Catching the Sun, Part 29

Kyla Vertrane had never been more ready to finish a run and get a piece of cargo off her ship. There was something disturbingly ominous about that giant box in her cargo hold. Maybe it was the fact that when Fluttermask had stopped at a supply station outside of Reminalis, three unidentified light military transports had dropped out of subspace, hovered just outside of the station’s sensor range, and then dropped back into subspace as soon as Fluttermask disembarked from the station. Maybe it was the fact that the box was giving off trace amounts of vylascin, a rare but deadly form of radiation. Whatever it was, Kyla was anxious to get that box off her ship and into her past.

“We should reach the drop off point in about 10 minutes, Cap’n,” growled Grar as he stomped into the cockpit.

“Good,” said Kyla with a sneer. “The sooner we can get rid of this wretched box, the better.”

“Whattaya suppose is in that thing?” spat Grar.

“I’ve told you a hundred times, I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Kyla responded irritably. “All that matters to me is that my wallet will be a hundred times fatter once we’ve delivered it.”

“Yeah, but… Vylascin!” Grar snarled. “That stuff is nasty! What could possibly be in there that would produce vylascin! I’m not sure I want to have anything to do that.”

“Well, in about an hour, you won’t,” Kyla said, even more irritably. “And you’ll be rich beyond your wildest dreams. That’s worth a little vylascin poisoning, isn’t it?”

“Not if I’m dead,” Grar growled. Kyla just looked at him and rolled her eyes dismissively.

“Here we go,” she said. “Prepare to drop out of subspace.” A few seconds later, Fluttermask shuddered slightly, and then dropped back into to real space.

Immediately, Kyla knew something was wrong.

There were a dozen Kyloss S-class starships surrounding Fluttermask‘s position. The Kyloss S was a civilian heavy transport ship, but they were often modified to carry weapons. And one look told Kyla that these fell into that category.

“Well, this throws a wrench in our plans,” Kyla muttered with a scowl. Fluttermask was fast and maneuverable, but completely unarmed. Surrounded by a dozen armed ships, she’d never stand a chance.

“To the crew and captain of Fluttermask, you are hereby ordered to surrender your cargo to us,” said a stern male voice over Fluttermask‘s radio. “Failure to do so will result in the capture of your ship and the detainment and possible execution of everyone on board. Do not attempt to power up your Nexus drive. If you do, we will destroy you immediately.”

“Whattaya we do, Cap’n?” whispered Grar, as close to worried as Kyla had ever heard him.

“Power up the Nexus drive, and drop to these coordinates on my signal,” she said, handing him a tablet. “But DO NOT DROP until I give the signal, understood?” Grar nodded and began punching in the coordinates. Kyla reached over and pressed the button to activate the radio.

“Unidentified vessels,” she said, “I am Kyla Vertrane, captain of Fluttermask. I am carrying extremely valuable and sensitive cargo on behalf of a very wealthy and important man, and I am loathe to surrender it without more information. And adequate compensation.” That last was a ruse, intended to keep whoever was in charge on the Kyloss ships talking, make them think that if they paid her enough, she’d hand over the cargo. In reality, there was no amount of money that would convince her to hand it over. A smuggler’s reputation was all she had. If word spread that she was willing to give up a cargo to the highest bidder, nobody in the underground would trust her with anything valuable. Her ambitions were too grand to allow that to happen.

“Captain Vertrane,” said an elderly woman’s voice, “I am Trilaine Veren, head of the Veren family, and owner and CEO of the Veren Holding Company. The large box that you have in your cargo hold was stolen from the Veren Military Solutions Corporation by my son, Achave. It is not rightfully his possession, therefore, you have no right to transport it. Please return it to me, and I promise you will be well compensated.”

“Well, I’m certainly listening, Madame Veren,” Kyla said in what she hoped was a thoughtful tone of voice. Grar glanced at her questioningly, and she shook her head sharply. “It will have to be a substantial amount of money, though. Your son was promising me an absolutely ludicrous fee to transport this cargo, and I would hate to have to pass that up.”

“I see,” replied Trilaine, and Kyla could hear the displeasure in her voice. “Let’s put it this way. Are you a loyal citizen of the Empire, Captain Vertrane?”

“Of course, Madame,” Kyla replied.

“Then perhaps you would be interested to note that this cargo you’ve been transporting is a prototype of a new weapon system, a highly advanced weapon system that will tip the scales of this war in the Empire’s favor once it is deployed. However, my son has proven himself to be a traitor, and has hired you to transport this prototype to a Fangalin world, so that Fangalin will be able to deploy it themselves. If that happens, the war will return to stalemate, and will continue on with no end in sight. Do you want that to happen, Captain Vertrane?”

“Of course not, Madame!” Kyla said in her most earnest voice, and then she nodded to Grar, who pressed a button on the console, dropping them into subspace immediately.

“Ha ha!” Kyla said in delight. “Take that, you old hag!” She laughed gleefully, and punched Grar in the arm playfully. The “mask” in Fluttermask‘s name actually referred to one of its aftermarket features, an emission mask that hid the ship’s Nexus drive emissions. She’d used it to get away from suspicious authorities several times in the past year. She’d gotten the specifications from an old smuggler on Trimorin Nextis who’d taken a liking to her. As far as she knew, there were only two in the whole galaxy.

“So, where are we going, Cap’n?” Grar said with a pleased look on his face.

“Alternate drop-off point,” Kyla said. “Achave must have known his mother was on to him, cause he gave me these alternate coordinates right before we left. Sneaky guy.”

“Well, hopefully he didn’t get himself snagged,” Grar said. “I wanna get paid!”

“Don’t worry,” Kyla said with a smirk. “If he screwed up, he’ll learn the hard way that that’s a bad, bad idea.” She chuckled to herself happily as Fluttermask soared through subspace. One way or another, Kyla Vertrane would be known as the greatest smuggler who ever lived.

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 28

“What a mess,” growled Xendin Lodimeur in disgust as he picked his way through the corpses littering the engine room. They had just overridden the lockout keeping the engine containment doors sealed, and were entering the room for the first time since the XR38 drones had finished off the Imperial marines. They certainly were effective little machines. It amazed Xendin how Fangalin had not only managed to achieve organizational superiority over the Empire, but also technological superiority.

“How’s the engine, Commander?” he said, addressing Draina Telorr, who had rushed in to check on the Nexus drive as soon as the doors opened.

“Looks okay so far, General,” she replied, inspecting every inch of the engine carefully. “Outer containment seal has been completely removed, but the inner seal is still intact. Looks like they were about to start in on it when the drones arrived.”

“So we were just in time,” Xendin muttered grimly.

“That we were, sir,” Telorr replied, still not taking her eyes off the engine.

***

Master Sergeant Ladiv Umian cracked his eyes open slightly, but he couldn’t make anything out. He was staring at what appeared to be pure, white light. For a moment he thought he was dead, and the light was the One, welcoming him to Ashalala. Then he realized he was just looking at the overhead lights in Ranger‘s engine room.

So, the drone hadn’t killed him. At first, judging by the way he felt, it seemed like it had barely even wounded him, but when he tried to stand, he realized how wrong he was. The drone’s plasma rifle had severed his spinal cord just above his waist, leaving his legs completely paralyzed.

That was it then. If the Fangalin traitors hadn’t found him yet, they would soon, and there was no way he was going to get away from them, not without his legs. He reached down and pulled his sidearm out of its holster on his right hip. He wasn’t going to let them take him and send him back to the Emperor. No, Ladiv Umian was going to go out on his own terms.

He lifted the pistol up to his right temple and prepared to pull the trigger, but then he froze. Somehow he hadn’t noticed at first, but there were people in the engine room with him. The engineers had gotten the containment doors open and were starting to fix the damage he had caused. Miraculously, they hadn’t noticed that he was still alive yet. A grin spread across his face, a desperate, wolfish grin. This wasn’t over yet.

***

“Is everything under control down here?” asked Hana Lodimeur as she entered the engine room.

“Yes, sir,” Commander Telorr said to her. Although Hana was technically a civilian, as the Supreme Commander’s personal representative, her authority theoretically outstripped that of her father, even though he was officially in command of the mission. Xendin just shook his head. Fangalin’s command structure was going to take some getting used to. As was the idea of taking commands from his daughter.

“So we’re not going to be crushed into a fine pulp between subspace and real space?” Hana said with a grin. “That is good to hear!”

“Indeed it is, sir,” Telorr said without cracking a smile.

“Hana, the situation is completely under control,” Xendin said firmly. “Why don’t you go back to your quarters and leave this to me?”

“General, how many times do I have to tell you that I do not take orders from you?” Hana replied, exasperated. “I really want to give the Supreme Commander a good report about you, but you’re making it somewhat difficult!”

“Hana, I just have your best interests in mind,” Xendin said in a low voice.

“And I have your best interests in mind too!” she replied loudly. “You’re always going to have a representative of the Supreme Commander on your missions, and it’s not always going to be your daughter! If you can’t figure out how to deal appropriately with me, what are you going to do when it’s somebody who has it in for you!”

***

Umian was confused by the conversation between the fat, old general and the pretty young woman in civilian clothes, but somehow it seemed as if the civilian was really the one in charge aboard Ranger. At first he’d planned to kill the general, but the girl was gradually becoming a more interesting target. Representative of the Supreme Commander, eh? Sounded important. And maybe if he was quick enough he could take out them both. He aimed his pistol carefully, pulled the trigger, and…

***

“Look out!” yelled a marine behind Xendin suddenly. He whipped around, and saw that one of the Imperial marines was still alive, and was aiming a gun directly at Hana’s head. There was no time to think. He roughly shoved her out of the way just as the Imperial pulled the trigger, and the next thing he knew, he was flat on his back with an intense pain in his chest.

“Daddy!” screamed Hana, her voice just barely audible over the roar of assault rifles devastating the crippled Imperial. She knelt down next to her father, staring at his wound with wide, frightened eyes. “Somebody get a medic!” she roared frantically.

“Don’t…bother,” Xendin gasped. “It’s too…late.”

“No, Daddy,” she sobbed. “You can’t die! I need you!”

“You don’t need me, Hana,” Xendin said, struggling to smile. “You are a beautiful, strong, intelligent woman. You’ve already proven that you are destined for greatness. Just…just don’t…forget me.”

“I won’t, Daddy! I promise!” She rested her face on his and wept, and then she sat up abruptly and screamed, “Where the hell is that damned medic!”

“Hana,” Xendin rasped. “I…I love you.”

“I love you too, Daddy,” she whispered, tears streaming down her cheeks. He squeezed her hand tight and smiled at her, and then his hand went limp and his head fell back.

“NO!” shrieked Hana, a howl of agony and rage. She laid her head down on him and wept loudly, oblivious to anything else going on around her.

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 27

Xendin Lodimeur, the marine commander Major Krel Vendigan, and Lodimeur’s XO Captain Jical Sorali made their way down to a corridor leading to the engineering section. “What’s the situation, Sergeant?” Xendin said to a heavily armed marine standing nearby.

“Not good, sir,” she said with a salute. “We killed seven of them, but the other five managed to seal the containment doors. We’ve rerouted engine controls so they can’t use the computer to shut down the engine, but we think they’re trying to shut down the engine manually.”

“Idiots,” growled Vendigan. “Don’t they realize that will kill them too?”

“Erelesk Votalin isn’t known for his mercy,” Xendin said darkly. “They’ve failed in their mission, and if they surrender and we hand them back over to the Empire, they’ll almost certainly be executed. No matter what they do, they’re likely dead. This way, they can at least take some of us with them.”

“What if we offer them amnesty?” asked Hana Lodimeur, who had just arrived in the corridor. “As the Supreme Commander’s personal representative on this mission, I’m authorized to offer amnesty to any enemy soldier who wishes to join us. If we promise to protect them from Votalin’s wrath, they might find that preferable to death.”

“We can try,” said Sorali doubtfully, “but they probably won’t listen. Votalin seems to have done a pretty good job of indoctrinating his troops. It’s likely they hate Fangalin even more than they fear Votalin.”

“Hana, you shouldn’t be down here,” Xendin said with a frown. “It’s too dangerous for civilians.”

“General, you should know by now that I am authorized to be wherever I want to be on this ship,” Hana said in exasperation. “Besides, with five crazed Imperial marines locked in the engine room, this entire ship is one big deathtrap right now. Being here is no more dangerous than being in my quarters.”

“Even so, I would feel much better if you weren’t potentially in the line of fire,” Xendin said, his frown deepening.

“Too bad,” Hana said firmly. “I’m staying here, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Xendin sighed in frustration, and then turned back to Vendigan and Sorali.

“All right,” he said. “Sergeant, make them a formal offer of amnesty.” The sergeant saluted sharply and ran off. “Now, we need to figure out how we’re going to get in there in case they refuse. Ideas?”

“Couldn’t we just blow open the doors and storm in?” asked Vendigan.

“No good,” replied Sorali. “Those doors are designed to protect the ship in case the engine overheats and the Nexus energy inside ruptures the casing. Any explosion strong enough to open those doors would destroy the entire ship.”

“Why can’t we just open the doors?” asked Hana.

“The Imperials have locked us out of the computer system that controls the door,” said Sorali, shaking his head. “It’ll take hours to bypass that lock, and by then, we’ll all be dead.”

“However,” said Draina Telorr, Ranger‘s chief engineer, who had arrived just in time to hear Sorali’s last statement, “the ventilation shafts leading into the engine room are still open. The ventilation lockdown is controlled by a different system than the main containment doors, and the Imperials either didn’t realize that or couldn’t access it.”

“We can definitely make use of that,” said Xendin thoughtfully. “But how?”

“Why don’t we just send a platoon of marines through the shafts?” asked Hana.

“Because the shafts are so narrow they’d have to go one at a time, and they’d almost certainly get decimated by the Imperials as they emerged,” growled Vendigan.

“Could we flood the engine room with tranimine gas and knock them out?” asked Sorali.

“We could try that,” replied Lodimeur, “but they most likely have breathing apparatuses to counteract such a tactic.”

“General,” said Telorr suddenly, “you might not be aware of this, but Ranger is equipped with a dozen XR38 drones. We could use those to eliminate the Imperials.”

“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with XR38s, Commander,” Lodimeur said with a frown.

“Oh, that’s right,” she replied somewhat sheepishly, “you just recently joined Fangalin. The XR38 is an experimental remote control weapon system designed by Fangalin engineers. They’re about a foot long and six inches high, but they’re fully equipped with a hover drive, holographic imaging sensors, and twin plasma fusion rifles. They’ve never been used in a combat situation before, and they’re absurdly expensive, but I would say that desperate times call for desperate measures.”

“Agreed,” said Lodimeur sharply. As soon as he said this, the marine who’d been sent to the engine room came jogging back. “Report, Sergeant.”

“Couldn’t even get them to respond, sir,” she said, shaking her head.

“Very well then,” Lodimeur said firmly. “Flood the engine room with tranimine, and deploy the XR38s.” Telorr saluted sharply and ran off.

***

In the engine room, Master Sergeant Ladiv Umian was working slowly but steadily on dismantling the protective casing surrounding the Fangalin ship’s Nexus drive. His companions kept complaining that he was taking too long, but he didn’t really care. No matter what happened at this point, they were dead. What did it really matter if they took the Fangalin scum with them or not? Besides, they’d locked down the containment doors. Those traitors weren’t getting in here any time soon.

“Hey, do you smell something?” asked one of the marines. Another of them sniffed deeply, and grimaced.

“Tranimine!” he yelled. “Everybody engage your breathers!” Umian and the others quickly pressed a few buttons on the control panels embedded on the left arm of their armor, and masks appeared over their faces, filtering out the tranimine and replacing it with breathable air.

“Those idiots,” one of the soldiers sneered, his voice distorted by the mask. “Didn’t they know we’d have breathers?”

“They must be getting desperate,” Umian said, chuckling darkly. Suddenly, there was a blast of energy, and the soldier standing to his left dropped to the ground, dead. “What is going on!” he roared in fear and anger.

“Drones!” yelled one of the other soldiers. He raised his rifle and started shooting, but missed and was dropped by one of the drones. Umian rolled to his right, snatched up his rifle, and quickly blasted two of the drones. But there were too many, and he was already the last member of his squad still standing. He tried to jump behind a control console for cover, but one of the drones fired on him as he jumped, and everything went black.

To be continued…

Catching the Sun, Part 26

On Ranger‘s forward observation deck, Commander Omilai Alten and the rest of Ranger‘s command staff were watching intently as Ranger and the rest of the Fangalin ships prepared to engage Erelesk Votalin’s fleet. Votalin’s fleet had decimated Redlamin’s so thoroughly that his ships had already lowered their shields and sounded an end to battle stations, even though standard procedure said to maintain battle readiness even after a battle ended, in case the enemy had reserves in hiding. Sloppy tactics on Votalin’s part, but it certainly made Alten’s job easier.

“Open fire on my mark,” Alten said to the weapon control officer, a grim look on his normally cheerful face. It was odd to be commanding the ship from the forward observation deck. This was normally a place where off-duty officers came to relax and drink and enjoy the spectacular views of space afforded by the large, arvinium-reinforced windows. He had chuckled when he first took up his position behind the bar, using a computer designed for ordering drinks to command the entire battleship. But this kind of out-of-the-box thinking was one of the things he loved about Fangalin.

“Fire!” he yelled as the Fangalin ships closed in on the Imperial ships.

***

“Captain, this is strange,” announced one of the sensor operators on the bridge of Berserker.

“What is it, Lieutenant?” asked the captain, a young man named Vorun Mallagai, coming over to look at the operator’s display.

“Some of the other ships in the fleet have broken standard orbit and are coming straight toward us!” the lieutenant said.

“That’s odd,” muttered Mallagai. “Why would they be doing that?”

“What’s going on?” demanded Votalin suddenly, coming up behind the captain and the lieutenant.

“Oh! Uh, Your Majesty,” the captain said, saluting, “a group of ships have broken orbit and are moving right toward us.” Votalin stared at the display for a moment, and then started chuckling.

“Xendin Lodimeur, you audacious bastard,” he said in admiration, then he turned away and roared, “SHIELDS UP! EVASIVE MANEUVERS! CONTACT THE REST OF-” but he was cut off as the ship shook violently under the force of Fangalin guns.

***

“Report!” barked Commander Alten.

“Eight ships destroyed, three ships heavily damaged, and minimal damage to Votalin’s flagship,” announced the tactical officer. “Berserker managed to get its shields up just before we opened fire.”

“Damn it,” Alten scowled. “Would’ve been nice to take out that pervert, but we’ll take what we can get. Come around for another pass, and then we’ll get the hell out of here.”

***

“Damage report!” bellowed Votalin.

“Shields are at 55 percent and holding,” shouted the damage control officer. “Minor damage to the starboard engine. No casualties.”

“What about the rest of the fleet?” asked Votalin.

“Can’t get through!” yelled the communications officer. “The enemy ships are jamming our communications somehow!”

“Keep trying!” roared Votalin. “And let’s take out some of those traitors!”

***

“Adjust course, bearing 7844.9,” Alten ordered. “Open fire on the cruiser at 2946.1 on my mark.”

“Sir, shouldn’t we keep attacking Berserker?” asked Alten’s XO.

“No, Commander,” Alten said, shaking his head. “We don’t have a shot at destroying Berserker now, not with its shields up. We’re better off taking out a different ship and getting out of here intact. Besides, our mission is not to destroy Votalin, only cripple him.” He turned to the weapon control officer. “Open fire!” There was a flash of green energy outside the ship, and the cruiser that had been directly in front of them disintegrated in a massive fireball.

“There, that should do it,” Alten said in satisfaction. “Notify the fleet: prepare to drop into subspace. Set course for Numoris.”

***

“Fire!” bellowed Votalin. There was a flash of green on the viewscreen, but the destroyer that Berserker was firing on sailed past and out of sight.

“Minimal damage, Your Majesty,” said the weapon control officer, shaking his head grimly. “Our shots glanced off their shields.”

“Change course!” Votalin roared, his voice starting to get hoarse from all the shouting. “Find a new target and annihilate them!”

“No good, Your Majesty!” yelled the tactical officer. “The enemy ships are dropping into subspace!” Votalin’s face turned as white as a ghost, and then he whirled and slammed his fist into Mallagai’s head, who collapsed to the ground.

“Captain Mallagai,” he rasped, breathing heavily, “you are hereby relieved of duty and placed under arrest.” He turned away from the captain, who was laying on the ground, clutching his head and weeping, as four marines swooped in to bind him and carry him away. “Master Lakatai,” Votalin said in a quiet, dangerous voice, facing the bridge viewscreen. Lakatai stepped up behind him, bowing submissively. “The ISS has a new mission. Find the marines I stationed on Lodimeur’s ships. Make certain they suffer for their failure to prevent this embarrassment.”

“As you command, Your Majesty,” Lakatai said, bowing again.

***

On the bridge of Ranger, Xendin Lodimeur was sitting in the command chair with a rare smile on his face. So far, this mission had gone off without a hitch. 22 of Votalin’s ships had been destroyed or crippled, more than half of the fleet he’d brought to Endragar. His overall forces were still larger than those of Valador Mifalis, but the gap had been greatly reduced. Even if Votalin was able to overcome his rival eventually, it wouldn’t happen anytime soon.

All command functions had been restored to the bridge, and command access had reverted to himself and Captain Nonmar. He was still looking through reports to see how Ranger‘s status had changed while the bridge was nonfunctioning.

“General,” said the commander of Ranger‘s marine battalion, coming onto the bridge and approaching Lodimeur’s seat with a salute. “I have some bad news to report.”

“What is it, Major?” Lodimeur replied, the smile fading from his face.

“We have secured the Imperial marines that were stationed here and in CIC, but we have so far failed to dislodge the marines in engineering. They are currently working on disabling our engines.”

“They must be desperate,” Lodimeur said with a pensive frown. “If they shut down our Nexus engines in transit, the shock of dropping out of subspace so suddenly would destroy the ship.” He stood up and moved off the bridge, motioning to the Major to follow him. “I want all available marines to converge on engineering. This isn’t over yet.”

To be continued…