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The Dawn Cluster I: Detriment

By Mark J. Schultis

UNTAI

Dawn approached on the planet Untai. Chirps and calls announced the new day.  All its wildlife bustled about, oblivious to what was about to transpire. Above the clouds circling the mountain, the sky flickered. White light flashed in Untai’s orbit, and out of it spilled starships locked in battle: the Sacramento and a group of freighters.

As the white light faded, the horizon of the lush planet below the Sacramento came into view before Garett Soness.  “Pembrail, what the hell happened!?”

Jack Pembrail shook his head. “What I was saying…is…was…the Pluto event left behind a signature, a footprint. One I had been misreading it. The whole scientific community had misread it. It was so obvious, but without a point of origin it was dismissed. That radiation… the anomaly had all the characteristics of a wormhole.”

Terik Donato flexed his fingers.  “So where the hell are we?”

“I couldn’t say.  Wormholes could theoretically connect to anywhere. We could be on the other side of the galaxy.”

“What?! Bullshit.” Terik walked up behind Hamp.  “Who’s got an ID on the planet?”

“No match found in our database,” Hamp shifted her attention to a different screen. “But whatever it’s called, we’re drifting towards it! We’ll enter the planet’s gravity in three minutes.”

Terik turned to Garett. “Please tell me the whole unsalvageable engines thing is just a front. Right?”

Garett leaned over Winters’ console. “All hands evacuate! Get to the escape pods!”

Hamp’s console started beeping. “Sir! There’s an unidentified ship coming into range.  Bigger than the Sacramento, sir.”

“Classification?”

Hamp shook her head. “Unknown, sir.”

✸✸✸

Jonus Kaynic stood up out of the Mareve’s captain’s chair.  “Someone, report!”

Jason Volbell kept refreshing his screen. “We’ve passed through what… appeared to be… a vortex of some sort. Charts have failed. I have no clue where we are!”

He didn’t just say vortex, did he? Kaynic thought. Volbell’s just razzled again. “We’ll worry about that later.  We need to take advantage of the distraction.  Target the Sacramento…”

“Sir, a very large ship is entering the area,” Jai Wanner shouted. “And she’s locking on!”

“Evasive!”

“Kaynic, the unidentified ship has shot down eight of the TSAF’s fighters and…”

“And what, Wanner?”

“The Bipeek, the Akron and the Claremont. We’re all that’s left.”

“Then hit it with everything we got!”

The Mareve closed in on the alien ship while evading its barrage of lasers, but the anarchists watched as their armaments caused no damage to their opponent.

Should’ve stole a Lubican Sapri. As Kaynic lamented, a green ray of light engulfed the freighter. “What’s going on?”

Volbell pounded on his console. “I think it’s a tractor beam…”

“Reverse engines!”

“Reversing… no response.  They’re bringing us in.” Volbell shook his head. “What should we do, sir?”

Kaynic watched though the forward aperture as his ship was swallowed by the larger vessel. Then, he unholstered his jekker pistol.  “It’d be rude not to say hello.”

Kaynic and his men lowered the Mareve’s boarding ramp and slowly descended into the alien vessel’s docking bay.

Volbell leaned towards Kaynic. “I don’t like this, boss.”

“Well Volbell, next time we get captured, I’ll make sure they run it by me, first.”

As the PUMA mercenaries reached the middle of the darkened bay, they could hear the faint hum of electricity. The air smelt almost of moss. And they found themselves feeling surrounded.  A blast from the darkness struck the man furthest to the right but not fatally, for when he hit the deck, he groaned.

They want us alive. “Stun rays!”

Kaynic and his group weren’t given a chance. Several blasts later they all fell.

✸✸✸

Despite the relocation, the battle between the freighters and the TSAF fighters had continued until the new player showed up. The menacing vessel lit up the sky with its offense, and Melina Beetary’s fighter collided with some stray fire. As she started to spin out of control, Melina tried popping the ejector seat, but it didn’t respond.

Figures.

As the lieutenant saw escape pods from the Sacramento jettison, the centrifugal force took its toll, and everything went black.

When she came to, she opened her eyes and looked out her cockpit.

She was in a tree.

Interesting…  She tried bringing her engines online.  No use.  She tried communications.  No good.  She reached for her headrest and activated the homing beacon.  With luck, the Sacramento’s radar would pick it up… if the Sacramento was still there.  Now the only question to be answered was:  How the hell do I get down from here?

✸✸✸

As the Sacramento started to pass through Untai’s upper atmosphere its hull buckled, and its inhabitants held on to whatever they could.

“135 pods launched.  Eight of those have been shot down.  Five unresponsive.  Twelve still loading.”

Garett gritted his teeth as he felt gravity take hold. “Guestimate for me, Hamp.”

“One minute to impact.  I’d say time for maybe three pods more.”

“That close it could do more harm than good!” Terik couldn’t reach the porthole. “What’s the crash area looking like?”

“Rocky… there’s a mountain range… pretty big.”

“Why’d I ask?

“Impact in twenty seconds.”

Garret gripped the arms of his chair. “All hands, brace for impact!”

Terik held on to the railing.  “Thanks, Napoleon!”

As the Sacramento’s underbelly scrapped a mountain peak, the whole ship shook and angled. Those on the command deck not braced were thrown about with each impact.

Terik yelled to Garett. “Do you have any control over this tub at all?!”

“If I did, do you think we’d be crashing?!”

The port side brushed up against another mount and straightened itself out, but forward momentum was still considerable.  Then Garett saw another mountain peak ahead. “This is it!”

Within seconds, the Sacramento collided.

The last thing Terik heard before passing out was the shattering of glass. He wasn’t unconscious long, because when he came to, he heard several people coughing and moaning, and didn’t see any movement. He slowly rose, and when he did, so did the pain in his back. “Who gave the auto-pilot a raise?”

Garett and Terik walked to the aperture and looked out at the brave, new world in front of them.  They were at least 10,000 feet above the expanding forest at the mountain’s base. “Well, agent, any crash you can walk away from…”

“…didn’t do its job.”

Garett paused.

“What?  What I say?”

Garett pushed Terik aside and ran for the lift. When the doors wouldn’t open, he opened the access panel and flipped the over-ride.  Garett pried open the doors and climbed down the lift shaft.

Terik lost interest when he saw an indicator blinking. “Intership channel?”

Hamp depressed the corresponding control. “Command deck.”

“Comdeck, we have a reactor leak in progress.  Emergency locks in place but we can’t get out.”

Terik snapped his fingers repeatidly until Hamp brought up a status display.

The other two reactors are fine… Have to shut that one down and get them out of there. “Where’s your engineer?”

“He was in the main docking bay when we were attacked!  We need to get out of here!”

“Just hang in there, okay? We’re powering it down, and we’ll get you out of there.”

Terik pulled Winters and Hamp aside. “Listen, I’m going to look for your engineer,” Terik whispered. “But you cannot open those locks.  If you do, the whole ship will flood.”

Winters’ eyes widened. “You’re not…We can’t let them die in there.”

“Kid, we may not have a choice.”

✸✸✸

Terik scurried past wounded and fallen officers, trying to block out what carnage he could until he found the engineer.  When he got to the main bay, he found the Ristin helping his wounded technicians. “Ristin!”

“I am Engineer Teckook.”

“Agent Donato. Look,” Terik led him away from his crew. “There’s a leak in the reactor bay. Five men trapped inside.  They need you to walk them through repairs, so come on.”

“There are no repairs.”

“Excuse me?”

“Polycore reactors are septuple layered – they are designed to withstand trauma. But if there is a leak, no adhesive or metallurgy known to us can patch a breach.”

“Those men are dying.”

“Those men are already dead.”

I said I’d get them out of there…

Terik stared at the floor, making fists with both hands.

Damn you, Kaynic. If you and Dekler survived this, it won’t be for long.

He looked up at Teckook. “Look, you should probably contain any and all remaining hazards, right? I’ll let you get to it.”

Terik walked over to the nearest wall-comlink and buzzed Peejo. “Agent Manning?  Manning, it’s Donato, report!”

Shit.

Terik worked his way back to the detention block.  Some convicts were out of their cells, some still holed up inside, but all were dead. All except the prisoner from cell 2187. His cell was empty, and the body in its doorway wasn’t Francis Dekler.

It was Peejo Manning’s.

From Terik’s observation, the cause of death wasn’t the crash. Contusions about the neck suggested strangulation. Dekler’s rat – Manning never saw it coming.

Terik spent almost an hour scouring the corridors, trying to pick up their trail, but it had gone cold. I should’ve seen this coming, he thought. Dekler knows all the layouts and all the procedures, and so does Kaynic. Explains the rat. What it doesn’t explain is why? If this was all staged, then Dekler had a reason to be here.

I just can’t see it!

As he worked his way back towards the command deck, the ship-wide intercom came back to life. “All medics to Admiral Scraint’s office. ASAP!”

Is that it? Was the admiral a target?

The Mako-6 agent altered his heading and made his way to A deck. When Terik walked into the office, the medical team was frantically struggling to keep Lee Scraints alive. “What happened?”

“Concussion and internal bleeding. Get him to sick bay, move!”

Terik stepped aside as they rushed him away.  He saw Lisa Sorjid crying in the corner. He noticed her leg was bandaged, covering a cut on her thigh. Don’t do it. It’s not your place. She doesn’t know you and…

Fuck it.

“Lieutenant, you okay?”

She turned and focused her water logged eyes on him. “No. No, this is… When I took this assignment, I never expected this.”

“You wouldn’t. Wars are temporary, but bloodshed? Every time we let our guard down.”

Terik stood surprised and still as Lisa wrapped herself around him.

“It’s not just bad luck?”

“Don’t fool yourself, now. It’s plenty of bad luck.”

✸✸✸

Night fell on Untai, and the majority of the surviving senior crew were assembled on the Sacramento’s command deck. If not for their circumstances, Terik would’ve already left, but running off without all the facts was a guaranteed way to get himself killed. Dekler won’t get far, Terik thought. But I can’t wait long, either.

Terik noticed Samuel Sturlex was among the survivors. When the PUMA ships struck, Terik’s former sergeant, along with Major Peter Ruwn, had reported to the barracks to prep for possible intrusion. The crash trapped them both, as well as their squad, in the armory for hours until finally they managed to clear their way out. And although PUMA seemed to be out of play for the moment, the colonel hadn’t ruled out an assault by the local warship that had appeared.

“I’m not waiting on Soness,” Sturlex said. “On the ground, the major and I are in command, and right now, I need brought up to speed.”

“Of the fifty three that were still on board, we know twenty one are dead, with another fourteen trapped by debris,” Hamp reported. “The admiral is alive, but Doc Gibbons says he’s in a coma.”

“We’ve got minimal power,” Hamp added. “Life support, two laser turrets. Only one docking bay is presently open, though. The rest are buried under rock.”

“Which are buried?” Ruwn asked.

“The transport hangar and one fighter bay.” Teckook chimed in.  “It will probably be a day or two before we can clean up all the debris, and restore communications. The dorsal solar sail is not buried, however, and could be used to recharge main batteries.”

“Good. Now, what happened with the aft screens?” Sturlex demanded.

“Someone sabotaged the aft screens by detonating an explosive in one of the maintenance rooms on level 8.” Teckook explained. “It relayed to one of the plasma injectors.”

Sturlex looked across the room at Terik. “Do we know who did it?”

“I know the face.” Terik tossed the colonel a data pad, displaying a surveillance image of Douglas Okada changing out of uniform. “Got off the Fropic shuttle when I came on. One of Francis Dekler’s newest recruits.”

As the colonel looked it over, steps could be heard approaching. The doors opened and a silence fell over those gathered as Garett walked in.  He didn’t speak, instead he just leaned against the nearest console.

Sturlex set down the datapad. “Okay, Teck. Let’s hear it. Will she fly again?”

Teckook shook his head. “The Sacramento was already several years past its prime. If the full resources of the TSAF were present, there would be a 17% chance it could be salvaged. Do you desire to hear our chances without said resources?”

“No, I do not. Ruwn, Soness, I want to assemble a few teams with who we got.  One offensive, one defensive.”

Ruwn nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“I want this ship as armed to the teeth and as fortified as possible. That’s you, Ruwn. Soness, you and your crew work on locating survivors on board. Those who made it out in escape pods, we need something to pick them up in. Teckook, with the transport hangar unreachable we need a ship strong enough to go up against whatever gets thrown at us while we’re here.  You’re chief engineer.”

“With the available materials, I project a week at best.”

“You got two days. Get it done.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sturlex straightened his posture. “We’re down, but we’re not out. Understand? Doesn’t matter where we are, it only matters that we’re on our feet. This enemy willfully attacked and crippled us and no doubt will continue their assault. This is a crisis of survival and I’m going after the sons of bitches. Now move.”

As everyone dispersed, Garett approached Terik. “Who’s Kaynic?”

“None of your business, Soness, that’s who.”

“Like hell!  His ship is responsible for killing innocent lives I’ve sworn to protect! Now, I don’t give a damn who you are, tell me what you know!”

Terik noticed the bags under Garett’s eyes, which themselves were reddened. He lost someone. Judgement’s clouded. Damnit, I don’t have time for this. “The colonel gave you your orders, captain.” Terik turned his back to Garett.

“Oh, I forgot. We’re all collateral to you. Just like Askalid and Morris.”

Terik was about to descend the stairs when he stopped. Askalid… Morris…He’s talking about Nustoy…

Garett chuckled. “I had a feeling you didn’t recognize me.”

Terik glanced back, memories resurfacing. “Not at first. Now I do. You were the one who stepped down.”

“That’s right, and if I could, I would’ve convinced the others to have done the same.”

I wish you had, kid. Terik crossed back to the console. “Morris ignored my order…”

“He shouldn’t have been out there with you! None of them! I don’t care what sway being in Mako division gave you, that mission never should’ve been sanctioned.”

No, it shouldn’t have.

“If this is the same asshole you went after then, then all this is on you, and so help me, when this is over, I don’t care what friends you have, no one will stop me from seeing your ass pay!”

“Soness!” Sturlex stepped between them. “Stand down, captain.”

Garett stepped back. “This man knows something, colonel.”

Sturlex steered Garett further away. “Look, Pembrail told us about-”

Garett pointed at Terik. “You owe every one of us an answer, you bastard!”

“Garett! Enough! Now report to engineering, captain. That’s an order.”

Garett shook Sturlex’s hands off and stormed out, and although Sturlex’s intervention belayed Garett, Terik knew this hadn’t yet been put to bed.

✸✸✸

This is like a hangover tripled. Kaynic thought as he came to, laid out on a metal slab. He was engulfed in darkness until one single, overhead light turned on, illuminating Kaynic and his crew.  To say I should’ve known better is an understatement. He could feel a presence around, but failed to see it. “When I can see straight again, you better run.”

A chuckle broke the silence. “Such arrogance. Much like the Chost…but with less repute.  Humans… I remember your kind well….”

Between Mako 6, PUMA and his father, Kaynic had spent years hardening his demeanor, gaining advantage by never showing fear.  There was nothing to help him save face on this occasion, however. This time, there was nothing but fear.

“Why are you here?”

Kaynic provided no answer. This eb already knows what we are, I’ll be damned if I give him anything else.

“Answer, insect!”

Kaynic remained silent, although one of his weaker willed men did not, his whimpering anxiety growing louder. Shut up, man!

“I will make you suffer for your disregard.  No one ignores Favan!”

The light went out, and the only sound in the chamber was the whimpering man’s last screams.

✸✸✸

As Jack soldered the last circuit and closed the plating, SAR-9 came back to life. “Good morning, doctor.”

Jack set down his iron. “Actually, it’s late in the afternoon, Sarnine.”

“Oh.  Good afternoon, doctor.”

“Thanks, Sarnine.” Jack stretched his arms and chuckled. “Glad to hear your voice again.”

“I detect elation. What is the ship’s current situation?”

“You don’t even wanna know.”

“Forgive me, Dr. Pembrail, but if I did not want to know, then why did I ask?”

Jack’s relief faded as he stood up. “We were too slow, Sarnine. A lot of people died. A lot of people that didn’t need to.” He reached for the garb hanging off his chair. “You and I? We need to make up for it, any way we can. We need to think outside the box. But first…” The doctor snapped on his body armor. “Better safe than sorry.”

“Pardon me, doctor, but it appears your body armor is two sizes too small.”

“Keep it up and I’ll turn you back off.”

✸✸✸

While most would avoid it, Terik sought solitude at every opportunity. He found its benefits to overshadow its faults tenfold. It afforded him clarity of mind, to stay focused on goals, his work – void of distractions. Distractions ultimately led to someone getting hurt, and Terik didn’t need that on his mind. But Terik couldn’t deny Garett’s words were now ever present.

‘We’re all collateral to you.’

Terik had ventured some distance away from the Sacramento’s mountaintop crash.  He had to pull out his winter gear to endure the cold air, but he needed it.  He had to pull himself together and figure out a course of action.  What’s your play now, Dekler? Cross your fingers Kaynic didn’t bite it? The more Terik tried to anticipate Dekler’s moves, the more his mind drifted instead to Kaynic, and the day his former partner threw in with the man they both loathed…

It was several years earlier, not long after their mission on Pluto. The second Lubic-Ristin war was winding down while Terik’s father awaited trial. Terik remembered their scout ship had set down on Trappist V, in the woods outside Dekler’s chalet.  They were both armed with Lyto series 2 sniper rifles and found themselves a perch to setup. Two guards on the north wing, two on the east.  The South looked unguarded, all while Dekler was in the east penthouse. Terik and Kaynic waited for a second team of Mako 6 agents to create a diversion, an explosion that was set off in the south wing.

Through his scope, Terik saw Dekler come out onto the balcony to see what happened. But then, a shot went off, and it wasn’t Terik’s. Someone else’s, and it whizzed by Terik’s ear. “We’ve been made,” Kaynic had said. “The mission’s aborted.”

Donato and Kaynic hauled ass through the woods, back towards their ship.  But when they got there, three of Dekler’s mercenaries stood waiting.  Terik thought he and Kaynic had beat them to the draw, but one got off a shot. Kaynic was down. Terik scrambled to help his friend, but stray fire was everywhere. The ship wasn’t going to wait, and if Terik stayed behind he’d likely fall as well, being no good to Kaynic. “I’ll come back for you.” Terik had said. He made a choice, a choice he struggled to live with until the day he learned the truth. That it was a hoax – Jonus Kaynic had defected, and that he intended to make Terik’s life a living hell.

Terik’s solitude ended when he heard laser fire.  And not just a stray blast or two. An assault.

That’s not Dekler.

He jumped to his feet and headed back towards the Sacramento. He still had some distance to close, but as Terik got closer to the ship, he saw several small alien craft attacking the Sacramento.

This is Chapter 1 of Book 1: Detriment of the series The Dawn Cluster.
Edited by Marie Ginga

Community leader. Particle physicist. International Assassin. Mark J Schultis is none of these.  He wrote his first story in elementary school and has spent a lifetime keeping that childhood passion of storytelling alive, studying theater and film making before eventually earning his writing degree from the University of Pittsburgh. A perpetual night owl and pizza connoisseur, Mark was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and their two children. You can follow Mark on Twitter @schultisscribe