The enforcer ship Fatal Claw’s hangar opened to the light-studded, velvet blackness of space. As it turned, Jupiter aligned with the hangar, reflecting the sun’s powerful rays against the metal and illuminating six armored soldiers. They would resent the term soldier, for sure; they were security contractors, all of them, though one could scarcely tell the difference in their void suits. Their heights ranged by nearly two meters. Even a casual observer could tell none of them were human. They wore helmets shaped for beaks and maws, longer than they were tall, and half of them had tails, extending from behind them for balance in the zero-gee environment.
“Gonna gimme a countdown, Tok?” Nadine asked. Thanks to hard vacuum, her voice would have been inaudible if not for her radio, even if she was a massive woman. Despite knowing that, she practically yelled over the comm line. Her Nile crocodile lineage and predatory nature commanded respect from anyone smaller - and almost everyone was smaller than her.
“You’ll get your damn countdown after we brief the new meat. Stupid calculator’s takin’ its sweet time.” Tok Tuauru was a parrot- “some kind of kea, probably”, by his own admission. Besides his suit’s usual amenities, his wings were encased in a telescoping set of plates. They were much too heavy to actually fly in, but they were perfect for mounting microthrusters to. Such tiny vents were almost useless for adjusting the motion of all but the smallest coffin ships, but they were ideal for hurtling a humanoid shape through space. Those of Talon Team not blessed with natural flying ability – like Nadine – were instead given a set of folding fins. Flight did not come naturally to the big girl, and she had to make a conscious effort not to lose her lunch all over the inside of her helmet.
“Alright, we’re golden,” Tok announced. He strode to the front of the group, barely two meters tall. He fiddled with a pair of stockless submachine guns, making sure to point them into space. “We’re gonna punch out two-seven-two degrees, declination seven degrees. Keep an even spacing, not too close, not too far, and remember- radio silence once we’re within ten klicks. Didn’t get a radio hail when we sent ours, so something’s up. I’ve been in the Union longer than Miss Marchant, but she’s better at this hull-breaching business than I am. I’ll let her take over. Nadine?”
She straightened up as attention went to her, and strode over beside her much smaller friend. As a crocodilian, she towered over most and weighed over a metric ton. “Look, first of all, don’t none of you call me Miss anything, or I’ll break you faster than I break an unreinforced bed. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories.” Someone laughed nervously, but she couldn’t tell who. Their helmet visors were a dark red, angled smart glass, obscuring outside onlookers’ view into the helmet. As she spoke, she slung her shotgun over her shoulder, letting it push up against her utility belt. It was a great old breaching slugger, with enough power to blow through almost 15 centimeters of rolled hull steel at a time, or probably three meters of humanoid flesh.
“You can call me Sarge, Big B, or just Nadine. Second of all, don’t do anything stupid. We’re gonna be going in my way. Me and Old-Fashioned are gonna make some big old holes in the airlock hinge ’til we can get that pin out. It’s an old Morrison design. Pin’s reinforced, but the hinge isn’t, so we’ll just slag it and rip it out. Any questions so far?”
Nadine glanced around, gave it three seconds, and then readied herself to continue. Tok interrupted before she could.
“Hey, that launch window’s got thirty on it,” he told her. He gave his wing-thrusters little bursts, confirming they were operational, and Nadine figured she should do the same. With a thought, the fins on her back, arms, and legs unfolded, each servo whining as they attained an upright position. Right now, they were loaded with the proper fuel, but the best thing about microthruster tanks was that they could run on almost any gas, burning it if they could, or just spitting it out if they couldn’t. Thrust would be created either way, and though the second method was less efficient, those who jetted around in EVA suits usually only cared about efficiency if they were gunning for speed records (which Talon Team was not).
Blast deflectors were anchored in the floor, outlined in black and yellow caution paint. With a silent gesture, all of Talon team pressed themselves against the hard steel, one foot against it with the other flat like starting blocks at a hundred-meter dash. The rookies had gone through the same contractor training as she had, but she was worried. She’d lost new and old people to rookie mistakes, and at some point, she decided to simply stop remembering names until people proved themselves.
“Your body controls your flight, so try not to get distracted. Or flinch.”
She cranked all of her thrusters to full throttle at once, the hundred-percent acceleration forces nearly tearing her out of her suit. At once, she was in the paradoxically warm coldness of space. While she accelerated, she couldn’t even move a muscle for fear of accidentally redirecting herself, so she continued straight ahead until she reached the desired intercept point. A hundred meters from the rear hangar would be plenty, and she’d need to save enough fuel to match its speed once she was there. Two minutes of acceleration cost forty percent of her fuel, so as she cut her thrust, she turned, burning just enough fuel to stabilize herself and point retrograde.
Jupiter’s light in turn reflected off five helmets, though the rest of their suits were designed not to reflect much light. They were matte red, so she could tell it was them- none of them had managed to botch the takeoff, at least. Slowing down and intercepting would be a little more challenging. She rolled back over and checked her targeting computer. Sixty kilometers from the target.
“It’s looking like this place is gonna be a little cramped,” Tok said over the radio. “I’m gonna need two of you on window duty.”
“Sarge.” One of the newbies called for her. Nadine knew he was a coyote, and a big one at that, but she never bothered to learn people’s names. She didn’t need to get people’s attention unless they were doing something stupid, and by then names hardly mattered. “Go ahead,” she called back.
“This ship, the Frontiersman, I noticed it’s got an IMG e-tag on it. Any idea what it’s tugging?” It was a valid question. The Interstellar Mining Guild were common in this part of space, but they always answered hails from anyone, be they government, corporate, or union. The fact that this one didn’t was the whole reason for such an immediate armed response. The last manifests the Security Contractors’ Union had on file for the ship were six months old.
“If you can believe old news, it’s helium-3, fresh from Jupiter,” she replied, manipulating her shotgun in her hands and racking a shell into the chamber. “If you believe me, they’re smuggling iridium. Forty kilometers out. Get set.”
Her shotgun’s shells were six-gauge and as big as her thumb. In its tube were four pacifier rounds and two breaching shells, with one more breacher pumped right into the chamber. Old-Fashioned had come into her possession off a weapon rack after decades of disuse. It could fire hot slag, bright and loud “firecracker” rounds, or plain buckshot. The last of those consisted of nearly marble-sized pellets, instead of the usual tiny ball-bearings.
As they approached ten kilometers, Nadine put on the brakes. She turned around and burned retrograde, jostling the other way around in her suit and feeling her long maw press against the bottom of her helmet, and her feet firmly settle into her clawed boots. Slowing down took just as long as speeding up, and she was only able to get “zeroed” – stationary relative to her target – thanks to her onboard computer. At just over a hundred meters, she seemed to float there in the vacuum of space, watching her teammates come to a halt around her. The new soldiers invariably took a little too long to slow down, which she’d calculated into her risk- thankfully, there were no casualties. Not one of them slammed into the hull, though the closest among them was a mere twenty meters from the airlock.
Nadine got a good look at the ship’s silhouette as it passed between her and Jupiter. In space and on most moons helium-3 was mined on, size hardly mattered, and its tug had with it the size and appearance of a small city. Towers sprung up from the base, a series of condensers before the pure gas was forced down into tanks below. Of course, it was all automated, but it was utterly dark. There should have been some indicator of function. Warning lights were mandatory for a craft this large, and they were off.
Nadine turned her attention to the ship itself. Her computer identified it as a Morrison Hauler 3600. This particular example was sixty years old and the line itself had another forty under its belt. They didn’t even manufacture new ones anymore, but the Morrison Propulsion Company still serviced them and likely would for decades more. Overall, it was perhaps a tenth the size of the tug. It had a boxy body, its front slanted in a way that gave it an appearance not unlike a terrestrial train’s cow-catcher. It had a pair of cylindrical shapes jutting from its port and starboard sides; its main engines, if the articulated nozzles on the rear were anything to go by. Just between the two vessels, there was the rear airlock. It would serve as their entry and exit point, and breaching hulls was what Nadine was best at.
Making contact was a slow process, only two meters a second, giving a quick retrograde burn just before her feet slammed into the reinforced steel. Thunk. Contact was always loud. It was the first external noise she’d heard since putting on the jets and leaving the Claw. As another one of her team landed, she squatted down and waved them over. The opaque layers of their helmet visors electronically peeled back to show their faces, only temporarily removing their protection from UV light. Only now did she see that this was the mouse she’d spoken to perhaps twice before today. The skinny tail extension on her suit should’ve given that away first, but she wore metal blinders on missions.
Glass clinked together as their helmets touched. There were a few ways to talk in space without blowing cover on a radio, from complex deaf sign language to simple working class gestures, but few beat actual talking. The faceted surfaces of their visors, rather than being totally round, facilitated speech a good deal, though it did have a tendency to make longer words unintelligible. The best way to circumvent that was to talk slowly and simply. The mouse tried her best to maintain a solid composure, but Nadine heard her ragged breathing. She gave her a pat on the back, though she doubted she could feel much of it through her voidsuit.
“You’re good. Stay behind me and give me a hard pat when you’re set.” Nadine told her. “And make sure you’re ready with those tongs.” In response, the mouse nodded and took a step back, pulling the tongs from a scabbard on her back. Nadine tilted her shotgun toward the hinge, briefly glancing up to watch two of the other operatives pass over the ship’s port side, disappearing behind one of its sharp corners. The shotgun’s choked barrel hovered a mere few centimeters from the steel hinge.
The inevitable pat on the back came, and Nadine did not delay. BOOM. The heavy six-gauge shell packed a wallop, and since every force carried with it an opposite force, the entire gun jerked back into her shoulder. She skillfully worked the shotgun’s pump back toward her before slamming it home again. Molten metal splattered the hinge and quickly turned about half of it to a bright paste of similar consistency. Nadine would have to be fast. She changed her point of aim and fired again. The second impact caused a spray of molten steel, flying in the direction opposite to where she’d fired her gun. Most of it rapidly cooled in the vacuum of space, floating off and impacting the ship here and there, but she was more concerned that the hinge pin was nearly free.
The mouse-girl handed her a pair of great industrial tongs. She carried them, but Nadine used them; for something like this, only Nadine’s leverage would cut it. She seized both handles near the ends, levering it up and out until the remaining slivers of steel – both that which had not been melted and that which resolidified in an unfavorable position – buckled and gave up under her constant, prying pressure. The entire airlock door shifted as its seal started to fail. Carefully, Nadine took a step backward, and her companion was smart and quick enough to stay with her. One small push with her tongs and the door exploded away from its frame. The pin and the door both collided with the tug’s cables, breaking them in a violent collision that separated the two vessels. Nadine hurriedly hopped down into the airlock, and the mouse followed. She was expecting a spectacular, almost assuredly lethal refinery explosion, but there was none. She grabbed onto a rack of spacesuits and touched “ground” – really, just deciding that the inner airlock would be ground. Her claw-boots dug into its steel easily.
As the two of them waited, Nadine hooked her arm around a support beam and racked her shotgun, loading in two more shells. These were firecracker shells, loud enough to sound like a grenade and look like a magnesium fire with almost none of the damage. When shot at someone’s bare flesh, they left nasty wounds, but she wasn’t picky about where she fired them. It was all the same to her.
Tok and the coyote floated in after a minute or two more. It was more accurate to say Tok flew in, while his new charge grabbed handholds and dragged himself along the hull. Nadine reached out for his forearm and pulled him in, forcing his body to lever across the opening before she gave him a good tug. One by one, they attached cables and carabiners to each other, a measure against sudden explosive decompression – similar to that Nadine had just caused. Tok pressed his helmet to Nadine’s, perching on the cable at her waist for balance. “Other two are set on windows. Looks like the bridge is empty. No lights, no nothin’. How do you wanna play this?”