by Shannon H
A man can't hide from his past, especially in dreams. Excerpt from 'Tales of the Zenith'
|“C’mon, c’mon…..” Dahl urged softly. Four silent figures huddled behind the cover of a stack of cargo crates, each intently watched the still outline of the ship docked only a few feet in front of them.
Jon, crouched immediately behind Dahl, slowly eased himself up and down on the balls of his feet in an attempt to get some circulation going to his legs. The wait had been tense and longer than they had ideally planned for in the initial briefing. Even on a shit-heap like Zanaria Station they would be hard pressed to come up with an explanation as to why eight heavily armed figures clad in black combat armour were hiding on a private dock.
“Nervous Jonny?” Came the whispered question from over his right shoulder. Jon turned his head just enough to see Liddle grinning at him, flashing a yard long row of perfect white teeth. 'How in the hell can you smile at a time like this?' Jon wondered, not for the first time. Nerves didn’t enter into it; you didn’t get recruited from the Marines into this unit by being nervous in the service but Don Liddle surely had ice water running through his veins.
“Quiet!” It was Dahl who responded for Jon, a terse, whispered warning that cut off any further chat. Dahl was always about the job. His eyes never left the ship. It was a privately owned vessel, originally New Terran Navy, now registered out of Aldrin and converted into a cargo hauler. The ship, like the Dock, seemed lifeless in the darkened ambient light of the station.
The silence of the night was almost suffocating as the minutes crawled by. Jon looked across the small gap in the cargo containers to where the four members of the second half of the team were crouched. He could just about see the features of Nakamura and McDaid in the half light of the dock. It would have been a stretch to say they looked nervous but even in the near darkness Jon could tell they were ready to go.
“Dahl.” It was Sharvin’s voice on the team comm's that finally broke the silence. Even at a distance Jon was sure he saw Nakamura’s shoulders slump in relief for just a second as the young woman’s voice came over the airwaves.
“Dahl. Go ahead.”
“Entry gained into the ships systems. I have full access to security controls."
"Roger that Mel. Are all hostiles accounted for?"
"Confirmed Captain. Six hostiles; three on the bridge, three in the living quarters."
"Received. Ready that door for us Mel."
"Copy that Captain. You have a go.”
“Received. Dahl out.” The tall blonde waved his arm as he ended the transmission. “Hit it.” The two teams moved off as one, approaching the airlock of the ship in a crouched run, weapons at the ready position. The doors slid open with a pleasing hiss to Jon's ears as they entered the main corridor.
“Helo.” Dahl, his voice still low signalled to his right.
”Roger.” Nakamura replied, leading his three team members toward the ship’s living quarters.
Dahl meanwhile quickly moved down to his left and toward the bridge, his team close behind. They split either side of the bridge door. “Liddle, Taylor. Grenade.”
The door was unlocked. Jon punched the release and two grenades followed the moment it slid open. There was enough time for a brief shout of surprise before the flashbangs detonated with a deafening explosion and blinding light.
It was Dahl and Lachlan who entered first, weapons to their shoulders. A figure stumbled at Jon; a tall man, his hands trying to shield already blinded eyes. He never saw his end coming as Jon fired a burst from his M-7 Kassock assault rifle into the pirate’s chest and followed up with a round into the centre of his head as he hit the floor.
Beside him, Dahl did the same to a second pirate standing at the far side of the bridge. His body hit the wall as the bullets tore into him, leaving a thick trail of blood on the bulkhead as he slid down, coming to rest in a sitting position. Taking careful aim Dahl placed a round into the man's head, shattering one of his eye sockets as the body shook lightly with the impact, still sitting upright against the wall.
The four men moved slowly forward as they swept the large room. Sharvin had confirmed three hostiles on the bridge and had given no update on movements. The bridge was a mess,the multitude of cluttered control consoles offered a number of hiding spots for the remaining pirate.
A woman sprang from the console nearest Taylor. Jon could see she was older than her two crewmates, her greying hair cropped short. “P-please!” The woman stammered. “I surrender.”
“Taylor!” Dahl shouted as the rookie hesitated.
“I’m just the Pilo-agghhh!” Any attempt the woman had in mind to plea for her life was cut short by Liddle, who hit the pirate with a short burst from his rifle before double-tapping her in the forehead.
“Goddamit Taylor, what are you playing at” Dahl admonished the rookie as Jon and Liddle finished the sweep of the bridge.
“Clear.” The two men said in near unison.
Dahl nodded, turning away from an abashed looking Taylor as he put his hand to his helmet mic, “Helo, Status.”
“Helo here. Living quarters and sleeping quarters clear. Three hostiles, including target are down.”
“Received. Will rendezvous at living quarters and make our way to cargo bay from there.
“Received, Nakamura out.”
Jon glanced to Liddle who winked at him in return.
“Let’s go.” Dahl said as he led them from the bridge. Jon let Liddle and Taylor go ahead of him as he brought up the rear. He saw Liddle give the younger man a friendly pat on the shoulder. Learning from mistakes was part and parcel of a Marine's life but in this unit there was rarely room for errors. They had their standing orders and Taylor had froze. Jon wasn't sure it boded well for the man's future in the unit.
The four of them moved out quickly and soon linked up with Nakamura’s squad who had already been joined by the two man infiltration team; Sharvin and Beasly.
“Everyone good?” Dahl asked as they approached.
“Putting bullets into pirates always perks me up.” Replied ‘Grim’ Harris, deadpan as always. Harris had the quickest wit Jon had ever known, if you didn’t mind your comedy stylings on the darker side of black.
“We’re good.” Answered Helo, pointedly ignoring Harris. “Got the vid evidence of the target being eliminated, should make for sweet viewing. All known hostiles are down. The good Colonel will be pleased.”
“Good.” Dahl nodded, as he looked from Helo to Jon. “I want to make one quick sweep of the ship’s cargo bay. Intel says there’s only six crew total but I want to be sure we didn’t miss anyone not listed.”
“Military Intelligence.” Jon snorted derisively as the adrenaline of the wait and the brief firefight began to ebb. “What’s that?”
Dahl replied with a smile of his, "Doesn't hurt to be sure. But we do it quick, I don't want to be here for any locals to show up and start sniffing around."
“You scared of Big Mysterian, Roland?” Beasley asked Dahl, the hint of mischief clear in his voice as he named the local syndicate boss of the Zanaria docks.
“I’m thinking Roland doesn’t want to deal with the headache of trying to write up what a Coalition wet work team was doing on Omega.” Replied Lou McDaid as she stepped up behind Beasley, giving the much shorter man a friendly shove on the shoulder that nearly knocked him flat.
While the whole team might have been in top physical condition Louise was a whole different beast; six foot tall and thickly muscled she would entertain friends on base and in the bars by challenging and beating the meanest looking Marines at push-up and chin-up contests. Jon had given valiant losing efforts in both contests but his pride had stopped him from going zero and three and accepting her arm wrestling challenge.
"I believe the team Amazon has got it dead on. Who needs that on their desk?" Harris replied.
"Yep." Dahl agreed, "So let's get this show on the road."
They moved out slowly toward the cargo bay with their weapons still drawn. Further resistance was highly unlikely but Jon knew all too well that in this line of work it paid to be cautious. Dahl and Nakamura led the way with the rest of the squad falling in behind.
“So. Who got the prize in the end?” Liddle asked, keeping his voice low and rifle high.
“The prize?” Taylor asked, looking around uncertainly.
Liddle rolled his eyes in reply, “Yeah rook, the prize. You know, the target.”
“Ah, I got you.”
“Good thing you’re pretty Jacob.” Harris muttered loud enough for the team to hear.
“As to the original question. It would be Boothe who bagged the target.
“Shot him dead.” Confirmed the veteran sharpshooter, which was about as much conversation as one could expect from the squad elder when he was feeling uncharacteristically talkative. Pushing well into his mid-40’s and still in amongst the blood or bullets. Commendable or sad, Jon couldn’t really decide which.
“Drinks on you back in the Mess then Boothe?” Beasley asked, ever the optimist
“Well, nothing ventured…” The short man sighed.
They took the steps down to the second floor in silence; the double doors to the cargo bay at the end of a short corridor flanked by a number of small rooms which were quickly swept and cleared.
“Locked.” Said Dahl, testing the bay doors. “Sharvin.”
The petite Infiltrator produced a small round device from her belt pouch and placed it over the door release. It switched on automatically, connecting to the lock as the rest of the squad pressed themselves tight against walls either side of the door.
“Done.” Said Sharvin after a few seconds. She removed the device and pressed the door control and was rewarded as the gears sprang to life, slowly parting the metal barriers. The cargo bay was barely lit, relying on a low powered ambient source somewhere in the ceiling.
“Bad mojo.” Jon heard Lou murmur as Dahl waved them forward. He felt it too; they all did as they approached the darkened bay slowly. Jon felt his heart begin to beat against his chest. The smell was rank, the stench wafting over them as they passed the door threshold as if the pungent odour had been waiting to greet them.
“Light!” Dahl whispered, like the rest of his squad he was quietened by the atmosphere that reached out from the cargo bay.
Jon could hear the sound of the entire team fumbling in their belt pouches for the torch attachment of their rifles. Shadows danced on the walls and along the floor as the bright lights swept over the murk of the cargo bay and its contents.
“Jesus!” It was Sharvin who called from a few feet to Jon’s left. He swept his rifle to where she was standing looking at a crate directly in front of her.
No. Not a crate.
Jon approached slowly; already certain he did not want to see what was inside.
“No….” Sharvin almost whimpered as Jon joined her, taking a few steps back.
Empty eyes stared back at him. Flies and maggots crawling over rotten skin. The smell of piss and shit was almost overwhelming. The Commander managed to fight down the bile that was at the base of his throat. “Ro.” He coughed.
“I see it.” Dahl replied, his rifle light swept over the room to reveal more cages, more dead bodies crammed into confines half the height of a man.
“How many…” McDaid asked to no one in particular as she looked from cage to cage.
“Helo.” Dahl turned to his Deputy. “Take Beasley and get a call through to Colonel Higgins. I don’t give two shits what time it is. Tell him…well, tell him.” Nakamura nodded a silent understanding and took off at a dead sprint toward the bridge with Beasley following close behind.
“Count at least fifty.” Said Boothe as he joined Jon, Liddle and Harris.
“Closer to seventy.” Liddle replied, looking to his feet and offering nothing more.
Jon looked away to see McDaid, who had drifted away from the group, take a particular interest in one of the cages. “Lou?” He said softly as he approached.
She said nothing, just shook her head as she looked to him and back down at the cage.
A starved infant clung tight to where it had died, sucking at the rotting breast of his mother.
A baby cried.
Jon woke with a start, a silent yell dying in his throat as he found himself sitting upright in his bed, the ambient light of his quarters and the comforting hum of the engine reminding him where he was. The Zenith.
The Major lay back down on his bed, breathing hard. He used the back of his hand to mop the sheen of sweat from his brow as he fumbled for his Rolex on the bedside table. Not quite 3.30am yet but Jon knew it would be the last bit of sleep he would get that night.
Dreams like that weren’t a regular occurrence but he had experienced them enough times to know what the score was. With a tired sigh he collected his clothes and exited the room.
It was 3.50am when Jon checked his watch again. Freshly showered and with a steaming cup of coffee in his hand he sat himself at long galley table.He switched on his personal terminal and got to work.
A good soldier carries on.