Rusted iron pillars baffled the echo of dripping condensation. Decayed power, data and environmental cables festooned the distant ceiling, visible only in the stabbing lights of the patrol’s lanterns. Gravity in some deck plates was irregular, so the patrol occasionally found itself bounding upward two or three meters. They tolerated this until Private Parekes, the point man, got slammed to the floor so hard he fractured a patella. It took three others to haul him back into normal gee.
“Vacuum-sucking Crew don’t know their asses from an airlock,” said Parekes. It was just conversation — the morphine-medinano cocktail was taking good care of him.
“Eh,” said Lieutenant. “Show respect.” He coughed heavily, then spit into the darkness.
“Never know when that lot’s listening,” laughed Private Skaldersen, “down here in the lovely dungeons of their precious Ship.”
Lieutenant recovered his breath, wiping his lips with an oily rag loaned by Albedo, their lone Mech. “Eh. He’s down here. I can feel him.”
In the distant darkness, a child wailed.
“Ooh, Looey, flipping psychic is what you is,” said Skaldersen.
The patrol checked weapon loads and gear. With a valedictory curse from Parekes, they set out into the damp, infinite darkness.
The patrol tossed rifle pellets across the deck plate boundaries, watching their fall by lantern light. Lieutenant didn’t want any more gravity casualties, and he wasn’t prepared to take control of the plates yet. The baby was still out there.
Flickering movements in the darkness around them vanished into the narrow shadows of the pillars when the patrol aimed their lanterns. Lieutenant wouldn’t let the men fire into the darkness. The baby continued to cry intermittently, always distant.
Skaldersen finally caught one of the lurkers, spearing it with a thrown knife. Albedo, Lieutenant and Skaldersen gathered around the thing. It was an angelwasp — small, perhaps forty centimeters long, with lacy wings and the face of a human woman. Skaldersen’s knife had torn a wing and sliced off one tiny arm.
Lieutenant shoved it with his boot toe. “What gives?” he asked no one in particular, sliding into another coughing fit.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angelwasp said in a helium voice. “Be joyful. A savior comes, a babe in arms.”
An outraged squeak broke off abruptly as Skaldersen crushed the beautiful face under his heel.
Lieutenant gave Skaldersen a sidelong glance. The private shrugged. “We already knew that.” Then Skaldersen winced, grabbing his calf. The angelwasp had stung Skaldersen through his boot sole. His foot was already swelling. More morphine, more medinano, then the patrol left Skaldersen with another of their precious lanterns and moved on.
They didn’t see any more flitting shadows, but two hours later Albedo brushed a dangling cable that shot hundred kilovolt ShipPower into the Mech’s upper arm. The metal man was spot-welded to the deck, all his cognitive systems fried into deep hibernation.
As the cursing and the sparks both settled, the baby cried louder. Lieutenant didn’t even give an order this time, he just moved on, walking in time to his rasping breath.
It was the new buck private. Lieutenant didn’t bother with their names until they’d survived a few weeks. The patrol hadn’t stood down in over seventeen months — they just found recruits waiting for them in odd corners from time to time. Occasionally, recruits actually lived long enough to be useful. Lieutenant himself had been wandering Ship’s corridors for four and half years.
“Eh. I see,” Lieutenant said, coughing. There was a fitful glow perhaps a dozen deck sections away, obscured by the angled lines of rusted iron pillars. Flickering orange, the color of biomass combustion, rather than the blue of oxygen, or the colorless glow of hydrogen.
The remaining nine troopers fell into a bounding overwatch, splitting up to cover one another from the nominal protection of the pillars as Lieutenant strode toward the fire.
Breath rasping, Lieutenant walked into the circle of light. Angelwasps flitted around the fire. Three figures knelt between him and the flames, silhouetted in the hot light, while beyond the fire a human woman held a baby, a man standing anxiously behind her to watch the patrol approach.
Lieutenant realized the fire was made of the dried husks of angelwasps and piled gear and clothing from his three men. As it burned, ash and trails of melting plastic spread on the deck plate.
Lieutenant stopped behind Parekes, Skaldersen and Albedo, a trickle of hot plastic oozing around his boot toe. The men hadn’t turned at his approach, not even twitched. He sighed. Good men lost. It would be hell getting Crew to send him another Mech.
“They are in a state of grace now,” said the woman. She smiled, holding up the baby as if she expected Lieutenant to come around the fire and kiss it.
“Go and tell everyone about what was told you concerning this child,” said the man.
“Why?” asked Lieutenant. He stepped back, clearing the boundary of the deck plate on which the fire burned and the baby’s parents stood. His right hand found the grav controller in his pocket.
“Because he will someday Captain the Ship,” the mother said. “He is come to find our way.” She held the baby up again. Lieutenant saw a needler gun clutched in the infant’s pudgy hand, lifting toward him. He dialed up the gravity on the control in his pocket.
They all collapsed — the flying angelwasps, his three dead men, the mother, the father, the baby — even the fire — becoming so much bloody paste and flattened ashes, except for Albedo’s slowly denting chest. Only the baby resisted, raising its head against the strain to mouth a curse at Lieutenant. Lieutenant smiled back, hawked, and spat blood into the high-gee field as the baby surrendered to physics, just as its parents had.
“Insurrection,” Lieutenant said. “Can’t abide it.” He turned to his patrol, visible again only by their bobbing lanterns. “Turkey dinner back at our last bivouac. Someone find these guys’ dog tags and we’ll get moving.”
The buck private edged toward the seam of the deck plate. “Looey? Sir? Could you dial down the gravity first?”
“Sorry, Private.” Lieutenant fiddled his controller, then watched the soldier edge across the slippery deck. “Hey, kid,” he said, fighting yet another cough. “What’s your name, anyway?”