Freefall in Darkness

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Freefall in Darkness is an official short story written by Jeff Grubb and published by Interplay as part of the marketing for the release of Descent: FreeSpace. It is not known if it is considered canon, though it is generally not regarded as canon because there are many inconsistencies between the five stories published by Interplay and the game itself. Although Volition was not directly involved in its writing, Volition did create the FreeSpace Reference Bible for the author to use as a reference.

The following is a repost of Grubb's short story Freefall in Darkness.

Freefall in Darkness

Space was always dark, and for years that darkness comforted Val.

Her mind realized that there was nothing but void between the beacons of the stars, but her heart thought of the those stars as diamonds scattered against a velvet backdrop. She knew the space between was cold and empty, but always made her feel warm, and was filled with memories. The darkness reminded her of summer camps in Reclamation Georgia, where the fireflies would dance and spark among the ghostly moonlit pines.

Hers was not an opinion held by the other members of her squad. Spex the Tech would talk about the time it took for the light to reach across the eons of space. Maddog Maddox, the burned-out vet of too many battles, would say that the stars were the eyes of the gods - hard and uncaring. Hype, the rookie, would worry about the darkness between the lights in the sky. And Top Kick, the captain and the only other woman in the squad, probably didn't give a damn one way or the other.

Val craned her neck upwards, but the brow of her visor cut off the view of the zenith. Ahead of her, the spotlights from the Terran cruisers played over the shattered wreck, the white circles of illumination rippling over the twisted machinery of the Shivan ship's surface.

Maddog's voice crackled in her ear. "Looks like a major Hollywood opening! All-singing, all-dancing"

Top's voice rasped in weary response. "Cut the cute talk, Maddox. We've got a job here." Top was all business, all professional, and her voice had a steely edge to it, but Val knew the squad captain would rather be anywhere than here at this particular moment.

Val gave the squad leader an exaggerated nod in support. Spex chimed in, "Can we examine the hull, Top? There are micrometorite hits riddling the surface. This thing is OLD."

"There are enough bug-eyes looking at the surface," responded Top. "Our job is to find out what's inside. Val, you got the uplink set?"

There was a cascade of colors over Val's right eye. The visor itself served as her screen, and colored icons pulsed quietly along the base. She reached out with her left hand and gasped one. "Bravo-1 to Control. You read?"

"You're living large," responded Control, in a corn-fed Kansas accent. "Read you live, five by five". Val smiled - the voices at the other end of control seemed to come in two flavors - hayseed and robotic. She preferred the hayseed.

"Link established," said Val, to the group net. "We are on data feed now."

There was a burst of static in her ear. Val could not determine if Top had reacted to her comments. Val turned slowly to the squad leader, but the larger woman was already moving towards the access hatch. Her magnetic boots held the gangway and tugged at her steps like thick mud.

The gangway was a thin extruded bridge from their shuttle to the rear quarters of the Shivan ship, near the engine pods. The superstructure of one shattered pod lay twisted to their right, its oddly-shaped supports bent to resemble the skeleton of some long-forgotten beast.

Whatever had happened to the ship was catastrophic.

"What do you think hit it?" said Hype quietly. Hype was always quiet, and nervous. That was probably why he always carried the big krypton laser in the team. Security issues.

"Major meteor," said Spex before anyone else would answer. "Maybe cruised too close to a black hole's event horizon. Or even one of those micro-point black holes. They're theoretical, still, but its a possibility."

"Leave the speculation for the scientists," snapped Top. "We're here to just gather the data. Eyes up."

Along the base of Val's visor four pips appeared. The cameras mounted within their helmets and weapons had been activated. She reached out and stroked an icon, and a fifth pip appeared.

Hype said, "Don't you think our guys might have done it?"

The question hung there like a wounded fighter in space. No one responded, and not just because they were officially recording now.

No, thought Val, 'our guys', the Terrans and the Vasudans, could not have done it. This was the first Shivan ship anyone had seen up close. Most of what they knew about the invaders' ships was from helmet feeds before the pilots using them were blown up. The few times they had beaten back an attack, the Shivans had chosen to activate self-destructs as opposed to being captured. No one knew what they looked like, or what their ships were like inside.

Until now.

"At the entrance," crackled Top.

"Wait for a moment, Bravo-1," said Control. A short pause, and Val looked up at the stars shining above the pitted surface of the Shivan ship. She thought of fireflies again. "Bravo-2 in position, now. Proceed."

Top motioned for Spex to activate the hatch. Val brought up her blaster, as did Maddog, though the vet did so slowly. Hype already had his trained on the hatch as if it would suddenly spring out and grab him.

He might not be wrong, Val thought. The on-board brains had made their best guess as to where the access passages were, but they were based on Terran and Vasudans ships. The Shivans were something completely different, and they could be boring into a fuel tank or an engine core for all they knew.

At the other end of the ship, the Bravo-2 team would be making a similar access, the hatch mechanism burning through the outer hull and establishing an air lock, should there be any atmosphere within.

The edge of the hatchway glowed red, and Val found she was holding her breath. Then the laser-etched light dimmed, and the telltale across the hatch's top flashed a vibrant green.

"We're through," said Top.

"Hatch access complete," confirmed Val, watching her monitors.

"Proceed," said Control, letting each syllable be a separate word.

The hatch accordioned out to form an access bay. Top was through first, followed by Hype with the heavy krypter, Val, and Spex. Maddog brought of the rear, "Ding-dong," said the veteran softly, "Avon calling."

Val grimaced. Maddog's sense of humor lurked eternally on the edge of official reprimand, and the soldier seemed to prefer that territory. Still, Maddog was the oldest of the five, and had seen more real action than even Top Kick.

Spex' fingers danced over the touchpad on the hatch's inner side. "We got an atmosphere," he said, obviously surprised.

"Nature?" growled Top, caution in her voice.

Val gripped the icon hanging in front of her right eye, and the data spilled into her system the same time it reached Spex. Mostly oxy-carb mix, but thinner than ship's air. Lot of exotics, but nothing that breather systems could not handle. Heavy particulate count, an indoor smog.

"Like Mexico City before the war." said Spex, as the data cascaded into the other systems. "Nasty, but not murderous. We go forward or back?"

"Forward," said Top.

"Proceed," chimed Control in Val's ear, and she nodded as well.

Spex gave an exaggerated nod and returned to punch numbers into the pad. The hatch to the access bay closed behind them, and there was the rhythmic pumping of pressure equalizing. Despite herself, Val held her breath as the smoky haze filled the bay, even though her suit was a closed system.

Finally she said, "Visibility sub-par. Toggling infra-red."

A second set of shadows appeared on her screens, the heat signatures of the other members of the squad. She grabbed another icon and the inboard computer winked their images out. Too much info on the visor screen could practically blind you. She saw Spex and Hype do the same. Maddog made no motion, and Top, well, Val assumed that Top would already have her infrared on before they even left the ship.

"Squad ready?" said the tall, muscular woman.

Grunts of agreement all around. "Yessem."

"Let's dance," she said, and Spex fingers stroked the keyplate.

The inner hatch steamed and irised open, the miasma rising in a smoky haze as the air from the access bay and the ship mixed.

"Spex, this crap organic?" said Top.

"Negative," replied the soldier, holding up a sensor, "More like particulate ash. Could have been fires on board at one point."

"Or still," noted Val, for the access was limned with red.

It was a dull red, the color of low-power lights on Terran ships. There were a number of small reddish lamps set in the walls, floor, and ceiling, winking like dragon-eyes in the smoky darkness. The walls and floor seemed to be covered with striations of browns and greys that caught the light and scattered it around the room.

Their bore-hole through the hull was high, above the level of the floor. It was a short jump down, and a scrambling climb back up. Top motioned for Maddog to go first.

The old soldier released the hold of his magnetic boots and gave just enough of a spring launch into the ship. Then he re-engaged his mag-boots to drift down to the floor itself. He hit with a resounding clang as they struck the uneven floor below. Maddog pulled up one boot, then the other, then signaled that everything was clear.

"We have lights," reported Top for Control's benefits, "But no grav. Repeat, no grav. Keeping mag-boots active."

Spex kicked off and joined Maddog on the floor, then Top, and Val. Hype was the last to go, and Val noted that it was with great reluctance that the youngest member of the squad released the hold of his boots, stepped off the edge, and reactivated them, bringing him and his heavy weapon down to their level.

Val snagged an icon on her view-monitor. "Control, we are in," she said.

There was a slight hiss of static now over the master link. "Breaking up slightly. You'd better boost you gain," said the hayseed voice of the Control.

Val twitched a slider-bar on a virtual menu. "How about now?"

"Better," said Control, "Kill the in-squad feed to me and keep your eyes on. Crank the audio scanners as well."

Val tugged at a few more icons, disengaging the inter-squad communications but keeping the individual cameras in operation. As soon as the inter-squad radio was no longer touched by Control, Spex said, "You know, they're going to get rid of those old visor-monitors soon. Beam the data directly onto your eyeballs, and let a sub-vocal communicator allow you to think you orders directly to the machine."

Val smiled - Spex was always up on the latest tech, whether real or imagined. Top didn't say anything to stop him, this time, but was more interested in the interior of the Shivan ship.

The area was vast, compared to human ships, with large amounts of open space. They had guessed that this was the engine room, or the Shivan equivalent of it. Odd pipes erupted from all sides, some heavy and black, others clear and filled with a luminous green-yellow solution. There were occasional bubbles through the pipes. From all sides smaller antler-like arrays sprung like twisted black trees.

"Think there's a central power system on-line?" asked Top.

"Possible," said Spex, "But more likely the ambients are running of back-up power, and are self-contained. There are number of dead lights around."

"Beam this back to Control and ask for input," said Top.

Val scanned around the room. "Nothing obvious," noted the corn-fed voice on the other end of the radio. "Keep scanning."

"That's a negative," said Val to Top through the squad link. Top grunted as Val moved the helmet-camera around, at the walls, the floors, and the oddly shaped antlers."

"The floor is a composite," said Spex, "a combination of materials, grey and brown. The greyish stuff is slightly adhesive, but that could just be from the age of the craft."

"But what was it?" said Hype, quietly into the link. Val turned slightly and saw that he was still near the entrance. "What was the purpose of the ship?"

"Heard some big-brains talking after the briefing," said Top, "They think it was a freighter of some type. Makes sense, since there are no visible weapon pods, and too much open space in here." The squad leader waved her weapon down the hall. The access-way disappeared in red-filled mist."

"And a freighter implies they have something to move from one place to another." said Spex. "But there's no freight."

"Further towards the bow, maybe," said Top, "Where Bravo-2 is."

Val got the sudden urge to ask about the other squad's position, but knew that Control wouldn't pass anything along. There was a completely different officer manning their link. Instead she toggled the local position guide.

Across her right eye the visor showed herself in the center, Spex over near one of the warped antler machines, and Top at point, moving towards one of the high-arched exits at one end of the room. Maddog was bringing up the rear, and Hype had not moved far from the access point.

"Better close it up, Mad, Hype," she said.

"Hyper is too worried about monsters in the shadows," Maddog said with a laugh.

"Am not!" said Hype, though there was a tremor in his voice that indicated that the older soldier had hit the nail on the head.

"He's afraid of rats," the older man said on a private line that excluded Top. "All these old ships have rats on it."

"Unlikely," said Spex, "Vermin maybe, but not rats."

"I'm not afraid of anything," puffed Hype, swinging his laser back and forth for effect. The thin red lance of the sight scanned across the large engine room.

"That's right," said Maddog. "My friend Hype's not afraid of . . . hang on. . . "

Val saw Maddog touch the side of his helmet.

Val checked her own icons. Top was not in on this conversation, and Spex had moved over to confer with her about some piece of equipment.

"What is it?" said Hype, a small tremor in his voice.

Val turned slightly towards Hype, but said nothing. She knew what was coming. Maddog did the same thing to her on her first patrol. She turned down her volume.

"I'm getting an erratic audio scan, rookie," said the older soldier. "Big one!"

"Where?" The young man groped at the air with his free hand, and Val could imagine Hype flipping through menus, seeking out the correct wavelength, "Where it it?"

"BEHIND YOU!" shouted the veteran, turning his feed all the way up so the words sounded like a roar.

The youngster jumped, or rather would have jumped if his mags had been disconnected. Instead, he bolted upright and tried to pivot in place, nearly pulling himself out of his boots. He flipped the command to release one of the boots, but too late, and that leg went lashing out in one direction as the rookie's body tried to twist the other, bringing the heavy laser up in the process. The force of the twist cascaded him backwards, and Hype fell over, one magnetic boot still moored securely to the floor.

Val quickly re-engaged the squad link so Top could hear Hype's surprised yelp, and the Squad Captain and Spex were back in a flash.

Top's eyes were hard, like steel marbles set in her dark flesh. "What the hell is going on?" she said, but Val already knew that the leader knew what was going on.

"Hunter's nerves," said Maddog. "The boy's seeing bogeys everywhere."

"That true, soldier?" said Top.

Hype pulled himself to his feet, and his pale flesh was red beneath the visor. "False reading. I'll confirm before reacting next time. Sorry. It won't happen again."

"I believe you," said Top, and turned to Maddog, "And I believe that there will be no more 'false readings', either. Am I clear?" She said it to the squad, but she was looking at Maddog.

"No problem," said the veteran.

"See that it isn't," said Top, and gave Val a fiery glance as well, "This isn't any garden party. This is the first hands-on exploration of a Shivan ship. I hope to remind you of that."

"Yessem," was the universal reply.

"We're moving in," said Top. "Val, I want you scan these tubes over here and send the data back to control. The rest of you, assume this is a potentially hostile situation and act like it. Am I clear?"

"Yessem," was the reply again, and the squad formed up.

"Val, I want you to give a scan on some of this ooze coming out from these tubes."

"Yessem," said Val, her breather mask hiding any trace of amusement.

The tubes in question were more of the clear ones with luminous plastic shining green against the reddish mist. The tubes had been nicked by some explosion or accident, and were oozing the glimmering fluid. Where it fell it left a dark stain against the material.

Val took visual scans of the area in regular, infra, and ultra, and switched to audio scan to see how deep the fluid had penetrated It looked like it had penetrated through the brown stuff, but left the grey stuff next to it intact.

Her own personal icon beeped as she worked. She flipped it open with an off-handed grab, and Spex crackled in her ear.

"What is missing from this picture?" said the other squad member.

"Chairs?" said Val softly, uploading the data to Control. "Consoles? Anything that resembles a work station or monitor?"

"Bodies," said Spex. "There are no bodies."

"Yeah," said Val, finishing off the last of the scan, "that too. There are no bodies. So?"

"So that means that whatever happened here, it happened slow enough that there were survivors to clean up the mess. Haul off the dead and patch up the ship."

"Again, so?"

"So where are they?" said Spex. "Where are the Shivans?"

Val shrugged, an oversized gesture because of her heat-dissipating shoulder plates. "They were rescued by other Shivans, in another ship."

"Then why did they leave the ship and not tow it in? We've had reports of bigger ships than this."

Again Val shrugged, "OK. No other Shivans, then. A lifeboat?"

"Again, why leave the ship behind? They've blown up their own wounded vessels before."

"Look, Maddox just did the 'monsters-in-the-dark trick on Hype. Don't you start."

"Yeah, I want you to play that little incident back for me later on the vid," said Spex. "If he wasn't moored down, he would have launched into orbit."

"You assume I got a vid of it," said Val, hiding a smile in her voice.

"After he did the same thing to you on your first patrol, of course you did," said Spex.

"Yeah, it was Vasudans that time. Its still a childish, hazing ritual that . . . Hang on . . , " more data flooded into her screen. "Control, is this correct?"

Control's voice was a little snowy. "Affirmative, Bravo-1. Keep the vids coming and the chatter down. There's something in the hull that's breaking you up. Boost your com-cells to compensate.

"Affirmative," touched several more icons, "Top, the stuff in the tubes is major-league volatile. Control says use caution with all controls, and particularly with weapons in this area." She turned towards Maddog. "A stray blast could set everything off."

If Maddog understood the danger of his earlier stunt, he said nothing.

Top said, "Let's move forward, rendezvous with Bravo-2".

They made for the low archway and Control's beacon signal started to fade. Val boosted the gain again, but it was still weak. Val wondered what was in the hull of this thing to make communications so difficult.

The archway opened into an even larger vault, dominated by great cones. The bases of the cones had vertical ribbing, and there were occasional flashes of light among the vanes. The cones could have been the Shivan subspace drive, or they could have been the Shivan equivalent of a portapotty for all Val could tell. Around them were the bands of brown, grey, and black composite material that seemed to make up the entire ship, broken by tangles of cable and more of the odd, antler-things. The floor, walls, and ceiling were dotted with open grates, and deep beneath those grates were more reddish lights.

Spex was on the private link again. "It is only a matter of time, you know."

"Before Maddog goes too far?"

"No, before we'd meet the Shivans, or somebody like them."

"You mean we were predestined to find an extremely powerful race of xenophobes?" said Val.

"Not necessarily the xenophobe part," said Spex, ". . . but the extremely powerful part. Look, the Vasudans and us are about the same tech level, right?"

"OK." Spex had a tendency to go on about his pet theories, whether they were the Shivans or the identity of the mystery meat in the mess. She let him go and continued to scan as they proceeded forward in the ship.

The other soldier continued, "So what are the odds that we would be one of the two first races to independently figure out sub-space? That in all the universe, there wasn't somebody who beat us to it?"

"The Shivans," said Val, levely.

"The Shivans," said Spex. "They were inevitable. A race that has been using subspace drives longer than us. Hell," he tapped the barrel of his laser against an antler thing, "this ship alone looks like its been around longer than humans or Vasudans have been using sub-space."

"If they're so advanced," said Val, "then how come they attack everything they find?" As they progressed deeper into the ship, the beacon signal got progressively weaker. She had the gain cranked up all the way now, and there was a snowy background to Control.

"Thought about that," said Spex, "what if they met another subspace-using race, like we met the Vasudans, and they got into a war, and they were the survivors. How likely does it make it that they will be a little aggressive the next time they run into someone?"

Val shook her head. The fact was that the Shivans took out every ship they met, whether it was Terran or Vasudan. Now they had one of their ships in their hands, literally a gift, and they did not know what to make of it.

The link to control was spacing now, leaving blank spots between the snow, " . . osing you, Bravo-1. Boost gain."

Val checked her menus. She had cranked the power all the way up as it was, and they were still losing the signal, "Top, we're just about out of shouting radius. Moving into a radio shadow. Forward or back?"

Top halted at the edge of another arch. Beyond that was a corridor, similar to the first diminishing finally in the red mist. The ship seemed to stretch out forever in front of them. Val felt the hairs raise at the base of her neck, as if, far off, doors were opening and shutting.

"Double back, " she replied at last, "There are some cross-passages that we can . . . "

"Top, I got an audio read," said Maddog.

Top snarled, "Soldier, I don't need your jokes right now. You're on report when we get back to . . . "

"Negative, ma'am," insisted Maddog. "Its on the low-level scan. Look for yourself."

"Maddog's right," said Val, cranking her own receptors up to max.

It was there, right where the vet had pegged it. It was half-way between a scratch and a hiss, the sound that a silk makes when its being dragged against the carpet. Drag, drag, then silence. Drag, Drag, then silence again.

"Control, we have an audio contact," she said into the mike, but was only rewarded with a low hiss. She could urge a few more amps out of array by shutting down other systems, but did not want to lose the audio contact.

It appeared at the edge of their vision, crystallizing out of the smoky red haze. It was alone, and at first Val thought it had been wounded from its halting, lurching steps.

The creature was mildly dog-like, and had five limbs. The rear three were like a tripod, with its torso slung forward from their apex. These rear legs looked almost delicate compared to the front pair, which were heavily muscled and armored with thick plates. There was one joint too many in all the limbs, and the creature seemed to move with an abominable grace. A neckless head sprung from the juncture of the two forward arms, roughly human-sized, but painted with pale red clusters of dots. Val thought of them at once as eyes.

"Power up!" snapped Top, and three argon blasters and a krypton heavy laser came up, their red tell-tales flashng around their barrels to show they were at full charge.

"Top, hold your fire," said Spex.

The Squad Captain scowled, but nodded. Ten meters away, the Shivan squatted in its lower tripod and regarded them almost quizzically.

"We got into war with the Vasudans so easily, and fell into fighting these creatures as well," said Spex. "Can we just talk to them?"

"We've tried communication and they wiped our ships out of space," snapped Top, "Power up!""

"We tried radio communication," said Spex sternly, "We tried to talk to their technology from our technology. Maybe it doesn't match. Maybe they don't understand. Maybe we can communicate face-to-face for once."

"You're violating orders," said Top.

"Give me a chance," said Spex. "Let me take the risk." He leaned forward. "Look at it. It's unarmed."

Maddog put in, "Those might not even be real Shivans. They might be rats, or dogs, or something."

"No," said Spex, "it's intelligent. It's waiting for us to come to a decision. Look at it! It's waiting."

Indeed, the creature was poised, not so much in a crouch as in an expectant position. It flexed its knuckle-like fingers against the deck of the ship. It was waiting for them.

Top did not lower her weapon. "Val, any chance of reaching Control?"

Val gripped some icons, but was rewarded only with static. She shook her head, and kept her own weapon up, the laser-dot aimed square that the creature's head.

There was single moment of silence deep in the bowels of the ruined ship, then Top said, "Do it. But at the first hostile move, drop out of there, because we're going to shoot through you. Clear?"

"Clear," said Spex, taking a deep breath, and setting down his own blaster. He stepped forward, holding his hands outstretched and empty.

The Shivan held its ground as Spex approached, its head rotating first counterclockwise, then clockwise. As if it was attempting to understand the bipedal creature that approached it.

"Its ship is wounded," said Spex calmly. "It has two choices, to accept help or to die. It won't want to die if it can help it. It might be the only one. It might be lonely. It IS intelligent."

Val nodded at the last point. It was smart enough to wait. Smart enough to stand its ground as the humans decided what to do about it.

Spex raised his hands, and opened and closed and opened his palms. The Shivan repeated the gesture. The tech was all of two meters apart, easily within the reach of the powerful arms.

It was intelligent, realized Val. Was it intelligent enough to wait for them in the heart of the ship? Smart enough to know that this would be the best place for an ambush?

Smart enough to know they were cut off from contact with their ship?

Val opened her mouth to bark a warning, but it was too late. Spex opened his palms one last time to show they were empty. The Shivan opened its three-fingered palms as well, and bursts of blue energy coalesced in its stubby palms.

He didn't even have time to cry out as his upper body, cut free from the tether of his magnetic boots, pinwheeled upwards, trailing a thick, boiling cloud of crimson bubbles. With the speed of a scorpion the Shivan had lunged forward and in two short blows, bisected Spex easily across the middle.

Then Top barked another order, and they were firing, all of them, at the Shivan. Spex's remains, still attached to his boots, were shredded as the beams laced along the corridor, and hit the Shivan square in the head. The small dome-like face vaporized under the blow, but the creature did not fall. Instead, it pulled back, blubbering and hissing as it did.

"Follow it," ordered Top, "Finish it off!"

"No!" shouted Val into the link, so sharply that even Top snapped her head back. "Along the low-scale audio. Listen for a moment."

Top toggled the channel and there it was again. The low sound of a silk bag dragged across a carpet.

And it came from all around it.

"Ambush!" snapped Top, "Pull back to the entrance. Maddox, you cover the rear!"

Val was backpedaling already as the hissing noise grew greater further down the corridor. Maddog began sweeping the area with his targeting laser, ready for the first monster to appear from the mists.

That was when the grate beneath him gave way and he sank into the deck, into a neat hole burrowed beneath his feet. His weapon when tumbling to one side, and his body began to twitch as something beneath began to twist the soldier's legs off. His screams filled Val's helmet, and despite herself, she raised her hands to her ears.

"Dammitohell!" shouted Top. "Kill the feed!"

Blindly Val reached out and gripped an icon, and Maddog's shrieks died instantly. The body continued to shake in its shallow pit, and then slumped forward at last, its internal organs shredded from below.

Val ran now, following Hype, with Top bringing up the rear. Almost immediately they moved out of the radio shadow created by the wreck, and Contact's voice was harsh in her ears. The hayseed was gone, replaced with panic.

"... avo-1, please respond! Bravo-1 Please respond!"

Hype stopped in front of her, wheeled, and fired a bolt down the hallway. No visible target, but the krypton laser flashed and thundered, then whined again as it slowly recharged for the next shot. Val touched the icon for Control."

Val fought to keep the panic out of her voice. "Bravo-1. We are under attack by Shivans. Repeat, we are under attack by Shivans."

"Evacuate, Bravo-1," said Control. "We have lost Bravo-2. You are ordered to evacuate."

Val blinked back the sweat pouring into her eyes. Bravo-2 was gone. The attacks took place at the same time, when they were under the radio shadow.

The Shivans were very intelligent, indeed.

At each intersection, they would halt, quickly check the side approaches, then scuttle across. The access bay felt like it was miles away. And behind them there was the rustling sound that chilled her to the bone.

Top passed beneath a low archway and died instantly as a Shivan dropped down from above, its tripod legs moored firmly to the ceiling above. The squad captain was ripped from the floor, and flailed against the beast, firing two shots into it before.

There was a soft ripping noise and something the size of Top's battered helmet struck the wall next to them. Val realized that she still had Top's link open, but the women did not even scream.

Hype did enough screaming for the three of them, unloading the heavy laser into the beast at point blank range. There was a flash of bright blue, and when Val's eyes had returned to normal, the creature was gone, burrowing up through the ceiling, taking Top's remains with it.

Zero gravity did not seem to bother these creatures. Indeed, they seemed to thrive on it.

"Bravo-1 to Control, We've lost the Captain. Two others dead."

"Evacuate," said Control, and this voice was cold and robotic, "We will destroy the ship if we have to, but evacuate."

Hype scanned the area around them. There were hissing noises in all the mists, as if a basket of snakes had been overturned. "You go ahead," he said, "Run for it."

"We'll go together," she said, hoisting her own laser. The tell-tales were already flashing yellow. Her power was low. Had she fired it so much?

"I've got the gun, you've got the information," said Hype, his voice level and cool. "You have to get out. I'll follow."

Val wanted to argue, but Hype's eyes behind the visor were cold and icy. He knew what he was doing. She had to get out with the information. The helmet cams were the only record of the first contact.

Val ran, and behind her there was the booming shot of the krypton laser. Then a pause as it recharged, then another booming shot. There was no third shot.

She was in the engine room now, with its strange cones and pipes of greenish-yellow fluids. The bay was ahead, up a short scramble. She could unlock the mags on her boots and leap through it. And then she would be safe.

And the thought died in her heart as she saw the figures moving around the access hatch. Figures that were vaguely dog-like, with five limbs. They looked up at her and hissed.

Val screamed and fired. Not at them, but at the access hatch itself. Her bolt pierced both the outer and inner seals, and ruptured the hatchway, opening the engine room to space itself. To the welcoming darkness.

Val felt like a twister was trying to rip her from the deck, but her boots held. She was in her suit, but her foes were naked to space. Drastic, but a suitable solution to the problem.

The Shivans did not seem to be affected by the loss of atmosphere. Instead, they launched themselves towards her, their powerful muscles overcoming the winds of the escaping atmosphere. They were more intent on killing her than surviving themselves.

Control said something that she did not hear over the tornado winds, and Val screamed again. She released the grip of the magnetic boots and leapt upwards to meet them. As she flew forward, she used the large of the blaster's energy to strafe the walls, walls laced with translucent tubes filled with volatiles.

There were the burst of half a hundred bright red flowers around her, which combined with the winds to shoot her out the opening, trailing a banner of flame. The last sight of her camera was of the flames spreading along the length of the Shivan freighter, and the last words she heard was Control ordering all ships to stand clear of the wreck . . .

They found her among the wreckage, and saved enough of her for a decent trial. Spex was found guilty of violating regs in trying to talk to the Shivans, and Top in letting him, and both were posthumously court-martialled. Maddog and Hype were given commendations, with the increase shown in the benefits paid to their families.

Val was commended for getting the information out, the first data showing the Shivans in action. Then she was busted down for starting the explosions that destroyed the ship (and all of its attendant useful data), and shipped back to Earth. None of that made any difference to Val after the drug-facilitated debriefing, and put her in a veteran's shelter, her mind shattered and most of her body broken.

The only thing that did make a difference was the darkness. She could not bear it, and cried in an inhuman, keening scream whenever the lights were doused. As a result, the lights in her room were permanently left on.

For it was always dark in space, and Val had learned to fear the darkness.

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