Part Five -- by Becky Ratliff
See disclaimers and copyright information in Part One.
It had been an uneventful patrol, Todd Flannery thought thankfully as he walked back to the barracks with his squadron. The Cats were a little rowdy -- a little bored, to tell the truth. Contact with the chigs had been a big revelation -- we are not alone, and furthermore, the neighbors aren't nice people! But discovery of evidence of another alien race was turning out to be one big yawn for everyone except the geeks. Aside from the fact that this new breed of aliens really liked swimming, there wasn't anything really different on board that ship.
He commented to the XO, "Maybe it's time to set up another paintball game, Rob."
Trent nodded. "Sounds like a deal to me."
Most of them hit their racks, having already showered in the locker room. A long hot shower was one of the few luxuries you could manage every so often, by keeping an eye on the clock and shaving fifteen or thirty seconds off every-day washups you could save up enough for a few extra minutes of hot water now and then. One skill you quickly learned was how to get really clean in a very small amount of water. Lt. Kim Snowdon had long hair, she had been saving up on her water card for enough time in the shower for a really good shampoo.
A few minutes later there was a loud clatter and a scream from the showers. Flannery was already moving before it dawned on him that, in all the months he'd known her, he had never heard Snowdon scream before. Five seconds later he figured out why. Dozens of wires or filaments or whatever were reaching out of the air vent directly across from him all the way to the showers at the other end of the head. Snowdon had been hit by several of them and she was lying in a boneless heap under the spray, pale and unmoving. Flannery reacted without thought, he threw himself across the head and grabbed at the mass of writhing tentacles. He was a hell of a lot closer to the creature than Snowdon had been, several of the filaments that had been too short to reach her stabbed into him.
He remembered hearing metal twist and give way, a second or two before he passed out.
Sam Smith was the next through the hatch. Kim's locker door was hanging open, he grabbed it and yanked with all his strength -- twisted it right off the hinges. He slammed the door down hard on whatever was coming out of the vent, cutting several of the filaments right in two. Blood poured out, he realized sickly that it probably belonged to Todd and Kim! But the thing retreated. "Major Flannery!"
He was deathly pale, but he started to come around when Sam checked on him. He ordered, "I'm okay, check on Snowdon!"
He looked over that way. Trent reported, "She's alive! Someone get a medic, right now!"
That order for a specific action cut through the confusion, whoever was closest to the hatch hurried to obey. Sam saw Todd start to close his eyes again. "Don't pass out! Major, you got to keep talking to us!"
By that time Haskell and Fulton had got the access panel to the chase open, but Trent yelled at them to close it and asked them just what they thought they were going to do against the creature unarmed. Ripping it apart barehanded was a tempting idea at the time, but a real stupid one to try to put into practise!
It was a long three minutes before the medics got there. By that time, the maintenance tunnels in that section of the ship had been sealed off and the other squadrons in that area had been mobilized to arm themselves and search for the intruder.
They had been just a little too late sealing off the section. The Marines found a trail of blood leading into a ventilation shaft. From there the creature could get to F and G sections on all decks, if it could climb. There was no good reason to assume it couldn't ... and it wasn't far until the trail of blood gave out. All of the airtight doors were sealed off throughout the ship in a series of low, muffled booms that rolled through the decks like distant, muted thunder.
Alison had been dozing for a few minutes, like every mother she had learned the trick of catching a nap when the baby did. But the unfamiliar sound of the heavy airtight hatches between sections slamming closed woke her in a hurry. She kept her voice low and controlled to avoid frightening Heather, but asked a nurse, "What was that noise?"
The nurse shrugged. The doors were always closed during general quarters, that was common sense so that the worst a hit could do was decompress one section. But he hadn't heard the siren sound general quarters. "Probably a drill," he replied. "Just stay put till you hear the all-clear."
Alison did not like that, her fate had been in no one's hands but her own since her indentureship had ended, and she would have preferred to keep it that way. But there was nothing she could do at the moment except follow the nurse's orders. She got back to Heather and waited.
The Wildcards had been enjoying a little downtime in their quarters when they'd been ordered to look for the creature. Vansen looked around. Most of this section was electrical equipment, it was the perfect place for the creature to hide out because there were what seemed like miles of narrow twisting passageways honeycombing the section. Some of them were little more than crawlways, just barely big enough for someone to get back in there and work.
"Okay, we'll split up into two person teams and each take a quarter of the section. West and Hawkes, Baker and Damphousse, Yamauchi and Avery, and Lucas, you're with me." She and Lucas stared down a narrow passageway between two huge transformer units. Part of the power supply for the main rail gun, they were quiet at the moment. Vansen took point, Lucas could easily fire over her head. She felt her mouth go dry as they advanced slowly. The dead aliens that they had discovered had been as well-armed as she was, it hadn't helped them any....
Vansen slapped at her shoulder -- and felt something thin and wiry slip between her fingers! Her hand came away red. She let out a yell that was half scream and half battle cry, as she turned around and opened up on the shadowy form up a waist-high tunnel. Seconds later, Kenny was firing too. He yelled, "We got it!"
Shane snapped her visor down to see up in there. "No we didn't, it went in that access tunnel."
"We both nailed it, ma'am, that was at least fifteen or twenty rounds!"
"I know. The only thing I can figure is that its vital functions must be more spread out than ours are. Unless you splattered it all over the deck with a 50mm round or something, bullets are going to hurt it but they probably won't stop it!"
"How bad did it get you?"
Vansen glanced at the bloodstain on the back of his leg. "Probably no worse than it got you," she commented.
"What...?" His eyes widened as he investigated. "Shit!" He yelled.
Vansen grinned and raised her comlink. "Seal off G section! People, be advised it's in the crawlspace!"
Hawkes thought he saw movement back in an access tube and knelt to check. Something flew straight at him and he nearly shot it, but stopped at the last second. Instead, he suddenly had an armful of wildcat. He grinned and held up the spitting creature, a wild-eyed ginger tom that was all fangs and claws at the moment. He let it go, it crouched back in the shadows atop a big equipment locker where only the golden glow of its eyes was visible.
Nathan laughed, then spoke into his pickup. "Major, suggest we concentrate our search from the high seventies up. Something just scared the hell out of one of the ship's cats, and that's the direction it had to come from."
Damphousse and Baker started checking the crawlspace entrances. Baker spotted it, and took a couple of shots. Apparently she made it mad because it came towards them instead of retreating. They saw a mass of writhing tentacles ahead of two black eyes -- then the thing ripped a wire loose. There was a loud crack and a blue-white flash as current arced. The smell of burned flesh filled the corridor and the creature let out a high pitched squeal. It retreated quickly from the live wire.
The loose wire cascaded sparks for a little while before the circuit breaker tripped. Watching it, Damphousse figured out how to kill the creature. She opened a storage locker, checked quickly that the things she needed were in there. She got on the radio. "Shane! Seal off G-88! It's in here!"
"Are you nuts? You want to seal it in there with you?"
"YES!" Damphousse wasn't sure which question she was answering.
The deck plates where she was standing, surrounding a breaker panel, were not the usual metal mesh but rather a rubberized safety material. She pulled one of them up and looked at it, that should work...!
She reeled out two heavy cables, securing the ends to the safety panel with duct tape, wired the other ends up inside the panel. All she had to do was wait for the creature to cross the panel, so that its body closed that gap in the circuit -- and throw the circuit breaker.
Baker said, "I'm going to go invite it to the party."
Damphousse nodded slowly. They only had the creature confined to this section as long as no one opened a hatch. And as long as much of the crew thought this was some kind of drill ... which would be the logical conclusion ... that just might happen.
Baker worked her way slowly along the corridor. Nothing was more dangerous than a wounded animal, she reminded herself. She knew she wouldn't hear it over the hum of the electrical equipment all around her, so she would have to see it first ... and that might not be easy. It could easily be hiding behind any of this stuff, she'd seen it squeeze itself into some surprisingly small places for the size of it. Between every piece of equipment and its next door neighbor, there was room for air to circulate ... plenty of room for the creature to reach out and attack her from behind. As much as she could, she stayed out of blind alleys so it couldn't cut her off.
She saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye and glanced to her left, where transparent panels allowed technicians to check on several hydraulic indicators without actually opening the panels. She didn't know what those pipes were carrying that such a precaution was necessary ... and right now she didn't want to know.
The creature was sliding by the other side of the indicator bank. Her heart jumped into her throat, that thing was less than a meter away ... but it seemed to be completely unaware of her. Whatever senses it had, it apparently couldn't see through a window! She licked dry lips as she watched it glide by. It was like nothing so much as the Saturday afternoon she had spent at an aquarium once, watching sea creatures like sharks and mantas, her airy world and their watery one separated only by a wall of cold glass.
Finally it disappeared. She took a moment to remember the layout of the labyrinth of maintenance tunnels, trying to determine the most likely way for it to have gone.
If her intention had been to avoid it, she could have done so easily ... but she and the creature were locked into a circle of kill or be killed, each of them at once hunter and prey. Escape was an option for neither of them. Every sense alert, she continued on in a parallel course, aware every second that the creature could have stopped and found a place to lie in wait for her.
This whole idea depended on the premise that a creature from the sneak-and-pounce school of hunting probably couldn't outrun her. She sure hoped she was right about that!
She came to some kind of huge electrical box plastered with warning stickers and locked with a huge padlock. Sticking out from behind it, she could see the very end of the creature's tail. She would have given a month's pay for a heavy stone cutter right now, one of those could have ripped the thing in half -- it wouldn't slither away from that!
She'd have to settle for getting its attention the old fashioned way. "Hey, Ugly! You hungry or what?"
It whipped around and came at her a lot faster than she thought it would, she took off up the corridor as fast as she could go. She prayed there weren't any loose deck plates to fall over -- because that thing sure looked like it meant business this time!
Back at the breaker box, Damphousse made a final check of her lethal construction. It would work, it would take it plenty of time to short out. The weak link of their plan wasn't with that. Vanessa didn't want to think about it, but what if it caught Nita before she could lure it into the trap? That was the thing that really could go wrong.
'Phousse had to do something to make sure it crossed that particular deck plate. She drew her Kabar and swallowed hard, then quickly, before she lost her nerve, she drew the edge across the inside of her left arm. The pain from the shallow cut was nothing, but the sight of her blood running down her hand made her queasy. She clenched her jaw until her temple started to throb, refusing to give ground to the old terror. She didn't have time for this now--! Tears ran down her cheeks, she turned around so that she didn't have to look at the cut or the blood spatters and scrubbed angrily at her eyes with the other hand. It was shaking. She took a deep breath and remembered her mother's answer to situations like this. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..."
Everything happened fast when it started. Baker came running down the corridor and jumped over the rigged plate, landed hard on the insulated safety decking around the breaker box where Damphousse was standing. The alien was right behind her, Damphousse pulled the breaker closed with both hands as it reached for her and Baker.
It flailed wildly when the current hit it, the razor-sharp tentacle ends lashed the corridor like a whip. They threw themselves as far back away from the thing as the narrow passage would allow. After only a little while, its death throes stopped. Its corpse had started to char and smoke before the breaker tripped open.
Damphousse thought the scientists were going to be mighty upset with her ... they weren't going to be able to learn much from dissecting that crispy critter. Shaking hard, she sank to the deck and leaned against the bulkhead. She raised her comlink. "Shane, we got it. It's dead."
"Good going, we'll be there in a minute!"
She reached up and pulled one of the wires off the breaker, to make sure her boobytrap was disarmed. A moment later, the rest of the Wild Cards joined them.
Hawkes gave the carcass a long, speculative look. "Hey. Barbeque."
Lisa said, "Cooper, that is so disgusting--!"
His only reply was a shameless wink. Yamauchi said, "Christy's really a very lucky woman, do you know that?"
"Yeah, I know it, nice of you to say so though."
Vansen shook her head at the banter and stepped between them to check on her wingman. Baker sat on her heels beside Damphousse to tend her arm. "You okay, 'Phousse?"
"Yeah. If you really got to get the job done right, get an engineer to figure out how," she grinned up at them ... but she was still very careful not to look at the blood spots on the deck.
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