I was nervous, and for good reason. We were been chased.
We had managed to make the collapsar jump from our first battle to another planet successfully, only to find that our computer had locked onto a potential threat three days before we had come out of the pods. It looked like the females lion creature's message had gotten through. We were calling her species "Leoables." Leo- the Latin for lion. Ables after Able One, the planet we had encountered them on. Right now, a Leoables ship was chasing us, but due to the laws of physics, it was still eight days from been in firing distance.
I had been promoted to sergeant, second class, for my actions on Able One's surface. Due to my new rank, I was allowed into the command meeting been held in Captain Harris ready room. Afterwards, I would report back to the other squad leaders.
"We should just relax and trust the ship's tactical computer. The Leoables ship is still seven days and twenty two hours away from strike distance," Lieutenant James was saying.
"Normally, I would agree," Captain Harris said, "but I am afraid we may have to consider the fact that we may experience future shock. With time dilation, we may be dealing with a more advanced party of enemies. To us, six months have passed. But with two collapsar jumps at two months each, ship time, a decade or more may have passed in normal time."
"What are you saying?" Mumbega asked.
"Our estimate of the seven days needed to reach firing distance may actually be double what they realistically need."
Everyone let that sink in for a moment. Lieutenant James paced around the room.
"This could have morale implications for the troops. Sergeant Harrison, what are you doing for morale problems?"
"We are talking it out sir."
"And? What's the biggest moral problem at the moment?"
"Well, sir, being cooped up on this ship."
Captain Harris and Sergeant Mumbega smiled a little, but Lieutenant James snorted.
"Nonsense. Everyone has been adequately conditioned to deal with extended stays in space. Also, the troops have the advantage of been able to, ahem, fraternise, unlike us command personnel."
True, we were trained to deal with extended stays in space, but not to do the same pointless drills all day every day. And if James thought the command personnel were celibate, he was wrong. Unless he was talking about the army, in which case, he was only fifty per cent wrong. Mumbega was very friendly with a pretty young technician in medical. I cocked an eyebrow in amusement.
"Any suggestion?" Captain Harris asked. It was obvious from the way he looked at Lieutenant James and the tightness of his voice that he was trying hard not to laugh at his assessment regarding the command personnel's sexual status.
"Get cookie to dismantle his still, distribute whatever he has made, and when the party has died down, have everyone ready to go into the life support pods?" I suggested.
"We can make another jump," the ships navigator suggested. "This planet is in a rapid state of decay. There is no sun to keep it warm. Technically, it's an asteroid. It will be out of range of the collapsar in another six and a half months."
Everyone spoke an agreement, and we were dismissed. I made my way down to the enlisted personnel's mess. I found Eddie, Emily and Margret waiting for me. Eddie and Emily nodded at me politely, but coldly. They hadn't agreed with my idea to let the Leoables live, and they resented the fact that I had been promoted. But they were well trained, and they didn't argue- at least not where others could see. Margret, on the other hand, agreed with what I had done, and was happy that the otherwise "arrogant, blind military" had promoted someone with "a conscience."
I relayed the orders. They were to follow me to cookies little "brewery," where they were to receive a ration of whatever paint stripper he had concocted. It was to be distributed to their squads tonight. After the big party, everyone was to be on standby to enter the pods. None of them argued, just followed. I made sure Margret was behind me at all times. I had a feeling my former friends would be happy to report that I had an accident.
I sat by myself and watched the revelry as it unfolded. It was fast becoming an orgy. Personally, I wasn't drinking that much. I was content to sit and stroke the stubble that meant I had to shave more often than I was used to. That would be a surprise for my parents, if I came back with a beard. If my parents were still alive, that is.
Finally, after twenty minutes of watching everyone getting fall on their face drunk, and giving me dirty looks, I had enough. I left the party, and started walking through the narrow corridors of the ship. Flight personnel ran through the ship, doing last minute checkups on the ship. Outside the stuffy room, cookies moonshine hit me hard. I eventually found myself in the section of the medical bay where the Leoables were been held. They looked dejected, but they purred when they saw me. For some reason, they responded well to me.
I stripped off my shirt and lay on one of their bunks, taking out a pad to re-read the orders that had come through from command. The teenage Leoables, the one we had encountered in the forest, jumped up beside me and snuggled close, and I started to scratch behind his ears. Even though he dwarfed me in size, he was just a big kid really. The on-board behavioural physiologist believed that he had "imprinted" on me. In other words, she was saying he thought of me as dad. The date caught my attention. 2107. We had been out in space for fifteen years. To me, it hadn't even been one full year. I was nineteen, and a fifteen year veteran of the military. It seemed insane. I yawned. The young Leoables was very warm, and his short, shaggy hair almost covered up the fact that his muscles were harder than iron. My eyelids began to droop. I didn't notice myself nodding off, but soon Margret was shaking my shoulder.
"Wha-?" I spluttered.
It was then that I noticed the alarm.
"Attack has started earlier than expected. We have one hour to get into the life support pods."
I was glad I had elected to enter the pods last, as the request from Captain Harris would have most of the others scoffing and calling me a turn cloak if I accepted. The Leoables were refusing to enter their Life Support Pods. If they remained outside when we made the jump, they would look like strawberry jam with bits of hair and bone attached. I jogged to the specially built pod- it was basically a large rectangular shaped recess in the ground with a lid that closed over the top. It would be flooded with the same substance that filled our individual pods, but it would be a tight fit for two near grown Leoables and a baby.
They were walking around growling, swiping at anyone that came near them. They calmed down when they saw me, but time was running out fast. With some quick hand gestures, and the few words of their language (the few I knew) I managed to get them into the pods- but I had to accompany them into the pod. Shit. We had five minutes. I ordered the technicians away. I could handle it. I stripped off. The minute I climbed into the tank and started hooking myself up, they followed suit. A part of my mind told me I was an insurance policy- that the Leoables though that no one would do anything to kill them in the pods if I was with them. They obviously didn't know how the rest of the crew felt about me.
With ninety seconds to go, we were all in the pods. I was right, it was a tight fit. The teenage Leoables and I were practically spooning. With a minute to go, the lid closed and the pod began to flood. The otherwise dark, viscous liquid turned green, indicating the process was complete, but I didn't notice. My mind was trying to remember what the thing was pressing into me.
The pod cleared of liquid, and I scrambled out. Almost immediately I knew something was wrong. There was a smell in the air. I nearly tore out all the tubes attached to me, and pulled on my trousers while I practically ran through the ship. Near the pod bay, I came across Sergeant Mumbega, leaning against a wall, and coughing hard.
"Sir, what's wrong?"
"We were hit. We lost most of the pod's."