2: Surprise Attack

Lieutenant Roylan Mercer was young, idealistic and frustrated. Seated in the command chair on the bridge of space station Cassius Four he was paradoxically in control of the entire station with its crew of more than thirty people, and at the same time powerless to effect any changes.

Unlike his fellow bridge crew members, this was his first time on duty. He had only been on board four days. Many of the crew had been living on the station for as many years.

Most shared the view that being in orbit around the outermost planet of Earth's star system held two distinct advantages. The first was that nothing life-threatening was ever likely to happen this far out, and the second was that being so far removed from the Prison Station Control Authority on Earth meant that the chances of a check on the station's efficiency was equally slim. As a result, the crew took a distinctly relaxed attitude to their duties, the consequences of which were evident throughout the station.

Mercer had seen nothing but sloppiness and neglect since his arrival on Cassius Four with the last supply freighter. The bridge, the nerve-centre of the station, was a disgrace. Discarded cigarette butts littered the floor, and the overhead lighting panels were dimmed by years of accumulated dust and tobacco smoke. The seat coverings were torn and roughly repaired with tattered insulation tape. Several controls on the consoles were so worn or damaged that Mercer doubted their ability to function.

The bridge crew sat at various positions around the spacious chamber, ostensibly monitoring the status of both the station and the Cassius sector of space, but in reality they were reading, smoking, playing cards or listening to music on headphones; all except Mercer, who sat staring glumly at the console before him. The multi-coloured lights that still worked danced across his dark-skinned handsome features.

His mind was elsewhere, reliving the events of the previous day.

Mercer had been assigned to the station's science officer, Doctor Korin Styles, to be shown around the vessel. Styles was an attractive woman in her early forties - some ten years Mercer's senior - and wore a smart functional outfit consisting of a white tunic and trousers. A headband held back her long auburn hair. Mercer's first impression of her was that her neat and tidy appearance was very much at odds with the condition of her environment.

They were walking down one of the main corridors, a passage littered with abandoned tools, equipment and packing crates. Many of the lights overhead were out, and more inspection panels were lying on the floor or propped up against a convenient wall than were actually clipped in place. Cables hung in sagging loops when they should have been clipped securely to the ceiling, and the walls were streaked with substances that Mercer thought it wise not to examine too closely.

‘I don't believe it,’ Mercer said at last. ‘How long has the station been in this state?’

Styles glanced at him briefly. ‘Since regular inspections ceased,’ she replied.

Mercer picked his way through the debris to join Styles at the door of her laboratory. ‘This place is falling to pieces,’ he observed disbelievingly.

‘And you're seeing it on a good day,’ retorted Styles as she keyed the electronic lock. ‘If you wanted to see everything spick 'n' span, you shouldn't have asked for a transfer to a prison station.’

Mercer was about to point out to her that his transfer wasn't voluntary, but Styles was preoccupied with the door, which was stubbornly refusing to open for her. ‘Come on!’ she yelled, and kicked it. This seemed to be the solution to the problem, as the door slid open immediately.

The first thing that struck Mercer about Styles's laboratory was its marked contrast with the corridor outside. The long thin room was well-lit, neat and tidy, and painted a gleaming surgical white. Even the large view-screen on the wall just inside the doorway appeared to have been polished.

Styles wandered over to a workbench, where a lone woman, dressed in the same style of uniform as Styles, sat working at a microscope, preparing slides.

‘This is my assistant, Zena,’ Styles said. ‘Zena, Lieutenant Mercer.’

Zena glanced up and gave him a quick smile, before returning to her work.

Mercer wandered around the room, marvelling at the contrast with what he'd seen of the rest of the station. ‘How do you cope with the mess?’ he asked.

Styles perched on a stool and regarded him with a frown. ‘By ignoring it,’ she replied frankly. ‘My only concern on this station is the medical welfare of the crew and the prisoner.’

Mercer felt suddenly angry at her complacency. ‘That's a rather narrow view of your responsibility,’ he said coldly.

‘Oh shut up, will you!’ barked Styles, finally losing patience with Mercer's attitude. She jumped off her stool and marched over to stare him in the face. They scowled at each other. ‘It's the only way to stay sane,’ she explained angrily. ‘You've only been here three days. You know nothing.’ She turned away.

Mercer was not so easily dismissed. ‘I've been here long enough to learn that the morale on this station is appalling,’ he retorted. He walked down to the far end of the chamber, where a large heavy hatch set into the wall had caught his attention. Upon closer inspection, he saw that it was an access point for the station's escape craft.

‘If the Captain doesn't care, why should I?’ countered Styles.

‘Why indeed!’

Styles sighed despairingly. ‘Look, my tour of duty finishes here in eight weeks time. I'm dependent on a good report from the Captain for my next promotion.’

‘I see,’ said Mercer, moving back up the room.

‘I don't think you do,’ Styles told him. ‘If I don't get a good report, I could be stuck here for another two years.’

Mercer detected the note of desperation in her voice, and for the first time began to appreciate what he was in for himself. ‘If Control were aware of the morale on this station, the Captain would be instantly relieved of his command,’ he reasoned levelly.

Styles stared at the tall dark officer for a moment, a fleeting glimpse of hope in her eyes, and then she looked away, shaking her head slowly. ‘It's been tried,’ she informed him flatly. ‘Usually by inexperienced new boys like you. And the way you're carrying on, you'll finish up like the others.’


‘Dead. You're the third security officer we've had in four years.’

‘How long is your tour of duty?’

The question broke Mercer out of his reverie. Looking around, he saw that his questioner was a young, petite dark-skinned woman in the seat next to his. They had been introduced, but hadn't spoken much since. He fished about in his memory and came up with a name: Aliza Osborn.

Osborn flashed him a friendly smile and stubbed out the butt of her cigarette on the edge of the console.

‘Two years,’ answered Mercer, and then turned away slightly, reluctant to be drawn into a conversation. The two crewmembers on the other side of him were conversing over a game of cards.

‘The Captain usually allows new arrivals to settle in before subjecting them to the tedium of Officer of the Watch.’

Mercer swivelled his chair back to face Osborn, and tried to gauge whether her smile was mocking or sympathetic. He'd never been very adept at social relations.

‘What did you do?’ she inquired.

‘I complained,’ he confessed.

Osborn's smile broadened. ‘Someone should have warned you.’

Mercer neglected to point out that he had been warned. ‘I had every right,’ he protested. ‘Have you seen the state of the defence system?’

Osborn frowned. ‘You fear an attack?’ she asked incredulously.

‘That's not the point,’ he continued defensively.

‘Oh, I wouldn't worry about it,’ she advised. ‘The only ship we ever see around here is our supply vessel.’

A crewman seated on the other side of Osborn's position suddenly spoke up. ‘I think you may have spoken too soon,’ he interjected. ‘Sensors have picked up a ship in warp drive that has just entered the Exclusion Zone.’

The Exclusion Zone was a designated region of space extending several thousand kilometres in all directions from the station and the nearby planet Cassius.

Mercer tensed. No ships were expected in the area for the next two months. ‘Inform the Captain,’ he responded.

But Osborn held up her hand to placate him. ‘I wouldn't bother him,’ she said, knowing only too well from past experience that it was inadvisable to disturb the Captain unless absolutely necessary. ‘Not yet. It could be anything. Let the fighters check it out first,’ she proposed.

Mercer was incredulous. ‘What?!’

‘They'll be grateful for the practice.’ Without waiting for his reply, she clipped on a communications headset and gave instructions to launch the station's squadron of four, one-person fighter craft immediately.

‘The regulations specifically state that the Captain is to be informed,’ Mercer persisted, adamant now.

‘Look what happened the last time you spoke to him,’ Osborn reasoned, but she could see that the young lieutenant was far from convinced. ‘If it's hostile, the fighters will deal with it,’ she added encouragingly, and concentrated on the messages coming in over her headset.

‘Fighter leader has made visual contact,’ she said after a pause. Her eyes widened in sheer disbelief. ‘It's a battle cruiser!’

Mercer sprang to his feet. ‘Go to red alert,’ he ordered, raising his voice to reach the entire bridge crew. ‘Inform the Captain.’ This time, there were no objections.

The crewman who had first reported the ship's arrival, a thin gangly man called Phin, was frantically operating controls on his console. ‘Sensors report we're being scanned, sir!’ he called out.

‘Red alert at once!’ Mercer repeated.

Osborn reached out and flicked a switch isolated from the rest, and immediately a klaxon began to scream out its warning cry.

‘Operate deflector shield,’ Mercer ordered.

Phin complied. ‘Power building.’

‘Seal airlocks.’

Phin moved to another series of controls.

‘The battle cruiser has attacked the fighters,’ Osborn reported.

Mercer winced, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the back of his chair hard. He knew that the four tiny short range fighter craft stood no chance of success against a battle cruiser. ‘Can we give them any supporting fire?’ he asked desperately.

Osborn glanced at the power reserves indicator. The weaponry banks were in the process of charging up. She shook her head. ‘No, not at the moment.’

Phin watched his board as the indicator lights for all six airlocks went out one after the other. One light however continued to flash. ‘All but airlock three sealed,’ he called out.

‘Alert maintenance,’ replied Mercer instantly.

The Cassius Four space station had been operational for just over a century and in all that time, not even the most dense meteor storms had budged the craft. Its crew had come to expect that the station would remain as stable as terra firma. When the first volley of plasma blots sliced though the shields and punched a hole in the hull as if it were tissue paper, the station shuddered violently under the impact. For a second the artificial gravity fields failed to compensate. Vital oxygen voided through the gaping hole in the station's aft section until the emergency shutters engaged, sealing off the damaged area - and all within it.

Every light went out, and in some areas the much dimmer emergency lighting came on. The bridge was plunged into a gloomy half-light and no-one spoke for a moment while the terrible reality of their situation sunk in.

Phin broke the silence as soon as he had scrambled back to his position. ‘We've been hit!’ he yelled, rather unnecessarily.

Mercer stared at the console. Most of the screens had gone dark. ‘What's happening?’ he demanded. ‘What's happening?’

Osborn attempted to filter out the messages coming in over her headset. ‘Engineering reports extensive damage to the generating plant.’

Phin managed to bring what remained of the external sensors back on line. They, too, told a grim story. ‘Cruiser closing in, sir,’ he reported.

‘I've lost contact with the fighters,’ Osborn added. No-one had to guess what might have happened to the four craft.

‘Open fire!’ ordered Mercer. No-one complied. ‘I said open fire!’ he repeated.

Phin swung around in his seat, his expression one of sheer terror. ‘We can't. We don't have enough power for the laser cannons. We are defenceless!’

The station rocked under a second barrage of blaster fire. The emergency lighting flickered, and one of the consoles began to spark and smoke. Two crewmembers grabbed extinguishers and sprayed the fire.

Mercer ran over to a large, sealed wall locker containing the station's armoury. He pulled out his security card and swiped it through a read-slot before tapping in his security code. As soon as the locker opened, he pillaged its contents.

Phin looked on in alarm at what Mercer was obviously intending to do. ‘Look, we should surrender,’ he proposed.

Mercer paused, his arms loaded with blasters and explosive packs. ‘No,’ he stated sharply.

Osborn came over to lend her support. ‘But we can't fight,’ she reasoned. ‘We don't even have a deflector shield.’

At this moment, the lift doors at the rear of the bridge opened and Styles stormed in, her once pristine white tunic soiled with dirt and streaks of blood. ‘Mercer!’ she shouted. ‘How much longer is this slaughter to continue?’

‘Where's the Captain?’ he responded, anxious to be relieved of at least some of the responsibility of leadership.

‘Dead,’ said Styles bluntly. ‘Along with half the crew.’

‘Half?’ echoed Phin, stunned.

Styles nodded. ‘Just about everyone who wasn't on duty was in the recreation centre - including the Captain. The entire section was sealed off after it was hit.’ Her voice sounded strained, close to breaking point.

‘Battle cruiser preparing to dock,’ reported Osborn as she attempted to bring some of the station's damaged systems back on line.

I am the commanding officer now, thought Mercer, but the idea did not cheer him one bit. Any moment now they could all die. Then what would his rapid promotion be worth? ‘Which airlock?’ he quizzed Osborn.

Osborn punched in a computer projection of the cruiser's flight path since its detection and predicted its intersection with the station. ‘Three,’ she concluded, a troubled look on her face. ‘The maintenance team are still working on it.’

‘I want every available person down there. Block the corridor with anything they can find.’

Osborn relayed Mercer's order into her headset mike as Mercer off-loaded some of his armload of weaponry on the bridge crew.

Styles regarded a hand laser distastefully. ‘More killing?’

Mercer rounded on her suddenly, and for a moment she believed he was going to hit her, but instead he snapped ‘Your bile would be better directed against the enemy, doctor.’

Styles turned away in disgust. Mercer stared at her for a moment, then joined Osborn at her console. She had managed to get one of the external view screens working. It displayed the massive battle cruiser. It was so close that Mercer could make out the shape of the individual hull plates. He didn't recognise the design.

‘How long before they dock?’ asked Styles, peering over his shoulder.

‘Three minutes,’ Mercer told her, checking Osborn's computer projection. ‘We'd better go down to the airlock.’

‘Right,’ agreed Styles.

Mercer stared at her once more, marvelling at her abrupt mood change. One moment she had been his strongest critic, the next his closest ally. ‘Break out the battle kits,’ he instructed.

Styles moved away to comply, and Mercer leaned in close to Osborn, pulling his security card from his pocket as he did so. ‘Should we be boarded,’ he said softly, handing her the card, ‘destroy the prisoner.’

Osborn glanced at the card and then at Mercer, but he was already hurrying towards the open lift doors where Styles stood waiting, laden with weapons and battle gear.

‘Good luck,’ he called back to Osborn, and then the doors closed and she was left as the officer in charge on the bridge.

She punched up an internal view of the station on a view screen, selecting the security camera feed from Airlock Three. A number of maintenance people and other surviving crewmembers were variously working on closing the door or constructing a barricade a short distance from it.

Phin and the other crewmembers came over to watch the screen. Their very survival depended on the successful defence of Airlock Three.

While everyone on the bridge had their eyes on the screen, Osborn surreptitiously inserted the small plastic card Mercer had given her into a slit in a small box set into the console. She then pressed a sequence of buttons, and a small panel slid open, revealing a red button protected by a safety catch beneath. Osborn released the safety catch, then turned her attention back to the screen. One hand rested next to the armed trigger mechanism. Her fingers drummed nervously on the console surface.

Mercer and Styles ran down the corridor to the barricade, followed closely by two survivors they had encountered on their way, Styles's assistant Zena and a male crewmember, Doran. All four had donned the battle kits that Styles had brought from the bridge.

‘Check how much longer the maintenance crew will be,’ Mercer instructed Styles, and began handing out weapons to the crew.

‘Right,’ Styles agreed, but before she could do so, the corridor echoed with a loud metallic boom, accompanied by a faint tremor.

‘The cruiser's docked!’ yelled Mercer. ‘Get the shield down!’

All eight crewmembers turned their attention to the problem of sealing the airlock. The maintenance crew had not been able to fix the fault in the door closing mechanism. The only option left in the time remaining was to use brute force. They reached up and clutched the bottom of the door, and began to drag it down.

‘Come on, pull, pull!’ yelled Styles. The door started to shift.

Once budged, the door slid into place with relative ease. Mercer directed the crewmembers to get behind the barricades and with the help of an engineer, he began laying small compact explosive charges in a grove between two floor panels close to the door. Once in place, Mercer handed the engineer the small, hand-held remote control detonator, and they joined the others behind the barricade.

Mercer could feel the tension radiating from his crew. He glanced around, and saw that many were inadequately dressed for battle - most were wearing light coveralls or even off-duty clothing. It was too late to remedy that now, he thought. At least they were all armed with hand lasers. ‘Wait until I give the order,’ he instructed them quietly.

The words were no sooner spoken when the airlock door that they had worked hard to shut suddenly exploded inwards, showering them with blazing metal fragments. Smoke billowed out from the gaping hole where the shutter had once been.

Mercer tried to see into the smoke, to see his attackers before they saw him, but the acrid smoke stung his eyes and made him cough. Dark shapes could be seen moving steadily through the airlock. They were squat, dull grey metal creatures, shaped like elaborately-angled pillars, topped with a dome from which protruded a single eyestalk. Sticking out in front of the creatures, further down their bodies, were two more protuberances, a sucker stick and a weapon.

Every crewmember looked on in absolute horror as the creatures advanced. They all recognised them, all had heard about them since childhood, knew what they were called, and had hoped they would never, ever encounter them.


Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Epilogue