So as a thank you for sticking around (or further penance), I offer you Unforgiving, the first short in the collection. Enjoy:
Corey White stared at the poster, regarding it thoughtfully as he had every day for the last several weeks. At first, he had merely given it a passing glance while walking by on his way home. He lingered, then stopped. Now he stared at it, chewing his bottom lip.
Eighteen year old Corey was almost done with school but lacked purpose and direction. His home life was certainly not helpful; his father was barely worth the title, his mother more concerned with her looks than whether of not her son had a future.
The stocky youth stared at the poster of a skull and crossbones emblazoned over a tattered Union Jack with a call to arms against pirates that preyed on British trade routes stenciled in lettering above and below it. His dark eyes shifted from the poster and rested on the glass door to his left. He chewed his lip a moment longer, then set his jaw and charged in. The door slid aside at his approach and he paid no mind to the words Recruitment Center as he passed them.
Several months passed by swiftly. The training was constant and arduous. He even excelled, and found that structure and discipline, now in his life for the first time, suited him well. While he was no leader, he didn't pretend to be and took his orders well. Over time his formerly pudgy body became a stocky, muscular build.
He wrote to his mother once. She answered with a note, suggesting in a generic manner that he not get hurt. He did not reply. He got on well enough with his fellow recruits, but made no friends. He thought perhaps he should, but while no one shunned him, no one reached out to him. He found he didn't mind and so in the end left those at basic training behind as quickly as he had those on Earth.
The docking bay of the training station was expansive, with a shuttle connected to boarding tubes, waiting to take the new soldiers to the far reaches of the galaxy. Nervously, Corey stood in line, with black hair freshly cut short, and a duffel bag slung over his shoulders,. The others were glancing about wide-eyed with puzzled expressions that told of their wonder at which shuttle they would be told to board and where it would take them. Corey silently glanced at the line ahead of him, and listened to the sergeant give each soldier an assignment.
“Infantry, Atlas, gate three.”
“Spaceman, HMS Victory, gate six.”
“Spaceman, Compass Rose, gate twelve.” Corey came to the front of the line, and presented his papers, stating his name and serial number. His instructions followed the same pattern as all the rest.
“Gunner, HMS Daring, gate eight.” Corey pulled himself along the handrail to gate eight, presented his papers again and boarded the shuttle. It was already close to full and they were soon under way, leaving the station and the Earth far behind. The recruit next to him was tall and thin, with a meek face. Corey wondered how the man had made it through basic. On his other side sat a woman who showed considerably more promise. She was short with blonde hair tied in a ponytail. Her chin was set in a determined fashion, and her blue eyes stared straight ahead.
“Know anything about the Daring?” Corey asked her.
She started, as if he had interrupted her train of thought. Before he could apologize she answered. “She's brand new, that's why there's so many of us headed there.” She nodded to the full transport. “Destroyer. We get to hunt pirates,” she finished in an excited tone.
“You know your stuff,” he said.
She shrugged dismissively. “I did my homework. I asked to be assigned to a ship that would see action.”
“You can do that?” It had never occurred to him.
She laughed, her voice light and airy. He smiled. “Kendall Hood,” she held out her hand to him.
“Corey White.” They chatted the rest of the way to Mars, small talk that occasionally shifted from their shared experience at basic to their curiosity for the future. The ship slowed and the announcement that they had reached Mars came on.
“Ready?” she asked him with an excited smile.
“Absolutely,” he replied with a grin.
* * *
The Daring was long and tall, her hull a tapered V-shape, wide at the top, and completely enclosed. Two banks of engines were aft and set out from the hull, which allowed them to fire forward or behind. Maneuvering engines had been placed along the hull, so she could navigate in any direction.
The gun deck was uppermost and hosted twenty heavy laser cannons, ten facing in each direction. At the moment they were hidden behind the heavy blast doors that slid aside when needed, allowing them to fire outward. There were two additional chin-mounted cannons that could fire forward.
As the shuttle closed in towards the dock, Corey could see the bridge protruding above and aft. The shuttle passed in front of it to enter the docking bay of the large station.
Inside they were filed along to their bunks, which were on the lowest desk. The room looked bizarre to Corey, who had spent his whole life planetside. The 'bunks' were vertical metal slabs that stretched from floor to ceiling. There was a sleeping bag attached to either side, flapping open in zero gravity.
Above that was a small locker for stowing their gear. Corey stopped and looked around, unsure what to do. He felt an elbow in his back, shoving him forward.
“White, grab a bunk and stow your gear!” A sergeant barked at him, and he hurried to obey. He only wondered briefly what sleeping like that would be like; the bunks had been much more traditional during basic.
A gruff-looking officer appeared in the doorway, clad in full armor. It was blue-gray with a bright Union Jack on the shoulder. The officer held his spherical helmet in one hand.
“Gunners, briefing room, now,” he shouted gruffly and turned around to pull himself along the rail in the opposite direction. Corey fell in behind the others as they exited, hoping they knew where to go.
The briefing room they were heading to was down the hall, and the recruits found it with ease. The officer who had ordered them there stood in the center of the room, a holoprojector beside him. A row of railings was arranged around it for them to hold onto in zero gravity.
“I am gunnery sergeant Leary,” he began. “Welcome to the Daring. The lot of you will make up the gun crews of this ship, two of you to a gun.” Corey glanced around at the thirty-nine other gunners in the room as the sergeant spoke on. “For the most part, our mission will be to escort GalSpan and other Imperial ships and protect them from pirates. For our first mission, though, we have an opportunity to help capture a dangerous fugitive. He is working with a crew of French Pirates. Special Services has set a trap for him and we are to provide firepower to stop his pirate cohorts. Mission details are in your inbox. Get familiar with them, we leave in two days. Dismissed.”
Corey returned to the bunks for a while before he explored the ship, the rec areas and the gym. Each crewmember was required to spend three hours a day in the gym in zero G conditions, and Corey was fine with that- he enjoyed letting go while he worked out.
He went up to the gun deck, where he had been assigned to Saber Three, the third gun aft. It was a massive double-barreled laser cannon, which sat back on a track that it would slip forward on when the gun port opened. He slid into the seat, staring down the barrels and past the dim heads up display, to the cooling tubes at the cold steel of the closed gun port. For the first time, he wondered what battle would be like. He had heard stories of people who spent their whole tours on escort duty, never so much as sniffing a pirate- he was pleased his first mission held a guarantee of combat.
“You look nervous, White.” He glanced over his shoulder at the speaker. It was Kendall, holding herself steady on the raised platform in the middle of the gun deck.
He released his grip on the controls, floating upward and pivoting, pulling himself over the seat towards her. “A little,” he replied, grabbing a handle on the ceiling. “Are you?”
She smiled. “A little.” She looked at the massive cannon behind him. “Gunner, eh?”
“Yeah. I guess I tested well for it. First time for everything. How about you?”
“Oh, high class,” he said with a touch of sarcasm.
“I tested well for it,” she replied with a smile. “I doubt that's the first time you tested well for something, though.”
“Are you nervous?”
“A little. It will be different, going straight into combat instead of just patrols and escorts.” Her voice went quiet. “I have to go. Take care of yourself, okay?” He nodded and she turned and pulled herself forward. He floated in the empty gun deck for a long moment before he headed below. He turned his mind from the coming combat to other things.
* * *
Two weeks later, the Daring hung in space an hour from where the trap had been set. Corey sat in the seat of his cannon, the straps holding him fast. He wore his combat gear, a lightly armored space suit with a helmet that offered him a wide field of vision. An information display feed came from the cannon, ready to calculate targets for him. He glanced around at the other gunners, similarly in their places waiting for the gun ports to open and offer them a mark.
Leary held fast in the center of the gun deck, saying nothing for a long while. Then the ship lurched, moving forward quickly. “They've taken the bait,” he informed the gun crews. “Stay on target, men, concentrate, and do your job.” He offered no other inspiring words and lapsed again into silence.
The hour of travel dragged by. Corey felt as if he had aged decades before they arrived. Abruptly, the ship jerked before beginning to slow. The gun port split before Corey and slid apart to reveal the battle already in progress. His digital targeting array came to life, and the sensors scanned for weak points on the pirate ship that was separating from the now derelict British craft.
“Open fire!” boomed Leary. Corey's gun slid forward along the tracks, until he was even with the hull of the ship. He aimed for the engines and squeezed the triggers. The two gun barrels pounded like giant pistons, a red line tracing from the barrels to the opposing ship. He could see the glowing red marks where his shots tore at the opposing ship’s armor.
It drew closer and returned fire. From the top of the ship came missiles, trailing blue flames. One detonated just fore of the gun deck. Shrapnel and flames bellowed in all directions. A piece of the hull tore off and blew into the gun port of Saber One, spinning rapidly. Corey watched it, seemingly in slow motion, as it flew into the gunner, slicing through his armor and neck with grim efficiency. Globs of blood flew through the vacuum, splattering Corey’s helmet. He felt sick as he saw the decompression freeze and strip the corpse as it was sucked out into the void.
He swallowed hard and turned his attention back to the fleeing pirate ship. Bay doors opened aft and a smaller, sleek ship flew out. He pivoted the cannons as far as possible, squeezing the triggers. He hit it once, but the craft was too nimble. It accelerated rapidly as it passed the speed of light, winking out of sight.
He pivoted the guns back to the larger ship, caught between the Daring and the Adventure. He poured fire into it, his lasers cutting a glowing red swath into the engines. Seconds later, the armor was breached and the fuel cells detonated in spectacular fashion. The pirate ship began to tear apart as her munitions ignited, and moments later all that was left was a hollow husk, burned out and riddled with holes.
Corey leaned back in the seat, relaxing his grip and feeling the ache in his hands. He wiped the blood off his visor and looked around. The gun deck had taken quite a bit of damage; scorch marks from the explosions scattered across the deck, several pieces of shrapnel floating in the midst of it.
“Damn fine shooting, son,” Leary congratulated Corey, and it dawned on him how quiet the whole exchange had been in spite of the tremendous violence. Leary's words seemed deafening to him.
“Thank you, sir,” he replied, unstrapping himself. He wondered how escort duty would compare.
I hope you enjoyed it. If you want the rest, you can grab the ebook & paperback here.
Dean is the author of 3024AD and the ongoing SciFi Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, The Venturess. He is an engineer, and geek about many things. He lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. You can listen to him ramble on Twitter and muse on his blog.