In the dead of space some 12,000 kilometers above the Earth’s atmosphere, where neither night nor day existed and planets hung in the distance like sequins scattered across a midnight-blue gown, United Earth Force Patrol Sergeant Hogan Ferris sat bored out of his mind.
His F-19 Gen-X Thunder Fighter Security Ship hovered lazily at the entrance to The Ohlsdorf, a dual-purpose base serving as both a huge intergalactic graveyard for destroyed Earth Force ships, and a mortuary for those who had once piloted them.
Inside the ship, Hogan reclined in his seat. His vigilance was fading, and his enthusiasm had already departed some time ago. With four hours remaining on his shift, he was eager to return home. When he got there, he would creep quietly into bed beside his beautiful wife Lynn, with one arm across her waist and the other lazily combing through her hair. His lips would dance delicately on the back of her neck, and together they would fall into a soft, easy slumber. In the morning he would treat her to a lavish breakfast in bed. They would make love, and then spend the day with their three beautiful daughters, Amber, Kendra and Amanda.
Together, they would gather around the breakfast table and strike another day off the calendar. Two months, twelve days, four hours until the end of his tenure as UEF night guard; unappreciated defender of United Earth and unsung protector of the people. After that, the United Earth Force would suit him and boot him. They would stick him in some office where he could happily see out his days shuffling bits of paper from one place to the next.
Hogan finished rolling his cigarette, leaned back in the cramped cockpit, and smiled at the very thought. Oh, how good life would be just two and half months from now. No more would he spend the dark hours praying that his family were safe at home, while they knelt by their beds, praying that Daddy would return home unharmed. Working an office job, he could provide for them in the relative safety of daylight, and be home to protect them by nightfall. Having guarded The Ohlsdorf for so long, he would at last be around to guard the people he truly cared about.
Hogan brought a flame to the hand-rolled cigarette resting between his lips and watched the paper curl in the heat. Ash fell against the control bank and sank into the tiny gap around the autopilot controls. A thin veil of smoke floated from his cracked lips and engulfed the cockpit as he savored the rare moment of peace.
It had been a quiet night. Only the occasional arrival of a salvage crew had broken the monotony. He had carried out the necessary security procedures casually, and without the air of authority expected of his position. He joked over the radio with the salvage pilots and sent them through without fuss. They thanked him, descended into The Ohlsdorf to collect a fresh load of corpses, salvageable ship parts or weaponry, then bid Sergeant Ferris farewell and went on their way.
Hours had passed since the last ship came by and Hogan was sure that no more would. Not on that night, not when too much activity in this otherwise desolate bank of space would likely attract the wrong kind of attention.
Discarding the dying end of his cigarette in an empty coffee cup, Hogan slapped his restless hands against the control yoke, beat his heavy boot against a floor pedal, and kicked the engines into action. The F-19 thrust forward. Hogan steered course around the perimeter of the base. No movement. No sign of life. All calm. All good.
The radio scratched and fizzed. The radar flashed eagerly with signs of an approaching vessel. Hogan wove the fingers of his huge hands together, cracked his knuckles and stifled a yawn.
‘This is United Earth Force Security Vehicle Three Zero Zero Five. Who goes there? Repeat. Who goes there? Over.’
An entirely unrecognizable voice, its accent a hybrid of old European dialects, creaked through the speakers.
‘Three Zero Zero Five, this is Earth Force Salvage Crew One Nine One Nine, requesting permission to land. Over.’
Hogan sat upright, the hulking expanse of his spine pinned to the chair in surprise.
‘I thought you guys were done with this crap for the night? Over.’ The harsh Irish tones of his ancestors cut through his broad timbre.
‘Ah Sir, yes Sir. Final mission of the evening, Sir. Due to have arrived three hours ago. Mechanical failure, you see. Had to stop for repairs, Sir. Repeat. Requesting permission to land. Over.’
‘Ah, what the hell,’ said Hogan with an idle shrug. ‘Be right there. Over.’
He located the waiting vessel on the radar and set a course towards it, cruising back around the graveyard and slowing to a halt some fifty meters from the visitor. A foreboding bulk of a machine, the salvage ship’s black coat was interrupted only by the red, white and blue logo of the United Earth Force, branded onto the portside. Hogan’s monitor was filled with the ship’s hefty square frame; a solid, rectangular block with spikes shooting out of its top and back like a black metal mohawk. He thought that it looked more like a prototype for a mechanical dragon he had once seen at the One Earth Day Parade, than it did an interstellar spacecraft.
The security scanner burped and blipped in the muddy shades of green which brought to Hogan’s mind the swamps of Earth Force training grounds.
‘Hmm. One Nine One Nine. System failing to pick up yer vehicle registration details. Over.’
‘Ah Sir, yes Sir. Registration chip was damaged, unable to locate spare on repair stop, Sir. I repeat, registration chip damaged, Sir. Over.’
Hogan groaned with part fatigue and part exasperation. Just when the night should have been winding down, now this came along.
‘C’mon One Nine One Nine, you know the rules, fella. I can’t letcha through without registration details. You got yer papers back there? Over.’
Silence. A deadening nothingness whistling through the radio as the green error light agitated the corner of Hogan’s eye.
‘One Nine One Nine, yer papers? Over.’
Still nothing. Still the salvage ship bobbed indolently before him. Sergeant Hogan Ferris clutched the yoke.
‘Screw it. One Nine One Nine, coming in over video feed. Over.’
Radio static crunched and wheezed. A panicked voice squawked.
The video monitor flitted in front of Hogan. A spark of light swallowed the screen. The audio channel cackled and crowed.
Before him on the screen sat the salvage pilot, a handsome young chap whose shimmering golden eyes belied an obvious dread. His short crop of bleached blonde hair shot up from a forehead creased with tension.
‘Poor kid,’ Hogan muttered, his thoughts falling in empathy with the pilot.
The kid probably hadn’t been in the UEF very long and here he was, driving a clapped out, old salvage ship through the God Forsaken wastelands of space, wanting to be home with his family instead of being harassed by some jobsworth security guard. Hogan relaxed his shoulders, laid back in his seat, and smiled softly at the frightened figure facing him through the screen.
‘Hey kid, yer alright. My name’s Patrol Sergeant Hogan Ferris, you can call me Hogan if ya like. Look, fella, I’d love to just letcha through yer know? It’s late, you wanna get home, I wanna get home, but hey, it saves us both getting’ our asses handed to us if we do this legit, yeah? Now, ya got yer paperwork handy and I can letcha through?’
The kid stared back at Hogan. His nimble lips quivered yet refused to part. No words, just the blank fright of wide eyes.
Nothing. No sound. No hint of emotion. A stone cold stare full of fear.
‘You hear me, kid?’ Hogan was yelling now. Concern mashed with annoyance in his mind, escaping through his weary baritone voice.
‘You hear me? What’s yer name, kid? What’s yer…?’ He grimaced, sucking back through his teeth with a snake-like hiss. His heart dropped with a splat into the pit of his gut.
The sleek, dark barrel of a Temüjin Slayer Rifle floated from bottom of the screen to the top, its mouth kissed the tear-soaked cheek of Salvage Pilot 1919.
Adrenalin racing, heart pounding, instinct overwhelming him, Sergeant Ferris raised a clenched fist and punched a series of tabs above him. One by one, lights flashed and sirens screeched. The female voice of the onboard computer confirmed that all weapons were active.
‘Don’t worry Kid, I gotcha.’
Hogan drew back on the yoke, weighed anchor and heaved down on the acceleration, keeping the salvage ship in sight and a steady finger resting against the trigger, ready to shoot. Then a crash: a sickening rip of Temüjin slayer fire through human flesh and bone. An explosion of blood and brain matter deluged the salvage ship’s cockpit, covering the video monitor. Wads of muscle smacked against the screen and fell at the boots of a seven foot green behemoth with wet, bobbly skin, and black ovals cutting across the perfect circles of its orange eyes. Sergeant Ferris leapt backwards in his seat, turning his gaze away from the gruesome display of blood and guts. The F-19 Thunder Fighter spiraled wildly out of control, galloping with abandon towards the dumping ground he had been defending.
Hogan heaved back on the yoke, rescuing the ship from its nosedive and swinging it round one hundred and eighty degrees.
‘Ssssurenderr.’ ordered the slithering, sadistic voice coming through the video monitor.
Blood and viscera slathered over the screen. Through it, Hogan could make out only the smoking mouth of the Slayer Rifle, pointed directly at him.
‘I dun’ think so, fella,’ he said as he tugged at the trigger and sent out line after line of laser fire. The salvage ship lurched on its portside and fired back. Hogan’s bullets sailed beneath its raised starboard and evaporated in the darkness. Hogan too avoided fire, weaving and rolling between streams of ammo, all the while firing back with gusto; a ferocious battle cry setting his throat alight and drowning out the sounds of war. The salvage ship bombed low, rushing at Hogan’s F-19 without warning or mercy. Hastily, Hogan veered out of harm’s way, scraping the starboard against the dismantled wing of a UEF ship.
The camera of the captured vessel salivated blood. Through the winding crimson streams on his screen, Hogan saw the Temüjin looking back at him, grinning with a barbed, yellow-toothed grin, and stroking the barrel of his rifle like a cherished pet. Blood boiling, Hogan charged towards the salvage ship. Unrelenting, the Temüjin charged back, both blazing a collision course through a path of blustering fire. Hogan jerked to a stop and ducked low. His opponent boomed past him and landed nose first in the pit of the battleground.
Hogan rolled another cigarette. Sharp breaths escaped his lips as he descended into The Ohlsdorf to verify the kill. He drew greedily on his cigarette and let his eyes follow the swirling smoke for the briefest of moments.
The damaged salvage ship powered through the debris and made a run for Hogan, who fired wildly and without remorse. The Temüjin progressed, unfazed. Hogan moved to meet it head on. A shot connected with the enemy’s wing, sending it into a frenetic spin through space. Hogan chased after it, but the Temüjin regained control of his hijacked vessel and ploughed into the Thunder Fighter. Each ship enfolded the other, the silence of space punctured by the almighty growl of metal chomping at metal. The Thunder Fighter’s wing penetrated the salvage ship and tore the engine apart. Submerged in flames, the two entangled ships went cartwheeling through the atmosphere.
The heat rose within the cockpit of the Thunder Fighter, causing Hogan’s armored suit to peel, blister, and melt away. Tucking his gun under one arm, Sergeant Ferris used the other to pull the emergency oxygen mask from its compartment on the side of his suit and clasp it to his face. Reaching up to grab at the emergency evacuation control, his heart dropped into his stomach and his stomach, in turn, leapt up into his mouth. The floor gave way and he fell from the ship, somersaulting through space and wrestling with the draw of his parachute. When it eventually deployed, he grasped his gun once more and shot wildly into the sky. His own Thunder Fighter followed him through the air in her frock of flames.
A shuddering spasm seized the body of Patrol Sergeant Hogan Ferris. Blood spilled from his abdomen. An ice cold chill overwhelmed him. Losing grip on his gun, Hogan swung his arm out to catch it, but missed, instead scraping his knuckles down the dismembered wing of the salvage ship which had entered through his spine and burst out again through his stomach, driving him Earthwards. All went dark. Hogan Ferris gave up the fight. Earth rose up to catch both man and ship.