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Story 3

David Gray

David Gray is a technical writer in the Aerospace industry. He has a gift for writing both gritty, science-based, science fiction stories set in the near future and humorous “radio plays” based on the space-opera style of science fiction popular in the 1950's.
The heroine in David's science fiction story “COLLATERAL DAMAGE” is Kathryn“Blaze” O'Donnell. Blaze was originally a guest character in one of David's radio plays. But Blaze was too complex a character to be satisfied with only one guest appearance in a radio play. Blaze demanded star billing in her own story. So, David gave it to her.
4 Star Stories is pleased to present in its first issue SEAs Corporal Katherine “Blaze” O'Donnell in David Gray's “COLLATERAL DAMAGE.”

Collateral Damage

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 spacesuit.

“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 operation.”

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 checkpoint.

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 ahead.

“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 one.”

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 checkpoint.

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 combat.

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 others.

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 mission.”

“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 ambush.

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 the information.

“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.”

“Roger that.”

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 it in.


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 here.”

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 that.

“I have the Package,” she said aloud, “proceeding to pickup point.”

“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 anymore.

She put that thought firmly out of her mind and focused on her next objective: getting off this rock alive.


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 wait.

“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 moving.

“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 Chief’s hip.

“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 it.

“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 sounded disappointed.

“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 meekly complied.

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 wasn’t pleasant.”

“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, Blaze?”

“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 containers.

“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 looking for.”

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.”

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