In my April 9th newsletter (Wait-you do subscribe to my newsletter, right? If you don’t, you can do so by clicking on the handy link to the right), I mentioned that one of the animated shorts featured as part of the Netflix show Love Death + Robots shared some similarities with an unpublished short story I wrote.
In that newsletter, I asked if anyone was interested in reading my short story.
Well, I very quickly received enough responses that I figured it warranted posting the thing.
This is a fast read-only about nine pages or so. I’ve even added a few images in here, in order to enhance and spice up the experience. I’ve also credited those images where I could find the creator, even though this is not for any sort of monetary gain. It’s just a free short story, for you to read and enjoy.
When you’re done, I’d love it if you would let me know what you think. As always, good feedback from sharp, savvy readers is continually welcome. I don’t believe in writing in a bubble, and I firmly feel that genuine critique is a key facet of improvement (not to mention an excellent way to find out what people really enjoy 😊). Your feedback will also be helpful in determining what might come next for this story. . .I mention in my newsletter that I may do more with this character at some point.
She’s a real hard charger, this one.
Now, without further ado, I present to you. . .
Remember Your Training
Captain Courtney Van Zandt, USMC, gazed through tear-filled eyes as the last of the outpost broke apart. She’d watched in horror, helpless as the Skalian attack vessels blasted away at what for the past four months had served as her home. She screamed herself hoarse as they finished it off, but she refused to give up. The rounds from her pulse rifle were all but useless as she fired at targets well out of range and moving too fast for her to hit.
When there was nothing left to destroy, the Skalians left. They hadn’t even realized she was there.
“Never send your troops to do anything you yourself aren’t willing to do.”
They were the last words she’d spoken to her second in command before suiting up and exiting the hatch. That was before the command center stopped responding. Before she overheard the screams, and the explosions. Before the comms went dead.
Captain Van Zandt believed in the time-honored Marine Corps tradition of leading from the front. Always one to practice what she preached, she volunteered to go out and fix the broken satellite antenna herself rather than have one of her troops do it. The antennae array sat on a meteorite 500 meters from the outpost - that far out, it was easy for the Skalian raiders to miss her. The irony wasn’t lost on Van Zandt; being a good leader saved her life, but not the lives of those under her command.
Even if the Skalians had spotted her, what difference would it have made? Would the Marine Captain and her pulse rifle have fared any better than the outpost’s anti-space defenses? She didn’t think so. Had the Skalians seen her, they probably would have just left her to her fate. And why not? She was nothing more than a lone, spaced Marine, floating from a loose tether and moored to an outpost that no longer existed. Her suit would become her tomb.
No! Can’t think like that!
Or could she? Her friends, her comrades, the small contingent of troops who’d been under her command - all dead now. All gone. The Skalians killed them, all the while never even catching sight of her. Now she was alone. Alone in the vast, cold vacuum of space.
Van Zandt fought against the rising panic by focusing on something positive.
Thank God Jason’s deployed on the Huáng Hé.
She laughed through her tears. Absurd, taking comfort in the fact her boyfriend was practically at the enemy’s doorstep, assigned to a forward deployed United Nations ship. But at least he wasn’t here.
They’d both been relieved when she got orders to Marine Corps Base Montana, a miniscule outpost near Jupiter’s orbit. She’d be safer closer to the rear, they’d both reasoned. No one suspected the Skalians would attack such an insignificant target.
Ok, Van Zandt. Just remember your training, and you’ll make it through this.
She allowed her mind to return to Camp Mattis, back on Earth’s moon. Back to where they shipped the newly minted 2nd Lieutenants for advanced deep-space training.
“Anyone got an answer for me?” the instructor, a grizzled old Master Gunnery Sergeant, barked. ”How bout’ you, Van Zandt?!”
“Aye, Master Gunnery Sergeant!” she sounded off as she stood to attention. God, she’d been young then. “Master Gunnery Sergeant - when spaced, the Marine will first activate his or her transponder beacon, setting said beacon to his or her sector’s assigned emergency frequency!”
The Master gunnery Sergeant beamed. “Outstanding, Van Zandt! Take your seat.”
Her mind returning to the present, Van Zandt activated the touch panel on her left forearm. She watched as the screen popped to life, then scrolled through the suit’s options until she found ‘transponder.’ Relief washed over her as the signal began to ping green.
She hoped her relief wasn’t premature. She had no idea if there were any U.N. forces in this sector. Even if there were, they probably had their hands full right now.
Transponder set. Ok Master Guns . . . what do I do next?
Van Zandt’s thoughts drifted back to that day in the classroom.
“Van Zandt got y’all off to one helluva start,” the Master Gunnery Sergeant said. “Now – who can tell me what a spaced Marine does next, after activatin’ their beacon?”
“Here, Master Gunnery Sergeant!” a voice boomed from the back of the class.
It was Jones who’d spoken up. Van Zandt smiled at the memory. Jones had been straight off the farming communes of Nebraska.
Well over six feet tall, corn-fed, blonde hair and blue eyes. He was one of the handsomest white boys Courtney had run across since joining the Corps. Always used to tease her about her big-city Detroit accent. Jones died two years after that class, defending colonists on Mars during a Skalian raid. He was gone now, but to her he’d always be that fine 2nd Lieutenant from the Master Gunnery Sergeant’s classroom.
“Ok Jones,” the Master Gunnery Sergeant had said. “Go on and fill the rest of the class in – what’s the second thing a spaced Marine does, after activatin’ his or her beacon?”
“Master Gunnery Sergeant,” Jones said, standing tall and proud, “after the spaced Marine activates the beacon, he or she will take stock and inventory everything they have on hand.”
“Damn right they’ll inventory, son!” The Master Gunnery Sergeant said. “Damn - knew there was a reason they made y’all officers.” The class shared a good laugh at that one.
Van Zandt returned to the present, taking note of what she had to work with.
One Pulse rifle – Van Zandt unlocked the electromagnet which held it across her chest - almost a full charge.
She pulled a pulse pistol from her thigh holster.
One pulse pistol - she checked the light at the bottom of the weapon’s magazine - fully charged. She slid the pistol back into its holster, feeling the click as it locked into place.
Next Van Zandt called up the suit’s diagnostic screen. Anxious, she held her breath. Relief came only when the indicators in her helmet’s heads up display lit green across the board.
Whew. Ok - one Marine Corps-issued, deep-space combat suit. CO2 filter, air scrubber, and all other systems functional. One day of emergency rations, two days of emergency water. Great. Alright. Transponder activated, inventory complete – what was next, Master Guns?
She willed her mind to return to Earth’s moon, United Nations Moonbase, USMC Camp Mattis, Classroom 3C. The room was chilly, the lights bright white and antiseptic. The entire training center smelled like floor wax.
“Well Marines?” the Master Guns asked. “What’s next? Come on now – not all of you speak up at once.”
Who was it who’d answered? That’s right - it had been Veracruz. How could she forget? She and Veracruz were close - had been since they were bunkmates in Officer Candidate School. Last she’d heard, Veracruz was deployed with 5th Marines, out past Saturn. She prayed her friend was ok. She hadn’t gotten a light cable from Valencia since right before checking in at MCB Montana.
What used to be MCB Montana she corrected herself.
Thinking about the cluster of space debris that only an hour ago had been her home brought on a fresh onslaught of grief. If she didn’t do something, despair wouldn’t be far behind.
Van Zandt thought about Detroit, where she’d grown up. She thought about Sunday dinners, made with love from five-hundred year old recipes created when her ancestors were still enslaved, then passed down through her family for generations.
She thought about her Aunt, who’d raised her after her parents died.
She thought about her first kiss.
She thought about how her family would never meet Jason. How the two of them would never have the kids they’d imagined.
She thought about what her Aunt would do when they delivered the news of her death.
No! she screamed in her mind, afraid to do it aloud for fear of wasting the CO2 filter. You will not give in to this shit, Captain Van Zandt! Remember what the Master Guns said.
“Right on the money, Veracruz!” the memory of the old Master Gunnery Sergeant’s voice was so vivid. It was as if she were back in that classroom, and the old Marine was standing in his customary spot right in front of her desk. “Out of everything you learn here, this might be the most importantest damn thing I teach you. So pay attention! The spaced Marine has to keep their wits about em.’It’s too easy for the mind to start playin’ tricks on ya. Too easy to fall into despair . . . too easy to lose hope, all alone out there in the void. Too easy to start thinkin’ about takin’ the coward’s way out. I seen it happen.”
She remembered the Master Gunnery Sergeant had paused there. The classroom went dead quiet.
A minute passed, then two more, before the Master Guns spoke again. “You gotta have faith, ladies and gents,” the Master Gunnery Sergeant’s voice took on a somber tone. “Faith in your fellow Marines. You gotta think we’ll come find you. No - scratch that. You gotta know we’ll come find you. I mean know it, down to your bones. In all our hunnerts a’ years a’ history, we’ve never left one of our own behind. You can’t start believin’ you’ll be the first. You - you just gotta hold out until we can get to ya.”
Aye, Master Guns, Captain van Zandt thought, her mind returning to the present. Inside the gloves of her spacesuit, her small hands clenched into tight fists. I’ve just gotta hold out. Hold out until they come get me.