5. A Firefight
Zip watched out the cockpit window as Pilsen walked away with two of the largest crustaceans she had ever seen. The sheer size of the crab’s armor plating made Zip wonder if her armaments were going to be anywhere near enough. Below decks, she kept a few relics from a bug war back in the early days of colonization, but they were antiques, built on Old Earth designs. There was no telling whether they would still fire, and if a bug’s shell was similar to that of a crab. Old Faithful would probably do the trick. Watching the committee scuttle away gave Zip chills.
In general, one of the many rules learned by early space pioneers was to never colonize, visit, or even look sideways at a bug planet. Bugs, like crabs, it seemed, were one of natures better ideas. Throughout the galaxy, there were planets filled to the brim with them, and while many contained valuable natural resources, it wasn’t enough to justify the risk. Several corporations had gone bankrupt trying to conquer bug planets for strip mining, but there wasn’t a military force capable of the task. In the end, any bug planet operation led to lost dollars and unimaginable bloodshed.
Looking down at the blue-green water surrounding the small spit of land the Crustaceans called a landing pad, Zip was able to see the land for what it was: A bug planet. No matter how little technology the Crustaceans possessed, they were always going to have the evolutionary advantage of armor and extreme survivability. Zip wished she could take another shot or two of the puffin rum but kept her hand firmly above the button for the antimatter guns. Everything looked friendly enough so far, but she wasn’t taking chances.
Eventually, Pilsen and the two emissaries disappeared into one of the low buildings that continually tried to blind her with the midday sun. The cockpit’s main screen was set to a level of polarization that made it difficult to make out the finer details of the world. A tactical display set over it at least made targeting and threat detection possible. Even with the scanners showing nothing aside from a light breeze, Zip was firmly on edge. There were plenty of fights that had started with a lot less than a light breeze. A thick scar that ran from her left shoulder to her abdomen was proof enough of that.
Before she had a chance to stop it, Zip was back on the cold, dark surface of Mizeria. It was an unclever name for a place that was as horrible as any could be. She and a platoon of mercenaries were sent to remove a group of squatters, siphoning off power from a corporate mining facility. Aside from rich resources, Mizeria was known for a omnipresent cover of thick clouds and near constant storms of electricity ravaging its surface. Bathed in darkness with the occasional flash of electricity across the churning sky, it was still the closest thing to Hell Zip had ever seen.
She looked down at the thick mud caked around her boots. A pair of eyes opened and lunged upward. Hot fire ran in a line up her spine as a lance of cold steel made its way beneath her skin. The world spun and shook with the disorienting sensation that only accompanied near death. The man’s eyes were milky white, blinded, adapted to the darkness. His teeth had been filed to points. In his hand was a rusted, pitted blade, dripping with her blood.
The cool, conditioned air of the cockpit returned in an instant and Zip reached for the bottle. Her back was slick with sweat and she didn’t need a look at the clock to tell she had lost time. Halfway through uncorking the bottle, a proximity alert sounded, jolting her back to awareness. At the far end of the landing platform, several figures were rising from the waves. In the tactical display, they looked like nothing more than misshapen bubbles. As the water sloughed off their chitinous forms, Zip saw a platoon of lobsters, carrying heavy armaments. Their skin was painted black and white, giving them a ghostly, skeletal appearance as they rose from the depths.
“Ah shit,” she muttered and moved her hand back over the big red button for her guns. The creatures were moving deliberately and quietly. It was difficult to say if they saw her, and if they did, if they understood what her ship meant. Zip remembered the last line of her contract: Do not turn diplomacy into a firefight unless it’s absolutely necessary. She took a deep breath and reluctantly brought her hand to rest away from the big gun button. Rather than immediately vaporizing the creatures, she ran through a checklist.
“Ok, big, scary-looking lobster things coming out of the water. Are you a threat?” Looking at them, the clear and immediate answer was yes, but Zip had felt the same way about Crustacea’s ambassador. “Are you profiling them?” The question felt odd looking down at a platoon of oversized lobsters carrying what could only be weaponry. “Probably a little bit, but those are some pretty big guns.”
One of the lobsters put down a tripod at the end of the landing pad. Together, two more heaved a larger, mounted gun on top.
“Maybe they’re just Crustacea’s version of me. They’re just protecting their leadership’s political assets” Zip’s hand inched closer to the button.
The lobsters turned the large gun to face Nana’s Hog and one moved behind the sights.
Relief swept through Zip. “Thank you for making this unambiguous.” She slammed her hand down on the button and the world erupted into a cacophony of light and sound. The hog’s forward mounted cannons bucked, shaking the ship back and forth. Before she had even heard the sound, Zip watched as the group of insurgent lobsters were disassembled into their component parts and scattered to the wind. A few stray shots hit the edges of the platform, sending up plumes of what was once concrete into the air.
The fight was over in less than a few seconds. Afterward, a low hum filled the ship as the guns cooled. Zip sat back in her chair, confident in her decision, but mentally preparing for the lecture she’d be getting from Pilsen on his return. Generally speaking, starting a firefight with potential negotiating partners was considered taboo. She was about to reach for the bottle again when the sound of grinding metal, coupled with another proximity alert caught her attention. “Those sneaky bastards.” The screen showed a hull breach on The Hog’s backside.
Zip undid her seat straps and cracked her knuckles. The ship was suddenly far more claustrophobic than it had been a few moments earlier. Reaching around behind her head, she pulled out a pistol concealed on the back of the chair for just such occasions. The gun was a mix of bright purples and oranges, looking like it had been cobbled together from child’s playthings. It had the advantage of being misleading, while also firing rounds that wouldn’t poke holes in her ship. Ordinarily, in vacuum, that was an advantage. Sitting on the ground, she longed for something with a little more kick.
A loud crash filled the ship as the invaders entered. Out the door, straight to the hold, get Old Faithful. While a pistol was nice, an illegal machine gun was better. She flipped a switch on the side of the pistol, and it hummed with sudden electric life. Here goes nothing. Zip opened the cockpit door. In a small act of luck, the hallway on the other side was empty. The doors to the crew quarters remained closed, and nothing looked out of place. If the creatures below were anything like the ones she had just vaporized, they would have trouble navigating the cramped upper hallways.
Zip crept forward, conscious of every echo her boots made as they tapped against the metal floor. From below, she heard great lumbering crashes. You better not be fucking up my ship. In general, many would have considered cutting a big hole in the side of a vessel to be ‘fucking up a ship’, but Zip knew she could patch big holes. It was the wiring, the plumbing, and all the myriad of things that could be disassembled from the inside that worried her. Even in the greatest ports in the galaxy, a plumber would cost a small fortune, and that would just be for the estimate. No matter how advanced society got, it seemed that people still didn’t want to deal with cleaning up their own shit.
Zip quickened her pace and made her way to the stairwell at the end of the hall. The small, brightly colored pistol hummed in her hand, ready for action, but it offered her little peace of mind. As she descended the staircase, she imagined just how thick a giant lobster’s shell might be. Surely nothing high caliber couldn’t manage. If Old Faithful could rip through the hell-spawned offspring of a cockroach and something that dwelled deep beneath the soil of a bug planet, it would hold up here.
All the same, Zip counted each step between her and the doorway that would provide a direct view into the cargo hold. She’d be able to see the lobsters, but they’d be able to see her too. Invaders were no stranger to Nana’s Hog. It seemed from the moment it had left birth; the great lumbering ship was destined to be beset by anyone that wasn’t its captain. Zip, of course, had come about it earnest, gambling. The previous owner drank himself to death in a mud pit over the loss. Zip took over, and despite the universe’s best efforts had remained captain ever since. She rounded the corner and peered around the edge of the stairwell. Two, hulking lobsters were standing hunched over a crate of fish flakes. Their claws cut through the metal container with ease, tearing it away in great strips.
Zip leveled the pistol at one of their shimmering backs, still wet with salt water. She just needed long enough to distract them. Old Faithful was in a wall-mounted container, only a few steps away. It would take a few seconds for the bio verification to kick in, but a good jolt of electricity would have to do the job. Zip took a deep breath, feeling the thrum of adrenaline under her skin. There were certainly stranger ways to die in the vast universe, but at the moment, she couldn’t think of any of them.
Zip pulled the trigger. A bright yellow dart, about the size of her finger flew out, crackling with electricity. Seconds passed like minutes as it sailed across the cargo hold and landed with a hollow thunk, sticking to the back of the closest lobster. Electricity arched across the creature’s back, conducted by the sheen of salt water. The lobster let out a horrible screech of pain as its limbs shot out in all directions on their own volition.
Zip didn’t wait. She moved across the hold with speed and purpose, pulling the slide back on the pistol again. Just as the second lobster turned around to see what had happened to its unfortunate compatriot, she pulled the trigger. Her aim was true. The dart landed at the base of one of the creature’s eyestalks. Electricity jumped up the thin cylinder of skin, reaching the beady, black eyeball at the top and bursting it like a balloon. Deafening screeches filled the hold.
Zip slammed her hand against the container holding Old Faithful. A light blinked green, and the container slid open just as a salvo of bullets raked the wall next to her. Metal shrapnel stung her face, tearing at her skin. Zip grabbed the machinegun with one hand and rolled behind a set of crates. Hard thumps shook the floor around her. The rapid fire of the lobsters’ guns continued, sending plumes of fish flakes into the air to mix with the acrid smell of gunpowder. Whatever the darts had done, it wasn’t enough. She tossed her pistol to the side, sending it skittering across the floor. A hail of bullets shredded the deck where it landed.
A blinking LED on the top of the machine gun let Zip know that it was ready to take in ammunition. She pushed a blue button on the side and a small slot opened on top. The gun sucked in the fish flakes and bits of metal in the air, compressing them instantaneously and growing the glowing ammunition count on the screen. Zip never took time to count shots. Instead, she left the fabricator running and rose out of cover, bringing the gun to bear.
The two lobsters were staring at her, fumbling with oversized magazines as they tried to clumsily reload.
“Peak of evolution, my ass.” Zip pulled the trigger and held it down, passing the sights from one intruder to the next with clinical efficiency. Despite her concern about the creatures’ thick hides, the bullets found their mark. Well, some of them did, but when dealing in ludicrous volumes of ammunition, some was often enough. In short order, the lobsters were filled with all manner of holes, as was what remained of the cargo hold. Blue blood coated the wall behind them in near-artistic splatters. Zip held the trigger down for far too long, only letting it go when both creatures were face down on the ground and completely unmoving.
A warm breeze blew through the hole the invaders had cut in the side of the ship. Allowing the stringent tension of battle to ease slightly, Zip moved toward what she desperately hoped were corpses. Based on the stink rapidly overpowering the already pungent aroma in the cargo hold, she guessed they were. There was no malice in the action when she kicked the first lobster’s carapace. Her toe rung with the impact, but the creature didn’t move. Zip let the gun drop and felt the breath she’d been holding rush out of her in a wave. The adrenaline of combat was replaced quickly by deep exhaustion. I better still get paid. She looked down at the rapidly decaying creatures. “Welcome to the UCP.”
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