Black Petals Issue #76 Summer, 2016

Surviving Montezuma-Chapters I & II
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Mars-News, Views and Commentary
Anniversary-Fiction by A. M. Stickel
Flirting with the Alley-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Gone Astray-Fiction by Denis Bushlatov
Surviving Montezuma-Serialized Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
The Road-Fiction by Walter Kwiatkowski
The Watchers-Fiction by Mike Mulvihill
Ghost Lover-Poem by Janet Ro
My Walk to Emberly Park- Poem by Janet Ro
Honey Island Swamp Monster-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Skin Walker-Poem by Richard Stevenson
Ucu-Poem by Richard Stevenson

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Art by Mike Kerins 2016

SURVIVING MONTEZUMA

 

By Kenneth James Crist, Editor

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Marine gunnery sergeant Billy Hatcher came awake with a start to blackness, silence, and pain. It seemed that just a minute ago there had been so much radio traffic...so many screams...so much confusion. Now there was nothing, only the slight hum of his battle suit’s ventilation system and his own breathing.

Outside his tinted visor, he saw nothing but blackness. Where are the stars? In just a few moments, he began to focus on the pain. It had a dull edge to it but was definitely there, and he thought, Oh, no, not again! “Gunny” Hatcher had already been wounded five times in his five-year career with the Space Marines and cited for valor as well. Pain was nothing new. It seemed to be coming from the vicinity of his left arm and he could only assume that the battle suit had already given him morphine. It hadn’t completely blocked out the pain but had kept him alive.

He said, almost in a whisper, “Suit, say vitals.”

The suit responded in its soft, feminine, and calm computer-generated voice, giving his vital signs.

“Summary of vitals for Hatcher, William D.: blood pressure, one hundred thirty-one over seventy-seven; pulse, one hundred one; respiration, twenty-eight; temperature, ninety-seven point nine. You have lost one pint of volume in the last hour.”

A pint! Damn! This must be serious!

“Suit, injury assessment.”

There was a pause, then again the soft, almost disinterested voice spoke. “You have lost the lower part of your left upper extremity. Suit’s elbow joint seal and clamp were activated. You have received two units of morphine...and one unit bactaban antibiotic.”

“Lights, external.” he said.

“Lights, external,” it repeated.

The outside lights came on, projecting outward from the top of his helmet. He saw the stump of his left arm and realized that the suit had clamped off at the elbow joint, as it was designed to do. Once again, a battle suit had saved his life, but the arm was a goner. He could see the ragged end of the stump, flash-frozen by the cold, dry vacuum of space. That will have to be cauterized and disinfected, he thought dazedly, whenever I get inside someplace with heat and air, or it will rot and I could die of gangrene. With that cheery thought, Gunny Hatcher’s stomach did a slow-roll and he fainted. After two minutes without any command, the suit lights went out, allowing blackness to again blot out his rugged features. The suit went back to its low power settings as it continued to monitor Billy’s vitals.

 

The burned and blasted hulk of the troop carrier Montezuma continued to drift while Gunnery Sergeant Hatcher was unconscious. In its day it had been a fine ship of the line, just under a half-mile long and grossing 22 million tons. It had been refitted in space, in high Earth orbit, from a former passenger cruise liner, as the building of the defense fleet was just getting geared up. That had been nineteen years ago, when the Glassies had arrived in Earth’s solar system and made their first attacks. Had there been more than a few of the great hiveships in that first assault, Earth would have been decimated.

It was theorized that they had found Earth, not because of any attempts by SETI or any other organization to make contact but by reading the electromagnetic pulses from nuclear testing, before such tests were banned. It had taken them over a hundred years to arrive but, when they came, mankind got its first taste of dealing with a race of beings as warlike as themselves and infinitely more hostile.

The Glassies were a silicon-based life form, the first such ever seen by man. They were insectoid in appearance and lived in colonies, each huge hiveship having a queen. Their bodies were covered by a semitransparent exoskeleton, through which the internal organs could be seen. Billy thought the aliens resembled large, see-through praying mantises.

New York City was their first target. On a bright summer Sunday afternoon, forty attack craft, launched from a hiveship, had overflown the city, using high-energy photon lasers to burn it nearly flat. Their ship had been in orbit around the Earth less than twelve hours when the attack came, and the military had known it was there. After some hasty meetings but no public announcement about the presence of an alien ship, millions died because the military had no plan in place for such an encounter. There had been no provocation for the attack, other than the fact that mankind existed. For the Glassies, that seemed to be enough.

Much of the solar system had been explored at that point, but weapons had been banned from space as unnecessary. That was to change quickly, as the United States and other countries for once forgot their differences and combined their forces, going into full military buildup. All ships were recalled and refitted as military vessels, and a war began. On the day that the Montezuma was holed and burned, the war had dragged on for most of Billy’s lifetime, taking Earth’s young men and women, her resources, and much of her dignity in a desperate struggle for survival. Montezuma was 90 million miles from Earth and had been left behind by the rest of the fleet. The Glassies had sprung a trap, using one of their own ships as bait, and the occupants of the Monty, some 1500 troops, had paid the ultimate price.

 

Gunny Hatcher came awake again in about half an hour to the bonging of his suit alarm.

“Suit, what’s the problem?”

“Oxygen supply is depleted—one hour of oxygen left. Battery power has depleted, and will fail in one hour, eighteen minutes.”

“Activate suit lights,” Billy again commanded. Ignoring the stump of his left arm, he got busy assessing his situation.

The ship was obviously open to space and he was still inside. The fires had gone out with the loss of atmosphere. Everything else that wasn’t tied down had gone too. He vaguely wondered why he wasn’t sucked out and drifting many miles from the Monty but didn’t have time to solve that one right now. He had less than an hour to live if he didn’t replenish his oxygen and battery packs.

His suit lights showed him twisted walls and blackened fixtures. The lack of gravity and any reference point to “up” or “down” was very disorienting. He lived on this ship and he was totally lost.

With his suit lights showing him the way, Billy began to move about the remains of the twisted hulk, propelling himself with his one remaining arm through the weightless vacuum. When the Monty had been holed, he had been on his way to his jump-ship, so knew he was forward and on the lower side, starboard.

As a drop-ship pilot, Billy’s job was to take troops from the Monty, ninety at a time, and put them and their weapons precisely where they were needed. Though only twenty-two, Gunny Hatcher was a seasoned Marine who had once dropped his best friend to his death during a Mars battle. He had entered the Marines at seventeen. Now, especially in the case of clones, they were taking them as young as twelve.

His search for air and batteries took him through corridors made unfamiliar by fire and blast deformation, until he finally got lucky and found launch bay #2, where his drop-ship should have been cradled in its giant hydraulic launcher. It was gone, Billy could see; the launch bay had been devastated, its entire bottom door assembly blown away, leaving an excellent view of the stars and infinite cold of space. There were no bodies, no suits, nothing left to indicate that there had ever been living beings here, except himself. Billy stood in a doorway (hatch) and looked out through the huge rectangle of the missing launch bay doors. The stars silently wheeled by, and he realized that the Montezuma was tumbling slowly end over end. In his already shocky and nauseated condition it was very disturbing to watch, and he soon turned from the launch bay and pressed on.

He continued his search for more than half an hour before he got his first break. In a shop area he found the remains of a workman, probably an engine man or welder, from his stocky stature. The man was in his suit and the visor was shattered, but he had been tethered to a workbench welded to the deck. When he died, the suit had sensed that its occupant’s vital signs were gone and had shut down, saving the air and batteries.

Billy desperately went through lockers until he found a transfer hose and was able to top off his tanks from the dead man’s suit. He took the batteries from it also, snapping them into their holders on his own suit and discarding the weakened ones. Now the invisible clock that measured his life was reset. He would live for at least five more hours. He had not allowed himself to think in terms beyond that time limit or about the other problems facing him.

He was marooned, 90 million miles from Earth, with no idea how he was going to survive for any length of time, let alone get home. He also wasn’t allowing himself to think about the tremendous loss of the personnel of the Monty. Right now, he had no time for tears.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Billy decided that his first concern should be for shelter—a place within the Monty still airtight or that could be made that way. Then he would need food, water, and medical attention. He wasn’t kidding himself. He knew that, for medical attention, he could only depend on himself. He was trying not to think about what it was going to be like to cauterize, clean, and suture the stump of his arm. Was there enough morphine in the universe to get him through that?

The artificial gravity in the Monty was off and, apparently, all power was off as well. This meant he had to contend with weightlessness. To anyone unfamiliar with space travel this would have seemed an advantage for someone wounded. The opposite was true. Billy would have much preferred walking on two good legs in Earth gravity to the slow careful dance of maneuvering in a zero-G environment minus one arm.

Each push against a floor or wall resulted in movement, which sooner or later had to be counteracted by an equal amount of force in the opposite direction. He had done this drill often enough in the past to be familiar with it, so it really posed no danger, just meant that he had to think out each move ahead of time—a  pain in the ass.

He slowly made his way back through the wreck. Now that he knew his starting point, it was easier to figure out where he was. Sometimes he would find a place impassable for one reason or another—with either debris blocking a passageway or a large gap of empty space he didn’t want to risk crossing without a tether. So he would backtrack and try another deck, another passage. His search took him to areas of the Montezuma that he normally never would see—the bridge, the galley, or officers’ country.

As he conducted his search and assessment of the remains of his vessel, Billy thought little about the suit that was keeping him alive. His life included the usage of many marvelous devices and the battle suit was merely one of them, a tool of the trade. Battle suits had become a necessity only after the arrival of the Glassies and were the logical military extension of the old basic space suit.

Billy’s suit was the latest in a series of improved models that utilized the newest fabrics, plastics, and metals in the construction of a light, flexible, and strong survival package incorporating the best life-support, biomedical, and communications systems available. It included an air scrubber and enrichment module that could recycle an hour’s worth of breathing oxygen to make it last five hours. Its medical stores could administer life-saving drugs and antibiotics, as well as antidotes for a dozen gasses and poisons, all through a “prickly-strap” around the wearer’s thigh, containing thousands of micro-needles connected to a computerized server that figured needs and dosages. The suit was highly reflective, as at least partial protection from laser shots, and Billy’s showed his Gunnery Sergeant chevrons on the sleeves and his last name in blue five-inch tall letters across his back and chest. The visor, also reflective, made it impossible to tell who was who without the rank and name being displayed.

Billy went through his second tank of oxygen a little too rapidly because of the level of his activities and the pain of his wound. He covered almost all of the accessible areas of the Montezuma and became convinced he was utterly and completely alone. It was a condition he was used to.

His parents had been in New York City on “Black Sunday” the day of the alien invasion. They were on holiday and Billy had been left with an aunt in Boston. Their bodies were never recovered or identified and, after a period of time, there was a memorial service. Billy lived with the aunt until she died of emphysema. Then he became a ward of the court, which really meant property of the government. He lived in a number of “hostels” where the schooling was all aimed toward military service. The indoctrination was almost shameful. Children were transformed into hating, vengeful, maladjusted misfits, who couldn’t wait to get into the service and kill Glassies.

Billy had mellowed somewhat since boot camp and had fought in a number of deadly battles, including those at Mare Imbrium and Mars Canyon. He had forty-two jumps (or “drops”) to his credit and five purple hearts…well, six now, if he lived.

His closest friend had been Norman Wahl, of Derby, Kansas, whom Billy had dropped to his death on Mars. Since then he had preferred not to get close to anyone.

 

Five hours’ time found Gunny Hatcher enclosed in a small room, which at one time had been a quartermaster’s closet, a place to store gear until it could be sorted out and cleaned or returned to stock or disposed of. The almost featureless room measured about six feet square. It had electrical outlets, an overhead light fixture, an airtight door, and little else. Billy counted sixteen shrapnel holes in the walls and ceiling, but none in the floor. The deck was made of stouter stuff than the walls. He had found some meteor patches and plugged the holes, and had dragged in six air tanks. He noticed that the slight spin of the ship caused a gravitational effect; anything loose tended to drift to the bulkhead farthest away from the center of rotation. He knew that the farther he went outward from the center of rotation, the more pronounced the effect of centrifugal force would be. His closet was about halfway between the center of rotation and the aft end of the ship, so there wasn’t much effect, but enough that he and the tanks were not entirely weightless. He was able to park them against the wall and not worry about them drifting around and banging into him.

As soon as he had the room sealed well enough to hold air, he cracked the valve on a tank and set about filling the room and bringing it to a pressure of half an atmosphere. He still had no heat source, so would have to remain in his suit, but could crack his visor open and save the suit batteries, as they would not have to support the drain of the air scrubber unit. He intended to rest and then go back out to forage for food and water. Last of all, he would check on possible power sources.

When the room reached the required pressure, he opened his suit and began breathing room air. He yawned several times to make his ears pop and get the pressure in his head to equal out, then took an oxygen tank and barely cracked open the valve. It would replenish the oxygen he breathed up, keeping the air from becoming totally foul, although, sooner or later, if unfiltered, it would become toxic.

This done, he decided to rest, and carefully arranged himself on the wall his senses soon fooled him into believing was the floor, and went to sleep.

He awoke several hours later with the tip of his nose hurting from cold and with a ringing in his ears. He had been dreaming about a blacksmith he had once seen in a show about the Old West of the 19th century on Earth. He still could hear the rhythmic ringing of the hammer as the smithy formed a shoe, made of red-hot iron, for a horse. He closed his helmet visor and the suit’s air scrubber cut on, but he could still hear that hammer. Then he realized that the sound was real. He listened for a while, until it stopped, then decided that it must have been caused by a tank somewhere expanding and contracting, probably from uneven temperature due to sunlight. Or, it might be a piece of loose equipment banging around somewhere. Anyway, it was gone now and he needed to get to work. He was hungry and his suit was about due for a battery change again.

Having no access to an airlock meant that all of the air in Billy’s room would be lost every time he went outside; he could figure no way to avoid that. He closed the valve on the oxygen tank and went to the door, slowly opening the safety valve, letting the room air bleed off into space. When all was still and silent, he opened the door and stepped back out into the wreck of the Monty.

On one of the troop decks, Billy found space suits. There were a total of fifty-six suits on this one deck alone, stowed neatly in lockers, that should have been in use when the battle commenced. It was a regulation that everyone suit up when at battle stations. It just showed how lax things could get, even aboard a warship like the Monty. He thought about what it must have been like for those who were not in space suits when the Monty was holed. They would have instinctively tried to grab onto anything they could when the ship began to depressurize and all of its air burst explosively into space; some might have even managed to anchor themselves quite well, until there was no more air and their lungs, eyes, arteries, and internal organs ruptured. He had seen it once, aboard the Wilbur E. Bascombe, his first berth, when he was just a young trooper.

They had come under fire from a Glassie light cruiser and several compartments had been holed, the blast-points being too large to patch. Everyone had been suited up, but one man’s visor had stuck, something that just wasn’t supposed to happen. It should have closed automatically at the first sign of a pressure drop. Not only did it fail but, when the man tried to close it manually, he was unable to get it down. Billy was right next to him when his eyes exploded out of his head and a huge gout of blood and lung tissue shot out of his straining mouth, to hit the wall. He was dead before he knew what happened. Billy hadn’t known the man personally, but it didn’t matter. It was a nasty way to die.

The suits would be good to have, even though they weren’t battle suits like his own. These were suits for support personnel. They had no biomed kits, were not reflective, and had only the most basic communications gear. But they did have air tanks and batteries that were compatible with his own suit. He would need to raid these suits periodically to keep himself alive. All well and good, but his stomach was grumbling and he needed to find out about electrical power.

The ship’s atomic power plant provided for all of its electrical needs. He needed to check it for damage and look for obvious radiation leaks. It would be quite ironic to survive out here for weeks or months, only to die from radiation poisoning.

He entered the galley area first and was greeted by a sight of total chaos. Every container that was air tight had burst and the contents coated the walls and floated in bizarre frozen shapes throughout the area. He knew if he had to, he could capture some of this stuff and thaw it out and eat it. It wouldn’t be appetizing but it would sustain life. Sort of like what I’m used to anyway, he thought grimly. The water tanks were of sturdier construction, but even some of them had burst because they were full and, when the contents turned to ice, there was no expansion room. Again, he would be able to take chunks of water ice to his room and thaw them to get drinking water. Food packets of dry concentrates that were vacuum sealed were in fine shape too. He might die out here but it wouldn’t be of starvation.

 

Billy made it to the control center for the ship’s atomic plant after he had stocked his tiny room with food and water and once again charged his air tanks and changed his batteries. None of it would do any good if he couldn’t heat his compartment.

At the control center, he found all of the computerized controls shut down, monitors intact but dark, nothing stirring. The few gauges there were showed a very low level of activity in the nuclear reactor. So little heat in the core hardly registered on the gauges. He set about examining the plant, itself.

Within twenty minutes he had found that the cooling system for the reactor had suffered major damage and was probably inoperable. This meant that any activity above what it was doing right now might be dangerous; if the reactor got too hot, a core meltdown could occur or, even worse, it could go to critical mass, becoming nothing more than a low-yield, dirty atom bomb.

At last, he decided he was too tired to deal with it. He needed more sleep but also some heat in his quarters, and had to find a way to get that. He finally settled on an oxygen-acetylene cutting torch and tanks from one of the repair bays. It would be tricky and certainly dangerous to use but would provide heat. He would need to fill the room with enough air and oxygen to sustain himself without making the mixture too combustible. The torch would burn regardless, having its own oxygen source, and would put off considerable heat.

Within the hour, Billy had water to drink, some hot food and a space warm enough that frostbite was not a danger. The torch would not last forever, of course, but his problems were temporarily solved, except for his arm. And he had made it through the first twenty-four hours alive.

 

Sleep became a precious commodity, most of his time and energy being spent hauling supplies, exploring for anything useable, and just surviving in the cold, weightless environment of the wreck. Periodically, he would hear the peculiar banging, but only when he was inside his room, where there was enough air to conduct sound.

Late in the second day, he began to think there was a pattern or rhythm to the ringing blows and became curious. During his next sleep period, he dreamed again of the blacksmith and the ringing hammer and, in the dream, the blows were always the same, grouped in threes. There would be three blows, delivered quickly, then a pause while the smithy changed the position of the steel, then three more, coming much more slowly, almost thoughtfully. Then three more, to finish the pattern, were once again quickly delivered. There would be a pause, then it would start again. When he woke up, he decided that it was worth finding the source of the banging, if only to shut it up.

To Be Continued

 

Kenneth Crist, blkptls@cox.net, www.blackpetals.net, of Wichita, Kansas, wrote the SF serial (starting in BP #76)  SURVIVING MONTEZUMA  (+ “The Big Well” & “Virtuality” for BP #75, “Gift of the Anasazi” for BP #73, “The Weeping Man” for BP #72, “Pebbles” for BP #71, “The Diner” for BP #67, “New Glasses” for BP #61, “Ones and Zeros” for BP #50, & the novelette Joshua) and has edited BP for many years, continuing as Editor Emeritus, then Coeditor/Webmaster. Widely published, esp. in Hardboiled and on Yellow Mama, he also has four chapbooks currently for sale in Kindle format on Amazon.com, Dreaming of Mirages, The Gazing Ball, Joshua, and Groaning for Burial, his latest zombie fiction.

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