By Kenneth James
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.
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.
said, almost in a whisper, “Suit, say vitals.”
suit responded in its soft, feminine, and calm computer-generated voice, giving
his vital signs.
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!
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
external.” he said.
external,” it repeated.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Hatcher came awake again in about half an hour to the bonging of his suit
what’s the problem?”
supply is depleted—one hour of oxygen left. Battery power has depleted, and
will fail in one hour, eighteen minutes.”
suit lights,” Billy again commanded. Ignoring the stump of his left arm, he got
busy assessing his situation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Kenneth Crist, firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.