct dress.
"Make sure everyone is armed," he said, talking to Eliot. "And deploy around the airlock."
He turned to O'Connor as Eliot moved off to check the crew.
"How long before they reach us?"
O'Connor checked the read-outs, hesitating as he translated the old-styled data into current meaning in his head. When he sighed, Aldo knew the news would not be good.
"Thanks to this ancient scanner, they've already started docking procedures."
Aldo closed his eyes for a moment, fighting the despair. No time to dress properly. Barely time to grab a weapon from his cabin. When he opened his eyes, he displayed nothing but a resolve to defend the Lightship to the best of his and his crew's ability.
"If we can't kill them, we need to hold out until help gets here," he said.
It was not impossible to hold out for two days, only highly improbable. Nevertheless, they had to try.
Remembering made Aldo suddenly conscious of his inappropriate clothing. He still wore the t-shirt and trousers he had on when he rushed from his cabin. He had, at least, rescued his boots, but he had no socks, and the leather rubbed his feet when he moved. Blisters were a certainty, but he had no wish to look.
The Fris soldier opposite was, of course, fully dressed in battle uniform. Even the prehensile tail was encased in protective material, supple enough to allow it full, and deadly, movement.
The door to the Rec Room shook under a heavy impact, the sudden boom startling both Aldo and the Fris. Aldo part raised his Browning as another boom thundered around the room. The Fris had shouldered his energy weapon and aimed steadily at the door.
Aldo waited, anxiously, for a third impact, or for the sealed door to break open. At Aldo's suggestion, the Fris had used his energy weapon to fuse the door mechanism when they sought safety in the Rec Room. But the strength of the booming made him unsure whether that was enough.
He waited, the only sound the slight hiss of the life support, and his and the Fris's laboured breathing.
No third impact came. The door did not break.
After some minutes, the Fris lowered his weapon and growled across the room to Aldo.
"It knows we are here."
Aldo nodded. And he remembered how he had not even known it existed before the Fris boarded Neophyte.
The decommissioning team took cover in doorways and behind storage boxes dragged out of cabins. Even as they deployed, the sound of the outer airlock door sliding open echoed down the corridor.
Aldo looked quickly around his men. He was sure they were nervous, but none of them showed any outward sign. Each of them came from other branches of the military, and all had served the mandatory five years before their redeployment. They were career soldiers, signing the standard open-ended contract rather than leaving after their five-year stint. They were weapon-trained, and several had served time in the frontline of the war with the Fris. Aldo himself had been a Marine before his promotion and sideways move. He had no doubts about his crew, but they were still hopelessly outnumbered and probably outgunned.
The airlock hissed as the pressure and atmosphere inside synchronised with the Lightship. In seconds the doors at either end of the connecting tube would open, providing a clear pathway between the Lightship and the docked craft, and the vanguard of the Fris attack-force would be on board.
He tightened his grip on the Browning and aimed at the inner door. The waiting was always the worst.
The door opened, the Fris began to pour out into the corridor and the defenders opened fire.
Aldo had hoped the airlock would provide a bottleneck they could utilise, but the first Fris to board carried heavy shields and deployed to form an effective protective barrier as the rest of the force exited the airlock behind them. He had fired several shots himself before he realised the explosions of his bullets were being safely absorbed by the shields. One or two of his crew with heavier armament were causing some damage and would, eventually, break through. But by then the whole enemy force would be on board.
As yet, the Fris had not opened fire with their energy weapons. Aldo knew that once they did, he would not be able to stop the slaughter. He was about to call for a tactical retreat when the deck shuddered beneath his feet and a deafening creaking and wailing filled the corridor.
Both Human and Fris were surprised by the noise, disproving Aldo's first thought that it was some new Fris weapon. The sound grew louder, the creaking becoming a roar. The normal throb of the engines now pounded. Fris dropped their shields, weapons on both sides clattered to the deck, as the noise drove into heads, a throbbing, screaming cacophony.
Aldo barely held on to his Browning as the noise pushed him to his knees. He managed to raise his head and was staring through watery eyes at the Fris when the bulkhead near the airlock punched inwards.
It stretched at speed, a sharp fist of metal smashing into the Fris. Aldo saw alien bodies tumble, their suits ripped, blood pouring through the tears.
Metal tentacles reached out from the opposite bulkhead and grabbed at the Fris, dragging them backwards, enveloping them until their struggling forms disappeared and nothing but smooth metal remained, along with a smear of blood and small gobs of flesh on the deck. The same horrific scene repeated, again and again.
It was against all the science, all the logic Aldo knew. He wondered whether he was hallucinating, but could tell from the expressions of stunned horror on those around him that, if he was hallucinating, so were they. The throbbing of the engines continued, but the other noises had gone, except when the bulkheads deformed and attacked. Then the screams of the metal were matched only by the screams of the Fris.
He heard Eliot say, "At least whatever it is seems to be on our side," a moment before a circle of decking exploded upwards, tentacles of metal reaching and grabbing, pulling Eliot down, crushing him. Aldo could hear the breaking of bones before the deck closed in on itself and Eliot was gone. Nothing remained but a streak of blood and gore.
Shock was replaced with panic. Human and Fris alike stampeded away from the airlock, further into the ship. Aldo was with them, all thoughts of command structure gone from his head. They all needed to escape. They all needed to run!
The terror followed them. Bulkheads and decking reaching, punching, grabbing as they ran. The screaming of metal, Human and Fris, and the clatter and explosion of sporadic gunfire, melded together into a wall of sickening noise. Aldo knew it was pure luck that, so far, nothing had caught him. He did not believe his luck would hold out for long.
The run through the ship took a lifetime. He had no focus but to keep running. The number of people around him dwindled rapidly. Whatever was attacking, perhaps the ship itself, was indiscriminate, as were the methods of attack. Some crushed their victims, others sucked them in.
Claws of decking grabbed for him, but Aldo sidestepped, almost stumbling. A fist of bulkhead barely missed him, crushing the life from a nearby Fris instead. There had to be somewhere to hide!
He had no conscious idea why he chose the Rec Room, but the moment he saw its door he knew he needed to reach it. He was almost knocked aside by a Fris soldier, every bit as eager to get inside as he was himself. A quick look back showed no one else near enough to rescue. There were no Humans left at all, and only four Fris, all injured and all, as he watched, picked off, one by one, by the bulkheads and deck.
He joined the Fris soldier inside and closed the Rec Room door. With sudden inspiration, he shouted at the Fris soldier to fuse the door controls with its energy weapon. With that done he felt only a little safer. He waited for the bulkheads and decking inside the room to attack. The Fris, too, was looking around, his tale swishing anxiously side to side.
No attack came and, after a while, Aldo and the Fris looked at each other across the Rec Room. Neither spoke, but the question they shared was clear. How were they still alive?
"Why do you look at that?"
At the growl of the Fris's voice, Aldo looked up from the data screen.
"It's the history of this Lightship," he said. "I'm hoping I can find something to explain what happened out there."
"I have already told you," said the Fris. "This place is haunted. It is cursed, just like my people have said for many years. I did not believe it, but I do now."
"Well I don't," said Aldo, turning back to the screen. "Ghosts don't exist, and curses are for children and the superstitious. Whatever's out there, it's alive, just like you and me. And anything alive can be killed."
The Fris raised its energy weapon. "What use is this, or your gun, when we cannot see anything to shoot at?" The alien shrugged in that curiously human fashion again and lowered the weapon. "We cannot kill what we cannot see."
Aldo said nothing, preferring to study the scrolling words on the screen. Somewhere in this history there had to be a clue to what was happening. He had been trapped in the Rec Room with the Fris for almost two hours. The only reason he could think of that the creature, whatever it was, had not attacked them was that the Rec Room, like the Control Room, was a separate unit. It was not part of the Lightship main structure. These rooms sat in semi-permanent dock and, if all went well, would remain so. They could, however, detach and act as self-contained lifeboats in cases of critical emergency. The thing had attacked through the bulkheads and decks of the Lightship. Their narrow but defined isolation saved them. Perhaps that was why his subconscious had led him here.
He would have detached the Rec Room long before now, if the data pad for doing so hadn't been destroyed, along with the door controls, by the Fris's energy weapon. Given that it was at Aldo's direction, he was not in a position to complain.
He almost missed the entry while his thoughts drifted over recent events. Quickly he scrolled the words back up onto the screen.
"I've found something," he said. "It might be nothing..."
"If you believe it to be of possible importance," interrupted the Fris. "Share it."
"I intend to," said Aldo, a little irritably. He did not appreciate the suggestion that he was about to keep what he had found to himself. The Fris might be the enemy, but they were currently in a bad situation together. He hoped they could co-operate.
As though reading his mind, the Fris nodded. "I did not mean to offend you. I was perhaps a little eager to hear of your discovery."
Aldo could not detect any eagerness in the Fris's body language. The tip of its tail flicked gently side to side, but that could mean anything. Two-hundred years of war and humanity had learnt next to nothing about their enemy. Nevertheless, he decided that sarcasm was less likely than genuine interest where the Fris was concerned.
"There was a collision, almost two-hundred years ago. A freighter called Deadbeat drifted into Neophyte despite all attempts to raise her crew. When a team boarded her they found out why. The crew were all dead."
"Unfortunate, but I do not see the relevance."
"They kept an open dock with this ship for two days while they did a thorough investigation. The only damage they found, other than the collision damage, was that the bulkheads were buckled and ripped apart in places. The decks too. Sound familiar?"
The Fris was silent for a second, before growling its answer in as contemplative a manner as a growl could be.
"There was something in that freighter."
"I believe so. I also believe it came aboard Neophyte while the two ships were in open dock."
"But why attack now?" said the Fris. "Why did it not attack you and your crew when you came aboard?"
"Maybe it lies dormant, somehow hidden within the bulkheads and decks. It's happy there until it feels threatened."
"And when we began to fight, we became a threat," said the Fris in understanding.
"This time and every other time you've attacked Neophyte," said Aldo. "That's your ghost, your curse. Some alien creature that gets pissed off when it thinks it's under attack."
"It seems a reasonable extrapolation based on scant evidence," said the Fris, nodding. "But it does not answer how we find it or how we kill it."
Aldo read further on the screen, but there was no more mention of the collision or of anything untoward happening after Deadbeat had been towed away. If the creature had come aboard during the dock, then it had hidden itself well, and for several years, until the first Fris attack occurred. Which raised another question in Aldo's mind.
"You've attacked this ship thirteen times."
"Strictly speaking, fourteen," said the Fris. "If you count this one."
"My point is," said Aldo, "that each time we've re-crewed her, and each time you've attacked her again, the Neophyte has shown no signs of the kind of damage we're witnessing now. This thing attacks in a very destructive way. What happens to all that destruction after it's won?"
The Fris thought for a moment before answering.
"We have seen that this creature can distort, even mould, metal. Perhaps, like many animals, it wishes to cover its tracks, to remain hidden once it has dealt with the intrusion?"
"Bit of a difference between moving a few twigs and leaves to camouflage a nest, and the complete resetting of the Neophyte's bulkheads."
"But the same principle."
Aldo nodded, admitting that it made as much sense as anything else at that moment.
"I bet you wish you'd just stood off and destroyed this place now," he said, hoping the Fris could appreciate that it was said with an attempt at light humour.
"I had no choice," said the Fris. "The orders from the Lgoblol... similar to your President I think... were clear, and have been for every mission he has ordered. Board and capture."
The Fris paused and Aldo almost thought he saw the grim, stiff mouth curl upwards in a small smile.
"I believe he wants to add it to his collection," the Fris continued. "Our Lgoblol collects war memorabilia. He does not yet have a Human Lightship."
"You're kidding, right?" said Aldo in amazement. "Are you telling me all these raids over two hundred years have been to obtain a museum piece? How long has this... Lgoblol, been in power?"
"Just over three-hundred of your years," said the Fris, once again shrugging. "We live long lives."
"All those deaths because..."
He was interrupted by a renewed hammering on the Rec Room door, the thick metal of which began to buckle inwards.
Aldo held his breath, watching the door, waiting for it to crack. From the corner of his eye he could see the Fris was also intently studying the situation. If the door gave way there was little either of them could do, and they knew it. Their only hope lay in the fact that, so far, the thing outside had not been able to infiltrate the bulkheads and deck of the Rec Room. If the door broke under the beating, then that would change, with rapid and deadly consequences.
"What if it does not need to actually break down the door?" said the Fris, shouting above the noise.
Aldo, wincing at the deafening volume of the ongoing attack, turned and shouted back. "I don't follow. What do you mean?"
"Perhaps it only needs to weaken the structure of the metal to the point where it can.... enter it."
Aldo was silent. If the Fris was right, and the idea was as valid as any other, then their danger was more imminent than he had believed. He felt his chest tightening at the thought. If the thing was just weakening the reinforced door, then it could infiltrate the Rec Room at any moment. And once it was in the bulkheads... he shuddered and wiped cold sweat from his brow.
"I did not mean to frighten you," said the Fris, looking towards Aldo.
"I was already frightened," said Aldo. "You've just terrified me!"
"Then I did not mean to terrify you," said the Fris.
A louder boom from the door made them both jump.
Aldo suspected the Fris was joking, but there seemed no way of knowing for certain. The Fris's face was almost completely immobile, or so it seemed. Expression had never been noted on the face of any Fris, even those captured and tortured under the harsh military law of the past two centuries. Nevertheless, there was something, perhaps in the inflection of the words, that convinced Aldo his alien companion was making a joke at his expense. He found he wished there was more time to get to know this alien, to understand the Fris better than humanity currently did. He had never believed torture was the way to communicate. He had not expected shared peril to be the way forward either, before now.
More thudding, pounding and booming from the door. More sharp, jagged points of metal jutting inwards. It no longer looked like a door, but more like the model of an extensive mountain range turned on its end.
The attack stopped as suddenly as it had begun, echoes bouncing through the Lightship's corridors. For a moment there was silence, and Aldo and the Fris looked at each other. Aldo did not believe the creature had given up, and he doubted the Fris believed it either. They waited.
A creak from the bulkhead to the right of the door. Had it buckled slightly? Aldo peered at it, reluctant to move closer and check. He thought he saw a slight buckling. He felt the tightening in his chest again, a twist in his stomach.
Another creak. A groan. Raised lines began to radiate from the bulkhead edge by the door, like veins on the back of an old man's hand. The bulkhead on the other side of the door now creaked. More veins began to creep from its edge.
Aldo felt sick, his chest tight, his stomach churning. He raised the Browning, his fingers white with clenching. It was a useless gesture. There was nothing to fire at. It was little consolation that the Fris had raised his weapon also.
"It's getting in," said Aldo. It was a needless remark, but he felt the need to say something, to show he was aware of the situation. Aware that his own death was approaching.
"How long can you survive in a vacuum?" said the Fris, his weapon raised, his eyes flashing from one bulkhead to the other, watching the slow creep of the metal veins.
"What?" Aldo was confused by the question. He was finding it hard to concentrate on anything but the groaning bulkheads.
"How long?" repeated the Fris, an edge of irritability creeping into its growling voice.
"I don't know... less than two minutes?" said Aldo, trying to remember his basic training. "But I'd be unconscious in seconds."
Without a further word, the Fris put down his weapon and, after releasing several clasps, shrugged out of his spacesuit.
Aldo stared at the first Fris he had seen without a suit. Its skin looked like smooth armour, with none of the cragginess of the face. It wore a one-piece overall-type garment, close fitting but not skin tight. It was all surprisingly human, until the tail swished or the beast-like head turned and growled.
"What are you doing?" said Aldo, uncomfortably aware of how the creaking and groaning of the bulkheads was getting louder. It would not be long before the creature was able to completely infiltrate the Rec Room. The veins were already pulsing with life, growing wider and longer with each second.
"I can survive for almost three of your hours, and will retain consciousness for at least thirty of your minutes," said the Fris. As he spoke he adjusted something at the back of the suit and the tail section detached, falling to the deck and rolling to one side. It reminded Aldo, bizarrely, of an out-of-place draft excluder.
"Not all of us have tails," explained the Fris. "The suits are made to adapt."
The Fris held the suit out to Aldo.
"Put this on. It will not be perfect, but once sealed it will keep you alive."
"It won't stop that thing from killing me," said Aldo, still puzzled by the Fris's actions. "I don't understand what your plan is?"
"Put the suit on," said the Fris. "If there is still time to explain after that, I will try."
The bulkhead to the right began to visibly buckle, a few sharp peaks poking outwards. The metal began to scream under stress.
Aldo, beyond the point of arguing, stepped into the suit, with help from the Fris. It was too big for him, his hands barely reaching the gloves, the feet clown-like in their length, but as the helmet rose from the back, curving over his head, and sealed at the front, he could not deny he felt strangely safer. Intellectually he knew the suit would not protect him from the creature, but emotionally he felt more secure than he had in only t-shirt and trousers. He felt properly dressed.
He looked at the Fris, still an impressive sight even without the bulk of the suit. It was built to be a warrior, every muscle honed to perfection. Humans must look so weak to a Fris.
A prolonged screech of metal turned his attention to the bulkhead. It was blistering. The veins looked ready to pop. At any moment, it seemed the creature would gain complete control and either crush them or gather them in as it had others, somehow digesting the flesh, the bone and muscle, in seconds.
"Given its long residence on this Lightship, I am hoping it needs oxygen as we do," said the Fris.
Aldo thought that, once again, he saw that mostly immobile mouth twitch into something resembling a smile.
The Fris was bent over the control pad of its energy weapon. Then, with hurried steps, it placed the weapon on the deck, at the junction of the left bulkhead and the damaged door.
"Tell me the plan," said Aldo, as the Fris retreated to the back of the Rec Room. It waved at Aldo to join it, which he managed with awkward, stumbling steps.
"I have overridden the safety systems on the weapon," said the Fris. "I have also dialled it to full power. Without the safety, it should overload."
It took a moment for Aldo to catch on. When he did, he was not sure whether to feel hopeful or even more frightened.
"You think it'll explode," he said. It was not a question.
The bulkheads around them screamed as tentacles of metal reached for them. Aldo saw the Fris grabbed and, struggling, dragged back towards the bulkhead. He moved to help, but was, himself, caught around the right leg. He tried to pry the metal free, but it wrapped tighter. Pain shot through him as his leg was crushed. He felt the bone snap and screamed his agony into the helmet of the Fris spacesuit. He could not resist as he was pulled backwards.
The energy weapon exploded with a blinding flash of light and a percussive wave that slammed into Aldo, hurting him almost as much as the creature was. There was a hole in the bulkhead that spread across to the door. The screaming of the metal was joined by the screaming of air as it was sucked into the vacuum of space.
The tentacles around Aldo and the Fris retracted, snapping back into the bulkheads either side. He could not be sure, but Aldo thought he heard another scream, a totally alien gurgle of a scream, joining those of the metal and the air.
He could feel the tug of the vacuum, trying to pull him towards the hole in the bulkhead. He struggled not to go, holding on to a chair that was bolted to the deck. A hand on his arm startled him, and he let out a small yelp of fear before he heard the growl of the Fris clearly through the helmet.
"Let it take you. We need to be outside."
The Fris let go of his arm and Aldo watched in stunned silence as the alien allowed itself to be lifted and pulled through the Rec Room and out of the hole into space.
The bulkheads were writhing. Undulations of metal that were almost liquid in their motion. An occasional angry peak would be punched out, but the overwhelming impression to Aldo was of fear, of panic. The creature was thrashing about within the bulkhead, unsure what to do in this new situation. The deck beneath his feet was buckling too. Around him, stalactites and stalagmites of metal were appearing with sudden ferocity, and he wondered how long before one would tear through the suit and kill him.
"What the hell," he said quietly. "I've got nothing to lose."
He let go of the chair.
The outrush of air picked him up with ease and he felt himself flying, out of control, through the deadly maze of sharp metal jutting up and out all around him. The foot of the suit caught the edge of one and he began to spin. He felt nauseous but relieved that the suit was not punctured. He was still spinning as he was sucked out into the blackness of space.
A hand steadied him, and he saw the Fris was holding on to an antenna. The Fris pointed away to its right. As Aldo looked, understanding made him smile. The Fris ship still hung in space, docked with Neophyte, but sealed.
The Human and the Fris pushed off together, an untethered space walk in the direction of the Fris ship.
Aldo managed to look back once. More holes were being punched in the Rec Room and, at times, he thought he saw, not metal, but rose-coloured flesh writhing and pulsing through the distorted bulkheads and decks. Then it was gone. The Rec Room became suddenly lifeless and Aldo knew the creature had returned to the main body of the Lightship.
They boarded the Fris ship with ease, entering through an airlock that was so similar to the ones on Neophyte that Aldo was disoriented for a moment. The more he learnt about the Fris, the more human they seemed.
Aldo had half expected there to be crew aboard, but the ship's corridors and cabins were eerily empty.
"Small ship on an unpopular mission," explained the Fris as they hurried towards the Control Room. "Everyone was needed for the boarding. Automatic systems were left in control."
"What kind of weaponry does it have?" asked Aldo, his breathing becoming laboured as he struggled to keep up, still inside the outsized Fris spacesuit. He dragged his broken leg, hissing and wincing at the pain.
"Enough." It was all the answer the Fris would give.
Aldo tried to look around him as they went, looking for any crucial pieces of information he could take back to Space Command, if he survived. It had long been the Holy Grail to gain access to a Fris ship. In two-hundred years of warfare, they had never captured one as anything less than a twisted wreck. Now, here he was, inside the enemy's ship, and it all looked disappointingly familiar. Other than extra wide doors, presumably to allow the Fris tail through without hindrance, there was little, if any, difference from a standard Human ship. Apparently, if you were a bipedal race of a certain build, there was a basic, functional design that objects would follow. Including a military ship. Perhaps the decor changed, or the language of signs, but where the function was the same, the design became the same also.
They entered the Control Room. The positioning of desks and chairs was slightly unusual, but Aldo knew he could control this ship with ease, should the need arise.
"I guess this all looks a little familiar," said the Fris as he took a position at the weapons console.
Aldo, the helmet now retracted as the air inside the ship was perfectly acceptable, if a little heavy in an unusual animal-like odour, nodded.
"I was just thinking how amazing it is, the way basic functional design can evolve in such a similar way in two different species," he said.
The Fris snorted, the first time Aldo had heard that particular, and fairly unpleasant, sound.
"We captured several of your ships almost a century ago, by your time, and copied the design," said the Fris. "Until then, our ships were impractical and inefficient."
Aldo was stunned by the admission. He felt deflated, even slightly embarrassed at his well-meaning but inaccurate reasoning. He quickly recovered. There were still enough human-like mannerisms and behaviours in the Fris to maintain his belief that they were not all that different from humans, despite what the official propaganda might say.
"Look," said the Fris, directing the weapon system's outside view onto a large screen built into the front bulkhead.
The Fris ship had disengaged and now stood some way off. Aldo could see Neophyte directly ahead, but the shape seemed blurred, subtly wrong in some way. It took a moment for him to realise all the outer bulkheads were buckled, distorted. Tentacles writhed near the engine room, most of them metal, but some a pulsing rose-coloured flesh.
"Any final words?" said the Fris, its finger poised above the Fire button.
Aldo thought of all the people who had died, Eliot, Sergeant O'Connor and the others, including the Fris soldiers. He thought of how, for two centuries, this creature had hidden in the bulkheads and the decks, striking out when it felt threatened. It had killed hundreds, and it had tainted the memory of the longest serving Lightship in the Human Navy.
"Good riddance," he said.
The energy beam struck again and again, each time tearing great holes in Neophyte, debris spinning off into space, some clattering against the hull of the Fris ship. The explosions flared in silence, the ripping of metal unheard in the vacuum of space. Nevertheless, Aldo imagined he could hear the creature screaming, as he had heard it just before he escaped from the Rec Room. It made it all, somehow, more satisfying.
At one point, late on in the destruction, he thought he saw a rose-coloured, amorphous mass drift away from the Lightship. It was the briefest of glimpses and could have been the after-effect of one of the explosions. But it made him wonder.
He was not so surprised to find the Fris had been having similar thoughts.
"Do you think it is dead? Or did it escape?" said the Fris, as he continued to fire the ship's weapon, one eye watching the temperature needle crawling closer to the danger position.
"I hope it's dead," said Aldo. "But I fear otherwise."
"We need to warn others," said the Fris. "It is unlikely this creature was unique. Whether this one is dead or not, there is still the possibility of more out there."
"How safe do you think we are here?"
The Fris did not answer, and Aldo was not surprised. No answer was preferable to the probable truth.
The energy weapon ceased fire, and the Fris turned almost apologetically to Aldo. "It was about to overheat. I had to stop."
Aldo looked at the screen and the blackened, crumpled wreckage that had been the Lightship Neophyte.
"I think it's enough," he said. "I came here to decommission her. I guess you could say the job's done."
"We should remember those we lost," said the Fris, and Aldo nodded.
"I don't think I'll ever forget them," he said.
A thought struck him and he almost laughed. "Your President, or whatever, is going to be pissed. You've destroyed his museum piece."
The Fris shrugged in its peculiarly Human fashion. "The Lgoblol will need to look elsewhere. Sometimes I feel this whole war is being run by our rulers for their personal profit."
Aldo silently agreed, and wondered again at the similarity in his and the Fris's thinking.
It seemed the danger was over. The creature had been either killed, or at least expelled from Neophyte. A lot of men had lost their lives, but he and this one Fris survived, aboard a Fris spaceship.
"I guess I'm your prisoner," he said with quiet resignation.
The Fris nodded slowly and then, in a quiet, low growl, said, "Yes. But much can happen between here and home. For example, after I have treated your leg in our medical facilities, you might steal one of our lifeboats which I have carelessly left unsealed and which are a short walk down the corridor from the medical room."
Aldo grinned. "You know, I feel I should introduce myself. My name is Aldo."
"I am Wrancda," said the Fris.
They shook hands.