“The SS Kelley was in fact named after a rather famous relative of mine. There have been three ships named for Admiral Chester Lee Kelley, one was an ocean vessel, one was a prototype tunnel drive starship and one was a destroyer escort starship. Only the tunnel drive prototype is ever remembered by historians. Considering the fates of the other two vessels, that was just as well.”
- Excerpt from: The Long Embrace – A Military History of the Great War, by Ambassador Rachel Kelley, USF University Press
There were six warships in the armada, four capital and two cruisers. Kantor led from the VCF Krestor, one of the heavily armed cruisers. The warships exited tunnel space in a circular pattern around the largest asteroid of the system. To a scanning crew it would have appeared that they had come out of nowhere. But there were no such scanning operators at the hidden base. Nobody ever saw it coming.
Like green bats, reconnaissance fighters swooped into the crevice of rock that ran down the center of the asteroid. Flames of death shot from their wingtips as they bore down on the unsuspecting human outpost. There were two freighters docked in the rocky crevice, feeding their cargo to the warehouses buried deep inside the asteroid. One of them opened fire in return with the limited weapons it had on board. The Eight-fighters quickly dispatched it, causing a main reactor to blow. The explosion wound up doing more damage and killing more people than the invading fighters could have managed on their own.
Sensor sweeps by the warships revealed no survivors and high levels of radiation from the explosion. Kantor was clearly frustrated that he could not inspect the battle zone himself. He ordered his force back to the warships and reconvened with Varco in the war room.
“That was too easy to have been a military base. It looks like you were correct. Clearly they were pirates of some kind.”
“We probably helped out the local constabulary, My Lord.”
Kantor grunted. He pointed to the planet with the most traffic heading from it to parts unknown. “We’re heading here next. Tunnel space when the fighters return. This was a waste of time.”
Kantor left the room with a disgusted harrumph, and headed back to his cabin.
Varco changed the viewer to show scanning results from the destroyed base. He tried to get a handle on what level of technology these people had. Their starships had nuclear drives and they returned fire with plasma based weapons that were at best ineffective. Component analysis indicated metal alloys and a few composites of unknown strength.
He was surprised by how similar their technology was to his own. It was rare to come across an unknown civilization that was at the same level as the Empire. Almost as rare as coming across beings that looked for all the universe just like Votainions. They were slightly smaller and uglier but they were otherwise so closely matched that it unnerved him. He really wanted to get some specimens before engaging them again. Perhaps there were aspects of their physiology that he could leverage in their next engagement. But after the reactor blew, he could not risk sending his troops into the remains of the base.
Varco called up more scanner reports looking for anything that he could find that would help him understand his new enemy. Communications by the aliens were flooding space in this sector, none of it encrypted. If he could just read it they would have some bit of advantage. The ship’s Engineers were combing through the languages and trying to parse out what was being said. But it would take time. Time for them to understand it and more time to build translators.
* * *
The SS Kelley was on the final leg of her deep space trials. She was the first nearly operational starship of the Federation Starforce to have the revolutionary tunnel drive. It allowed the ship to traverse large distances in space by tunneling through artificially created worm holes. The technology was so bleeding edge that the crew barely understood what she was capable of doing. As a result the ship carried many civilian engineers and was underarmed.
They were four light years outside Prahran when their scanners detected a nuclear flash in an area of space considered uninhabited. Captain Blane Dobson ordered a suspension of the tightly scheduled testing program in order to investigate the anomaly. It would give the scanning crews a chance to test their new equipment and it would give his bridge crew a chance to work together on a real-world problem; instead of running test checklists and going through drills night and day.
The Kelley went into yellow alert and all testing of the stardrives and related systems were put on hold. His crew was less than half the normal complement and his primary weapons were off-line. The Captain was ready to jump back to Federation space at the first sign of any trouble. The Kelley was far too valuable a starship to lose to pirates or even to an accident. At times Dobson felt he was lucky just to have the conn, much less be allowed to cruise around the galaxy.
“Captain, I have multi-ship traffic approaching at cruising speed,” the First Officer said from the scanning station.
Dobson got up from his chair and stood over the FO. “Looks like a squadron of transports. Check the trader schedules, they are way outside the normal routes.”
“Comm, patch me through to the lead freighter please,” Dobson said. He sat back down in his Captain’s chair and put on a headset.
The Comm Officer adjusted her controls and a channel opened. There was a pop and sputter as the link was established.
“This is Federation Starship SS Kelley, please state your current flight path and affiliation.”
Dobson pressed the headset against his ears in an effort to hear better.
“SS Kelley this is the Bainesbright, we are en route to Prahran and in need of escort from pirates, can you assist?”
Dobson locked eyes with his FO, a thin man with long black hair tied back in the customary fashion. The FO looked skeptical. Although this area was ripe with pirates, it was unlikely that three or more ships would be bothered. Pirates preferred to pick on solo ships as there was usually safety in numbers, even out here in the wilds of the Outer Rim.
“Bainesbright, unless you have an emergency we cannot assist, over.”
There was silence from the transport as the three ships came closer to the Kelley.
“Captain, the civilian registry shows that the Bainesbright was lost in space nearly a year ago in this general area,” the FO said, his voice rising in alarm.
Dobson watched the images on his forward screen get larger as the distance between them and the transports closed. Lost in space? How long have they been out here, anyway? This is very suspicious.
“Helm, make preparations for a jump back to Federation space. Jarve, organize a rescue party in case they have wounded.” The FO nodded, but looked over his shoulder at the transports one last time. They certainly didn’t look like they needed any assistance.
“Bainesbright, please match speed and be prepared to dock. We have limited medical supplies but are prepared to help in any way we can.”
There was another long pause as the transports continued forward without slowing. Dobson started to get that annoying feeling that something was still not right. He stepped forward and studied the growing images on the viewer. What was that odd feature on the side of the lead transport? It sure as hell wasn’t a loading crane or a probe. Weapons!
A flash of light erupted from the transport’s single rail gun, startling him.
“Brace for impact! Helm start the jump cycle.”
Dobson started back for his seat and was forced into it by the initial impact.
“Damage report,” he said.
“Loss of pressure on the engineering deck. Containment fields collapsing. Sir, we can’t make the jump,” the FO shouted over the vibrations that shook the entire ship.
Damn, I feel like an ass. Dobson could now clearly see the flaming skull markings on the three pirate ships as they spread apart in a flanking maneuver.
“Prepare to be boarded. Armory start issuing weapons. Helm, flank speed!”
Dobson moved to the communications station and spoke into the ear of the officer. “Send an emergency message to the Fleet. Inform them we’re engaging pirates.”
The officer nodded and sent the message.
Dobson went to a locker on the wall and removed the handguns inside. He started passing them out to the other bridge crewmen. There were only three crewmen and one of them left for the airlocks upon receiving his weapon.
Federation procedures for dealing with space pirates were essentially no quarter. Pirates often returned the gesture in kind. By allowing his ship to be overtaken, he was sentencing his crew to their deaths.
“Helm, start a meltdown by my command.”
He was also about to deny the pirates the use of his ship. The Helmsman grimly executed the order no one ever imagined hearing. Dobson cleared his weapon and loaded a round into the chamber. It was tradition on Federation starships to only use projectile weapons for defense. Living on a nuclear time bomb made lazing weapons nothing short of insane. Holes in a starship’s skin were easier to plug than a blown reactor.
There was a deep, grinding sound from the sides of the ship as docking commenced with the lead pirate ship.
“Begin reactor meltdown,” Dobson said.
The Helmsman solemnly carried out the order.“Sir, Helm is not responding!”
Dobson tucked his pistol in the red pleated cumberbun of his uniform and picked up the headset at his chair. “Helm, this is the Captain. What’s wrong?”
There was no response.
“Jarve, get down there and make it happen.”
Commander Jarve chambered a round in his pistol and headed for the hatch. He quickly knocked the hatch locks off and was pushed aside by several burly men wielding blunt barreled rifles.
Captain Dobson drew his pistol but was hit square on with a blast of metal pellets. His tattered body bounced off the Helm station and slumped into a pile on the metal grid of the deck. The same fate met the Comm Officer from behind. He collapsed forward on his instruments.
Jarve got one shot off at the pirates before being leveled at point blank range.
The pirate gunners wore black space suits with armor plating. Dark face shields masked their faces. Three of them moved onto the bridge and pulled or pushed aside the dead Federation officers and took their positions.
“Hull intact. We have power and Helm,” one of the pirates stated with a flat, business like tone.
The last pirate to enter took the Captain’s chair and opened his face shield. The ebony face inside was wet with perspiration but perfectly serene. He looked around with steady, dark eyes and smiled. It had been a long time since Captain Blud had been on a Federation bridge. It was not too different from what he remembered. Bigger and more refined, but basically the same.
“Excellent. Sashi, how many crew?”
A confident female voice answered over the ship’s comm line. “Thirty crew,” she paused for a moment and the sound of gunfire could be heard, “all neutralized.”
“Join me on the bridge, my love,” Blud said.
A few minutes later, Sasha came through the hatch carrying her helmet. She stepped over the dead Captain on the floor and tossed her helmet onto the Helm station. She wore her black hair in tight rows across her head. Her skin was darker than Blud’s. She had a scar on her chin marring her otherwise perfect face. “Too easy.”
Blud smiled and drew her close to him. They kissed intimately without regard for anyone else present. When they parted Blud pulled up a flat viewer panel from the Captain’s chair and punched the buttons displayed on it. Data streamed by as the log book printed.
“This ship is unarmed and was not in the area when our base was attacked.”
He sat back and stared coldly at the panel.
Sasha scrolled further until the log stopped. “Maybe they were directing the strike from way out here?”
Blud shook his head and stepped off the chair. He stooped down and rolled over the body of the dead Federation Captain. “This is Dobson. If memory serves he was assigned to a desk most of his career. Odd that they would have put him in charge of a prototype starship.” Blud frowned at the corpse. “Poor bastard.”
“Forget him, we have this beautiful ship! We can find who attacked us and kill them.”
Blud stood up and moved to the scanning officer’s station. He sat down and performed a quick wide area sweep. There was one other ship in the area and it was too far away to have been responsible. Something flashed on the screen halfway to Prahran. It was big and it was one of many targets that brightened and then suddenly went away.
“What the hell was that?” Blud asked.
Sasha moved to his side and rubbed his smooth shaved head. “Did you find someone?”
Blud shook his head slowly. “Something lit up the area like a nova and then disappeared.”
She looked closer at the screen. It was empty as if nothing had happened. She kissed his head. “Scanner ghosts.”
Finally, we get some pirate action! I really enjoyed writing this novel and space pirates were a big part of that fun. I was worried that Blud’s name would be too obviously a pun, but most readers seem to just roll with it. Which was my intent.
Another aspect of this chapter is that we start to get the point of view of Varco, the second in command under Lord Kantor. There’s always a reason for such things. In this case Varco becomes more important later on in the story.