Archangel – Chapter One

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The Rim – 2503

The Alliance Naval Cruiser Heracles approached the derelict ship warily. The distress beacon was still active, but all attempts to establish contact with the ship had failed.

"This is great," one soldier muttered, watching the derelict grow larger on the circuit screen. "Just great."

"Stop muttering, T.J.," Corporal Dave Neggins growled. "Ain't nobody else happy 'bout it either."

"Damn it, Dave," PFC T.J. Dell hissed. "You know as well as I do what happened to that ship. Ain't a soul left alive on 'er by now. Least. . .not no human."

"Talk like that'll get you court martialed," Neggins warned, looking to see who might have overheard.

"Least of our worries right now," Dell muttered, but fell silent at the warning glance from Dell.

"What worries?"

Both men jumped at the voice. It was the voice of the most feared, and most loved, person on the ship. They spun to face their Battalion Sergeant Major.

"What are you two gossipin' about," the Sergeant Major growled, cigar rolling from one side of her mouth to the other.

"Nothing, Sar'major," Neggins replied for both of them. "Just looking over the drifter is all."

"Looks rough," Sergeant Major Janine Cobb nodded. "Reckon we'll go on over and take a look see."

"Why not just blast it, and move on?" Dell asked, earning him another withering glare from Neggins, which he ignored.

"T.J., you know damn well we ain't gonna just blast a civilian ship 'thout seeing if anyone's aboard her," Cobb shook her head in exasperation. "I tell you, the material they give me to work with these days. . ."

"Officer's call, Sar'major," a buck sergeant wearing the shoulder braids of an orderly called. "Colonel Hill wants you there, as well."

"On the way," Cobb nodded. "You two, settle down," she turned for a final look at Neggins and Dell. "Get it together. Ain't nothing to be spooked over."

"What if they're still there?" Dell asked before he thought. Cobb smiled.

"They won't be, T.J.," she told him confidently. "They don't hang around."

Both men watched her leave, stunned at what they'd heard. Had she just acknowledged. . .them?"

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"Captain Trask will detail a platoon to shuttle over and check the ship for

survivors," Lt. Colonel Hill told the assembled officer and non-coms of the 10th Deep Space Battalion. "Any questions?"

"Sir, if I may?" SGM Cobb spoke. "I'd suggest two platoons, sir. Have one working each way. Be quicker. And, if there's any . . . thing, wrong, there'll be more troops on hand to deal."

Hill looked at his SGM for a long minute. Finally he sighed.

"I suppose you want to go as well?" he almost grinned.

"Thank you, sir!" Cobb grinned. "I'd love to!" The others in the room chuckled at that. It was well known that she liked to be where the action was.

"Very well, then. Let's get this operation moving."

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"Hull's been breached in several places," the shuttle pilot noted, looking at the ship under the powerful lights on his wings and undercarriage. "Integrity is gone, pretty much, Sarge."

"Right," she nodded, and turned.

"Look alive, people. We'll be in vacuum. Ready your gear."All of them were

dressed in EVA gear, the lightweight suits used by boarding parties rather than the heavier stuff used by mechs.

The shuttle found the landing bay of the large derelict, and the pilot eased his way inside.

"Ta mah de," the co-pilot gasped, seeing several bodies floating in the zero gravity.

"Mind on your business," the pilot growled. He was shaken too, but didn't have time for reactions. That would come later. When he was on the ship. Drinking to excess.

"Looks bad, Lieutenant," SGM Cobb murmured quietly. "I'd suggest we keep to squad strength at least."

"I agree, Sar'Major," the shavetail nodded. "And. . .I'm grateful you chose to accompany my platoon."

"You're a good kid," Cobb smiled. "Make a good Battalion commander some day." The LT blushed at that.

"Okay, folks," the pilot announced. "We're locked. Zero grav, though."

"Okay troops, de-ass the vehicle, and look alive. It's a war-zone, so act accordingly." The troopers all knew what that meant. Several scared glances made their way around the shuttle's interior.

"None o' that, now," Cobb chided gently. "We ain't rogue settlers people, we're the damn 10th DSB! Heart breakers and soul takers! Now let's get the lead out! MOVE!"

They moved.

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The ship wasn't exactly deserted, but everyone they'd found so far was dead.

"Sar'major," the LT spoke through her headset, "I'm about ready to say this tub's clean. Your opinion?"

"Gotta few more passages to check up here, sir, but after that, I'm in agreement. Nothing so far but bodies. Parts of 'em, anyway."

"I know," she could hear his fear. "I. . .I mean I knew, of course, but. . ."

"Take a breath, LT," Cobb ordered, glad the kid had used their private channel. "It's okay to be afraid. Hell," she laughed, humorlessly, "I'm scared shitless myself. And will be till we're back on the Herc."

"I don't believe a word of that," the LT laughed in return. "There's nothing that scares you, Sar'Major."

"You keep thinkin' that, sonny," she grinned. "Good for my bad-ass rep." She no more had the words out of her mouth when the small form ran across in front of her. Before she could respond, a trooper opened fire.

"There's one!" he screamed, hosing the passage with auto-fire.

"Stand down!" Cobb screamed. When the firing didn't stop, she hit the trooper in the back of the neck with her rifle butt.

"Stand down, you moron!" she yelled, and the firing stopped.

"It wasn't one o' them, you jackass! It was a kid!"

"Kid?" the trooper looked stunned. "How the hell did a. . .?"

"How the hell should I know?" she demanded. "Get your ass back to the shuttle. And try not to kill any kittens on your way back, you chickenshit moron!" Crestfallen, the trooper slunk away.

"Sar'major?" the LT was calling.

"We're good, sir," she answered at once. "There's a survivor, looks like a child. He ran in front of us, and Dell emptied his rifle at him. Probably scared the kid near to death. I'm gonna see if we can retrieve him."

"Are you sure it wasn't. . ."

"They don't run, LT," Cobb explained patiently. "If it had been one o' them, he'd 'ave attacked."

"Very well," the LT confirmed. "Stay in touch, and be careful."

"Bet you ass on that," Cobb muttered, not bothering to broadcast it. Moving forward, she called out.

"We're soldiers, kid! Not. . .them, okay? Ole Dell, he's just a little shaky is all. No harm done, right? Come on out now, and let ole Vera get a look at you."

When there was no response, Cobb eased around the passageway, looking for movement. She saw the form lying on the floor, and cursed.

"Medic!" she called over the com, kneeling by the small body. There was a small hole in the suit the child was wearing, and in the cold of vacuum she could see the air leaving the suit.

She grabbed a patch from her emergency kit, and slapped it across the leak. Triggering the self-seal, she watched the patch heat, then shrink to conform to the suit.

"Neggins, help me get him up!" she called. Between the two of them, they lifted the near weightless body, and started back to the shuttle.

"LT, we got one survivor, looks to be a kid. Suit punched by gunfire. We're on our way back to the shuttle."

"Affirmative, we'll be ready to launch as soon as you arrive. All teams, recall, recall. Rally at the shuttle. Bust it, people, let's move."

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"Vera, there's a problem." Cobb looked up to see LT Colonel Hill standing in front of her.

"Didn't make it?" she asked. The kid had turned out to be a boy, probably nine, maybe ten years old. Shot high in the chest, she was afraid he was too far gone.

"No, he's fine," Hill surprised her. "But. . ." He trailed off, not knowing what to say. "You'd better come and see for yourself." She looked at him, puzzled, but rose to follow.

The boy lay in the infirmary, tubes running from various places. She was shocked to see him in restraints.

"What the hell?"

"Vera, wait," Hill grabbed her arm, something most people on the ship would never have dared do. But it had once been Second Lieutenant Hill, and Platoon Sergeant Cobb. The two had been through a lot together.

"Why is that kid chained to the bed, Art?" Cobb demanded.

"Vera, he's been bitten," Hill told her quietly. He raised the sheet slightly, revealing an ugly, festering bite wound on the boy's thigh.

"So?" she demanded, but her heart sunk. Bitten.

"Vera," Hill said softly. "You know as well as I do, what happens to people who are bitten by. . .them."

"It hasn't happened though," she objected. "He's still normal."

"For now," he nodded. "But he won't be, and you know it. Under the circumstances. . ." Cobb's face contorted in anger.

"Colonel, you better not be about to tell me what I think is on your mind," she growled, her voice dangerously soft. "Because that ain't gonna happen. Sir." The 'sir' sounded like a slur. As only a hard bitten veteran Top Soldier could make it sound.

"Vera, you know the protocol," Hill's voice was still soft, but had a harder edge to it. "There can't be any proof allowed to exist. . ."

"So we murder a child, then?" Cobb snarled. "Don't tell me you don't know that's plain wrong, Arthur."

"It's out of my hands," Hill replied, knowing how lame it sounded.

"All these years," Cobb shook her head, "and now, you turn out like this? What the hell happened to you?" Hill's face flushed.

"That's enough, Sergeant Major!" he barked. Cobb just looked at him. Hill's facade faltered at that. He couldn't do her this way.

"Vera, he's a threat," Hill tried to keep his voice reasonable. "He's dangerous."

"Prove it," Cobb snapped. "Prove to me he's a danger, and I'll agree. Back you. If you don't, I swear to you now, I'll make this so ugly it'll never be forgotten."

"Vera, are you threatening me?" Hill's voice was incredulous.

"I'm warning you," was the calm reply. "This is wrong, and you damn well know it. You can't seriously be considering killin' that kid for something he had no say in, no choice about. It ain't his fault that his folks was too stupid to obey the Rim Settlement Protocols."

"I don't have. . ."

"I don't wanna hear that," Cobb cut him off.

"Then what do I do with him?" Hill demanded.

"Give him to me," she replied at once. Hill looked stunned.

"What?"

"I've got my thirty, and then some," Cobb told him. "I'll take retirement, and raise the kid. Give him a chance."

"Vera, that's ridiculous!" Hill argued. "You're. . .you're a soldier for God's sake! Not a mother!" Cobb's icy face told Hill he'd gone too far.

"Drop us on the nearest planet," she told him. "With transit tickets home. I'll take care of the rest."

"Word will get out," he warned her. "People will. . ."

"See that it doesn't," she demanded. "You owe me, Arthur. Make it happen."

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The boy awakened slowly. Medics had dropped them off on the rim moon of Balak, a backwater if ever there was one. The child had been kept drugged during transit, as a precaution. Hill had made it happen. Vera Cobb didn't know how. Or care, really.

"Momma?" the boy called. Vera was at his side in seconds. They were in a small hotel room, where they would wait for the next passage off world. Probably a month, she'd been warned.

"Hey, sweetie," Vera smiled. The boy looked up at her.

"Are you my momma?" he asked, confusion on his face.

"Well, I can be," Vera told him. "Do you remember anything, son? What your name is? How you got here?" The boy's only identification had been a small tag on a necklace that had bore the name 'Michael'.

"Mikey," he said at once. "I'm Mikey. I was on a ship, but something. . ." He halted as his memory came back, and he started screaming. Vera grabbed him, hugging him to her. He fought at first, but gradually calmed down.

"They. . .they killed everyone," he sobbed finally. "I hid. Daddy told me to hide, and I did. But one found me. I kicked him, but he bit me. I kicked him again, and got into the ducts. He tried to follow me, but he was too big. He screamed and screamed. . ."

"I know, baby, I know," Vera shushed him, rocking him back and forth. "It's all over now. I promise. You're safe with me, now. Safe with momma."