Zero (5)
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Andrus didn't stop running even after he was out of Six's line of fire. The freighter was large and would take time just to get from aft to fore, and it was breaking apart in front of his eyes. Air and ice crystals jetted out from seams in the bulkheads. Fires erupted from components and were extinguished by the vacuum of space a moment later. As Andrus ran, the entire frame twisted and strained under unseen pressures and inertia.

The corridors themselves were a maze. Andrus hoped by following the largest of the branches he'd come to the crew compartment and bridge. Then the freighter started to render in two halves. Fifty meters in front of Andrus, the corridor ripped apart like a split loaf of bread. The fore half of the freighter drifted to port and rotated clockwise from the aft. Andrus sprinted faster.

His right foot kicked off from the edge of the aft corridor. The onboard artificial gravity was gone as he was no longer onboard but between two sections of ship separated by thirty meters of outer space. He kicked in his armor's thrusters and aimed for the other half of the bifurcated corridor. The fore section continued to twist. Andrus' aim was off. He was going to collide with the torn-sharp metal inner workings of the freighter.

One more tweak with the thrusters. Andrus stretched out his body. His hand reached for the sidewall of the corridor. His fingers caught purchase and hung tight. His body slammed against the wreckage of the ship's guts. Andrus all but lost his grip and nearly floated away. His fingers gripped the wall and with a full body flex, he pulled himself back into the freighter.

Having gained real estate in the fore half of the corridor, Andrus looked back and saw the cargo hold and ISXC Battleship continue to drift and rotate away.

The bridge wasn't much further ahead. Andrus relied on the thruster on his suit to propel him towards the airlock. He reached it and hit the airlock controls. He opened the first door and entered. As the first door closed behind him, the second door opened before him. Somehow, this section of the freighter remained airtight and environmentally sealed from the void but still without artificial gravity.

Andrus jetted into the amphitheater-shaped bridge, the flight monitors placed where a stage would have been. There were people inside, two still living, the rest dead. They were civilian, military, and one who was clearly neither. Vulpine Zero hovered just a few inches above the deck and over the rest of the humans on the bridge like an overlord before his slaves.

"Who is this new sacrifice the gods of space and void have delivered before me for the slaughter? Another earther ill-prepared for the harsh realities of the galaxy?" the man said.

He was a huge man, more war-torn than the small platoon sergeant could be in a thousand lives. His armor was blaze red but scraped and chipped chrome from boots to collar. He held a huge blaster and bayonet in one hand and his helmet in the other. Andrus saw an image of a fox head stenciled on the forehead of the helmet and on each shoulder of the man's armor. His head was bald and sketched from neck to crown in scar tissue. The skin was nearly as red as the armor's paint.

Andrus leveled his blaster at the man's center mass. "What happened to the crew?" he said.

Vulpine Zero turned to face Andrus, not by his feet but by the tiniest adjustments of his suit's thrusters. The mercenary's face looked like raw meat freshly seared. "I killed them," he said, his voice as deep and rich as a kettle drum. It didn't seem to matter to him that Andrus had a barrel aimed at his chest. "They meant well. Relief workers from St. Louis with food shipments bound for the Outer Spur colonies. They're starving out there, the colonists. Maybe if these pathetic earthers were ready for the hijackers and thieves of space, they would have gotten their supplies."

"The ISXC will see the food is delivered. Where are the soldiers who came here?" Andrus asked.

Vulpine Zero laughed and the sound reverberated off the walls as if the sheer power of it threatened to burst through the hull and fill the vacuum surrounding them. "ISXC only serves ISXC. As of today, I’ll serve them no more. You are on no mercy mission here, boy. Soon you too will realize you’re a slave to an unworthy master.”

Andrus saw an arm move from a twisted crumple of human near the front of the bridge. The body swam through the lack of gravity as if it were molasses. The survivor was helmetless, and when he rose up, Andrus recognized his old friend.

"Leon," Andrus said and moved around the towering mercenary. Vulpine Zero hardly seemed to notice but kept his front towards the soldier as Andrus circled around to his friend.

Andrus came up to Leon and pulled him out from under the corpse of another soldier. Leon was still conscious enough to smile when he saw Andrus.

"What the hell are you doing here, partner?" Leon said.

"Saving your hide, just like I said I would," Andrus said.

Leon picked up the broken pieces of his helmet. Andrus couldn't tell if it had been destroyed by blaster fire or blunt force trauma. "Radio link still up, but our boat leaves in one minute. They left us here to die, Andrus."

"Is the rest of your suit intact?"

Leon nodded. There was blood seeping from his right ear. There were dark circles under both his eyes. Blunt force trauma, Andrus assessed. Andrus unclasped his own helmet and removed it. The air in the bridge smelled like roasted meat.

"Do you judge me for my cruelty, boy?" Vulpine Zero boomed behind him.

Andrus ignored the man. He quickly looked over Leon's armor. No blaster holes. No visual damaged. The panic mode should still function.

"I’ve seen this tragedy play out a thousand times before. Am I a monster for killing these people? They were lost before they ever met me. They were set to die without my intervention. Who am I to upset the will of the galaxy? Answer me, boy! Do you think I speak just to hear myself talk?" Zero said. "This ship is on the verge of annihilation. I’ve told you my epitaph; now you tell me yours!"

Andrus didn't share his opinion. Instead, he put his helmet on Leon's suit and sealed him in. "I'm setting your suit to retrieval mode. You'll have to operate the airlock controls."

"What about you?" Leon said.

"I was never cut out for military life. Tell them I'm dead. And remember what I told you about my parents."

Leon had something to say back, but Andrus pulled the emergency retrieval cord and the thrusters on Leon's suit took over. The suit rocketed Leon straight for the airlock doors, plowing through the mercenary as he went. Vulpine Zero crashed against the bulkhead. Leon slammed into the airlock door. Leon's weak hand hit the controls and the doors opened. In a split second, Leon was gone and propelled back to the Battleship.

Andrus rose up above the cover of the ship's flight controls and started shooting. Blast bolts flashed and burned into the walls. Just when he thought he had the mercenary in his sights, the man seemed to ignite with a spark like a combustion engine. He thrust laterally and let loose a volley of fire.

Andrus ducked below the flight controls a moment before Zero returned fire, just like Duster Seven had back in the cargo holds.

"Meet your doom, earther! I've seen a thousand dead before me, all sacrificed to the void! How are you any different? Come and die, child!"

Andrus popped back up and fired another fusillade. Some of the blasts hit the mercenary square in the chest but had no effect. Andrus knew what would happen if his armor took a hit. He was outmatched.

The man laughed uninhibited. He fired at the floor and the ceiling and at ghosts Andrus never saw. "I am a god! I am eternal! Don't you recognize the name Vulpine?"

Andrus slipped around the corner of a flight desk, unobserved by the giant in front of him. Vulpine Zero's face was twisted in a rictus. His eyes seemed to be focused on something light years away. The man bled from his eyes.

"Go ahead boy, and know that soon you will be the monster before you," Zero said.

Andrus took aim at Zero’s bare head. It was an easy shot this close. He fired blew Vulpine Zero's brains out.

There was nothing but bodies floating in the bridge now, bodies and Andrus. The monitors at the front of the bridge gave view to the disc of the Milky Way, and the light signature of the retreating ISXC ship. They'd abandoned him.

The silenced din of combat and insanity gave way to the pedestrian sounds of alerts and warning coming from the ship's damage control station. The metal walls groaned as they had before the freighter was ripped in two. Rivets popped and shot across the room like bullets. The freighter was seconds from crumbling apart with Andrus inside. Without a helmet, he would last little more than a few torturous seconds in the abyss of space.

There was only one escape route left. Andrus thrust over to the headless corpse. He cracked open the mercenary's armor and removed the remains. The dead mercenary flopped out like a slug plucked from its shell. Andrus climbed inside. The suit seemed to adjust to his size, not that it had to shrink much. The helmet with the fox-emblazoned above the visor was floating through the air. Andrus snatched it from its senseless flight path and set it over his head.

"Sir, I detect biological changes," a voice came through the helmet. The voice was feminine, calm and pleasant. "Am I speaking with Vulpine One?"

"Who the hell are you?" he asked.

"I am the Foxtrot, an artificial intellllllllllllligence. Are you Vulpine One?" the voice stuttered, an electronic malfunction.

This was no time to argue. "Affirmative. Vulpine One here. Now get me out of this hunk of scrap before it becomes my coffin!"

There were small explosions at the front of the bridge. The central monitor was blown out and sucked into space. Dead bodies and broken bits of ship went out with the panel. Andrus saw the opening and kicked in the thrusters on the suit. Just as he cleared the wreckage the remains of the freighter ruptured and exploded. Flotsam and jetsam, air, and moisture turned to ice and erupted in all directions.

Andrus rocketed away beyond the shrapnel. He coursed through the empty cosmos for just a handful of seconds. In that moment, he was completely detached from all entities. The freighter, ISXC, Earth, he was free from all of it. He thought he might float there forever, but was soon flanked by two small drones.

"Stay on course with my probots, sir. Your ship awaits."

Andrus saw the strange attack ship he had spotted while still aboard the Battleship. The probots guided him on an intercept course, and as he drew near the ship, he saw an airlock open to receive him. It was bright inside, and he thought that was a good sign.

As he entered the airlock, the female voice spoke up, "Welcome aboard The Vulpine, sir. Allow me to aaaaaaaaaacclimated you to your new role."

"My new role?" Andrus asked. The first door of the airlock sealed behind him.

"There is no other option, sir. You are the new Vulpine. You have a role to fill, sir. If you can't fill the role, I'm afraid you will be... rrrrrrrrrrejected."

Andrus looked back just once. The freighter was nothing more than space debris. The ISXC Battleship was gone, and with any luck, his only friend in the galaxy was gone with it. He was a fugitive from Earth and now a fugitive in space. He really had nothing to look back to.

"I am Vulpine One. Show me aboard, Foxtrot," Andrus said. The airlock's interior door flashed open, and Andrus entered.

Next: Heat

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