“Morgan Blud was one of the most colorful pirates of the late Federation. He was not the only former military officer to take up a life of crime in the Outer Rim. Many others, mostly deserters, had also chosen to become pirates. Some of them even claimed to have served with Blud. Those who knew the bald space captain all testified to his intelligence and viciousness. Few who crossed Blud ever lived to tell about it.”
– Excerpt from: Pirates of the Federation, by Tenner Blane
Captain Raider sat slumped in his command chair going over his battle plans for defending Prahran. They were en-route to the planet traveling at sub-light speed. He had spoken at length with General Joh Solano and his Ranger staff. Both were resigned to the fact that the surface army would probably get overrun within hours. Solano had the advantage of knowing the terrain and his forces would make good use of that. But there really wasn’t a set plan for defending the major cities from an attacking space force. There would be panic and there would be mass casualties. Raider hated to see such a promising world endure the destruction that was likely. He had been to Prahran many times on diplomatic missions in his junior officer years and he had developed a fondness for it and its people.
His thoughts shifted to how his ship would deploy for battle. Most stellar engagements involved more than one ship; there were no plans for a single starship to take on a fleet of enemy ships. That would be suicide. He had two ships at his disposal; a front line cruiser with limited range and his own, untried and untested new starship, the Sokol. Solano had managed to get him two freighters that were unloaded at Prahran and equipped with rail guns. The guns were used for slinging rocks off asteroids, not shooting at combatants. With any luck, it would confuse the enemy long enough for his ship to get off some lucky shots. Otherwise it was going to be a slaughter.
“Captain, I’m showing a three ship formation coming into range.”
Raider sat up and put his data pad down. “Can you identify them?”
“Scans indicate two standard freighters and something bigger. I can’t get a lock on it.”
Raider stepped off the dais and looked over the young man’s shoulder to read his screens. “That, Mr. Call is a tunnel drive starship. Unless it’s a reflection of us, that would be our missing SS Kelley.”
The junior officer looked up in surprise. “Sir, that would make them pirates.”
Raider was already heading back to his seat. “That is correct.” Raider activated the red alert and opened the shipboard intercom. “Attention the ship. This is the Captain speaking. We have incoming pirate vessels. Battle stations, please.”
The lights dimmed red and klaxons sounded. Commander Trimble burst onto the bridge from the stern hatch with several other bridge officers. She was still fastening her service blouse, having been off duty at her cabin.
“Are they coming after us now?” she asked rhetorically as she took her seat.
“Helm, Intercept course please,” Raider said.
The command was repeated as the Helmsman executed the order. The stardrives cycled up to speed quickly and within minutes they were closing rapidly.
“They’re coming too slow for an attack. Do you think they want us to surrender?” Trimble said. Her tone was still cynical. Raider ignored the comment.
“Comm, open all lines of communication.”
The Communications officer complied with the order and pointed to Raider when the mic was live. The main viewer showed the SS Kelley flanked by two pirate freighters.
“This is Captain Rik Raider of the Federation starship SS Sokol. Please identify.”
There was an electronic crackle in response before a voice came through strong and clear. “This is Captain Morgan Blud. I wish to have an audience with you, Rik.”
Raider’s dark eyes narrowed and he sat back in his seat with a sigh. His hand stroked his black beard in a thoughtful manner. He hadn’t expected to hear that man’s voice ever again.
“It’s been a long time, Captain Blud. I didn’t know you were still alive.”
“And kicking, as it were. I shall come aboard under a flag of truce. Our weapons are free but not sighted.”
Raider motioned for his scanning officer to verify. After a quick scan the officer nodded. “Agreed. Permission to board. Raider out.” Raider motioned to cut the connection.
Trimble looked at him confused. “Do you know that pirate?”
“Oh yes, Commander. I do indeed. Helm match speeds and inform the flight deck of our visitors. Have them escorted to the briefing room.”
Raider stood up and motioned for Trimble to follow him. A pirate shuttlecraft could be seen on the main viewer behind Raider. Trimble eyed it before getting up to leave. It was the command shuttle from the Kelley. Seeing it and knowing that pirates now commanded it, left a bitter taste in her mouth.
Raider picked up the headset from his command console and activated a channel to the brig. “This is the Captain. Please escort Lieutenant Ardel to the briefing room.” He pulled off the headset and left it at the chair before heading through the hatch with Trimble.
* * *
Devon was released from the brig, reissued her survival knife and escorted to the pilot briefing room. Her escort waited outside, armed only with a standard deck pistol. Devon had heard the Captain’s message about pirate ships approaching. She immediately went to the only porthole and looked out. There were two pirate ships all right and one Federation starship of similar design to the Sokol. It must be the ship that Raider was trying to locate.
The hatch opened and two people entered the room. Devon turned to see who it was and froze. There were two pirates, both black and dressed in charcoal colored space suits. She didn’t recognize the woman, but the man was Captain Blud. Devon waited until they were closer and then launched at Blud while brandishing her knife. Taken by surprise, the big man stumbled backwards against some tables, Devon’s knife blade hard against his jugular.
The woman started to help Blud but stopped when she saw the blade at his throat. The security guard inside drew his pistol and pointed it at Devon’s back.
“Lieutenant, drop the knife and stand down!”
Devon ignored the command, pushing the blade against Blud’s dark skin. Her face was inches from his, her warm breath on his cheek, her eyes staring madly into his. Blud’s hands were up in the air, showing no resistance to his attacker. His back was on top of a hard table with Devon practically lying on his chest.
Sasha looked at the security officer and screamed, “Do something! That crazy bitch is going to kill him!”
The security officer flexed his fingers on the grip of his gun, keeping it pointed squarely on Devon’s back. The guard from outside rushed in, his pistol at the ready. He stopped upon seeing Blud’s hand motion them all back.
“You killed my husband, you son of bitch. Give me one good reason not to slit your damn throat right now,” Devon whispered so only Blud could hear her.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Blud said, praying she didn’t sever his jugular in response.
“He was first mate on the Wayward Star. Your pirates killed our Captain and then scuttled the ship with him on board.”
Raider and Trimble entered the room. Devon didn’t waiver in her hard stare into Blud’s eyes. Her knife starting to leave a thin cut across his neck.
“Lieutenant Ardel, stand down!” Raider boomed in his most authoritative voice.
“I can’t, sir. This man killed my husband. I’ve been looking for him ever since.”
Raider stepped closer to Devon, trying to get her attention. She didn’t look away from Blud.
“Devon, this man did not kill your husband. The Wayward Star’s fusion drive was damaged. It suffered a slow meltdown that eventually destroyed it and your husband. I know, because I was there, on the SS Cordova.”
Devon turned her head slightly towards Raider, keeping her eyes glued to Blud.
“But witnesses from our crew saw his ship fire on the Wayward Star.”
Raider moved in closer, his black bearded face close enough to Devon to notice him in her peripheral vision.
“Blud and his crew were answering your ship’s distress call. We were aboard the Wayward Star with Mr. Ardel. He ordered us both off the ship along with everyone else so that he could pilot it away before it blew. The flash your crew saw was the neighboring star, IS230, ejecting corona material. It was directly behind the Wayward Star from our perspective.”
Devon searched her memory for a clear image of the flash. She was with a group of crewmen on the starboard side of the Cordova. Their view was facing the unstable star and she clearly remembered seeing both Blud’s ship and the Wayward Star, but she did not remember the background star. Time and the pain of her husband’s death clouded her memory of that fateful day. The loneliness in her heart since then was something she had lived with every day. Even now, years after the incident, it brought her within seconds of killing a man she didn’t even know.
“If you kill him now, you will spend the rest of your life in prison. Is it worth it?” Raider asked.
Devon had been climbing the walls in her cell like a caged animal. She didn’t handle being confined very well. The thought of spending the rest of her life locked up like that was enough to make her ease off on the knife at Blud’s throat. It was not easy letting go of the hatred she had carried in her heart for years.
Darren’s death was what motivated her to join the Rangers. It was the fire in her belly that burned for revenge. It led her to Ocherva and it fueled her relentless pursuit to find Blud. All those years and all those lost leads were to find this one man, so that she could kill him. It all seemed so pointless to her now. So much wasted energy on her part. She loosened her grip on the knife but she couldn’t let go of it.
Slowly she removed the knife from his throat and got off Blud’s chest. The security guard forced her to the ground where he took the knife and restrained her on the floor. Blud stood up, rubbing the blood from his throat and eyed Raider. “Thanks.”
Raider dismissed the pirate captain with a look and went to where Devon was on the deck. “Let her up.”
The guard holstered his side arm and pulled Devon to her feet. Her face was wet with perspiration. She looked tired, emotionally drained. Raider put a hand on Devon’s shoulder. “Mr. Ardel volunteered to steer the ship away by himself. It was the greatest act of bravery I have ever seen. You should be proud of his actions. He knew the ship was going to blow and he elected to stay with it rather than risk more casualties. His actions probably saved hundreds of lives that day.”
“Then how come the official record doesn’t reflect his actions? Why have I never been told the truth of what happened?”
Raider flashed a look in Blud’s direction. Blud nodded slowly. Sasha caught the exchange but said nothing. “One of my officers defected that day to the pirate ship. It was an embarrassment to the Starforce and the Federation. That officer was Commander Morgan Blud,” Raider said.
Both Devon and Sasha looked at Blud, who just shrugged.
“The official record reflected the version that would cause the least trouble for all those involved. Unfortunately, it was not what really happened that day. I’m sorry you couldn’t be told of your husband’s valor until now.”
Raider let go of Devon’s shoulders and stepped back.
She was in a daze, unsure what to make of anything anymore. “Do you know how many people I’ve killed, looking for him?”
“They were undoubtedly pirates, and their deaths would have no-doubt come by some other authority’s hands.”
Devon put a fist to her forehead. “My entire existence has revolved around finding and killing Blud. It’s why I joined the Rangers. It’s why I was stationed on Ocherva and it’s been my sole obsession for years. Now you’re suddenly telling me he’s innocent and that everything I’ve done has been in vain?”
“Not in vain. Your Ranger Company has the best arrest record of any unit in the Outer Rim. Your piloting skills are why I came to Ocherva to recruit you. Your Federation needs you. Your fellow pilots need you. And I, your commanding officer, need you to help us defeat these aliens.”
Raider was completely serious, his brown eyes steady but filled with passionate resolve. She believed him, but her life couldn’t be any more messed up right now. She just wanted to find Allen and drink as much of his rocket juice as it took to make her pass out. Here was a complete stranger, in a position of power, counting on her. She couldn’t let him down, regardless of how confused she felt. “Okay, Captain. I want to help you.”
Raider held out a hand and she shook it. His grip was firm, but not uncomfortable. He relaxed into a brief smile and she returned it. Then he was all business as he turned to face Blud and Sasha. There was no love for Blud in his voice. Devon knew that tone all too well, having lived with it herself for so long.
“Why did you attack my ship, Blud?”
Blud stood tall and strong, chest out. His black skin shinned in the blue-white light of the room. “They were found in the area of our base after it was attacked. We thought they were responsible for the slaughter. It wasn’t until after we had taken it that I read their logs and realized they couldn’t have done it.”
Sasha nodded in agreement.
“Deep space attacks on Federation starships carry a death penalty in the Core. I could arrest you now and blast your pirate vessels into glowing slag.”
Blud tilted his bald head to the side, ever so slightly. “That’s not your style Raider.”
Raider locked eyes with the pirate captain for a moment and then moved towards Sasha. The woman was scantily dressed and smelled of some exotic perfume. Her expression was as hard and defiant as Blud’s. “I take it you killed the crew of the Kelley.”
“Every last one of them,” Sasha said, staring down Raider.
Raider nodded and walked back towards Devon. “So you have nobody capable of operating the ship’s stardrive?”
He slowly turned back around to face Blud. Blud shook his head evenly. Raider walked back to face Blud again. The pirate Captain was half a head taller than the Federation Captain.
“If you give me the Kelley, I’ll get the Federation to drop charges against you and your crew. We will not pursue you, you are free to leave.”
Sasha laughed out loud.
Blud remained calm. “You give me crewmen to operate my ship and I will help you fight the blue-skins.”
Raider dismissed the deal outright. “I can’t do that.”
Blud motioned to the ships outside the porthole. “You not only need the Kelley, you need every merchant ship, transport and garbage scow you can get your hands on to fight those bastards.”
Raider didn’t disagree. Devon moved to his side. “Why would a bunch of pirates agree to help the military?”
“Because we don’t stand a chance against them either.”
Sasha looked skeptical, she backed away from Blud physically. “We can take care of ourselves Blud, we don’t need them to protect us from those aliens.”
Blud looked down at his first mate. “Yes, we do. They aren’t here to vacation. They’re here to conquer us. Not just the Federation, but everyone in this part of space. I’ve heard the legends before and now I believe them. This is just the start of a long struggle that will outlast us all.”
Raider listened intently to his former First Officer. Blud may have been an odd man but he was not stupid. If he was spooked by these aliens, then he must have seen something to convince him of their ruthlessness.
“What have you seen, Morgan?” Raider asked.
Blud looked back down at Raider. His deep, black eyes were devoid of emotion. “We just came from Ocherva. There was nobody left alive on that rock. All life was killed, from livestock to people. By the look of it, it was quick and efficient.”
Devon stepped back away from Raider again. Everyone she left behind was dead. She took a deep breath. Seth was dead? No, it could not be. “He’s lying. An entire moon could not be taken in so short a time,” Devon said, her voice breaking.
“It’s true. I’ve seen it myself. They even destroyed Haven and all your Rangers. There’s nothing living on that rock except for rodents and insects,” Sasha said. She smiled, as if confirming the news that Rangers had been killed made her happy inside.
Devon deflated. She moved to the porthole and stared into space by herself. She didn’t hear what the others said. Her mind began to slip into a haze. The pinpoints of light in space blurred. She put her hand to her head again to stop the growing pain. She wanted to cry for her friends, for Seth. But she couldn’t. All she could do was slip into a deep, dark place where pain and loathing ruled. She needed a drink. Even though that was the worst thing she could do it was her only coherent thought.
Someone put arms around her shoulders. It was Commander Trimble.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Lieutenant.”
It was the kindest thing anyone had said to her since coming aboard. All Devon could do was nod. Trimble told the security guard to escort Devon back to her billet. She didn’t refuse, just followed him silently.
* * *
Raider stroked his beard in thought. If he gave Blud the crewmen he needed, he was not entirely sure the man would follow his orders. He was a bit of a maverick when he was in the Starforce. Raider could always attempt a takeover of the Kelley, get it back in Federation hands and let Trimble command it. His crewmen were not Special Forces though, just regular Starforce. There would probably be more bloodshed and it could end in disaster.
“I’m going to need something from you in return. I can’t just send over more crewmen for you to kill,” Raider said.
Blud nodded. “Take my First.” He motioned to Sasha. “She’s worth ten regular men.”
Sasha started to protest and then realized that he was paying her a compliment. She smiled confidently.
“I can give you two engineers to get the tunnel drive working and one bridge officer to run it,” Raider said. He turned to Trimble. “Get two volunteers from Engineering and ride back to the Kelley with Blud.”
Trimble was startled. She stammered a bit and then saw the resolve in Raider’s eyes. She nodded. “Aye sir.”
Raider waited until his First Officer left before addressing Sasha.
“You will be my FO. Come with me to the bridge. Blud, I’ll be in contact with you on secure Federation channels. If you so much as try anything, we’ll blast your ship with everything we have.”
Blud lowered his eyes. He stuck out his hand and Raider shook it firmly in a gentleman’s agreement. Sasha looked sharply at Blud before leaving with Raider.
The meeting between Devon and Morgan Blud was fun to write. Captain Blud’s name is an obvious ode to Captain Blood. Morgan is the last name of one of my first official fans at HP, an engineer named Chris Morgan, who listens to my work by having his computer read it to him over headphones.
The whole back story of Devon’s husband’s death was created for this book. But it’s consistent with the short stories I have written about her adventures as a Stellar Ranger. In case you haven’t deduced it yet, the theme of this novel is revenge.