Captain Elton Ridgeway of the freighter Arega System Pride looked up sharply at the words, his eyes jumping so quickly to the large viewscreen that dominated the control room he managed to catch the fading glow of the other ship’s hyperspace window.
“Shit,” the captain muttered, almost to himself. “This close to Outpost Station?”
“And closing fast, sir,” Griswell responded, ignoring his captain’s verbalized question for the one that actually mattered.
A scowl pasted itself on his rugged features as Ridgeway rose from the command chair and moved to stand immediately behind the room’s other occupant, watch technician Blaine Griswell. His breathing grew ragged as Griswell adjusted the sensors’ focus, magnifying the pickup tenfold to show beyond any doubt that it was pirates headed their way.
Ridgeway stared a moment longer before answering, feeling a growl begin to grow in his throat. Quickly swallowing it, he settled for a large sigh. “Yeah, standard protocol. Let the bastards have what they want, while we live to haul another day.”
Griswell’s face became grim as he quickly began flipping switches and entering emergency codes into the ship’s systems. Ridgeway stepped back to his command chair and allowed a bit of the growl he’d swallowed earlier to accompany the sharp slap of his fist in the System Pride’s internal call button.
“All hands,” he announced, more than a little of the growl still in his voice. “This is a pirate lockdown, repeat, immediate pirate lockdown. Button ’er up, boys and girls, then get yourselves into the hole. This is not a drill. We’ve only got five minutes before they start boarding us, folks, so move your butts.”
With no need for further urging the crew began an orderly scramble to lock down the ship’s systems before heading for the vessel’s secure bolt hole—a design feature that had become standard on 16 Cygni freighters as pirate attacks grew from occasional nuisances to a way of life. Within three minutes the Arega System Pride was locked down, its corridors and holds unmanned. Once the pirates had taken what they wanted the crew would re-emerge to complete their interrupted voyage to Outpost Station.
“All personnel, secure stations and make ready for FTL. Mr. Garvey, take us through, if you please.”
Captain Sydney Chambers surreptitiously watched around her as the bridge crew of the Terran Space Military vessel Cahan Morrigan responded to her orders. A mixture of emotions played inside her as the various stations reported readiness for the transition to their assigned duty station: satisfaction, power, a touch of concern, a dab of pride—and more than a little resentment.
Morrigan was Sydney’s first command as a newly-promoted captain. Though far from the newest vessel in the fleet it was a sound ship: a Noble class light cruiser, the nimble maneuverability of its modest 80,000 displacement tons making up for what it lacked in sheer power and weaponry. Morrigan boasted a complement of three hundred—250 crew plus a detachment of fifty marines, roughly the average for a full captain’s first command.
Sydney Chambers was no average captain, though. Whipcrack smart despite blonde locks that led some to underestimate her and with enough muscle on her five-foot-seven frame to require a slightly larger uniform size than one would expect, she had shown the first spark of greatness even before finishing her first year at TSM Academy. Quick-thinking, good instincts—and being in the right place at the right time—had allowed her to save several dozen cadet lives during a live-fire exercise that had gone horribly wrong. The achievement brought her an Academy commendation ... and the quiet attention of then-Sector Admiral Lord Steven Alexander, who had quietly caused Sydney to receive postings of amazing complexity and rapidly increasing responsibility once she’d graduated.
Her most recent posting, though, had not been of Alexander’s choosing. Assigned as first officer of a Dragon-class battle cruiser, the Tecumseh, a mere nine years after being commissioned, fate—and the ill-conceived actions of Tecumseh Captain Horace Steubing—had conspired to throw a monkey wrench in the admiral’s plans. While the ensuing investigation and courts-martial had exonerated Sydney as the only one of Steubing’s command staff uninvolved in the morass, she was none the less tainted by having been so close to the fiasco.
The failure galled Sydney all the more as she had been in line for the First Officer’s post on now-Fleet Admiral Alexander’s flagship, due to open up when the Admiral’s long-time number two, Commander Jason Sebring, retired. She would have been—by eight days—the youngest flag XO in fleet history.
Sitting now on the bridge of her first command, a brief image of Admiral Lord Alexander’s face flashed through her mind, the memory of her recent painful meeting with her mentor still as vivid as that of her morning coffee. She’d entered the admiral’s command office, aboard his flagship Shades of Glory, coming stiffly to attention and not allowing her eyes to focus on anything—especially not on the admiral’s face. It seemed to her that ages passed before Alexander had softly cleared his throat.
“Stand easy, Commander. The worst is behind you.”
Sydney had allowed herself a brief sigh as she’d relaxed into a parade rest. Alexander’s soft words bore the promise of at least forgiveness, if not the absolution she craved, for her failure to react more quickly to what had been happening around her on the Tecumseh.
“Thank you, sir.”
Alexander was silent another long moment, then loudly echoed his subordinate’s sigh. “You don’t sound as though you fully believe me, Sydney.”
“I—” she began, then bit off her words, struggling to retain her composure in what she still feared would be the end of her career. “Your kindness is legendary, Admiral, so I certainly believe that you won’t hold the last several months against me. But I’m quite painfully aware that someone who has been through a court martial, even when found innocent, bears a heavy burden in attempting to prove their continued worth.”
“Hmm.” Alexander shifted in his chair, closely regarding his still young protégé. “I can’t exactly say that you’re wrong. All too many careers have been ended by being caught in an explosion not of their making.” He drummed his fingers on his desk a moment. “On the other hand, I’m sure you’re also aware that I have never been willing to waste talent. Particularly, when I’ve been working to nurture that talent for an entire decade.”
Sydney felt a twinge of hope in her breast, despite her misgivings. “Yes, sir.”
“Still.” The admiral studied his junior for a long moment. “You are aware that that I had been planning to appoint you as Commander Sebring’s replacement when he retires at the end of next month.”
Sydney had to swallow a lump from her throat before answering. “I am, sir.”
“I tell you that, Commander,” the Admiral said in a soft voice, “not to make you feel worse than you already do, but to indicate the level of esteem in which I hold your service.” His demeanor and voice immediately took on a harder tone. “The reality is, though, that in light of recent events—as you noted—the appointment is no longer politically possible.”
“I would expect not, sir.” Sydney felt a twinge at the loss even as she spoke the words.
“That being the case....”
Alexander’s eyes took on a sort of glow as he picked up a data pad from one side of his desk and extending it to Sydney. It took a moment for her to realize she was supposed to take the pad; the admiral remained silent until she had accepted the device, then resumed her parade rest position without glancing at it.
“While I cannot make you my flagship’s first officer,” Alexander said, a slight smile tugging at his lips, “I can find you a posting which is both politically acceptable and, at the same time, worthy of your talents.”
The admiral rose to his feet and visibly assumed his natural mantle of command. “Sydney Chambers, you are hereby raised to the rank of Captain,” he said formally. “You will report by six hundred hours tomorrow to the TSM Cahan Morrigan , there to place yourself in command of that vessel until further notice. The data pad you hold contains full details of your assignment, as well as all command codes and other information you will require as ranking officer of the Morrigan.”
Sydney felt her eyes widen at the Admiral’s words; she had to actively work at not allowing her jaw to drop when Alexander extended his hand across the desk toward her.
“Congratulations, Captain Chambers. Though you may find your post and your posting a bit less, ah ...” he paused as though searching for a word, “... glamorous than what I originally had in mind for you, I trust you will continue to serve the Confederacy to the full extent of your abilities, as your career so far has led me to expect.”
Glamorous. Right. Exactly what this is not.
Sydney dragged her thoughts back to the present as her executive officer, Commander Steve Garvey, prepared to execute Sydney’s order to transit through FTL.
“All stations report secure, Captain,” Garvey announced. “Helm, give us the count.”
“Yes, sir,” responded the shift helmsman, a husky lieutenant of Scandinavian heritage named Thor Hellespont. “FTL in three ... two ... one ...”
The Cahan Morrigan’s bridge filled with the intense light and blurring of reality that was the hallmark of FTL transitions in smaller ships. There was little sense of time passing as the ship transited light years of distance before the side effects cleared and Sydney could again see the starfield which hyperspace transit blanked from the ship’s oversized main monitor. The intense silence that marked FTL transitions also vanished; the bridge was once more filled with the buzz of officers and technicians bustling about their required duties. Sydney glanced around at the dozen men and women busily attending to shepherding the Morrigan’s arrival on its assigned station at 16 Cygni. From her slightly raised position on the port side of the bridge, she found satisfaction in the smooth machine her crew had become in the brief weeks of her tenure.
Good people, she reminded herself, working hard to prove themselves to their new captain.
“Drive status?” she finally asked, deciding to get the post-transition process underway.
“Engines nominal, Captain.” Her chief engineer, Lieutenant Hailey Kristoff, could be seen poring over the readouts at her position near the starboard perimeter of Morrigan’s bridge. “FTL drive shut down is nominal, in-system drive is engaging by the book. The refit is living up to its promises.”
“Very good. Structural status?”
Kristoff turned from her gages to briefly meet Sydney’s regard from across the room. “Hull looks good, Captain. No concerns.”
Sydney smiled briefly in response to the engineer’s assessment. She’d hadn’t initially been comfortable with a female engineering chief, never before having worked with one, but Hailey Kristoff’s performance during the weeks of shakedown and weapons drills that followed Morrigan’s release from drydock had left her impressed with the woman’s handling of the job.
Maybe something else the admiral—or fate—needed me to learn, she told herself, savoring the wry tone of her own thoughts. Just because I’m not instinctively tech savvy doesn’t mean all women share that shortcoming.
She was about to turn her attention to navigation when an agitated voice spoke up from the main scan positions, adjacent to the engineer’s station.
“Captain, we’ve got multiple vessels at mark seven-dot-five two.” The speaker was one of the youngest postings on the bridge crew, scan tech Ensign Shannon McInerny, barely six months out of TSM technical training. Despite her youth, Sydney had yet to find even the smallest fault with her performance.
“What sort of activity?” There was a snap in the captain’s voice as McInerny’s report instantly triggered Sydney’s fighting instincts.
“Initial readings indicate hostiles, Captain,” McInerny affirmed, then hesitated a moment as she studied her screens. “I’m seeing—yes, at least one of the vessels carries pirate markings.”
“Main screen.” Sydney could feel her blood begin to roil in her veins. Her orders, when she’d examined them after leaving Admiral Lord Alexander’s presence, had referred to pirate activity in the two inhabited systems of 16 Cygni, A and B—but had said nothing to indicate the infestation had spread to Cyg-C, the dim red dwarf which serves as stellar anchor for Outpost Station. Apparently the reports on which those orders were based either trailed—or understated—the reality of the situation. As the distant specks that were ships appeared on the main bridge viewscreen, Sydney began wonder just how much worse the situation at 16 Cygni was than she had been led to believe.
“Magnify.” Resolution on the monitor jumped ten times in response to her terse order, and the situation became clearer: a fat freighter, bearing what appeared to be the insignia of a local shipping line, wallowed alongside of a gaudily painted, ominous-looking attacker ... clearly a pirate, despite not actually bearing a Jolly Roger on its hull.
“Damn,” Sydney breathed, an instinctive reaction to encountering opposition so soon after arrival. She felt rather than heard a low growl rattle in her throat. “Nice of them to roll out the welcome mat.”
“Definitely pirates, Captain.” Garvey had moved to stand beside her command chair as soon as the situation had developed; now he consulted a hand-held computer tablet before saying more. “The freighter’s markings show it belongs to Arega Shipping Systems—that’s one of the carriers based out of 16 Cygni B. Cyg-B is the one taking the lead in tech startups as well. Manufacturing as well as mining.”
Sydney merely grunted. “So are these pirates from the B system as well?”
Her exec peered more closely at the main monitor, then rapidly scanned through several screens on his computer link. “We don’t have any records of those pirate markings, Ma’am. Records do shows no reports of pirates working out of Cygni C, but I believe we need more current info in that regard.”
“Apparently so,” the captain growled, then sat upright in a move that Garvey had come to recognize as ‘a decision has been reached.’
“Mr. Womack, plot a fast intercept.”
“Yes, Captain.” Ensign Stefan Womack, Morrigan’s navigator, began quickly entering commands into his console. “What vector do you want to use?”
“We’re not close enough to pick out many details, Captain,” Garvey said quietly, for her ears only. “Reports on the various pirate armaments are sketchy.”
Sydney considered for a moment, then shook her head. “We’ve got surprise on our side, XO, and we might as well take advantage of it. Mr. Womack.”
“I want to thread the needle, navigator. Set a course directly between the pirate and the freighter.”
“Mr. Garvey, sound combat alert. Mr. Grelkin, uncap all weapons and stand by. Mr. Hellespont, in-system drive to flank speed.”
Morrigan’s control room, always a busy place, suddenly seemed to take on a life and intensity of its own as the general lighting dimmed slightly and a klaxon sounded several times. The increase in tension was palpable, and seemed to deepen with each sounding of the combat alert. The usual buzz of conversation briefly rose to a din as all hands reported current status and settings to the Exec, their figures flowing both into his earpiece and onto his tablet screen. As Garvey stood silent beside his captain, studying the flow of information, a small smile of satisfaction settled onto his lips.
“Looking good, Captain,” he reported in a soft voice as the klaxons stilled and the noise level returned to near normal. “Looks like all those drills we ran after the shakedown cruise have paid off.”
“I would hope so,” Sydney replied. Before she could say more, though, Morrigan’s speed subtly changed as its sub-light engines kicked up to full.
“ETA two minutes, Captain,” Hellespont reported from his post at helm.
“Understood, Mr. Hellespont,” Sydney acknowledged, then turned back to Garvey. “XO, scramble a team of marines into a drop-ship. It looks like there’s going to be pirates on board that freighter before we can get there.” She gestured at Morrigan’s main viewscreen, which showed a small boarding vessel already heading toward the freighter from the pirate vessel. “I want to have pest controllers right on their tails.”
Garvey nodded. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said, then began punching commands into his pad even as he turned to walk over to his own station. Meanwhile, Sydney kept her eyes glued to the situation as it developed on the screen in front of her.
“Ma’am!” The responder was a very young-looking ensign named Sean Grelkin. The ink on his Academy diploma was still wet, but his performance in the series of combat drills Sydney had orchestrated before heading for 16 Cygni had been impressive enough to win him a slot in the bridge-crew gunnery rotation. Now, despite his lack of experience, his voice and demeanor showed nothing but confidence as he awaited instructions from command.
“Mr. Grelkin, have two medium-yield missiles primed and ready for ballistic deployment on my mark.” Sydney said, allowing the slightest touch of irony into her voice as she added, “I want to send that pirate cruiser a bit of a love pat as we sweep by.”
Grelkin made two quick motions at his board, then nodded in satisfaction as two spots of green appeared in response. “Locked and loaded, Captain, awaiting your order.”
“Ninety seconds,” Hellespont reported from the helm.
“Boarding contingent will be ready to drop in one minute, Captain,” Garvey announced as he returned to his place immediately beside the captain.
“Good.” Sydney looked down at the left arm of her command chair, which boasted a small number of recessed buttons, and selected one with a quick jab. “Captain to marine boarding party,” she said, inclining her face slightly to the voice pickup condenser located near the button she’d just activated. “Be aware that you may have a bumpy ride—we’re launching ordnance the same time we launch you. But get yourselves on board that freighter—I want prisoners. Captain out.”
Garvey gave Sydney a side-long glance as she sat back in the chair. “They’ll get it done, Captain,” he quietly assured her.
“Of course they will,” she responded, adding a small chuckle for emphasis. “But they’ll be more effective if they know about the missiles.” Sydney’s attention was suddenly pulled back to the main viewscreen, and a frown darkened her face as she stared at the vessels poised there. “They’re surprisingly well disciplined for pirates,” she muttered after a few moments.
“One minute,” the helm reported.
Garvey’s eyes snapped to the viewscreen, and he stared at the tableau for a moment. “What do you mean, Ma’am?”
“Hmm?” It was a moment before Sydney realized she’d commented aloud. “Ah. You can bet they’ve seen us by now, Mr. Garvey, but they haven’t flinched yet. I’ve never heard of pirates holding station when they see a Noble-class cruiser bearing down on them.”
“Huh.” Garvey frowned as he also studied the pirate and freight ships. “Neither have I, now that you mention it.”
Hellespont piped up again from helm. “Thirty seconds.”
Sydney briefly shook her head; the time for speculation was past. “OK everyone, here we go,” she announced to the bridge at large. “Mr. Grelkin, target their engines and weapons with all available guns; blast ’em if they so much as twitch. Otherwise, give them a general strafing as we pass by. Drop ship and missiles, launch on my mark—”
“Mr. Hellespont, give me a second-by second count, please.”
“Twelve,” the helmsman immediately responded to his captain’s order, “eleven ... ten ... nine—”
“Drop ship, go!”
“Seven ... six ... five—”
“Missiles away, Mr. Grelkin. On your toes with those guns!”
The pirate ship and the freighter appeared motionless in relation to each other, roughly a mile apart—far closer than ships of their respective sizes usually approached, but still more than enough clearance for the Morrigan to flash between them. At such close range even a barely competent gunnery officer could hardly miss, and Sean Grelkin was far better than that; even as Morrigan’s nose began to enter the zone between hunter and prey the two missiles homed on the pirate’s tail with unerring accuracy, quickly closing to detonation range.
Which was exactly when the pirate ship’s sub-light engines roared to life.
The blast of superheated plasma from those engines set off both missiles before their own detonators could engage and acted as a cushion against the missiles’ energies, turning them into booster rockets rather than engines of destruction. The ship leaped away much faster than its engines alone could have pushed it from a dead stop. Grelkin tried to strafe the jack-rabbiting vessel with
Morrigan’s guns, but hitting a moving target is no easier in space than anywhere else; the pirate suffered little more than a hit or two before disappearing into a newly-formed hyper window.
But even while the pirate was vanishing in the flash of FTL, Morrigan rocked as fire from an unexpected source smashed into it.
hile Morrigan’s crew had been concentrating on their own approach, two small pirate vessels had lain in wait, hidden in a sensor shadow cast by the massive freighter they had intended to victimize. Now those two drew point-blank beads on the warship as its momentum carried it past the bulk of the freighter. The explosions sent hull plates flying and caused Morrigan to slew in its course. The pirates, apparently content with having stung the TSM ship, quickly scuttled to a safe distance and just as quickly disappeared into newly-formed hyper windows, all before Morrigan could swing its guns around to reply.
Sydney’s voice snapped out like a whip over a team of horses. The crew responded with quick, decisive movements everywhere, all hands efficiently performing their tasks at double normal speed, but with little fuss. The only unusual noise was provided by the red alert klaxon, which had been automatically triggered by Morrigan’s sensors when they detected incoming ordnance. A slight hint of smoke and ozone lingered in the air, the result of several brief electrical surges and one small fire that the ship’s automatic suppression systems doused within seconds. On the main viewscreen, the escaping pirates’ hyper windows could just be seen to wink out after their brief existences.
“All hands report safe, Captain,” Comm Tech Peter Rieger reported, pressing his earpiece close to better hear the reports incoming from all over the ship. “No injuries beyond a bumped elbow.” Rieger was still an ensign, but had caught Sydney’s attention with his outstanding performance in six months on the Tecumseh . When the young man had joined her in exoneration at Courts Martial she had requested he be assigned to Morrigan, one of the few specific crew choices she’d made on being appointed Captain.
“The hull didn’t fare as well, Captain,” Hailey Kristoff announced, still studying the readouts flooding her own screens. “Nothing crippling, as far as I can tell from the remotes, but we took some damage. We certainly lost a few hull plates.”
“Acknowledged,” Sydney said, a grimace briefly twisting her mouth. “Get some eyes out there to take a look as soon as possible, Ms. Kristoff, and keep Mr. Garvey informed as to what you find. Everyone else, stand down from red alert—and would somebody please shut off that damn klaxon?”
Garvey, who had personally visited each station during the fast-moving situation, sidled back up beside Sydney’s command chair as the noise of the alarm abruptly halted in mid scream. “That could have been a lot worse,” he said in a low voice, for her ears only.
Sydney looked around the room, her eyes glittering slightly with pride. “The crew did fine. I would expect no less. What concerns me more is where those damned little birds came from.”
The exec briefly examined sensor logs on his hand-held. “Sensors show they emerged from behind the freighter, Captain. Apparently they were lying in wait for just the opportunity we gave them. If I didn’t know better I’d say they expected us, right down to what our incoming vector would be.” He grunted quietly. “You were right. Those are amazingly good tactics for a bunch of pirates.”
Sydney laughed humorlessly at the comment. “Yeah, this is one time I’d happily have been wrong. It certainly doesn’t bode well for what we’re going to face in the next while.” She shook her head. “For right now, XO, you keep tabs on the repair folks while I wrap things up with the freighter. We’ll escort them on to Outpost Station as soon as the marines report everything in hand and the civilians are buttoned up and ready to go.”
Garvey had just nodded and headed back toward engineering when Rieger spoke up again from the comm station. “Captain, I’ve got Marine Sergeant Saans calling for you.”
A twitch of a smile touched Sydney’s face—leave it to the Marines to call with good news just when it’s needed!
“On the main screen,” she told Rieger. The stars disappeared from the huge screen at the front of the bridge, to be replaced a moment later with the rugged face of Gunnery Sgt. Morrie Saans, the ranking NCO of Morrigan’s Marine detachment. Saans gave a vicious grin when his equipment showed him his call was live.
“Everything here is go, Captain,” he reported, glee palpable in his voice.
“Give me a quick summary, Gunny,” Sydney prompted.
The grin spread. “We’ve got the pirates accounted for, Ma’am—three in custody, two casualties. No injuries on our side. The freighter crew had locked the ship down and gone to ground in a safe room so no one hurt there, either. The civvies are in the process of unlocking their systems—apparently it’s local policy to lock down when pirates swoop in and just let them have whatever cargo they want. They say they’ll be ready to boost in about five.”
Sydney nodded her understanding. “Good work, Sergeant. Leave two of your people on board as a liaison, the rest of you pack up the vermin and get back here—we’ll be underway as soon as the freighter’s ready.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Saans acknowledged, and was barking orders to his team even before the link to Morrigan blanked.
“You heard that, everyone,” Sydney announced to the bridge at large. “We’re underway in five minutes. Rig for in-system transit. Mr. Womack,” she said to the navigation tech, “plot us a nice, straight course to Outpost Station at whatever that freighter’s best speed is. Ms. McInerny!”
“Captain?” The young scan tech looked up, wondering at the captain’s tone.
“I need you to keep an eye on the freighter as we go, since we’re going to be in close formation with them. At the same time I want you to keep every parsec of this system under observation. If any more pirates dare show their faces I want to know about it yesterday.”
“Course laid in, waiting your order, Captain,” Womack reported.
Garvey returned to her side at that moment. “Nothing our own repair crews can do, Captain,” he reported in a low voice. “More plates gone than the sensors initially showed—we’re going to need replacements, and best to do that much work in a spacedock.”
Sydney turned a sour look at her executive officer. “If there is such a thing in this wild west system,” she said, her voice leaving little question she doubted the possibility. “I guess we’ll find out real quick just how ready 16 Cygni is for TSM support.”
“Surely there’ll be something at Outpost Station,” Garvey said, though he sounded doubtful.
“One can hope,” Sydney said, shaking her head for emphasis. “Mr. Rieger,” she then called to the comm tech, “get me a link to the Outpost Station manager as soon as we’re in range, please.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Rieger acknowledged. “Also, Captain, the marines on the freighter report all secure to resume course.”
“Thank you Mr. Rieger,” Sydney acknowledged. “Tell them to get a move on; we’ll be right behind them. Mr. Hellespont, follow that freighter.”
Outpost Station Managing Director Walter Rudolph looked up from his desk as a young station security officer knocked timidly on his door. Lieutenant Camilla Ann “Cami” Frye wasn’t really timid, the director knew—she had been his full-time assistant a mere six weeks before, until she had joined the station’s defense forces in response to the growing threat of pirates attacking the station.
Seeing her now, bright and happy in her new uniform, deep-brown hair in a short military style but still managing to nicely frame her pixie-like face … Rudolph once more experienced the sense of kinship her presence always triggered. Cami Frye was the closest thing to family he had on the station, essentially a foster daughter since her parents and his wife had died in the same accident, ten years before. It was that deep, emotional connection that drove him to believe she had been conned into joining Security, despite knowing it was something she’d not-so-secretly wanted for a long time.
He grudgingly admitted to himself that his opinion derived, in part, from the fact that Frye was now able to work for him only part of the time—her new commitments to drilling, training, and other station security duties took up the majority of her schedule. He sorely wished that those duties could be done by someone else. Not that station preparedness wasn’t important, he simply couldn’t live with the thought that Cami might be harmed.
With a sigh, he shoved those thoughts aside, once again facing the present’s harsh reality. “What is it, Cami?”
The young lieutenant took a step toward his desk and held out a data pad for him to look at. “We’ve detected explosions in the system, sir. They seem to be weapons fire. About six AU out.”
Rudolph took the reader but scarcely glanced at its display, instead tapping a request into his desktop terminal. He studied the answer to his request for a moment then sank back in his chair with a sigh.
“Today’s the day the Terran Space Military contingent is supposed to show up,” he muttered, more to himself than to Frye. “Looks like they’re here with a bang and a boom.”
“Sir?” Frye looked confused by the manager’s remark. “Who would they have to shoot at?”
Rudolph grunted derisively. “Pirates, what else?”
“But it’s been ages since the pirates have bothered us here at C!”
“Neglecting us doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten us,” Rudolph grunted. “My guess is that they arranged a special welcome for our new TSM guardians.”
Frye was taken aback at the thought. “But how would they know when the military would be arriving?”
“How do they know and do a lot of what they know and do?” The question was rhetorical; both manager and lieutenant knew that pirate behavior in the 16 Cygni system had become far more organized, far more ominous over the previous three years. The pirate successes reeked of inside information, though a leak had yet to be found in Outpost Station’s systems or personnel. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t one. Rudolph sighed again.
“Doesn’t matter, TSM is here now and it’s their problem. Hopefully we’ll all be able to sleep a bit better for it.”
Frye only shrugged.
“Cami, do me a favor if you would. Keep a watch on incoming transmissions. If the military is six AU out it’ll be a while before they’re in range to check in. I want to know the moment they contact us, even if they don’t specifically ask to talk to me.”
“Of course.” She accepted the data pad back, but paused before turning to leave.
Frye seemed to hesitate a moment before speaking. “I was just wondering if they sent everything that we asked for,” she finally asked in a soft voice.
Rudolph snorted. “A full squadron? Not likely. We’re too far out to rate that kind of firepower. But I was very clear that we need at least one boat for each star system. Three ships would be enough to make a big dent in the problem.”
“I hope you’re right,” was all the young lieutenant whispered in response, but there was a frown on her face as she turned to finally leave the director’s office. Rudolph stared after her retreating form for a long moment.
“I hope I’m right as well,” he finally muttered, then returned to the report he’d been working on when Frye had arrived.
“Current status, Ms. McInerny?”
“Freighter holding station at one mile off our port bow,” the scan tech responded without hesitation. “No sign of activity in or out of the system beyond local motion around Outpost Station.”
“How far are we from the station, Mr. Hellespont?”
“Just crossing to within one AU, Captain.”
Sydney nodded once and rose from her command chair. “Very good. Mr. Rieger—?”
“Station is responding even as we speak,” the comm tech acknowledged.
Sydney repressed a smile of pleasure at how good her crew was getting at anticipating her commands; it usually took crews a lot longer than this group had been together to work quite as efficiently. She hoped that it augured well for the success of her first command. “In my office once you have the manager available, Mr. Rieger,” she said as she rose to head in the direction of that retreat. “Mr. Garvey, you have the conn.”
“Conn, aye, Captain,” Garvey replied, lifting his eyes to give the command center a quick scan before resuming a conference onMorrigan’sdamaged hull with Hailey Kristoff.
Confident the bridge was in good hands Sydney quickly covered the remaining distance to her command office, located down a short corridor aft of the bridge. She entered the space with a renewed sense of satisfaction. It wasn’t large, of course—space was always at a premium on a vessel ofMorrigan’ssize—but it washers, a symbol of her authority on the ship as well as a retreat where she could close herself off from the crew to research, to contemplate ... to mull decisions which could at times mean life or death. A port hole adorned the far wall of the room, one of the few actual viewports thatMorriganpossessed; in front of that, facing the hatchway entrance, was Sydney’s small but efficient desk. Despite the standard, dull TSM gray of the walls she could almost make herself believe that she was where she had always wanted to be.
Which was why she had mounted a small, framed photograph of her previous ship, the TSMTecumseh, on the bulkhead next to the hatch—a reminder of the true state of her career.
Dismissing thoughts of anything but the present she rounded the desk and punched the button which connected her to bridge communications. “Station to my terminal at your convenience, Mr. Rieger.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” came Rieger’s voice, even as her terminal came alive. “The call is live, but the Station manager will be a few moments, yet.”
It was nearly a minute before a balding, middle-aged man appeared on her desktop terminal, glaring dolefully at her. Before she could even draw a breath to introduce herself the man snapped, “About damn time. We noted your weapons fire almost six hours ago. You dawdling on purpose or just taking the scenic route?”
Sydney clamped her mouth shut on the first comment which sprang into her mind, though she did feel her nostrils flare slightly as her temper flashed to easily match the station manager’s display of ire. To gain a moment she limited herself to asking, “Station Manager Rudolph, I presume?”
“Of course,” he snapped. “Who—”
“Manager Rudolph,” Sydney cut him off, “I am Captain Sydney Chambers, in command of the Terran Space Military cruiserCahan Morrigan.As you noted, we have arrived in the Cygni-C system. That weapons fire you observed was aimed at a group of pirates we happened on as they attempted to ransack a local freighter. We are currently engaged in escorting the freighter to Outpost Station.” She paused for a breath before adding, “I do apologize if our attention to duty has put a crimp in your schedule.”
Rudolph closed his eyes and breathed several times before visibly calming, then re-opening his eyes to regard Sydney through the comm link. “My apologies, Captain. While we’ve been plagued with increasing pirate activity for over three years now, this is only the second time that they’ve actually attacked here at Cyg C.” He drew another breath, then nodded once. “Of course you were only doing what you had to.”
“And we have only now come within one AU and hailing range, Mr. Rudolph. I wish that I could have appraised you of the attack sooner.”
“One AU?” Rudolph chuckled, apparently having calmed enough to find the comment humorous. “The 16 Cygni system may be a bit of a backwater, Captain, but Outpost Station is near state-of-the-art tech wise. Our station-based comm easily handles an AU-and-a-half without light-lag.” He added a smile. “Just for future reference.”
Sydney found herself oddly relieved at the manager’s change of mood. “So noted.”
“So now that you’re here, how many ships have you brought with you? I specified how many we needed, and I do hope that our TSM masters have been generous....” His voice trailed off at the frown that immediately etched itself on Sydney’s face.
“Manager Rudolph, your request was for assistance in dealing with a few pirates.”Morrigan’scaptain couldn’t keep the incredulity out of her voice. “How many ships do you think that should take?”
“Iaskedfor a squadron,” Rudolph replied testily. “Knowing command’s stinginess with hardware, though, I did allow that we could probably get by with one or two for each of our three star systems.”
Sydney found herself suddenly amused at Rudolph’s optimism. “So you’re expecting, what? Three ships? Six?”
“Something like that, yes.”
Sydney found herself staring at the earnest face of the station manager, a brief wave of irritation passing through her before she realized that a civilian such as Rudolph—even as a Confederate bureaucrat—could have no idea how TSM command viewed the 16 Cygni system. Schooling her face to as bland a look as possible she said, “Central Command sees the issue a bit differently, Manager Rudolph.Morriganis what you get.”
“Wha—” Rudolph was actually sputtering for a moment, unable to speak. “One ship?One?16 Cygni is atrinarysystem, Captain Chambers. That’s three complete star systems all wrapped up in one not-so-happy package. Almost three-and-a-half million cubic AU!” Sydney noted that his face had turned an alarming shade of red and was glad when the man paused for a breath. “What can one ship do against that?”
Sydney tried not to sound as offended as she felt. “One ship is capable of a lot more than you might imagine, Manager Rudolph. Admittedly, one ship cannot simultaneously be in all three sub-systems. But a thorough, slow, methodical, approach can, over the course of the next few months, bring the pirate beast to heel. Or so Central Command has assured me.
“Now, sir, that being said—let me be frank with you. To a certain extent I share your sense that Central Command tends to, ah …underestimateproblems on occasion.” Sydney watched for a long moment as the face of the man on her desktop screen changed from stunned to outraged to thoughtful. When she estimated that he was again in an emotional state to consider reason she continued, “I would add that, while I may see the logic of your argument, I can only follow the orders that I am given, with the resources that I have. So. Now that I’m here, why don’t you bring me up to speed on your estimation of the scope of the problem?”
Rather than the thoughtful response Sydney had hoped for Rudolph began to laugh, a laugh which grew until he seemed to be almost hysterical. “The scope ... of the problem,” he finally managed to gasp out, then panted for a long moment as he obviously fought to regain his composure. “Thescopeof the problem? The problem is as big as I said the whole damn system is, Captain! There are pirates at Cyg-A. There are pirates at Cyg-B, and now you tell me that you’ve found them attacking shipping even here at Cyg-C. There are pirates bloodyeverywherelately, out-thinking us, out-maneuvering us, out-fighting us—”
“Three ships,” Sydney interrupted the manager’s rant, “one large ship and two small scouts, are hardly indicative of the size of the problem, Director. Which is why I am asking for any and all intelligence you may have acquired regarding the strength of the pirate fleets.” She paused a beat before adding, “Just as an aside, we’d appreciate any help you can give us on identifying the markings on those ships so we’ll have a better idea which group they belonged to.”
Rudolph’s eyes flashed. “Belonged? As in, you blew them out of the sky?”
Sydney felt a taste of disquiet at the manager’s question. “No we did not ‘blow them out of the sky,’ though we did run them off. Our first priority is stopping pirate activity, of course, but a close second is gathering information—and that means taking prisoners. We did manage to secure captives from the group already on the freighter, but the more we can get the more we will learn.”
“Huh.” Rudolph drew a deep breath, then remained in silent thought for a moment. “I do wish that you’d blasted them, but still—your point about reeling in some creeps to question has merit. Well. Sorry if I sounded a bit nuts here a moment ago. I’ve been up to my neck in dealing with pirates for so long that I sometimes have trouble maintaining perspective. I’ll be happy to look at the ship markings you saw, Captain, and give you a complete briefing on the situation face to face, once you’re docked.”
“Thank you,” Sydney said. “I look forward to it.Morriganout.”
She had no sooner blanked her terminal than there was a knock at her doorway. “Captain?” When she looked up, she found Marine Sgt. Saans looking at her from just inside the hatch.
“Gunny,” the captain said with a smile. “Again, good work today. So what did the merchants have to say for themselves? You said they holed up in a safe room. That sounds a bit odd to me.”
“To me as well, Captain,” the sergeant began, “until they explained what’s going on. Safe rooms have apparently become SOP across the Cyg systems because it keeps ship personnel insulated from forced recruitment into the pirate ranks. Apparently that was a big problem until some of them developed the scheme a couple of years back—lock everything down so the bastards can’t make off with ship or crew but otherwise let ’em have whatever they want. Their captain says that killings and dragoonings are ’way down since most local merchants took to the tactic.”
“Huh.” Sydney thought it over and decided there was a certain rough logic to the idea. “Sound enough tactic, I suppose, if they’re willing to sacrifice profit for security. It does say a lot about the scope of the piracy problem here.” Suddenly pensive, Sydney stood and turned to gaze out of her porthole at the freighter riding a silent half mile offMorrigan’sbow. “The merchant say anything else that might help us get a handle on just how big our job might be?”
“Only that the pirates have been getting more and more brazen over the past year or so,” Saans told her. “He was pretty emphatic, though, about how rare it is to see attacks here in Cyg-C space.”
“Terrific.” Sydney grimaced as she stared out into the blackness. “It can’t be a coincidence that it happened just as we were scheduled to arrive. Someone has to have a line into TSM postings. Well, we didn’t come here for a vacation, did we? That’s all for now, Sergeant. Make sure your report gets to my desk as soon as your lieutenant signs off on it.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Sydney continued to stare into space until another polite knock and a cleared throat demanded her attention.
Morrigan’s executive officer was just outside her door when she turned from the port. “Ah? Oh, come in, XO.”
Garvey took one step through the hatch. “We’re inside of two hours from docking at Outpost Station, Captain. Should be on final approach in about ninety minutes.”
“Fine.” Sydney grimaced again, then took a moment to sit back at her desk before continuing. “I’m scheduled for a face-to-face with the station manager as soon after we dock as I can get to his office. Going to be just loads of fun. Anyway, that means I’ll be tied up for a good while, and we need to get on top of those repairs that Morrigan needs.”
“Understood. I’ve just spent half an hour with Lieutenant Kristoff working up a full list of what we need.”
“Good,” the captain acknowledged. “Stay on top of it. Use Kristoff and anyone else you need to track down a repair facility, or at least a parts depot. Despite Manager Rudolph’s glowing claim that Outpost Station is on the cutting edge of technology, I tend to doubt that they have a repair dock that can handle our needs.”
“No, Ma’am,” Garvey agreed, “it does not, at least not on the record. I’ll see what the locals can direct us to. From the number of ships registered to one Cygni planet or the other, there’s got to be some sort of dock facility somewhere in the three-system area.”
“I agree.” Sydney flicked on her terminal once more, and took a moment to pull up the same exterior shots of the hull that Garvey had been studying earlier. “Huh. Well, at least the damage isn’t debilitating. We can still do pretty much anything we have to, even if we are a bit low on sheet metal.”
The captain sighed. “Not an auspicious way to start a new posting. Still, it is what it is. Advise me when we’re docked.”
Sydney stared at the images of hull damage a while longer before again shutting the terminal off, and shaking her head in disgust. “Not an auspicious start at all,” she muttered.