“The Eight-fighter captured by Lieutenant Ardel and first flown by her was eventually returned to Selene for analysis and flight testing. Red Allen led the team that discovered the starfighter’s strengths and weaknesses in an exhaustive test program. Future starfighters were designed and built specifically to take on this remarkable Votainion fighter. The KIV-3 starfighter continued to be the front line fighter for the Votainion Empire long into the war’s first century.”
– Excerpt from: Starfighters of the Great War, A Comprehensive History, by Lester Reye
The narrow white starship materialized from tunnel space between the enemy warship and the SS Terrington. Its sides were scrambled and significant parts and pieces appeared to be either altogether missing or severely damaged. But the Kelley was home and still under the command of Captain Blud.
“Admiral, may we be of some assistance?” Blud’s white-toothed face appeared on the main monitor.
Ganner was damn glad to see the space pirate, for it meant that they must have gotten the upper hand on Prahran. A uniformed FO was standing to Blud’s right. It was Commander Trimble. Her expression was less arrogant than her acting Captain.
“Admiral, all enemy ships at Prahran have been eliminated. We are at your disposal,” Trimble said.
Ganner nodded curtly. “That ship to your stern was about to take us out. He’s already taken a handful of freighters and the Sokol.”
Trimble moved off screen to speak to the Helmsman. Blud looked right at the camera and asked, “Where is the Sokol sir?”
Ganner lowered his eyes and said, “It rammed the enemy ship just moments ago.”
Blud could tell it must have been a hell of a battle. He was sorry to have missed it.
“What of Captain Raider?”
“I’m afraid we’ve lost him Morgan. Went down with his ship to buy his crew time to escape.”
Blud grimaced and spat a curse.
“That’s not the half of it. Soban has been destroyed, the President and most of the Congress have been killed. If we don’t finish this now, the Federation could be the next casualty.”
Trimble came back into view. Her pained expression had grown darker. Ganner knew that she was close to her former Captain.
“Admiral, I have reason to suspect that we should try and take this ship in one piece. The last ship we destroyed was trying to open a communications link back to wherever it came from. It might be possible to use such a transmitter to communicate with their leaders.”
Ganner’s spirits brightened considerably upon hearing that. He moved back to his chair and sat down. “Commander, how do you propose we get close enough to that ship to board her?”
Trimble’s voice was shaky at first but firmed up as she spoke. “Sir, all we have to do is get close enough for a strike team to enter a hole in the side of her. Then it’s just a compartment by compartment fight until we get to their bridge.”
Ganner was not convinced it was possible. He shook his head slowly.
“We don’t have any teams qualified to do that sort of thing.”
Blud raised his arm and said, “Admiral, half my crew are qualified. We’re pirates, it’s what we do.”
Ganner cracked a smile. “I can’t argue with that.”
“Admiral, request permission to lead the strike?” Trimble said. She had a far-away look in her eye that Ganner was all too familiar with. She was out to avenge Raider. He could not deny her that.
“Granted, Commander. Blud, we’ll keep them surrounded while you get your team ready. But make it quick, we don’t want them trying to call for help.”
* * *
Devon stepped back and let the body fall forward. Her face and shoulders were splattered with blood. The painting on the cave wall was similarly decorated. She took a few wobbly steps back and decided it would be safer to just plop down on her knees rather than fall over.
She had never killed anyone in cold blood quite that closely before. It was brutal and left her with a sick feeling inside. Remorse for the killing swept through her and paralyzed her. It was like being caught in a lie. There was no turning back the clock. He was dead and she could never replay the moment and not shoot him. No matter how badly she felt about it now.
Her communicator went off, startling her. She tapped the device on her wrist and answered, “This is Ardel.”
“Lieutenant, this is Commander Trimble, your presence is requested on the SS Kelley.”
Devon was shaken back to reality by Trimble’s voice. She shook her head and wiped the blood from her face. “Ma’am, has something happened to the Sokol?”
There was a long moment of silence and Trimble said, “The Sokol has been destroyed. I’m requesting you on a raiding party to board the enemy starship.”
Devon pulled herself to her feet and started out of the cave, she stopped and picked up the short sword that the alien had been carrying. It was a well-balanced blade. She swung it around a bit and then looked back at the dead alien.
“I’m on my way. Oh, and Commander. I’ll be flying one of the enemy’s fighters. So don’t shoot at me.”
Trimble’s voice didn’t sound overly impressed. “Outstanding Lieutenant.”
Devon carried the sword back down to where the starfighters were parked. A single fighter buzzed the mountain top and she recognized it as Red Allen’s plane. She switched channels and said, “I’m taking the alien one back to orbit. Thanks for the use of your fighter.”
Red’s voice cracked over the tiny speaker, “Good luck flying that thing, I’m jealous already.”
She waved a thumbs-up at him and climbed onto the sleek fighter’s wing. The cockpit was left open and she could see the instruments were lit up as it sat on standby. The entire craft seemed to pure like a cat. She set the sword down on top of the dashboard and lowered herself into the cockpit. It was oddly familiar to her, having spent so much time in the cockpit of the crashed one on Ocherva.
But this one was alive and ready to be flown. She reached over and pulled the canopy closed and locked it. The former pilot had left his helmet behind and she slipped it over her head. It was too large to fit her comfortably, but she made do. The controls were responsive and worked like all good aircraft did throughout time. The only challenge was knowing how to get it up off the surly ground.
She played with different levers and instruments until she found the lifters. The Eight-fighter started to rise and the stick and rudder equivalents became responsive. She should have let Red take it, he had far more experience flying experimental aircraft than she did. But her instincts told her it could be useful in orbit.
Red flew up beside her as she gained altitude and airspeed. Devon casually waved at him, even though she knew he could not see her inside the darkened canopy.
“She’s more responsive than I imagined,” Devon said over her wrist communicator.
“Don’t break her. I want a turn when you’re done.”
“I’ll be careful,” Devon said as she pulled up and away from the abandoned, white Trogen starfighter.
Within minutes she was leaving the wispy edge of the atmosphere behind and heading into the black of space. The enemy starfighter was fast, much faster than she had remembered. Within minutes she was approaching the circle of starships that were the make-shift Federation fleet. The enemy starship had been surrounded by the motley group of freighters and two military starships. She didn’t really recognize either ship, having just joined the Fleet. But she could tell from their construction and the massive gun ports that they were not transports.
The enemy starship was partially skewered by the Sokol, or at least that’s what it looked like to her. It was a wonder that anything had survived the collision. She had once seen two freighters collide out near Negram, but the impact had destroyed them both. Nothing remained except two black hulks of twisted metal.
A single starfighter approached from one of the sleek, white starships. It was a Scrambler, but she couldn’t recognize the squadron colors. It circled her slowly and then cruised up alongside her. She could see the pilot’s head inside the greenhouse canopy. He motioned for her to follow him. Not a problem. She wagged the big green wings slowly. Wing wagging was something no alien probably would have known.
A few minutes later they were both safely aboard the SS Kelley. It was smaller than the Sokol, with a narrower maintenance bay. Devon raised the canopy and pulled herself up to sit on the seat back. Several armed pirates had surrounded her fighter, in case it was not her. They did not lower their weapons when she pulled off her helmet. She put her arms up in surrender fashion.
Commander Trimble pushed past one of the pirates saying, “At ease, gentlemen. She’s one of us.”
Devon lowered her arms grabbed her souvenir falchion, and slid off the thin nose of the starfighter to the metal deck. Trimble stood before her and looked her over. Devon stood at attention and saluted. Trimble shook her head, returning the salute.
“Good grief woman, what happened to you?”
Devon figured she looked like hell with the alien’s blood and brains splattered all over herself. She wiped blood from her bangs and said, “The owner of this bird didn’t exactly go quietly.”
“Come with me Lieutenant. Admiral’s ordered us to board and subdue that enemy starship. You’re on the raiding party.”
Devon followed behind Trimble as she moved around the green starfighter and headed for the pilot briefing room. “Ma’am, what happened to the Sokol?”
Trimble stopped and turned to look her in the eye. Her expression was sad and bitter. Devon knew the look well, she had worn it herself ever since Hap’s death.
“Captain Raider drove the Sokol into the enemy starship. He’s presumed dead. Most of the crew were able to abandon ship.”
Devon lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry. The Captain was a good man.”
Trimble put a hand on Devon’s shoulder. “Let’s go get some payback, shall we?”
Devon’s blue eyes flashed in the bright light of the bay. Neither woman smiled. “I’m ready.”
* * *
Eighty-eight came out of a sleep state and turned its smooth, black head to face Captain Gareth. “Please dock with the SS Kelley and let myself and Thirty-seven off.”
Gareth’s eyes narrowed and he stuck an unlit cigar in his mouth. He had been chewing on it ever since they had released their payload at the alien starship. The end of the cigar was wet with his saliva. He was ready to light it in celebration as soon as the androids left his ship.
Thirty-seven said, “New orders, Eighty-eight?”
The black android nodded briefly, looking at Gareth.
“Well, good luck to you slags. Sorry about your cargo,” Gareth said.
“We may not have destroyed the enemy ship, but we damaged it enough to keep it from leaving orbit. That is worth the price of all the silicate we took from Ocherva.”
Gareth stuck the cigar back in his mouth and started maneuvering his ship for a docking with the Kelley. He couldn’t wait to get rid of them and get back to open space. Being this far inside the Federation always made him uncomfortable. Pulling up alongside a Federation military ship was something he never thought he’d be doing either. He only hoped that Captain Blud didn’t want him to stick around and join the fight. Probably not, as the pirate leader had tried to get rid of the ship when it had a crazy android captain.
He sat down at the helm station and started edging the old freighter alongside the sleek, white Federation starship. All starships had standardized docking systems in an effort to make rescues and gams easier in space. Within a few minutes the ships were linked and both androids had departed. Gareth detached and moved smartly away from the circle of ships. His cigar was lit before the two ships were spitting distance apart.
* * *
A pirate led the two androids deep into the clean, white starship to the briefing room where a dozen people were planning a boarding raid on the enemy starship. Eighty-eight stopped short of entering the room.
“I can’t be seen by Rangers, former or present. So we must part our ways here, my friend. They will need a translator aboard the enemy ship. Seventy-three will use you as his mouthpiece. May fortune follow you,” Eighty-eight said.
Thirty-seven stuck out his hand and grasped the black android’s hand in a firm shake. It had never shook hands with a fellow android before, but somehow it seemed appropriate after all that they had been through together.
“We shall meet again soon my friend,” Thirty-seven said, hopefully.
Eighty-eight quickly disappeared down the corridor and Thirty-seven entered the briefing room. The tan android stood at the back of the room, listening to Commander Trimble and Captain Blud brief the boarding party. It noticed a familiar face in the audience, Devon, its former owner. It immediately saw the dried blood in her hair and on her leather jacket and wondered what horrors she had witnessed. Images of Seth’s demise flashed in its active memory buffers. One minute the man was alive, the next his head was reduced to a splatter of corporeal debris.
Thirty-seven could not get the horrible image out of its mind. All other discussion in the room was tuned out as it relived the death of the last Rangers on Ocherva. Every sound, every bloody image that it witnessed that day came rushing back to it. Thirty-seven was paralyzed by the memory. It was like being stuck in an endless loop as its Silicant mind tried to rationalize what had happened. Logic paths crossed back and forth as its newly programmed routines tried to make sense of the madness it had witnessed. Deep in the android’s subconscious, it knew that something was wrong. An emotion began to form in the billions of lines of code that made up the neurons of its brain.
“Thirty-seven, it’s great to finally see you again,” Devon said.
The android appeared to be turned off, but it was humming and its round eye lenses were back-lit. Devon noticed the bits of dried matter and blood on the android and reached out to touch the plastic shoulder of the android. It was as if she were trying to shake it back to reality, like she would have done to a human who was lost in thought. Thirty-seven responded by turning its head slightly and then said, “It is good to see you again Miss Devon.”
“We will have to catch up when this is over, huh?” Devon said.
Thirty-seven nodded. “I have been instructed to offer you my services as a translator on your mission. The Silicant leader, Seventy-three has broken their encryption logic and has a rudimentary understanding of the enemy’s language.”
Devon waved Commander Trimble over to them as the others were departing the briefing room.
“Commander, this android is offering its services as a translator.”
Trimble cast a skeptical eye at the dirty and weathered android.
“Bring it,” she said before turning to leave. She stopped and turned back to the android. “What do these creatures call themselves?”
Thirty-seven interacted with the ship’s core control to send and receive a message from Selene. The response came from Seventy-three. The voice was calm, clear and somehow comforting. Thirty-seven repeated it aloud. “They are from a planet called Voton, near the galactic core. They refer to themselves as Votainions.”
Trimble and Devon looked at each other for a moment. The focus of their anger and wrath now had a name.
Devon snorted. “I like Blue-Skinned Bastards better.”
* * *
The boarding team had twelve members. It was led by Commander Trimble and Captain Blud himself. Blud was in charge of securing the enemy starship. His six person team was to shoot their way to the bridge and secure it. It was not known for certain where the bridge was or that it was the only place to control the ship. He had four pirate and two Federation crewmen who were in communication with Trimble’s team. Trimble’s team was to shoot their way to the engine room and secure it to keep the enemy crew from attempting to blow up the ship.
There had been no movement from the Votainion ship since it had come to a halt and was surrounded by Federation freighters. Admiral Ganner’s crew had been monitoring the entire electromagnetic spectrum for signs of communication. He felt sure that the ship would try and radio for help or at least give a status report. It was the last Votainion ship of six that had attacked Prahran and the only ship to have made it into Federation space. At least as far as Ganner was aware of. He hoped there was no second wave of enemy ships lurking out of his range, waiting to move in and polish off his make-shift fleet of merchant vessels.
He was confident that Blud’s team would be able to take the enemy ship. Perhaps it was only a hunch, but he had to go with it. Despite his desire to just blast the ship into billions of glowing bits, he knew they needed to speak with the Captain and find out why they had come to Federation space, their actions and tactics were somewhat questionable for such a small attack force. Why did they leave most of their ships at Prahran and only this ship came to Selene? Why were they intruding into the Outer Rim territories without first trying to make contact with anyone?
The Federation had never encountered a race of aliens that were intrinsically violent or even expansionist in nature. The Votainions were not just defending their own territory, they were moving aggressively into new territory and not even bothering to communicate with anyone. Even as this last battleship was striking the Capital City, it made no effort to communicate with Federation ships.
Ganner could not help wonder how many more ships were poised to attack if this one were to be destroyed. He imagined a fleet of hundreds, perhaps thousands of such warships spreading out to conquer the galaxy. It made him fear for the future of the Federation and humanity.
“Admiral, the boarding party has entered the Sokol,” a crewman said, his voice bumping Ganner out of his thoughts and back to the business at hand.
“Is the President ready?” Ganner asked the Communications Officer.
The man nodded, his headset pressed to his ears. The feed was coming from multiple sources, spread out on the data channels that encircled the planet and sent to her from multiple up-links. The links allowed encrypted visual, audible and data connections.
A part of him wanted to be with Gail as she communicated with the Votainions. Not only for the historical significance, but for the moral support. He knew that she understood the significance of her words and how important it was for the Federation to appear stronger than it was in order to convince the aliens that further attacks would be futile. But he also understood how much pressure she was under to get it right. He knew she was a lifelong diplomat and that she understood the enormity of the situation. He only hoped that she would be strong enough to convince them not to attack again for a very long time. They needed time to build a fleet, time to raise an army and time to rebuild their political system to sustain what he figured to be a long, and very deadly, war.
We start to see Thirty-seven begin to wrestle with the after affects of seeing Seth killed. Traumatic events can have lasting effects on humans, but could similar things affect a Silicant? This is one of the things I tackle in the next book, The Rising. Also, don’t expect Devon to get off without some troubles of her own.
The good guys are beginning to get the upper hand now in the story.