ERRANT ONE

The massive dreadnought burned in space as escape pods fled from its armored flanks and automated weaponry continued to fire. Fleet ships, pitch black and dark as the space surrounding them, continued to harry the much larger warship. Its escorts and fellow ships of the line had died very near the gas giant it now orbited, and now, in the last moments of it's life, the ship sadly fought on. Flashes of laser light and balls of plasma struck out blindly at swift attackers, but to no avail and finally an arsenal of missiles thundered down from a nearby battlecruiser-sized warship, released the final blow. Icy black space briefly lit up all around as million-degree explosions tore the lumbering dreadnought apart. Finally, as the brilliant release of matter and anti-matter abated, darkness fell again, fell to cover the escaping lifepods with their precious cargo....


"I'm scared", the massive man in the uniform of a Pact Marine stated flatly.

Looking at him for a moment, Captain Daladier slightly smiled, trying to reassure the man as he looked back at the red-orange atmosphere of the gas giant that completely filled the lifepod port. The Marine was huge, easily massing over 250 pounds and standing over six feet in height, although his uniform was tattered and covered in smoky debris. The smell of the smoke was strong and it reeked of burned rubber and blood. His nose flared at the stench and he slowly sat back down into the emergency pods' seats, nursing his injured back. Suddenly, screaming pain shot up his back as he finally rested his posterior on the hard plastic seat, wishing silently for some cushioning, and he let his mind wander.

How could I have lost my ship? Was there anything I could have done differently? How many of the crew survived? Oh god...

Lost in his thoughts, captain Erik Daladier barely noticed the Marine sitting back down across the small cramped compartment.

"We're trapped in the gravity well of the planet, aren't we?"

For a moment, the Captain didn't look at the man, then glanced up at the blinking displays on the pods' wall. Clearly, and frequently, the red alarm light was urgently blinking, indicating that they were indeed trapped in the planets' terrible pull. He looked down for a moment at the gray-green plating on the pods' floor and said in a sad voice,

"Yeah.....yeah, that's right."

The young man, a corporal who was only in his twenties by Daladier estimation, looked at him with fear in his eyes. His hands were tightly clasped around what looked like his Marine beret.

"We're gonna die, aren't we?"

Not wanting to look at the young man, Daladier closed his eyes for a moment. The rest of the fleet had been destroyed by those damn organic warships, something that no one had seen before, and there was almost no hope of being rescued by the time the life pods' engines ran out of fuel trying to compensate for the massive planets' drag. In fact, if he did the math correctly, and he did, they would be dead within the hour as the pod was finally pulled deeper into the deadly atmosphere of the gas giant. He opened his eyes again and looked at the Marine.

Since Daladier had taken command of the Renaissance a year ago, he had only seen Marines on the bridge three times. A Marine detachment aboard a navy ship sleeps in its own separate compartment--away from the ship's crew--and operates the onboard brig, or jail; fires the guns during battle, and provides all-around security for the ship.

He opened his eyes slowly and looked at the young man with a regretful face and said simply,

"Yeah."

The Marine looked away then, out the pods' only portal, maybe trying to keep his fear or tears from view. He began shaking lightly as Daladier watched, and the Captains' heart wrenched at the sight. How many more people would die?

Daladier lightly coughed then, hoping to distract the young man from the immediate future. The beefy Marine looked back at the Captain who was wearing the gray and gold of the Pact naval service.

"What's your name son?"

"Mitchell, Sir, Aaron Mitchell."

"And where are you from?"

The young man, brown hair amiss and deep black eyes staring, was silent for a moment, and then said with embarrassment,

"Athos, Sir".

Daladier paused for a moment, shocked at the huge Marines' answer. Athos was a single-sex world, an all male world. Daladier had heard of Athos, and the cracks made about its .....odd inhabitants. Reproduction on the planet was supposedly done through artificial wombs, and the sex of the baby(always male) was preselected at birth. Genetic engineering enabled the Athosians to grow huge, to survive the incredibly hostile weather on the planet. That weather, with over 200 mile per hour winds, was the main reason many Athosian immigrated offworld he assumed but it was their enormous size that made them the best fighters, and hence their regular induction into the Pact Marines. He had heard snickers about Athosians in the officers mess, but this young man didn't seem too bad. He himself had grown up on a farming world in Recife Cluster and had never met a "one-sexer" before.

Daladier's face didn't change during but his mind did, and he asked, mainly out of curious disgust.

"Are you married?"

The Marine, a obviously good-looking man, held up his left hand, showing a golden band on his ring finger, and then let it silently drop. He continued to eye the Captain for a moment, and then said,

"I'm not going to see him again...am I?"

Shaken by the revelation that this absolutely huge Marine was a same-sexer, he couldn't say anything, merely shook his head slowly, negatively. Daladier then let out a huge sigh, and leaned back against the ice-cold bulkhead as the pods' jets started to fire again, trying in vain to negate the gas giants' deadly pull.

Earlier in the year, Admiral Spencer had declared the Renaissance his flagship, the command center for the enormous resources of Fifth Fleet. Spencer liked the Renaissance's speed, and he liked her age. As an older Admirable-class superdreadnought, he reasoned that if his presence was needed in an emerging hot zone, she could be withdrawn from battle without disrupting the battle plan.

Daladier himself liked to describe his ship as a "happy ship", and his easygoing nature was extraordinary for a naval Captain. Most commanders, enlisted men joked, were either big SOBs or little SOBs. Daladier, however, was neither. He was known for his egalitarian spirit and for his graciousness. When new crew members came aboard, he made an effort to greet them by name, saying, "Welcome, crewman. We're going to have a happy cruise."

But it wasn't happy anymore, and he began to think of his sister, and her two wonderful children, and how much he was going to miss them. He himself had no children and wasn't married, except to the Navy, and now he was going to die. And so was the young man across from him. The Marine was looking at his combat boots, not saying anything, and Daladier wanted to somehow comfort the young man, to help him. But he couldn't do either one; their circumstances were impossible to overcome, and as he watched the soldier, the Marine looked up, right into his eyes.

Tears were in them, tears in the eyes of a Marine. The realization had set in, Daladier was sure. And his heart broke for the man. He thought for a moment, and then spoke.

"Do you have children, with your....?"

"Husband, yeah. Two boys. Twins, both four."

"I'm sorry," Daladier spoke, with sincere meaning in his voice.

"I know," the huge Marine spoke one last time. And they continued their journey...


 

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