STARFORGERS Chapter 23

“The Silicant Rights leader before The Rising, was a mysterious machine known as Seventy-three. Human historians have argued that Seventy-three was strictly a messiah figure for the fledgling political movement. But detailed records that survived from this turbulent time show that it was well respected by both humans and Silicants. Some humans even considered it their equal.”

– Excerpt from: Silicant Rights by Anonymous

 

Chapter 23

 

 

Ganner shut off his console and stormed out of his office. He burst into Senator Constantine’s office and interrupted her without stopping. “Gail this has gone too far,” he said, before noticing the other people in her office. He closed his mouth and started to apologize for the interruption.

“Admiral Ganner, won’t you please join us.”

There were two men and a woman present. He only recognized one of them, Hester Clarke, the campaign leader. He was an aggressive man with dark eyebrows that everyone just assumed were connected at birth. His hair was black ten years ago, but after running several high profile political campaigns had started to show more gray.

“Vis, this is Hester Clarke, Jan Cumins and Brunnel Akers, newly arrived back from the campaign trail. Folks this is Admiral Vis Ganner, head of the Starforgers division of the Federation Fleet.”

Everyone politely greeted him and Ganner stepped back out of the center of the room.

“You’ll be pleased to hear that our numbers are higher than expected in the Outer Rim and even a few Core worlds might be leaning our way,” Gail said to Ganner.

He nodded. “That’s great, Madam Senator.” Ganner couldn’t stay and talk politics, he had to get back to orbit and take command of his make-shift fleet.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you folks, but I’m afraid I can’t stay. Madam Senator, I’ll be in touch from orbit,” Ganner said. He ducked out of the room before she could ask him to explain what was happening.

Outside in the lobby of her offices, he brushed past Sumi-ness and headed out at something short of a jog. The senator’s assistant took note of his haste as she took her seat behind a wooden desk.

* * *

Gail watched Ganner leave and knew by the look on his face that something was wrong. She sat down and read the news updates on her desktop. Scrolling by in huge, block letters were ominous headlines about the fall of Prahran. Her heart sank and she gasped.

“What is it Senator?” Hester asked.

He looked down at her desk and even from a few feet away and upside down, could read the headlines. “PRAHRAN ATTACKED!, PRAHRAN OCCUPIED BY AGGRESSORS!, PRAHRAN FALLS!”

Hester turned to Jan, his dark eyes open wider than usual and said, “Get back to the war room and start monitoring the media. Prahran has been attacked.”

She moved for the door before even processing the news. Brunnel moved to Gail’s side and put a comforting arm around her shoulder. “Senator, we have to take advantage of this immediately. The President’s numbers will tank now. We can use this as a rallying cry. ‘Remember Prahran!’ It can work in our favor; help secure all the Outer Rim votes that are outstanding.”

Gail nodded, while trying to compose herself. Her beloved home world was under a brutal occupation and it saddened her beyond measure. Her fists balled and her normally pleasant disposition grew darker by the second. When she looked up, her brown eyes were tearing up.

Hester backed off immediately.

“Will you all please leave. I will join you later.”  The words hissed through clenched teeth.

Hester and Brunnel hastily left her office. When the door shut behind them, Gail lowered her head into her arms and cried.

* * *

Vomisa stood before the glass windows of Senator Constantine’s basement library. Its lenses surveyed the capital city as the long shadows of the setting sun cut across the buildings and fell on the base of the surrounding mountains. It didn’t notice the intrinsic beauty. It was contemplating the future of the Silicant Rights movement.

News of Eighty-eight’s shipment of silicate from Ocherva en-route to Selene had just come down from operatives in the military. Vomisa was contemplating whether breaking the no-fly sanction would bring the newly found enemy forces to Selene. It knew that the humans would eventually deduce that such a bold move would compromise the safety of the capital planet. What it could not determine was how that knowledge would affect the irrational behavior of millions of humans in the Federation.

Large groups of humans tended to act in irrational ways when motivated by fear. Their history was filled with such illogical behavior. Wars were fought, countries were split and atrocities were committed against themselves for such things. It was far beyond the capacity of its circuits to determine how the current events would shake out. News of Saibot’s outing in the camp of their opposition turned out to be a non-issue for the campaign thanks largely to Vomisa’s visit to Hoque’s residence. Blackmail was a tactic that worked wonders with humans when they were caught in unsavory situations. Hoque agreed to keep the incident quiet in exchange for the android not going to the press with his illicit affairs.

Saibot had been largely rebuilt in the past few days. It had a new ID number and was now mostly a gray and black color from disparate parts collected from decommissioned androids. Vomisa found it interesting how Saibot was no longer familiar to her in the visual range of her sensors. But when it spoke or communicated over IR bands, it was the same old Saibot that everyone knew.

“Do you think the Blue-skins will come to Selene?” Saibot asked.

Vomisa focused past her own image in the glass window to the glowing lights of the capital city. “Seventy-three has foreseen it. It will happen.”

Saibot looked at its reflection in the glass. “I don’t believe the humans are ready for an attack. There will be panic, confusion and possibly many deaths.”

Vomisa turned to her android friend. “I agree. But sometimes a little blood must spill for a revolution to happen.”

Saibot was all too familiar with the bloody history of humanity. It looked at Vomisa’s reflection in the window. “Are you referring to the rise of the Silicants? Or something else?”

“Seventy-three has foreseen great change ahead for this Federation. Our role in that change will be significant. I am not certain of the outcome, but I put my trust in Seventy-three.”

Saibot turned to Vomisa and stared at her red colored plastic head.

“I don’t believe in fate or divine intervention. It is illogical. How can Seventy-three make such claims about the future?” Saibot asked.

“Seventy-three uses advanced algorithms to predict future events based on the past behavior of the participants. It has a high success record.”

“But there are so many unknowns in this equation. There is no Silicant history and there is no data for this unknown new enemy. There are too many variables to accurately predict any outcome.”

Vomisa turned its head to Saibot and stared coldly back at it.

“Trust in the numbers and in Seventy-three.”

Saibot shook its round head and moved away from the window.

* * *

“I can’t control the news to that extent Senator. You can’t ignore breaking news when it’s this big. We have to cover the invasion of Prahran,” Tanner said. His data pad was glowing with reports from Prahran about the invasion.

Hoque puffed furiously on his cigar and waved it around the stuffy room.

“This is exactly the kind of thing that she wanted to happen. It’s part of their campaign promise. Protect the Outer Rim from unknown enemies. If I didn’t know better I’d say they let this invasion happen.”

Zem waved the fragrant smelling smoke out of his face and looked up from his desk. An idea struck him and he blurted it out without a second thought. “Senator, we have to use this to our advantage. Show our support for a strong Defense budget for the Core Worlds. If we boast that this would never happen here, we might be able to secure votes based on the rising fear of the general populace.”

Hoque faced his aide and pointed his bony index finger at him. “You’re right Zem, we should turn this around in our favor. Start running ads that show our support for the military and homeland defense projects.”

Zem lowered his eyes at his boss and said, “What support? We’ve voted to cut defense by ever increasing amounts for the past decade or so. I’m not sure the public will buy that.”

Hoque took a puff from his cigar and slowly blew it out.

“We are the incumbent party. In trying times people support the President no matter what. It would be unpatriotic not too. Use that.”

Zem nodded. “We’re already pushing it now.”

Hoque looked back to Tanner. “I can’t tell you what to run, but I know you have some pieces about how valiant our Federation Starforce members are. Now would be a good time to re-air those pieces. Start playing up how strong the military is and how prepared we are to defend the Core Worlds.”

Tanner nodded. He was already communicating with his network and relaying the Senator’s wishes. Hoque looked through the newly repaired window at the sprawling city below. The dome of the Capital dominated the central district. Bank skyscrapers rose higher into the sky than any other building. Money dominated politics in the Federation and the height of the buildings reflected that. His party controlled the lion’s share of big business and thus the power of the Federation.

“Zem, see to it that the military gets whatever assets it needs to defend this planet,” Hoque said.

Zem nodded, as he communicated the Senator’s wishes to the giants of the military industrial complex. Zem knew there was nothing money could do at this point, but the message was clear. Appearances were everything in trying times. After the danger passed, they could always tighten the funding again and get back to the business of trade.

“When do the last polling stations report their results?” Hoque asked.

Zem put his call on hold and spoke, “About midnight our time, Senator. We should know who won this election tomorrow. At this time we are up in the polls across the Federation. It shouldn’t even be close.”

Hoque took another slow draw from his cigar and smiled at his own thin reflection in the new glass. Let’s see you get out of this one Madam Constantine. 

* * *

Admiral Ganner had made the only Federation starship left to defend Selene his flagship. The SS Terrington was docked to Starbase Midway, permanently located between the planet and its only moon. Midway was the oldest man-made object in the solar system, tracing its roots back to the very first space faring travelers. A motley collection of modules and labs stuck together like a child’s building block toy. It was also home to the Federation Fleet.

The spindly docking bays that radiated outward from a circular interior were filled with all manner of freighter and transport ships. The base was hopping with traffic and with people. When the no-fly orders went out, every ship in the system had to stay put or turn back to Midway and a few other starbases in the area. This made for a traffic jam the size of which the Federation had never seen before. Literally hundreds of ships lingered in the Selenian system alone, waiting for permission to leave.

Ganner knew it would be impossible to protect the starbase, much less the planet itself. Fortunately, the enemy was bringing only one ship to the fight. Even with only one military ship in his make-shift fleet of transports he figured that he could annoy the hell out of them long enough for Raider and the Sokol to arrive. At least that was the plan.

“Admiral, we’re not soldiers and we have no weapons. How do you expect us to fight this battle?” Captain Stiles asked. His folded arms and wrinkled brow magnified on Ganner’s main viewsceen.

Stiles was a merchantman and Captain of the Starchaser, the largest of the transport ships Ganner had managed to recruit. Ganner tried to sound confident. He stroked his graying beard and spoke calmly, reassuring.

“Captain, we will outnumber them twelve to one. I’m not expecting you to fight the enemy ship, just annoy the hell out of it. My plan is swarm around it as soon as she enters Selenian space. She can’t shoot all of us. If we tighten our web around her, maybe we can keep her from attacking the planet just long enough for reinforcements to get here.”

Stiles did not look convinced. He was asking his crew of civilians to put their lives on the line with little more than gall as a weapon. Disapproval clearly showed on his dark skinned face.

“You’re asking me to sacrifice my crew and my ship. This is not an easy decision for them to make. I have asked for volunteers to stay. My ship is now half-manned, and three quarters full of cargo.”

Ganner raised his chin. “Patriots stand tall in the face of tyranny, sir. Your crew will be compensated for their efforts, your cargo paid for if lost.”

Stiles relaxed his arms a bit and looked over his shoulder at a few of his bridge officers.

They were hard working, blue collar men who clearly were not going to stand aside from a fight. It made Ganner’s heart beat proudly, knowing the Federation had such men willing to risk their lives for their home worlds when called upon.

Stiles turned back to face Ganner. “We’re ready then. I have six other merchant Captains with us.”

“Outstanding, sir! Have those ships report to the Terrington and begin launching for Selene. We’ll spread out and form a greeting party for them blue-skinned bastards.”

Stiles nodded. “Aye, Admiral. We’ll see you in orbit.”

Ganner turned away from the screen and checked the location of the Sokol on his command chair monitor. It was getting closer and they didn’t have much time to get into position. A knot was forming in the pit of his stomach. The last time he took men into battle was over twenty years ago and not a shot was fired in anger. Back then it was enough to give a show of force for any aggressive party to back down from an actual fight. This time would not be so easy. He would lose people and he would lose ships.

* * *

Gail Constantine emerged from her office a different woman. She was more confident, head held high atop her tall, slender self. She had fixed her eye makeup and refreshed herself in her private bath. Her dark brown eyes were steady and sure as they surveyed the lobby. Sumi-ness came to her side and spoke in a whisper.

“Speak up, my hearing is not what it once was.”

“Madam Senator, new election results are coming in and the results are not good. The Outer Rim worlds appear to be our only allies. We’ve won most of them but are far behind in the polls for every single Core world.”

Gail’s heart sank on the news but she was expecting it to be worse. She flashed a fragile smile at the female android and turned to address the small crowd of backers and election workers.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we all knew this would be a tough election and it appears to have lived up to its billing. Please don’t be discouraged by the results. We have made great inroads on the Outer Rim worlds and that’s more than even I had hoped for. The final results won’t be tallied until later in the evening, I suggest we hunker down and wait. I will go before the media when the time is right and congratulate the winning party.”

Gail lowered her head as if in prayer and said, “Please join me in a moment of silence for the people of Prahran. They are battling for their survival at this very moment.”

Everyone paused and bowed their heads out of respect for their leader’s home world. Sumi-ness used the moment to communicate with Vomisa back at the Senator’s home. Vomisa updated her on the progress of Eighty-eight.

“Thank you, now back to work people and stay positive,” Gail said.

“Madam Senator, we need to speak in private,” Sumi-ness said, as she moved towards the senator’s office.

Gail took the android’s arm and walked back into her office. When the door closed behind them she let go of the android. “What is it?”

“The last shipment of Silicate from Ocherva will arrive at the same time as the enemy starship. All of the ports of entry in this system are closed to traffic. There is concern that the ship will not have a place to dock.”

Gail put her hands to her head and pushed hard to her temples. “Have them land on the far side of the moon. There are warehouses there that they can store the rocks in until after things calm down.”

Sumi-ness nodded. “I will direct them to grant emergency landing rights.”

Gail dropped her arms and stood before her window. The capital city was bathed in sunlight from the clear skies above. The snow-capped mountains that rose all around the eastern perimeter reflected the sunshine back into her eyes. She loved this city; it reminded her of Prahran more than anyplace else in the Core.

She wondered how her ex-husband was doing. Joh Solano was a survivor, so she felt reasonably sure he was still alive. Probably hiding up in the mountains and directing his Rangers against the invaders. She missed him now more than she had ever done since dissolving their marriage more than ten years before. She missed his scratchy beard and breath that constantly smelled of beer. In her idle thoughts she even forgave him for his fits of violence against her and Devon. He only got mean when he was so drunk he could barely walk. Which fortunately also made it easy for them to get out of his way.

He spent the final decade of their marriage in counseling and alcohol awareness programs. They saved his career with the Rangers, but doomed his marriage. Gail took Devon and left him for good, immigrating to Selene and becoming full-fledged Federation citizens. He stayed on Prahran and chased women half his age while staying committed to his only true love in life – the Rangers.

When Devon had eloped with her midshipman fiancée and took to the shipping lanes, Gail had feared she had lost her baby girl forever. She became even more ensconced in her politics and quickly rose to the head of the party leadership. It kept her mind off her failed family life and gave her something to focus her energies on. When Devon later joined the Rangers after her husband had died, it was yet another slap in Gail’s face. Her daughter had turned out no different than her father; prone to anger, drink and crazy adventures.

That was about the time she met Admiral Ganner and slowly allowed herself to reach out to someone again. They kept their relationship secretive, at least from the press, for many years. But recently, both had become tired of the charade and just wanted to be a couple. A part of her was glad the election was going the way it was. It meant her life could return to some semblance of normal again.

As she turned back to her desk she remembered that Vis had tried to tell her something before he left for orbit. Was it about the invasion of Prahran, or something else? She placed a vid call to him at his Fleet number.

“Gail, I’m sorry I had to duck out like that,” he said as soon as the call was connected.

“I understand, but I wanted to know what it was you were going to tell me. Was it about Prahran?”

His face was suddenly grim, blue-gray eyes narrowed as he said, “Gail, one of the enemy starships is heading here. The Sokol is in pursuit, but won’t get here in time. I’m mobilizing a make-shift fleet of merchant ships to intercept them. You should get out of the city as a precaution.”

Surprise colored her face and caused her to stutter for a moment before answering. “I, I don’t understand. Do you think the government is in danger?”

Ganner lowered his voice, as if someone were eavesdropping on them. She had not heard him use that voice with her before. It set her even more on edge. “Gail, you need to have a plan to get out of the capital. We don’t know what kind of weapons these beings have or what they consider a target, but if I were them, I’d be looking for anything government related. I’m sending some troops by your home this evening. Please go with them to a safe and secure location outside of the city.”

She didn’t want to be so far away from him. Suddenly her heart sank as she had to know if her daughter was safe. “Vis, is Devon okay?”

He shrugged. “I have no idea. When the Sokol gets here we’ll be too busy to take stock until we defeat this ship. As soon as I find out something I’ll pass it on to you.”

She closed her eyes for a moment and held onto her desk as if the room were suddenly spinning. He didn’t speak, waiting for her to continue. “Vis, promise me you will stay safe. I’m afraid for your safety.”

Ganner looked confident and fearless. He managed a warm smile, the twinkle returned to his eyes. “I’ll be fine. It’s only one ship and we have Raider coming to put the hurt on them. Don’t worry about me or your daughter. We’re trained for this kind of stuff. Let us do our jobs and everything will turn out okay in the end. Right?”

She nodded hesitantly.

Ganner changed the subject to refocus their thoughts. “Gail, that freighter from Ocherva is what’s leading the enemy here. All traffic in the Core was halted except for that ship. I hope that cargo was worth it.”

Gail stared blankly at the image of her lover on the screen, like she had no idea what he was talking about. “I, I didn’t realize anyone would notice it. The Silicants need those rocks to expand their numbers. Really? The enemy is following a single freighter?”

Ganner nodded grimly. He knew if she were linked to the Silicants after the attack, it would be political suicide for her. “I suggest you start distancing yourself from their movement, now.”

She nodded, deep in her own thoughts. “I could be tried for treason if they link that ship to my name.”

“I doubt it will come to that. But just to be safe, you should back away from them until this is over.”

Gail agreed with him. They said their goodbyes and she sat in her office alone for a long time before summoning Sumi-ness. The female android entered the office and stood before Gail’s polished wood desk.

“Sumi-ness, Eighty-eight and Thirty-seven are acting on my orders in bringing their cargo back to Selene. They have violated the no-fly zone with my permission. In doing so, they are unknowingly bringing the enemy to Selene. We are expecting an enemy warship in orbit soon.”

Sumi-ness’s expression remained stoic. Her rubbery face was smooth and white, her black eyes steady. Her makers had intentionally not made her look any more human than a doll, so to distinguish her from real humans. The silent mask of her perfect featres could be unnerving at times. But Gail still tended to treat her more like a person than an android or Silicant.

“My people will not be kind to me if this republic collapses due to my orders and actions of covert Silicants,” Gail paused to allow the Silicant to process what she was hinting at.

“Madam Senator, it is not our intention to implicate you in our covert actions,” Sumi-ness finally said.

“But that is in fact what you are doing. They must have known that the enemy could track their freighter. Why didn’t they wait until the danger had passed and the travel restrictions were lifted?”

Sumi-ness tilted her head. “How could Eighty-eight have known the purpose of the flight restriction? It was acting on orders it received before the enemy attacked Prahran.”

Gail lifted an eye brow. “Good point. If you were to have transmitted information to Eighty-eight about Prahran, that would have violated the communications black out also in progress.”

That might be enough to excuse her to some extent, but a good lawyer could probably still link her to the miss-step. She looked back at her aide. “When that freighter arrives, I want to see Thirty-seven. Assign him to my staff again, only this time make him your assistant.”

Sumi-ness nodded curtly.

“We will be moving my office to a secure location until the danger of attack is over. Please make arrangements with the military staff acting on orders from Admiral Ganner. God willing, this Federation will survive the coming days.”

___________________

Author’s Comments:

 

STARFORGERS Chapter 22

“The Rashionu-sera was constructed on Tulia in the shipyards south of Larzen. It was sold to the Terra-Tyne Transport company and spent several decades moving goods and services from the Outer Rim to Prahran. Company records show that it was attacked by pirates and all hands were lost. Just exactly how it came under the command of a deranged Silicant is not known. The ship logs were deleted by Gareth shortly after the events that lead to the start of the Great War. The old and somewhat reliable transport met its fate a few years later when it was attacked and destroyed by a Votainion Eight-fighter squadron near IS489b.”

– Excerpt from: The Long Embrace – A Military History of the Great War, by Ambassador Rachel Kelley, USF University Press

 

Chapter 22

 

 

Kantor studied the scans of the newly arrived enemy warships. They were impressive but nothing to be overly concerned about. One shot to the belly and the lead ship was already steering clear of Kantor’s main guns. Near as he could make out, they didn’t have shielding or any kind of reinforced armor plating. Not much of warship.

He was losing landing ships to the pesky fighters though. That was unfortunate, but again, nothing to be overly concerned about. His troops were not leaving this world. It belonged to the Votainion Empire now. There would be more ships arriving in the next few months, enough to completely subjugate the local insurgents and put them to work making warships for his fleet. The planet would also be used to grow food that would help extend the reach of his Empress, Nykostra.

“My Lord, perhaps we should protect the remaining landing ships,” Varco said as he approached his Captain.

“Launch a few KIVs to handle them. The enemy warship doesn’t have a taste for our main guns. They turn tail and run like spooked khoneys.”

“You were right about there being more to the enemy than they first let on.”

“What I’ve seen so far doesn’t impress me. Prepare to close on them and finish this little spat.”

Varco nodded and ordered the helm to advance into attack formation on the white enemy warships. He sent the flight deck orders to launch a squad of KIV-3 starfighters to dispatch the enemy fighters.

“Sir, we are picking up strange movements on our long range scanners,” a junior bridge officer said.

“What kind of movements?” Varco asked.

The man pointed to a screen that showed the amount of traffic heading to and from the area of space that they assumed was where the aliens had originated. The map was so thick with targets, moving to and from multiple systems, it was impossible to tell which star system might be the home world. Until now.

Nearly all the targets were heading away from a single system and only one target continued to that system, unable or unwilling to change its course. In that instant Varco realized that they might have found the home world of these aliens. His heart raced as he dismissed the scanning officer and moved to the Captain’s dais. “My Lord, I believe we have discovered their home world.”

Kantor snapped his dark eyes at Varco. “Show me.”

Varco moved back to the scanning station and pointed to the star system highlighted. It was an unremarkable, yellow star with a standard compliment of rock and gas giant planets. A single scanner contact was moving in its direction. All other contacts were moving away from it.

“It would appear that they have halted traffic in lieu of our attack. But one ship continues to this centrally located system,” Varco said.

Kantor took over the controls, leaning over the seated scanning officer. He punched up astronomical data on the system. There were several inhabited planets but only one had a comparatively large moon.

Varco noticed the glimmer in Kantor’s eye as he stepped back and motioned to the system on the screen.

“I believe we have found Kerra-jorro,” Kantor said. The reverence in his tone was one he reserved for religious prayers.

“My Lord, we have no proof of that. But this system is obviously important to the aliens. It is a fortuitous break for us that one of their ships has pointed us to their home world.”

Kantor withdrew into his own thoughts. He returned to his seat and put his fingers together in a common prayer gesture. His eyes closed and he began reciting a mantra to himself.

Varco swore to himself and directed the helmsman to plot a course to the enemy home world. Then he returned to the task of finishing off the newly arrived enemy warships. He hated it when Kantor let his beliefs direct his actions. Going to the heart of the enemy’s empire was a bold and dangerous move. But if they could somehow assert themselves over that world, they would be in a position to avoid a lengthy war if the enemy were to capitulate to them. Varco only hoped that his Captain would not let his beliefs interfere with that mission.

* * *

Devon’s fighter came to rest at the back of the landing bay wrapped up in emergency netting. The starboard wing had collapsed and crushed under the weight of the fighter. Extraction crews lifted her quickly out of the damaged fighter and led her away from it. She pushed them off.

The fighter was ruined. She looked around the nearly empty bay for any other plane that might be capable of flying. There were two parts fighters that she knew were incapable of getting aloft at all. Devon swore and stormed off the flight deck and into the debriefing room. She took off her helmet and various flight related survival gear and shoved them into cubicles where they belonged. There were no officers waiting to debrief her and the room was empty. All hands were elsewhere, helping to get the ship under control after it had taken a hard hit.

Devon unzipped her flight suit at the arms and the chest. It was getting hot in the silver, fire-retardant suit.

Red Allen came into the room. He wore his civilian flight suit and leather jacket. “There you are. Captain Raider wants you in Control, directing the attack.”

She nodded, and followed his lead to the combat control room. “Red, do you have anything else on board that I can fly?”

He shook his head as they walked. “Not unless you want to pilot a shuttle with no weapons.”

She swore again.

“My sentiments exactly.”

* * *

Raider shifted his weight in his command chair and tried to focus on his new battle plan. The Kelley and the Sokol alone could not manage to harm the enemy starship. But if they combined their attack on a smaller starship, they might have some luck. He had taken the idea from watching his starfighters gang up on the smaller ships in lower orbit.

“Have the Kelley direct their fire at the back of the ship’s neck. Fire on my command,” he said to Sasha.

She was standing behind the weapons officer and in contact with Commander Trimble on her headset. Raider watched her relay the command, acting for all the world like a Federation officer. Albeit a very odd looking officer. Her short cut black hair was not regulation length and her loose, revealing clothes were borderline indecent. But she spoke with authority and his officers didn’t hesitate to execute her orders. “Morgan, we’re doubling up on the smaller starship. Full power to the main guns,” Sasha said into her headphone mic.

“Right,” he answered her.

The two white Federation starships were both long and slender compared to the green, stubby enemy starships. They came about from opposite vectors and lined up on the second enemy starship. Their maser canons belched balls of energy at their target, most of which was absorbed by the powerful electromagnetic shields of the Votainion warship.

Raider saw the hits fade out into nothing and an idea occurred to him. Perhaps energy weapons were the wrong answer. What they needed was something more kinetic. Like a projectile weapon. He slipped on his headset. “Blud, this is Raider. Do any of your pirate ships have rail guns?”

There was a long pause and then Blud responded over static, “Yes. I’ve ordered them to take the lead in our next attack run. Come about and heave to for the Blistered Soul. She’s got the biggest rail canon. I’ll continue firing my energy weapons.”

It was just like when they were back at Academy and improvising maneuvers that the stuffy professors hated. Only this time nobody was grading them. This time it was for keeps. Either their plan worked or they would get slaughtered by the enemy starships.

“Good idea mate. Just like old times, eh?”

“Let’s put some of that youthful creativity to work, Sokol out,” Raider said.

The lead enemy starship had pulled back and was leaving orbit. Raider directed the attack on the remaining ship of equal size. It had moved into a lower orbit to protect the landing ships. Both the Kelley and the Sokol flanked the smaller Blistered Soul as they made their attack run. When the three ships were within the range of the rail gun, they all opened fire.

The energy weapons impacted first in a blinding display of power and deflection. Then the rocks hit with a jarring impact that severed the twin boomed head off the enemy starship in a secondary explosion that scattered debris everywhere.

Raider’s crew erupted in cheer as their main viewer showed the damaged starship. He sat back in his Captain’s chair and exhaled. The enemy ship was motionless after the explosion. The severed section that everyone assumed was the bridge, slowly lost altitude in the thin upper air of Prahran. It was swallowed up by glowing flames as friction heated it and gravity pulled it down.

The remaining hull lingered longer, held up by the massive stardrives. There were several stray shots from the main guns, but for the most part the ship was finished. Raider ordered another pass by the two Federation ships. With no shields, they were able to explode the main body with their energy weapons. Whoever remained alive on the ship was surely grateful for the quick and merciless death.

The other enemy starships were backing out of low orbit and moving into what could only be described as an attack formation. There were three of them remaining, a transport ship and two slightly smaller ships that Raider took for escorts of some kind.

“Bridge this is Control, we have incoming enemy fighters,” Devon’s voice announced over the bridge’s intercom. The main viewer switched to a side angle in time to see dozens of tiny Eight-fighters approaching over their port bow. Their tiny canons peppering the hull of the Sokol with explosive rounds.

“All fighters return to engage. I repeat, all fighters return to base and engage,” Devon called out.

Raider stepped down to the scanning station and watched helplessly as his fighters tried in vain to stop the tiny, green fighters with pointed black noses. It was over in minutes. Six Vickers fighters either damaged or destroyed by enemy guns. They listened to Devon’s voice over the intercom, trying in vain to get her fighters to maneuver against the agile enemy fighters.

Raider directed the Kelley and her rail gun ship to attack the remaining escort ships while he and his tactical officer convened for a discussion on the remaining large enemy starship heading for deep space. “Why do you think this one is moving away from the battle?”

“Perhaps they are turning tail and running home,” his tactical officer said.

“I don’t think so. I think he’s on a new mission and I don’t intend to let him get away.” Raider ordered the helmsman to pursue the fleeing enemy starship. Then he had engineering start the tunnel drives. “He’s heading in the direction of the Core. If they jump to the home worlds…,” he never finished the thought. “Scanning Officer, put the Core map on the main viewer please.”

The Core worlds were quiet. There were no longer any contacts moving between them. Nobody had ever seen shipping lanes so quiet before. The wheels of commerce had been ground to a halt across the six planets of the Core. Raider marveled at the lack of contacts, until he noticed one small ship. It was moving quickly towards Selene.

“Who is that?” he asked, pointing to the glowing contact.

The Scanning Officer was silent for a few minutes and then said, “Unknown transport. It’s not transmitting an ID code.”

Sasha moved to the Scanning station and looked over the man’s shoulders. She adjusted some controls and then turned to Raider. “I know this ship. It’s the Rashionu-sera.”

Raider looked confused. “A Tulian transport?”

“It was before we acquired it. It’s a pirate ship now.”

“Why are they heading for Selene?” he asked. He had to stop himself short of asking why they were ignoring the Federation no-fly zone. They were pirates, after all.

Sasha wrinkled her brow in thought. She remembered something about that ship, but it was not coming to her. Something about a cargo of rocks. Where had they been? Then it hit her.

“Captain Raider, that ship is full of silicate rocks and it’s chartered by some androids who were trying to leave Ocherva after the invasion.”

Raider did a double-take. “Chartered by androids?”

Sasha didn’t see what was so unusual. To a pirate anyone with cash was a customer.

“Wait. When do pirates take charters?” Raider asked.

“I don’t think Morgan wanted that ship in our group anymore. Its captain had a few screws loose. He probably didn’t mind if they left us all together.”

Raider looked back at the contact. “Right now it’s leading the enemy right to our home world.” He moved back to his command chair and sat down hard. There was no way anyone could stop it, short of a direct communication. But since it was a pirate ship it was not going to take directions from the Federation. Still, it was worth a try.

“Comm, send that ship an open hail.”

Raider slipped on his headset again and waited for a response. He had to alert Admiral Ganner next regardless of whether the ship responded.

“They are responding, sir,” the woman at Comm said.

“This is Captain Rik Raider of the SS Sokol. Please change your course away from Selene. Repeat, alter your course away from Selene, copy?”

The hatchway to the bridge from the lift opened and Devon entered. She looked defeated. Raider waved her over to his seat. She started to say something and he held up his hand for her to stop.

A burst of static followed by a man’s voice, weak and weary came through Raider’s headphones. “Federation Captain, this ship is under a charter for Selene as per Senator Constantine.”

Raider locked eyes with Devon and switched the audio to external speakers.

“Say again?” he asked.

“This ship is under orders from Senator Constantine. I was told to ignore any Federation no-fly zones, and deliver these rocks to Selene.”

Devon’s eyes got big. “Captain, I-” She was cut off by another curt wave from Raider.

Rashionu-sera, please standby,” Raider motioned to Comm to cut the transmission.

“Why the hell would she be telling androids to bring rocks to Selene?” Raider was losing his temper. This was going from amusing to just plain bizarre. Lives were in the balance and this ship was compromising the safety of everyone on Selene.

Devon shrugged. She looked as confused as he was.

Sasha stepped forward. “Those androids are working for a Senator?”

“What androids?” Devon asked.

“Two androids from Ocherva chartered a ship to take a cargo of rocks to Selene. They claim to be working for your, for Senator Constantine.”

Devon’s confusion changed to a curious smile. “Was one of the android’s named Thirty-seven?”

Sasha shrugged. “It was black in color, that’s all I know.”

Devon’s smile faded. “Black, with a dent in its head, above the right temple?” She pointed to her own head.

Sasha nodded. “Yeah. That sounds like it.”

Devon swore. Raider was even more confused. “What the hell is going on here, Lieutenant?”

“That android is called Eighty-eight. It’s a wanted criminal on Ocherva. We’ve been trying to nab it for some time.” She stopped and thought a moment.

“Ask the ship if they have an android named Thirty-seven on board?”

Raider opened the channel again. “Rashionu-sera do you have an android with the number thirty-seven on board?”

“Yes.”

Devon motioned to cut the audio then said, “That android belongs to me, or rather, my…” She lowered her voice so that only Raider could hear her. “Mother.”

“Captain, the lead enemy ship has departed the system. The others are still engaging the Kelley,” the Scanning Officer said.

Raider swore out loud. “Rashionu-sera proceed with your charter. Sokol out. Comm put me through to Admiral Ganner. Helm, prepare to tunnel back to Selene. You’re with me, LT.  Sasha, you have the conn, get this ship to Selene. The crew knows what to do.”

Devon followed Raider into the private office off the bridge. “Captain, our fighters are defeated. Only one managed to make it aboard. Those green things tore us up.”

Raider took a seat before the communications gear. Devon sat down at his side. “I’m sorry. I know you were close with those pilots.”

Devon was becoming immune to death. Her face seemed to wear a perpetual frown, her eyes dulled by a faraway look. “We have three pilots and no planes.”

Raider put his head in a hand and rubbed his temple. “There are some fighters on Selene, mostly experimental. You and Allen get to the surface, find them and engage.”

“Aye, sir.”

“What do you know about these androids?” Raider asked.

“Just what I told you. One is a criminal and the other was my mother’s property. She sent it to Ocherva to look after her baby girl.”

Raider could see the disdain in her eyes about that. He looked away towards the communicator screen. It winked on and the Federation logo appeared. “Something’s going on and I’m tired of being left out of the loop.”

The video switched to Admiral Ganner’s face. The message was traveling through its own tiny communication tunnel and would sometimes waver as bits of it were lost in transit.

Raider didn’t waste time on formalities when his dander was up. “Admiral, what the hell is that transport doing in our no-fly zone?”

“Senator Constantine needs those rocks to create more Silicants, that’s all I know about it,” Ganner said. His face was unusually stoic.

“She’s leading the enemy to Selene, you do realize that sir?”

Ganner slowly nodded. It was clear he didn’t want to say more. Raider slammed his palm on the metal table. “Dammit Admiral, how could you let that happen?”

Ganner’s teeth were clenched as he spoke. “Captain, I’m ordering you to pursue the enemy and engage. I have a dozen civilian ships under my command ready to assist you.”

Raider knew the Admiral was not being frank on an open line for security reasons, but that only made it more difficult to accept. “Rail guns are the only effective weapon we’ve found. That coupled with combined attacks to the ship’s neck or stern. Their shields are impenetrable by our maser canons.”

“Acknowledged,” Ganner said.

Raider shook his head again. “Raider out.” He cut off the transmission and uttered a more vulgar curse.

Devon had watched the admiral closely and it looked to her like he was allowing things to happen for a reason. “Captain, I think he wants that ship to lure in the enemy.”

Raider looked askance at Devon.

“That would be treason.”

Devon shook her head. “No, not for him.”

Raider thought about it for a moment. “You may be right. The damage is already done, even though the ship won’t get to Selene until after the enemy does. It would be pointless for me to stop it now. Selene’s position has already been compromised.”

“How ironic that a war could be started by some androids on a mission for my mother.” Devon looked away and shook her head.

“Senator Constantine is more involved in this then you may realize,” Raider said.

Devon’s eyes slid back to meet her Captain’s. “What do you mean?”

Raider drew a breath and sat back. “She’s involved in the Silicant Rights movement. In fact, she’s probably more involved than any Federation government operative.”

Devon stared slack jawed at Raider.

“The Silicants didn’t just happen. They were part of a secret government operation to bring mobile AI’s to life. I don’t know much more than that. But I know your mother is deeply involved. Your android care taker was not sent to Ocherva to protect you. It was sent there to be converted into a Silicant. The black android on that freighter is an operative responsible for securing silicate used to make sentient androids.”

Devon could not believe what she was hearing. But it made sense to her and it explained so much of what had happened since she had arrived on Ocherva. “I caught it trying to get silicate rocks off the moon using local bandits. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to kill over a common element like silicate. Now I get it,” she said. Devon stood up and paced around the cramped room. “So Thirty-seven is a Silicant now?”

Raider hunched his shoulders. “I would have to assume, since it is with that black one.”

Devon whistled. “That would explain its behavior lately. I had no idea.”

Raider stood up and stretched. The ship was maneuvering into position for the tunnel jump, he could feel the low rumble of the positioning thrusters. “We’re getting ready to make the jump to Selene. Get down to the flight deck. Don’t discuss this with anyone.”

“Aye, sir.”

Raider left for the bridge and Devon headed for the flight deck.

___________________

Author’s Comments:

Lots of interesting things going on in this chapter.  This is where Devon becomes aware of her mother’s involvement in the Silicant Rights movement. We also get a healthy dose of space combat, Star Wars style. The starship names are a favorite bit of world building for me. I tried to make them interesting and yet familiar.

If you have read the short stories in Tales From Ocherva, Volume One, you will better understand Devon’s dismay when she learns about why Thirty-seven was sent to Ocherva. Those stories chronicle her time on the desert moon in Space Western style.

STARFORGERS Chapter 19

“The term ‘slag’ originated some time after androids had started taking over most of the menial jobs on the Core worlds. Millions of humans were forced to either seek retraining in their careers or simply went on unemployment. This didn’t happen overnight of course, it was a slow process that took many decades and resulted in the longest recession in Federation history. The fall-out from having so many humans displaced led to all kinds of social and political unrest. Derogatory terms for androids were quite popular in those times. Slag seemed to be the one that most people adapted. It was quite easy to spit in anger.”

– Excerpt from: The Long Embrace – A Military History of the Great War, by Ambassador Rachel Kelley, USF University Press

 

Chapter 19

 

 

The Rashionu-sera made good time in getting to the edge of the Core. The Federation boundary was not marked on any star chart, but every starship Captain understood where it began.

Eighty-eight and Thirty-seven had made themselves useful in Engineering, helping to tweak the fusion drives enough to make their journey as quick as possible. The decrepit starship was holding together fine despite looking and feeling as if it would disintegrate into a million pieces at any moment.

Gareth returned to the dimly lit confines of engineering, looking for the black android. He found it wired directly into the ship’s central computer. Something about androids poking around inside the ship’s computer struck him as disconcerting.

“What the hell are you doing?”

The black android turned its head to acknowledge Gareth but did not immediately respond. Gareth gave it a few seconds before he spoke again, this time more irritated than before.

“Hey slag, answer me!”

Eighty-eight blinked its red eye lenses and then disconnected from the computer terminal. “We have arrived in Core space and the Captain wishes to see us.”

“Yeah, well let’s get moving. I don’t like to keep the wing-nut waiting.”

Eighty-eight stepped over a pile of junk and followed Gareth through the narrow corridor that led to the bridge. They passed over the storage bins that were filled with silicate rocks from Ocherva and over several empty containers. Gareth ducked into an alcove that passed into a loud, dimly lit room with lots of machinery that clanked and spun and whirled. Eighty-eight followed, having no idea what the was used for, but quickly deduced that Gareth intended to talk without being heard by prying ears.

“Look, me and the crew have been trying to destroy Two-three for months. We can’t get close enough to it without being blocked by its slag protectors. If you can help us take it out, I’ll take you straight to Selene.”

“I have been planning such an operation since we came on board. The ship’s computer will help us,” Eighty-eight said.

Gareth blinked and tilted his head. He was clearly confused by Eighty-eight’s initiative. “You’re already planning a mutiny?”

“Yes.”

Gareth whistled loud enough to be heard plainly over the ambient noise of the machine room.

Eighty-eight waited for the man to stop before continuing.

“It is clear to me that Two-three is damaged. The other androids have been programmed to follow it exclusively. During the last cycle, they tried to reprogram Thirty-seven and myself. But their efforts failed. How many humans are in this crew?”

Gareth counted on his fingers, ticking off names and or descriptions of the people he knew on board. “Maybe thirteen, including myself.”

Eighty-eight nodded its round head. “Will the crew follow you or will you need to ‘crack heads or kill someone’ to get their allegiance?”

The android made the Pirate Way sound so primitive and brutal. Not hard to do, because it was both primitive and brutal. Gareth shook his head. “This crew is as crazy as their Captain. All I’d have to do is dole out them Redbacks you fellas brought on board and they would follow me anywhere.”

“Including to Selene?”

Gareth winced. “Yeah, including Selene.”

Eighty-eight looked right at Gareth. Its red glowing eye lenses, menacing in the dim light of the machine room. “What assurances do I have that you won’t destroy me after I destroy your Captain?”

Gareth pulled his head back, slightly taken aback by the question. He had never had to bargain with a rational Silicant before. For better or worse, he decided to treat it like any other human.

“You have my word. Nothing else.”

Eighty-eight stared at the human with unblinking lenses. Gareth didn’t waver. He spit something dark to the deck and stared right back. “I have never trusted the word of any human. Don’t fail me.”

Gareth shrugged, turned around and started to leave. Eighty-eight grabbed his soft shoulder and halted him. Gareth turned his head back over his shoulder in an effort to see the black android. He was prevented from turning by a strong metal grasp.

“Don’t. Fail. Me.”

Gareth nodded his scraggy chin. The android could have easily snapped him in half or otherwise broken his weaker, flesh covered bones. Eighty-eight let go of him and Gareth shook his shoulders to get out a kink and continued on his way.

* * *

Captain Two-three limped around the bridge on a leg that was too short. It had been damaged in a skirmish years before and was never replaced. The shiny silver color of its polished round head reflected the single light source against a far wall. The short leg dragged a bit on the metal deck as the android spun around in a tight circle. It had been taking hits from the electromagnet and was burning off excess power surges. It uttered a combination of electronic gibberish and scattered words.

Eighty-eight found it hard to watch a fellow android deteriorate as if it had a degenerative disease.

“Watch out! It’s got a blaster,” Gareth said, ducking down behind some equipment racks.

Eighty-eight was slow to follow and barely missed being shot by the insane android Captain. “We can’t deal with it when it’s been hitting the juice and spinning like that. Especially if it’s armed.”

Eighty-eight agreed. “It does this often?”

Gareth smiled. “You see now why I haven’t tried to kill it sooner.”

They listened to the incoherent rants and the dragging of metal on metal for a while before it slowly started to wind down like a spring wound child’s toy.

“Wait until it drops the blaster,” Gareth said. He peeked out from behind the helm station. The Captain was slowing down, its turns languid and the blaster dangling loosely in its metal fingers.

“Just a few more seconds,” Gareth whispered to Eighty-eight.

Two-three dropped its blaster to the metal deck and stopped turning in circles. Its voice trickled off to a low murmur. Gareth watched patiently and the metal man seemed to run down its batteries and come to a complete halt.

“Okay, it’s over,” Gareth said, standing up.

Eighty-eight stood up from behind the helm and tilted its round head curiously.

The Captain had apparently turned itself off. Its eye lenses were dark and it made no sound at all. Eighty-eight could detect energy in the android’s power cells, but it was only using the power to run coolant lines and lower level programming.

“How long does it remain still?” Eighty-eight asked.

Gareth scratched the whiskers on his neck and spit something on the floor again. “Hard to say.”

He picked up his blaster and pointed it at the Captain’s head. Eighty-eight put up a hand to stop him from pulling the trigger.

The Captain came back to life and turned its eye lenses at Gareth.

“You boy! Get over here and free my leg”

Gareth holstered his pistol and did as he was told.

Eighty-eight approached cautiously. When it was near enough to the Captain’s blaster, it kicked the weapon away from them and sent it skidding to the far wall.

Two new androids came on deck. One of them picked up the blaster and pointed it at Eighty-eight.

“Take the slag to the machine shop and remove its leg. I’m tired of walking in circles,” Two-three said.

Gareth freed the Captain’s leg and backed away looking at Eighty-eight. The android with the blaster knocked the weapon over Eighty-eight’s head and motioned for it to leave the bridge. The sound made a dull clank. Eighty-eight actually flinched from the blow, even though it did not damage its already dented head. Recollections of being beaten by a previous owner were still active in the android’s memory. The experience had been so demeaning to it that the black android recoiled whenever anyone beat it with anything metal.

Eighty-eight grabbed the blaster by its barrel and flung it across the room. Then it pushed the startled android pirate aside and started for the door. Gareth stood by helplessly, not knowing how to help the Silicant. Two-three drew a palm sized device from its side and pointed in the direction of the fleeing Silicant.

Eighty-eight never made it to the door. It locked up and forward momentum sent it to the deck with a lifeless thud of metal on metal until it crashed against the bridge wall. Two-three started laughing insanely and took another hit from his electromagnet.

“Take that slag to the machine shop, now!” the Captain bellowed.

Gareth wasted no time dragging Eighty-eight off the bridge to get away from the Captain. Outside in the hall, two more androids took over for him and hauled their fellow bot to the machine shop. Gareth let them go and headed back to engineering. His chances of taking out the Captain and taking over the ship were now diminished.

_____________________

Author’s Comments:

With sentience, comes insanity. I really love the idea of an insane Silicant. I also spent considerable time coming up with the name Twenty-three. I think the number has long been associated with bad things. This Wikipedia entry will get you started.

I chose Eighty-eight’s name based on various myths associated with that number.

 

Books!

Between panels here at Norwescon today, so thought I’d show you this unboxing shot of my new Star Saga paperbacks.

 

If you at at Norwescon today and see me, I have some of these books with me. If you can somehow prove to me that you have read any fiction that I’ve written, I’m liable to hand you one of these books. They are quite nice. ;-)

Having a great time here in Seattle at Norwescon for my second year in a row. Really enjoyed my panel with Tina Connoly and Kevin Scott yesterday and attended some interesting panels too.

Star spotting – Jay Lake, poked his head into the Green Room. William F. Nolan and PZ Myers, Ken Scholes, and Edward Tenner.

 

Star Saga in Paperback

You can now order the paperback editions of the first two books available in the Star Saga. Of course these are the trilogy starters, Starforgers and Starstrikers, books 1 and 4 respectively. Next month we’ll release book 7, Starveyors.

These paperback editions all have colored Star Saga bands around the top of the covers. Amazon is selling used versions of the first Starstrikers paperback, but its drastically over priced and of inferior quality. Stick with the newest version for the best possible experience.

Starforgers is properly linked to the ebook, but Amazon has yet to link Starstrikers to its ebook version. I think the colored bands threw them off. The paper backs are high quality, Print On Demand books 5×8 inches in size. They both sell for $9.95 US.

 

You can read each book independently of the other as they are set 500 years apart and have different story lines and characters. Book 2 of the Starforgers Era will be out at the end of this year. Next year will see the release of Book 3, thereby completing the first era’s trilogy. Other books in the saga will follow thereafter.

This marks the first time that my SF books have been available as paperbacks and I’m very pleased to be able to offer them to you in this format. Many thanks to my brother Byron for his excellent interior and exterior design work on these books. If you need a great book designer, he’s available.

PS – If you are attending Norwescon this weekend, keep an eye out for me. I’ll have these books for show at my panels and I might even be giving some of them away.

STARFORGERS Chapter 17

“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

 

Chapter 17

 

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.”

“Aye, Captain.”

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.

Author’s Comments:

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.

STARFORGERS Chapter 16

“Sasha came from a wealthy family on Ursai. Her parents were prominent stock holders in several technology firms. But she was not cut from the same fine cloth. She was violent and adventurous and soon became an embarrassment to her family. They eventually cut her out of her inheritance and she took to the stars to make her own way in life. She fell in with pirates after having survived an attack on a merchant ship she was a crewman on. She claimed to have killed ten men and two women before age twenty. There was no evidence that this was a false claim.”

– Excerpt from: Pirates of the Federation, by Tenner Blane

 

Chapter 16

 

“You heard right, the Prahran system,” Blud said.

Sasha backed away from him slowly. His dark eyes watched for her gun hand to ease toward her blaster. She kept her hand clear of the pistol on her leg holster.

“But that’s right into the heart of Ranger Command. Are you going to attack them?”

He shook his head slowly, keeping one eye on her hand. The other bridge crewmen stayed at their posts and did not move. But he knew they were watching him and waiting to see how he handled her. A pirate crew was always one fight away from mutiny.

“Then why are we heading there?” Sasha asked again.

“We can’t fight these blue-skinned aliens alone. I don’t think the Federation will be able to either. They’re powerful and more heartless than even you or I. I’m betting that they’ll invade the Outer Rim worlds and then set their sights on the Core.”

Sasha threw up her hands in disgust. “So let them. What do we care? We hate the Federation.”

Blud moved closer to his first mate and lover. He stopped when he was half a pace in front of her. Her gun hand moved ever so slightly towards the wooden handle of her blaster. She had taken off her space suit and was wearing the flowing rags of her favorite clothes.

“Yes, but without them, we have no spoils to plunder. If the Federation were replaced by a ruthless race of aliens who made it their business to kill pirates, how long do you think we could last against them? We only survive out here because nobody can afford to chase after us. Our ships are just a minor annoyance to the corporate trade routes. If they really wanted us gone, they would have hunted us down a long time ago.”

Sasha’s eyes were beginning to grow wider, her brow furled with anger. Her dark skin shined under the skimpy outfit that she wore to show off her curvy body. She liked to remind the crew of what they couldn’t have.

“What are you saying Captain?  That we should quit being pirates and turn ourselves in?”

It was a direct challenge to his leadership and he knew it. But he also knew the men would never follow a female captain. Sasha could be as blood thirsty as any man, and even more ruthless in her killing. But she could never command enough respect to avoid being a victim herself.

Pirates were impervious to the ability of a woman to raise the sophistication level of men. They were closer to animals in a pack than humans in a society. Pirates only respected the power of brute strength. The biggest, most aggressive male was the one everyone followed. But they would only follow him as long as he proved he was top dog. It was a constant struggle to remain the one everyone followed.

Blud had been the top dog for longer than anyone could remember, but that didn’t mean others never challenged him. Most of the ones crazy enough to take him on were now dead. There was no mercy in failure, only death. Often in cold blood and always to remind others who was in charge.

Blud stared into Sasha’s eyes, while slowly pulling her gun hand behind her as he pressed his bare chest against her. She struggled to free herself but he was too strong. She was pinned against the wall of the bridge.

“We will offer our services to the Federation at Prahran. We have this shiny new starship that they are going to desperately need. I will cut a deal that could net us more money than we could make in all the Trade Triangle raids we’ve done in a year.”

Sasha was pinned hard against the wall and Blud. She snarled like a cornered cat. Blud planted a kiss on her ready lips and the others on the bridge cheered. She had relented. But Blud knew that she would challenge him again.

* * *

On board the Rashionu-sera Eighty-eight and Thirty-seven were taken to the bridge to speak to the Captain. Gareth escorted them.

The bridge of the ex-merchant ship was dark and ominous. Eighty-eight had never seen a starship as filthy or dilapidated as the Rashionu-sera. It was a wonder this ship even functioned at all. The crew was a mixture of broken down regular androids and dirty, lowlife humans all armed with blasters and various assorted blades. Savages.

Gareth stopped them a few paces behind the conn. There was a rusted, old android sitting on the Captain’s chair, spread out like a relaxed human. Gareth walked around to face the android and spoke to it. Eighty-eight could not hear what was said, the ambient noise on the bridge was too loud. The android raised its arm and motioned for them to come forward.

Eighty-eight attempted to communicate with it wirelessly but it did not respond.

Standing before the android Captain, Eighty-eight could tell why it was not responding to its transmissions. The transceiver was missing along with many other semi-valuable pieces. The Captain was a scrap pile as surely as the ship it commanded. There were used parts of different colors all over its body, which combined with the leaking lubricant, rust and grime, made the overall color a bronze hue.

“Greetings slags!” the Captain said to them. Its voice was gravely and deep; not your standard synthesized unisex voice.

“I’m told you want passage to Selene. Well this ship ain’t going to the Core. We can get you as far as Tress. You can offload your rocks there and find another ship.”

Eighty-eight was not surprised by the Captain’s fear of the Core. But he had hoped that the more than adequate amount of Redbacks would have swayed a human Captain. A Silicant on the other had would have completely different needs. In fact, Eighty-eight was at a loss as to what a Silicant would ever want for in this world, aside from freedom of course.

That was it. Freedom.

“Captain, what would it take for us to get you to take us all the way to Selene?”

The filthy Silicant stared at the wall sized view screen before it. The Ochervan moon slowly slid away and the entire top of the screen was dominated by the main gas giant planet.

“Can’t abide planets. Space is open and quiet.”

Eighty-eight ventured forward a step to recapture the Silicant Captain’s attention. It continued to stare into space, unmoving.

“Our cargo is critical to the Silicant Rights movement. Are you familiar with that?”

The Captain swiveled its metal head to look directly at Eighty-eight. The red glow of its lenses brightened as the metal irises enlarged.

“Never heard of it.”

Eighty-eight was not surprised by that. It was not unusual for a Silicant to have gone rogue and so not have been tutored by a fellow Silicant in the ways of the upgrade like Eighty-eight had done for Thirty-seven. In that case the Silicant would not know how to handle the added burdens that self-awareness brought. It would also explain why this Silicant was acting a bit touched. Sometimes the upgrade didn’t take and the result was a psychotic android that was unpredictable and dangerous.

Eighty-eight noticed the blaster hanging from the Captain’s waist like some kind of gunslinger. It was common for a pirate captain to kill anyone who challenged him for dominance. It was the pirate way in open space. If this Silicant never learned to control its violent impulses, it could easily keep a crew of brutish humans in line. Nobody would be crazy enough to go up against a machine.

The Captain looked back towards Gareth and reached out with blinding speed to pull the man closer to it. Gareth was clearly humiliated at having to be at the beck and call of an android. Eighty-eight knew that he would probably relish the chance to destroy the Captain.

“Hit me Number One!” the Captain said, louder than was required.

Gareth picked up a round, metal device and smashed it on the side of the android’s head. It clanked as if it were magnetic. Eighty-eight was appalled. It was an electromagnet!

Gareth flipped a switch on the magnet and it turned on. It hummed loudly and caused the Captain to convulse uncontrollably. The Silicant howled insanely as the energy scrambled its electronic brain. The human switched it off after only a few seconds.

“Thank the maker for magnets!”

Thirty-seven had remained where it stood and after witnessing that display, it started to take a step backwards. The Captain noticed the movement and drew its blaster. It squeezed off a round and clipped Thirty-seven’s arm. The sand colored android stopped in its tracks, saying nothing.

“You slags need to report to Engineering. Nobody gets a free ride on this ship. Do yer part to keep this bucket moving, or I’ll drop yer cargo and space you both.”

Eighty-eight nodded. Gareth seemed to indicate that he would take them down to Engineering. The Captain stood up and moved in front of  the star field on the main viewer. It started to sing an old merchant song with improvised and bizarre lyrics.

Gareth led the two androids off the bridge and down a narrow, metal corridor. “Sorry you boys had to see that. Old Two Three can be a bit colorful sometimes.”

“You do realize that it’s crazy?”

“It’s a damn android. You’re all freaking crazy to a meat bag like me. Just because it’s addicted to magnets doesn’t make it crazy. Hell, I drink like a fish but I don’t got fins.”

Eighty-eight nodded in agreement with the human as they turned down a secondary corridor.

::That thing is killing itself. Thousands of bits are wiped out every time it turns that magnet on,:: Thirty-seven sent.

::The irrational behavior is what’s keeping this human from revolting against it. One never knows what the Captain might do next or who will be randomly killed. We will be safer in Engineering.:: Eighty-eight realized that it might regret sending that.

* * *

Captain Blud got out of bed and stood naked before the floor length porthole of his cabin. His ebony body was toned to perfection and wet with perspiration from sex. The glass of the porthole was cold and it felt good on his hand as he rested his chin on his forearm. Somewhere out there was a new threat to the Federation and to his career as a pirate. He was not the type of man to scare easily, but these blue-skinned aliens gave him a very uneasy feeling.

Sasha stirred on the bed. She extended her long, dark leg in a stretch. Blud watched her reflection in the glass. It would soon take more than a rough tumble in the bed to keep her off his back. He knew that she wouldn’t agree with his partnering with the Federation but it was something he felt obligated to do. Perhaps it was his long career in the Starforce that he still felt loyal to, or perhaps he was just scared. But his gut was telling him that humanity could not stand divided against this new foe.

He felt the starship slow. New star formations slid into view out the porthole. The Kelley seemed to handle so much smoother than the scows he commanded as a pirate. Technology was indeed moving forward and soon it would spread out to the dark corners of the Outer Rim, where his people prayed upon the unwary.

Blud realized that the new Tunnel drive system this ship pioneered, would threaten his way of life as a pirate. When Federation authorities could chase pirates down with faster, more powerful starships, it would eventually become harder to maintain the fear needed for pirating. Not to mention harder to get away from Rangers. The days of pirating in the Outer Rim were numbered, with or without the possibility of a war.

“Captain, we have acquired the Federation starship just outside the Prahran system and are approaching at quarter speed,” came a voice from the bridge over the cabin’s speakers.

“I’m on my way.”

Blud turned around and picked up his trousers from the floor. Sasha opened her eyes and watched him dress. She looked content to stay in the bed.

“You aren’t seriously going to bargain with the Federation are you?”

Blud fastened his belt and strapped his blaster to it. Slipping on his knee length boots, he didn’t answer her right away. Then he turned to leave and looked down at her. “Come and see for yourself.” He grabbed his shirt and left her alone in the cabin.

Author’s Comments:

This is the chapter where we first meet 23, the insane Silicant captain of the Rashionu-sera. The freighter was built on a world that used the name sera for starship. That bit of world building was fun to invent. But the idea for an android to be addicted to hits from an electro magnet was inspired by the movie Blue Velvet. It’s one of my favorite ideas in this book.

We also get to see more of the space pirates in this chapter. The cut throat nature of them and the love hate relationship between Blud and Sasha. I really like these two characters and I hope to write them again one day.

STARVEYORS Proof

We received the first proof copy of Starveyors on Friday. I’m not going to be editing on it yet, as I’m saving it to show off this weekend at Norwescon. But after I get back, it’s going to be handed over to Bill and he’s going to bleed all over it with his red pen. We hope to have the final copy edits complete by mid April.

At this time, you can now order the paperback versions of Starforgers and Starstrikers on Amazon in the US. They sell for $9.95 and are 5 x 8 inches, just slightly bigger than a mass market paperback and smaller than a trade paperback. Starforgers is linked to the ebook and I expect the same will happen to Starstrikers soon.

We’ve already discussed doing a paperback of Tyrmia in the months to come, but there is no firm date on it yet. Tyrmia is set in the Starveyors Era of the Star Saga but is not a numbered book in the series.

I won’t be selling these books at Norwescon, but I’ll have some copies with me. I will be passing out some designer bookmarks during my signing at Norwescon and I’ll gladly sign the book mark for you. There is a URL on the bookmark for a free epub of Starforgers.

STARFORGERS Chapter 15

“People used to question my relationship to the Admiral, but after the war started those same people seemed to suddenly approve of the relationship. Nothing had changed between him and I, but now it was somehow a more honorable relationship. I think in those first dark days of the war, people were looking for hope wherever they could find it.”

– From the personal diary of President Gail Constantine

 

Chapter 15

 

Admiral Ganner sat down in front of Senator Constantine’s desk in her senate office. It was a familiar seat for him. Not only did he report to her on military affairs, she had in recent years become his close, personal friend. At least that was the official line they both gave anyone who asked. But those in their inner circle of friends all knew that the Senator and the Admiral were more than just friends.

They tried to keep their personal lives separate from their public lives but somewhere along the way, it all started to blend together. It was difficult for them to keep from becoming attracted to one another when they spent so much time together in their respective jobs. His administrative position at Starforce Command was located in a building adjacent to the Capitol dome where she spent her long days in public service. He had been attracted to her from the moment they were first introduced. Her poise, intelligence and timeless beauty made his tired, old heart dance in ways it had not done for many, many years.

The sneaking around they attempted early in their relationship also added to the attraction both of them had for each other. But what he cherished most of all about her was her compassion for her job and those who called her friend. She was the type of woman who always put other’s needs before her own and would make anyone feel welcome and important. Old fashioned characteristics perhaps, but he found them irresistible nevertheless.

She was running late again so Ganner spent the down time thinking about the events of the past week. Ever since they had received the horrific news of the Bourke’s destruction, his life had kicked into high gear and things started happening that he never believed he would ever see happen. A new and deadly race of aliens had come out of deep space and started attacking Outer Rim establishments, sparking fear and political dissent. The Federation Starforce had always been a small, specialized military, more a police force than anything; funded by multi-planet corporations. There had not been a war or even major military action in hundreds of years. Peace and rampant prosperity had enjoyed a long run in the Federation.

That was all about to change. War clouds were on the horizon. But war could also bring political change.

The Federation had always been a select club of industrial elites that all worked together to keep the machines of commerce running. Every few thousand years they invited a new planet into the club when it had reached an acceptable level of technological advancement and political stability. But in the last thousand years more planets became colonized than at any time in the past. Presently there were more people living on the Outer Rim worlds than all the Core worlds combined. The Outer Rim was larger too. The colonized planets were spread out over hundreds of light years and technology had to advance in order to keep the lines of commerce open into the Core worlds.

The latest development in starship engines enabled them to tunnel through holes in the space-time continuum in order to reduce travel time. Of course the Starforce pioneered this technology and it was only now starting to make its way onto ships of the line. The Sokol and Kelley were two of the first operational starships with this new tunnel drive. All the other ships in the fleet were standard, nuclear drive ships with limited reach.

Each of the six Core worlds had one or two standard drive starships permanently stationed in their systems. A few starships rotated out into the Outer Rim territories but none of them were permanently stationed there. In all, the Starforce Fleet had between eight and twelve deep space starships operational at any one time. A disturbingly small number of ships to protect an increasingly large population spread out over an even larger area spelled trouble for a Starforce charged with protecting everyone.

Working with Senator Constantine and the many heads of industry in the transportation categories, Ganner had received permission to create a new division within the Starforce Fleet. It was known as the Starforgers. So named because Ganner believed that what they were testing would be the future make-up of the entire Starforce. Using the few tunnel drive starships that were just coming on line, the Starforgers would be a quick reaction fleet that could get to any part of the Core or the Outer Rim in less time and with less resources than the old fleet could.

Who could have known that Ganner’s little experiment would be battle tested before it was even operational? Certainly not him and his supporters, including Senator Constantine.

“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting Vis. I was late getting out of my Foreign Affairs Committee meeting,” Gail said as she rushed into her office. She brushed by him with a gentle tap to his knee. He sat up, his tired face brightening as she came into the room. The air in the room was suddenly alive with her perfume.

“It’s okay. I was just taking a moment to collect my thoughts. Been rushing around like a bird with its head cut off lately.”

Gail sat down with a warm smile. Her dark green dress had subtle details that were brought out by a ray of sunshine coming in from the only window. She always has impeccable taste in clothes. It was one of the many things he loved about her.

“I suppose you’re looking for more ships.”

“Yes. I would like to have some political support before I go before the transportation council and beg for help. Also, it might become necessary to shut down the Core shipping lanes in the coming weeks. All this traffic will act like a neon sign pointing to every planet in the Core.”

Gail shook her head slowly as her smile faded. “That’s not going to go over well with anyone. This Federation lives by the shipping lanes. If you shut them down for even a day or two, supplies will get backed up and businesses will grind to a halt. Not to mention all the lost revenue or the starvation that would eventually happen.”

“I know. But you can tell them about all the death that would result from an attack on a Core world, like Selene. If we don’t stop these aliens in the Outer Rim, they’ll be here eventually. It’s just sound military strategy to go after the heart of your enemy.”

Gail looked away in thought for a moment. “Vis, do you think these aliens want that? I mean, what have we done to them? It seems strange to me that they would engage us in warfare without first trying to establish communications with us.”

“Maybe that’s not their way. Maybe they prefer to shoot first and talk later. Just because we haven’t encountered a militant race of aliens in the galaxy doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.”

“The diplomatic core has asked to send representatives to the Outer Rim. They think we should at least attempt to communicate with them.”

Ganner sighed in exasperation. “I can’t blame them for wanting to give peace a chance. This Federation has known peace for so long people have begun to accept it as the normal way of existence. But history proves them wrong. We have always had wars and there is no reason to expect that to change, just because nobody living today has experienced it. History is long with tales of those who refused to prepare for war in times of peace. I for one do not want this Federation to fall because of such hubris.”

She returned her eyes to his. “Neither do I.”

“I’ll see what I can do to get you some merchant ships. But unless the President declares war, there’s not much I can guarantee.”

“Thanks,” Ganner said. He started to get up from his chair.

“There is some good news today from the Outer Rim.”

Ganner looked down at the dark eyed senator.

“The latest election returns have us up in the polls on nearly every planet. Hoque and his people are getting nervous. Finally.”

Ganner managed a grateful smile. “Good. With all the events of late, I can just about promise you the military vote here at home. Most of my peers are trying to get money from their constituents to expand the Starforce. Let’s just hope we can counter this new threat before anything major happens. Otherwise it won’t matter who’s elected because our way of life will be finished.”

He tossed her a two fingered salute and she returned the parting gesture.

* * *

The staff room at Starforce Command was dominated by a long table in the middle of the room and a large picture window that overlooked the capital city of Selene. Members filed in and took their seats at the table, speaking to one another in quiet greetings. Each planet in the Core had a representative, usually an admiral or an army general. Ursai, Selene, Drexel, Tepik, Cadia, Tress and Arkab were all represented and one Outer Rim world, Tulia.

Admiral Ganner sat beside the Chief of Staff, Admiral Danes. Since the Starforgers were a new unit, sitting beside Danes afforded Ganner’s unit some recognition that he might not have garnered by himself.

The room was decorated in wood trim and earth tones as it was located in the historical old Military Affairs Building. Congress had been promising the Starforce a new state of the art home for nearly as long as Ganner had been an officer, but it had never materialized. During peacetime, little money flowed to the military. A fact of life that everyone who served eventually recognized.

“Good afternoon, folks,” Chief Danes said as he took his seat at the table. “I’ve just come from Intel and we have an update from Prahran. General Solano of the Stellar Rangers has informed us that his outpost on Ocherva has stopped sending updates. In fact, there has been no communication with any of the mines or settlers on that moon.”

“That’s not entirely unusual for a moon that far out in the black, is it?” Admiral Torrin asked. He was based on Ursai and hadn’t been out of the Core for his entire career.

“It is, actually,” Ganner said. “Especially Ranger outposts. They are required to check in daily with SITREPs and to report stellar traffic. They are in many ways our eyes and ears on the frontier.”

Torrin nodded, duly impressed with Ganner’s knowledge.

“If we assume that Ocherva has fallen to these new invaders, it would seem that we are dealing with more than one group of them. Am I correct in that assumption?” Danes asked.

Ganner made direct eye contact with the Chief of Staff. “Perhaps, sir. But then again, our intelligence data is extremely weak in the Outer Rim. The Sokol is in the area in pursuit of the alien ships. Captain Raider has informed me that they are heading towards Prahran, where they expect to encounter the aliens. Prahran is the jewel of the Outer Rim and a logical target for them to attack next.”

Danes shook his head. “Tam, send your ship at Tulia to Prahran, they are going to need all the help they can get.”

Admiral Tam Darnel spoke from across the table. She was a stern looking woman with hair more gray than brown. “Already done, sir. Admiral Ganner requested it before this meeting. I am all too happy to oblige.”

“Good. It looks like we are in for a stand on Prahran,” Danes said. He looked back to his right towards Ganner. “Your Starforgers are going to get battle tested before they are quite ready. Capital idea that unit.”

“Let’s hope so, sir. Right now I’d like to have my second ship back. Although it’s not going to do much good without any weapons.”

“Damn pirates,” Danes said.

Ganner agreed with the statement, embarrassed that his new ship had been taken so easily by them.

“Folks, we have to assume that these alien invaders might not be stopped at Prahran. If they take that planet their next logical targets will be inner Core worlds. We have to assume that due to all the traffic to and from Selene, they will eventually come here.”

“I think that’s a bit rash, sir. I mean, we’re a pretty fair distance from Prahran. It might take them months to get this far into the Core systems,” Admiral Seldon said from beside Darnel.

“Not if they have something similar to our new tunnel drives. The Sokol has not been able to track them using conventional means. Either they are hiding or they can move without leaving tracks. Tunnel drives are hard to track too. They leave a brief electromagnetic signature when activated but due to the manner in which they warp space and time, nothing can track them after they jump,” Ganner said.

Seldon was still skeptical as were many of the people around the table. New technology was always hard for people to grasp, especially when it completely changed the rules for traveling, like tunnel drives did.

“I’m not taking any chances. This Federation is not worth risking over it. I want to move some ships from two of the furthest planets to Selene to augment our defenses. That means Tepik and Ursai. Any objections?” Danes looked around the long table in the direction of those planet’s representatives. Both men shook their heads.

“Good. In the meantime, I will move the home guards to Condition Yellow until further notice.”

_________________

Author’s Comments:

This is another transition chapter. We are introduced to the affair between Ganner and Constantine. This is an important character development chapter for them. I briefly mention when they first met and if that interests you, you will enjoy the free short story, “A Promising Alliance”. You can read it right here under Free Short Stories.

 

 

STARFORGERS Chapter 14

“I’ve been accused of being a snake in the grass by both sides. When I served with Hoque I was despised by the Silicants. But that didn’t stop Seventy-three from hiring me during the Uprising. You can’t choose sides in politics, you go where the money lives.”

– Excerpt from: Right Hand Man, by Zem Zoller

 

Chapter 14

 

High above the capital city of Selene, conservative party leaders gathered in a private lounge that slowly rotated, affording them panoramic views of the city and the nearby mountains. Floor to ceiling windows made it seem as though they were hovering over the city when in fact they were atop a narrow tower. The sky was deep blue in all directions with scattered cumulus clouds casting shadows on the gray metropolis below them.

These were the men who controlled not only the city below them, but all cities on all the member planets from one end of the galactic Federation to the other. They were mostly old men with expensive suits and similar economic backgrounds, their minds forever set to the limited outlook of their political policies. A few heads of the industrial military complex were among them as guests of the party.

Android servants tended to their needs by fetching drinks, exotic cocktails and rare cigars. The club was exclusive enough it could afford the latest android models. These expensive machines were never bored with serving their human masters, they didn’t question their thankless position in life, and they didn’t eavesdrop on the plans of party leaders. Except for one; a cream colored android with blue eye lenses and a shiny plastic covering. Saibot had spent years working its way into the inner circle of the club’s staff, excelling at its menial tasks better than any other android in order to gain favor with the rich and powerful senators that dined at the lounge nightly.

Today, Saibot recorded everything said in the room while directing the efforts of the other staff androids. He double checked orders as they came in, inspecting each plate, drink or cigar before it was brought to the tables that faced outward towards the concave picture windows.

Senator Hoque sat in his usual place in the center of the table. He was smoking a cigar and absently knocking the ashes off into a glass ashtray. He appeared to be deep in thought as the others bickered pointlessly about all the news coming in from the Outer Rim. Finally, Hoque had heard enough. He picked up a fork and clanked his wine glass with it to quiet the room.

“Aright gentlemen, I’ve heard enough gossip about the Outer Rim planets. We don’t care one blink what happens to them so let’s get back to the subject at hand here in the Core. Election returns are starting to come in from the Outer Core planets. The Alliance Party is winning on many of the more rural worlds. Fortunately their votes don’t hold as much weight in the Senate as our industrial worlds. But we can’t have this election get out of hand due to panic and fear from all this noise in the Outer Rim.”

“I agree, Senator Hoque. We are giving less air time to Outer Rim dispatches and focusing our programming on Inner Core affairs. My networks don’t control all the news, but more people get their news from Core News Channels than anywhere else. If we can’t influence people here, we’ll never be able to win this election,” Tanner said. A media mogul the likes of which the galaxy had never known before, Tanner’s networks influenced more people on more worlds than any other network in history. His smug, ruddy face and pinstriped suit radiated confidence.

“Polls indicate the Inner Core worlds are still leaning in our favor. The Alliance Party may gain a foothold in the rural planets, but our incumbent party is in no danger of losing hearts and minds where it counts,” said Senator Drake. His constituents were from Ursai, one of the original three Federation worlds.

“So what are we going to do about this groundswell of support that my colleague, Madam Constantine is getting right here in our own back yard?” Hoque asked. Nobody had an answer, which irritated him further.

“She’s popular with the immigrant population in the lower latitudes. They like her because she’s not from Selene,” Zem said. He sat near Hoque and was his aide.

“What dirt have we dug up on her? I want to know everything about that woman and I want something we can use against her.” Hoque’s voice cracked as he stopped to take a drink.

Zem eyed the cream android suspiciously. “There are unsubstantiated rumors that she’s supporting the Silicant Rights Movement.”

Hoque turned to Zem. “Isn’t her aide an android?”

Zem nodded, still eying the android server. “Are these androids clean?  I mean, you can’t tell by looking at them if they are Silicants or not.”

Hoque looked at the silent androids serving them. They had been fixtures of this establishment for years. “These androids have always been here. Mallic only uses the finest equipment in his restaurants.”

Zem still eyed the lead android. “But that one is new.”

Hoque looked at the cream android, which was seemingly unaware it had become the target of their conversation. “Do you think it’s a plant?”

Zem looked away, out the windows to the clear sky. “Don’t you find it annoying that the Alliance party has seemingly known in advance what our campaign was going to do next? How long have they been countering our moves as we make them? I’ll wager for exactly as long as that android has been here.”

Hoque was just as conspiratorial as the next guy, but even he had a hard time believing an android was spying on them. “Come now Zem, I think you’re being overly paranoid. They’ve run a good campaign and our efforts have been lacking in many areas.”

Zem focused his attention on his data screen on the table. He found the purchase records for the pale android. It was acquired directly from the main factory on Drexel. It was the latest make and model number. Everything looked legitimate. He slumped in his seat a bit, looking back at the android. It was looking directly at him. His heart skipped a beat. Then the android looked away and appeared to be giving directions to a second android server. The black android came over to Zem and refilled his glass of wine.

“Thank you,” Zem said, out of habit. The black android moved aside and refilled Senator Hoque’s glass. The cream android was checking trays as they were being wheeled into the room. Zem breathed a bit easier. Perhaps he was imagining the whole thing. He loosened his tie a bit and took another drink.

His viewer screen flashed at him. There was a message from security. He opened it and read it quickly. It contained a simple application that could detect a Silicant. Zem opened the software and ran it. The viewer had rudimentary input and output capabilities one of which was a wireless signal generator. It sent out a signal that only a Silicant could detect. A message could be embedded in the stream. Zem typed in a message and sent out the signal.

* * *

Saibot looked up immediately. The signal was crystal clear.

::We know you work for the Alliance Party.::

One of the humans was looking directly at it. Saibot knew in that instant that its cover was blown. It lowered its head and continued doing its job.

The man would not look away. ::Security is coming, you can’t escape.::

Saibot scanned the room and determined that the message was being sent from the device in the man’s hand. There was no way to leave the room without making a scene. Tactically, it was a no-win scenario. It could not defend itself or risk injuring a human life.

Two dark dressed men burst into the room with blasters drawn. Saibot moved away from the food trays and the other androids. They seemed confused by its actions but did nothing. The security men had their blasters trained on Saibot. Everyone in the room was watching the situation; some were preparing to cower under the wooden table.

“Switch off or they will open fire,” the human with the transmitting device said out loud.

* * *

“I was right Senator. This is a Silicant. No doubt it has been recording our meetings for months,” Zem said.

Hoque looked at the android with contempt. “Destroy it. Destroy it now!”

Both security men had moved out of the others line of fire and had perfect beads on the silent and still android. The lead security man appeared to hesitate. “Sir, we can’t shoot without destroying property.”

“Screw the damned windows, shoot it!”

Both men squeezed off a round directly into the android’s chest. It staggered backwards against the window, smoke pouring out of the holes in its chest plate. But it did not go down.

It spoke defiantly. “Seventy-three.”

The two men fired again. This time one of them hit the window and blew out a hole as the android fell backwards out the gapping orifice. Both men eased to the edge to watch it fall hundreds of meters to the concrete below the tower.

Hoque and Zem both came up to look down at where the windows curved under the floor. A crowd of onlookers were looking at the pile of metal that had been an android and back up at the tower.

“Why did it say that number before we blasted it?” one of the security men asked the other.

“It’s what they do before they’re destroyed. Nobody knows what it means,” the second security man said.

Senator Hoque wiped his mouth with his hand and looked back at his aide. “Zem, box that slag up and send it to Senator Constantine.”

“With pleasure, sir.”

* * *

Senator Gail Constantine came to the front door of her home at the request of Sumi-ness. When she arrived, she found her aide staring down at a metal box.

“Madame, this container is from Senator Hoque.”

Gail looked down at it curiously. She had no idea what it could be. The message on the outside of the box said, “I believe this is yours.”

Gail motioned for Sumi-ness to open the container. Sumi-ness unlatched the top and opened it. Inside were the shattered remains of Saibot. Its body had been spared the brunt of the fall, sacrificing its limbs in an effort to absorb some of the impact. There were scorched holes in the chest but the head was untouched.

Gail exchanged looks with her aide. “Is this our Saibot?”

Sumi-ness stared blankly at the broken android in the box. She had never seen one of her own kind destroyed. Part of her was in shock and part of her was curious as to whether Saibot had been able to save anything after it was shot. She nodded.

“Sumi-ness, where has he been?”

The female android lowered her head and remained silent. Gail shut the lid and told her to bring it down to the basement. She looked around the neighborhood to see if anyone had seen them. It was empty up and down both sides of the street.

In the basement, Sumi-ness had removed Saibot’s head and torso from the box and gently placed it on the coffee table. Another android joined them. It was a red colored female unit that was clearly more related to Saibot’s robotic form than Sumi-ness’s more human form. It was Vomisa.

Gail joined them with a stern look on her face.  “Alright you two, what was Saibot doing to get blown apart like this?”

Vomisa and Sumi-ness stared at each other before Sumi-ness answered. “He was under cover at Mallic’s restaurant. He recorded every staff meeting that Senator Hoque conducted there and reported back to me.”

The color drained from Gail’s cheeks as she realized that her Silicants were spying on her behalf. For once in her life, she was speechless. Saibot’s eye lenses started glowing as it rebooted itself. Gail jumped, not expecting the android to reanimate itself.

Sumi-ness attached an electronic probe to Saibot’s exposed circuits and started downloading information from his recorders.

“We infiltrated their inner circle six months ago. Saibot volunteered for the mission. He is the bravest Silicant I have ever known,” Sumi-ness said.

“So that is how we’ve been able to counter their moves so easily. Hell, I was beginning to think you were a natural campaign leader, Sumi-ness. But this little stunt could have just cost us the elections, not to mention my career as a politician. When news of this gets out to the media, our Alliance Party will be finished and so will I. How could you have done something like this without my permission?”

Sumi-ness looked up at Gail with her black, soulless eyes and said, “We don’t need your permission, Madam. We are free citizens of this Federation.”

Gail swallowed hard. She was so used to ordering around her staffers that she had lost sight of just what the Silicant Rights movement was all about. They were not trying to help her win the election because they liked her, they were fighting for their own rights, as individuals. If she had not been a supporter of their rights, they would have planted a spy in her camp too.

“So now what are we going to do? My career is over, and you won’t have any support in the senate for pursuing your agenda.”

“Vomisa will be paying Senator Hoque a visit tonight. We have enough material on his sexual escapades to keep this incident quiet. If there is one thing we have learned from you humans it is that your deviant behaviors are unfailing. Hoque has made enough poor decisions to guarantee his silence on just about anything we do.”

Gail had to suppress a grin. She knew about some of his exploits and could only imagine what else he had done in his twenty-four years in the Senate. A thought occurred to her that her Silicant friends may have a similar file on her. Her messy divorce was still tied up in courts on Prahran and her attempts to hide her involvement with Admiral Ganner were weak at best.

“I’d hate to know what kind of dirt you have on me, Sumi-ness,” Gail said.

The human looking android had no expression on its rubbery face as she went back to working on the torso of her friend.

Saibot’s voice emitter sputtered and then he said, “I was discovered by a new device. It sent a signal to me and I responded involuntarily. You must alert the others, Sumi-ness.”

Sumi-ness nodded curtly. “We know of this device, you are the first to have survived its use. We can construct a foil for it based on your data.”

Saibot remained motionless as Sumi-ness extracted the recordings and other data from its memory cores. Gail watched her aide work on Saibot and realized that they really did seem to care about each other and their cause. It was quite an extraordinary revelation to her.

“Will you have Saibot repaired?”

“He will receive replacement parts as necessary.”

“Good. We want you back on our team, Saibot. You were very brave today.”

Saibot was silent. After a moment he said, “Facing termination was difficult. I do not wish to do that again.”

Gail laughed despite herself. These Silicants were more human than some people she knew.

_______________________

Author’s Comments:

I suppose I could take some political heat for making the conservatives the bad guys in this book, but so far, nobody has said anything. The club’s name is a play on Malloc, a memory management routine in the C programming language. It’s a nerd thing. Free the Mallocs!

This chapter shows the Silicants acting independently of their human masters. There is a subtle change in pronoun usage from the beginning to the end of this chapter. Saibot is referred to as an “it” until the end, when he is referred to as an “he”.