By David L. Gray
Inside the space helmet, the rasping sound of her
breathing was loud in her ears. SEAs Corporal Kathleen
“Blaze” O’Donnell strained against the inertia of the
spherical, all-terrain mobile container she was
dragging. Only the near-zero gravity allowed her to tow
the full load of weapons and ammunition over the rough
terrain at all.
Space and Asteroids, two of the three
environments in the elite SEAs Force acronym, comprised
Blaze’s universe. The other, Earth, was
missing, and a lifetime away.
It was still hours before local sunrise, not that the
Sun provided all that much illumination at Asteroid Belt
distance. The star-lit landscape provided maximum
concealment for her matte black, radar absorbent, combat
“I’ll bet I’m going to be late, dammit,” Blaze
thought to herself. “All because those bastards at HQ
changed a routine mission into a high-risk covert
Now being detected would most certainly compromise
the mission - and cost Blaze her life.
Approaching the first checkpoint, Blaze carefully
used her practically nonexistent traction to stop while
she got her bearings.
“Seven klicks on a heading of 315 should get me to
the next checkpoint,” she decided, after consulting her
heads-up display. Glowing lines and numbers slowed and
then steadied themselves on the greenish starlight
camera image that provided her only vision, as she
zeroed in on the new heading.
Leaning her five-foot tall, Earth-bred body into the
towing harness, she pushed off toward her next
She was breathing a little easier when the virtually
undetectable, infrared laser beam receiver spoke her
name. “Blaze, this is SEA OPS, come in.”
“Go ahead, SEA OPS. I read you loud and clear,” Blaze
replied, her mind focused on negotiating the terrain
“I make you 10 klicks from the objective and behind
schedule. What’s your situation?”
“The terrain is rougher than I figured. I’m running
late,” she replied tightly.
“Roger that. I’ll alert HQ.”
“Oh great,” she thought. “Let everyone know what a
screwup I am.” She quickly gauged her remaining strength
against the terrain she knew lay ahead.
“Don’t bother, I’m making up the time.” Then, without
waiting for a reply, “O’Donnell out.”
The sustained exertion was more than the suit’s
stealth-modified cooling system could handle. Blaze felt
hot and sticky.
“I could sure use a shower right now.” She didn’t
realize she had spoken aloud until she heard the
metallic reply in her ear.
“Shower? What’s a shower?”
Blaze had to laugh. “You’ve been in the ‘Belt too
long, Space Boy,” she replied. “If we ever get back
someplace where there’s real gravity, I’ll show you what
a shower is.”
“It’s a date!” came the instant reply. Then… “Wait
The two-second pause seemed much longer.
The voice was urgent now. “Blaze, we’re picking up
enemy activity in your area. Only one, but we show him
between you and the objective.”
“Roger that. I’ll keep my eyes open.” Blaze felt a
sudden tightening of her neck muscles, an unconscious
reaction to her severely restricted field of vision.
“Easy, easy,” she thought, “stay focused.”
After what seemed like an interminable length of
time, a tone sounded in her ear. She was at the last
Blaze pushed the quick-release button on her towing
harness and maneuvered the bulky container deep into the
shadows where it would be hidden from view. Taking
advantage of every bit of cover the rocky terrain
offered, she glided up the side of a small ridge. “Just
a quick peek,” she rationalized. “Nothing beats
eyeballing the target.”
Slowly she raised her helmet between two rocks to
take a look. The green-tinted image of the other side of
the ridge fell gradually away below her to reveal a
pressurized dome filling a small crater and a parabolic
antenna mounted on a tower beside it. “Good,” she
thought as she observed the uneven terrain around the
dome that would allow her to approach undetected.
“Time to check in with the Meshnet,” Blaze decided.
Looking like nondescript rocks, the elements of the
Meshnet, seeded randomly over the surface of the
asteroid less than an hour before, formed a wireless
network that could detect and communicate the presence
of electromagnetic signals.
Flipping up the protective cover on her miniaturized,
wrist keyboard, she typed in a few characters and tapped
the touchpad with a gloved finger. Electronic signatures
from her onboard database were superimposed on the
real-time signals picked up by the surrounding Meshnet
sensors. The blinking display in her helmet told Blaze
she had a match. The intelligence was right - the
Package is here. Blaze mentally gauged the distance to
the dome and the work she had to do against the time
before local sunrise. She had enough time.
“Objective confirmed,” she breathed into the mike.
“Understand objective confirmed,” came the reply in
the space of a heartbeat.
Something was wrong. Blaze willed herself, willed her
senses to reach out. Then she knew. Someone was close.
Blaze slipped into shadow, her back to the sloping
rock wall. Her right hand went automatically to the
weapon on her belt, grasped and retrieved it. It was ice
axe on one end, gut-hook skinning knife on the other
end: the weapon of choice for freefall hand-to-hand
She could sense his closeness now, even though she
couldn’t see him. Everything depended on her attacking
him from behind, silencing him before he could warn the
She caught a flash of movement as he emerged from
behind a rock to her right. He stopped for a moment,
facing away from her. Without conscious thought she
sprang from her hiding place, raised her right arm and
slashed backhanded at him. The gut-hook skinner caught
him at the elbow of his left arm where the fabric was
thin and spun him around hard. In the next instant, she
smashed the titanium-tipped ice axe end of the weapon
into his helmet, shattering the faceplate. They both
went down in a cloud of red mist. Blaze disentangled
herself from the dead body and turned away before she
could see into the helmet. Better not to see. Better not
even to think.
“One guard down,” she whispered, her voice
surprisingly calm, and after a quick look around, “No
one else in sight.”
“Roger that,” came the reply.
Then a different voice. “This is Black
Lightning actual. You are cleared to complete your
“Understand I am cleared to complete the mission,
Sir,” she acknowledged and then retraced her steps to
retrieve her weapons and ammunition. She still had to
negotiate the ridge and slip down the other side without
being seen. After that she could set to work laying her
The call came as she was reattaching the tow bar to
her towing harness. “Blaze, SEA OPS.”
She paused. “Go ahead, OPS,” she answered.
“Blaze, the priority for this mission just went
through the roof.” She could hear the amazement in his
voice as he said it.
“And that affects me how?” She had work to do. She
didn’t have time for rear-echelon games.
“I just got the word. A snooper has been dispatched
to your location. I’m looking at the feed now. It’ll be
over your horizon in less than 10 minutes.”
“A snooper? Whoever this Black Lightning guy
is,” she thought, “he must have some pull.”
She was thinking out loud now. “Eyeball the
objective. I want to know if anybody’s looking for that
guy I took out.”
In the time it took Blaze to wrestle the weapons and
ammunition up to the top of the ridge, he was back with
“Blaze, somebody is outside, but he’s heading away
from you. Either they don’t realize the guy is dead, or
he was not where he was supposed to be.”
“Keep an eye on him. If he comes back this way, let
me know. I don’t want him surprising me while I’m
setting the ambush.”
The exertion showed in her voice. “I’m starting down
the other side of the ridge.”
“I have you in sight. Your immediate area is clear.”
Blaze cracked the seal on the mobile container and
got to work. She had a lot to do and not much time to do
Barely ahead of sunrise, all preparations were
complete. Even the clueless guard had returned to the
dome. Out of sight of the airlock at the front of the
dome, Blaze carefully worked her way around to the
unprotected rear of the Rebel comm center.
From a prone position on her left side, Blaze took a
sticky mine from its holder at her hip, pulled the
arming pin, and in the same motion attached it to an
exposed part of the dome. She pulled her right arm back
just as a spout of vented atmosphere erupted from the
hole made by the explosive charge.
After a few seconds, people in various styles of
spacesuits, civilian as well as military, boiled out of
the airlock into the glare of the rising sun - and into
a hail of shrapnel and bullets from Blaze’s ambush.
Motion-detecting beams aimed at the airlock set off
suit-piercing shrapnel charges, and robot projectile
launchers, sited with a clear field of fire, blasted
everything that moved.
Within moments it was over. Everyone was dead. Her
sidearm in one hand, Blaze used the other to pull the
remote disarm switch out of its pouch on her belt and
deactivate the remaining weapons. She cautiously
approached the front of the low communications dome and
forced the airlock. With no air pressure on the other
side, it was easy.
Once inside, Blaze turned on her suit light and swung
it around the interior. “I’m in,” she said over the UHF
radio link, activated automatically when direct
line-of-sight to the IR receiver was interrupted. “All
the hostiles are dead.”
Not everyone had made it outside. The ones still
inside weren’t wearing spacesuits. Death by
decompression was especially horrific in such close
quarters. The gaping mouths, the bulging eyes, the
grasping hands, and the blood. Everywhere the blood.
“Keep your mind on the mission. Focus on finding the
Package,” Blaze told herself firmly as she approached
what was obviously the command console. “It has to be
It took only a minute to retrieve what she had come
for, inspect it, and step back outside the dome. “That
was too easy,” she thought. There was no comfort in
“I have the Package,” she said aloud, “proceeding to
“Roger that,” came the reply.
A quick glance around confirmed that all was still
quiet. The worst was over, she hoped, but this was no
time to relax her vigilance.
“Stay alert,” she told herself. “Space is dangerous
enough, even when no one is trying to kill you.”
Blaze slung the Package over her shoulder and used
her heads-up display to get the bearing to the pickup
point. She pushed off at a brisk pace. With the Sun up
and without the mass of the weapons and ammunition
behind her, Blaze could cover more terrain in less time.
She paused at the top of a ridge behind the destroyed
comm center and looked back at the carnage she had
caused. She tried to care, to feel something, but caring
belonged to someone else, a college girl a lifetime away
from here, in a place she could hardly conceive of
She put that thought firmly out of her mind and
focused on her next objective: getting off this rock
The Watch Officer at the ground-based Electronics
Intelligence or ELINT headquarters stepped inside the
partially opened door to the Chief’s quarters. The only
light came from the corridor through the open door.
Chief Petty Officer Daniel J. Parsons, Electronics
Specialist First Class, was asleep in his bunk less than
an arm’s length away. The Watch Officer had learned from
experience not to touch a combat veteran who was
sleeping. Better to call his name softly, step back, and
“Chief,” he said, “Chief Parsons, wake up.”
“Huh? What’s going on?” Parsons said as he came out
of his bunk, not fully awake yet, but on his feet and
“You have to get dressed and come with me.”
“What time is it?”
“0200,” the Watch Officer said.
“0200?” Parsons couldn’t believe it. “You woke me up
only two hours after my watch ended?”
“And bring your sidearm,” the Watch Officer added.
“My sidearm?” Parsons said, fully awake now. “Why do
I need my sidearm?”
“A package just arrived. I’m escorting you to where
you’re picking it up. Once you sign for it, you are to
take it the Electronics Lab and examine it.”
“A package? What kind of package?”
“That’s all I know and all you need to know right
now. I’ll wait for you outside while you get dressed.”
Fifteen minutes later the Chief arrived at the door
of the ELINT Electronics Lab with the package slung over
his left shoulder.
The guard stationed in front of the door looked like
he meant business. That look and the row of service bars
on his sleeve told Parsons this guy had seen some
action. Whatever was going on, security was really tight
on this one.
The guard glanced at Parsons ID badge, then at the
package he was carrying, lingered on the sidearm at the
“Everything seems to be in order, Chief Parsons,” the
guard said. After unlocking the door, the guard went in
first and turned on the lights.
After Parsons entered, the guard turned around and
locked the door behind him.
Parsons used both hands to gently lay the silver,
briefcase-sized package on the electronics bench. It
felt cold to the touch, and there was condensation on
“This thing has been out in space, and not too long
ago,” he thought.
“Is that what all the fuss is about?” the guard
wanted to know as he looked over Parson’s shoulder. He
“Yeah,” Parsons replied, “I just picked it up a
couple of minutes ago.”
“This better be worth it,” he added. “I was sound
asleep when the Watch Officer came and got me.” Then
louder, “If you’re going to stick around, put one of
these wrist straps on. I won’t have you zapping the
package before I even get a look at it.” The guard
After making sure he was properly grounded, Parsons
carefully opened the silvered, antistatic protective bag
and slid out the communications module.
“What the hell?” the guard exclaimed as he got a look
at the blood-spattered exterior.
“Guess they didn’t want to part with it, huh,”
muttered the Chief.
“Explosive decompression,” observed the guard,
inspecting the case closely. “Whatever happened, it
“From the looks of it, this is going to take awhile,”
said Parsons. “Why don’t you go get us a couple of
bottles of that Liquid Stimulant, Hot that
passes for refreshment around here.”
After the guard left, Parsons got to work. “I know
I’ve got an adapter cable around here somewhere that
will fit this thing,” he muttered to himself.
Back on her own SEAs missile boat and out of her
spacesuit, Blaze could finally relax and let down her
longer-than-regulation red hair. Familiar sights and
smells washed over her as she glided hand-over-hand to
her station. The initial relief of being back in
familiar surroundings gave way to an overpowering
weariness. She confirmed that the package was safely at
ELINT HQ and then learned, thankfully, there would be
time for a few hours rest before her next watch.
As she anchored herself with one hand and unfolded
her rack from the bulkhead and latched it in place with
the other, someone asked, “How did it go down there,
“Routine,” she said wearily, lifting her feet and
then inserting them into her coarse-mesh sleep restraint
bag before pulling it up around her, “strictly routine.”
But the blood-spattered afterimage Blaze saw when she
closed her eyes was anything but routine. That innocent
college girl from Earth was history now, a casualty of
war as surely as one of her Rebel victims.
Several hours later at the ELINT Electronics Lab…
The package from the Rebel comm center lay in pieces
on the bench, along with several empty liquid stimulant
“Well, that about does it,” the Chief said, “only one
thing left to do now.”
“And that would be?” replied the guard, rousing
himself from the chair where he had been dozing.
“That would be to make my report. Hand me that phone,
if you don’t mind.” The Chief pointed to the battlephone
that was a secure link to ELINT Command.
Moments later he was talking to the head Intelligence
Officer. “That’s right, Sir…. No Sir, there’s no doubt
at all. It’s just a relay module the Rebels used to
increase the range of the signal. It’s not what you’re
The Chief gave the phone back to the guard. “I’m
finished here,” he said, “I’m going back to my quarters
and try to get some sleep.”