Captain Morgan Blake had been thinking of fishing. For the past two weeks his ship had been on a secret mission, travelling alone on the edge of explored space with no contact with anyone save his two escort ships. It had been a quiet enough journey and he anticipated no problems. After all, he had a good crew and a new ship and ten years experience in space.
Blake commanded the United Earth Federation ship Archangel, one of the newest ships of the line, constructed earlier that year. The Archangel was a warship, and Blake pondered whether his crew imagined a more glorious duty than their courier mission. The ship still looked brand new, fitted out in the gleaming silver-grey and blue that was standard on UEF ships. Blake sat in the center seat, surrounded on all sides by bridge stations in an echo of the design of the bridge of an old submarine. The bridge was Spartan and functional. Even brand new it wasn't much to look at, and if Blake found his mind wandering, her was virtually certain his crew was climbing the polished metal walls.
They had been told very little of the particulars of their mission, merely what they needed to know to function and nothing more. They carried only one item of cargo, held in a triple-reinforced box in the most secure hold on the ship. The Archangel had been given a route that basically took it far away from any alien controlled sectors of space, friend and foe alike, travelling as inconspicuously as possible.
Blake sighed and reminded himself it wasn't a soldier's duty to understand and surveyed the star map. He'd be quite glad when the trip was over with and he could return to Earth and go fishing again. His fortieth birthday had been two months ago and he found the further he got from his youthful days the less hold the stars and the man's life of the UEF held over him.
Odd, he thought. How the sea of stars and the limitless galaxy has less appeal now than a quiet lake and a boat.
"Helmsman," he said to the officer seated at the station beside him. "What do you make of that nebula ahead of us?" Blake pointed to a swirling purple cloud just above their position.
"It's a N-2 nebula," the helmsman said. "Charged particles with in it irradiate the whole cloud, blank out most sensor suites that we know of."
"Any chance we can get a look inside it?" Blake asked. "See if anyone's waiting for us?"
"No sir," the Helmsman said. "As I said, the storms within would swamp most sensors. Anyone waiting inside for us would be blind. We could go right past them and they'd never know we were there. Anyone inside would probably have as much difficulty finding their way back out as targeting us, sir."
"All right," Blake said, easing back in his chair. "Have the escort ships come in and take up formation ahead of us. 6000 kilometers distance. We're passing through pirate territory so put us on condition 2 battle alert."
Bridge lights came on throughout the ship and officers manned weapons stations. Blake punched up a readout of the ship on a screen next to his chair, his eyes quickly reading readiness reports as they came in from all over the Archangel.
I've never known the pirates to hit something this big, he thought. But that could just be because no one's thought to send a heavily armed UEF battleship through their space.
* * *
As the Archangel passed underneath the nebula, they were being watched, unbeknownst to them by ship hiding at the very edge of the nebula, using it's cover to hide from their quarry as they unwittingly walked into a trap.
The ship was a stark contrast to the Archangel. While the Archangel was the pride of the UEF battle fleet, new and powerful, this ship was a crude patchwork of weapons and engines, held together with faith more than sound construction. Its shape was something like a cross between a wasp and vulture and it watched the ships below with the cold patience of a hawk watching a mouse.
On the bridge of this ship, three women stood alone. One sat in a forward seat; her arms slid into a control apparatus. Behind her sat another woman in the center seat and behind her stood another woman, the most mysterious of the three. Clad in an all-black bodysuit she seemed one part shadow and the other part specter.
It was she who spoke first.
"That's our ship," She said. Her voice was a cold mechanical monotone, precisely modulated to sound pleasant, but sounding distant and ghostly. In the spare light of the ship's bridge her pale white skin seemed to glow as did her pale yellow eyes.
"You sure?" The woman sitting beside her said. She brushed her pink and blue bangs aside and stood up. "How do you know it's not in one of the two escort ships?"
"I know," the ghostly woman responded coolly. "Have your ships draw the escort ships' fire and move us into an attack vector."
The other woman turned to her. "I'll be sure to do that," she said. 'Once I remind you who gives the orders here, Valcuria."
Valcuria dismissed her with a wave of her white-gloved hand, unimpressed. The woman next to her grit her teeth and pondered killing Valcuria for the sixth time this morning but decided against it, she had no time.
They were too busy hunting.
"Kilana," she said to the woman sitting at the control apparatus. "Take us in. Tell the Hydra and the Gorgon to move in on the escort ships. Bring our weapons online in case the ship decides to scramble fighters."
The ship slowly began to move free from the nebula, lurching out of the nebula cloud like a dark bird of prey.
* * *
"Sir," the Archangel's weapons officer said. "Our escort ships report hostile contact ahead." The weapons officer checked his readouts and communications reports. "Two ships--modified frigates."
"Pirates," Blake said. "Full battle alert--shields and weapons ready. Engineering, bring us up to half speed. Tell the escort ships to come into tight formation when we reach contact point--we're coming in shooting."
"Sir," Jonas Bryant, his executive officer said. "Shouldnít we scramble fighters?"
"Wouldnít do any good," Blake said. "This isnít a set-piece battle. The pirates don't have fighters and fighter weapons wonít penetrate their shields. They'd just be more things for them to shoot at. It's more important we reach the escort ships before the pirates cripple them."
The Archangel's engine cluster roared to life as it began picking up speed, unaware that they themselves were being stalked.
"Is there a danger the escort ships will be destroyed?" Bryant asked. Blake bit back the impatient rejoinder on the tip of his tongue. Bryant was good but untried. Blake had spent a week on the Frontier before protecting energy convoys from pirates. He knew their tactics like the back of his hand.
"No," Blake said. "Too valuable to the pirates. Their standard tactic is to attack a fleet, draw off ships one by one, cripple them and board them. Then they strip it down and take anything useful."
"You think they know about our cargo?"
"We donít even know what our cargo is," Blake said. "But if I were a raiding party down on their luck, three shiny new UEF ships would seem like a gift from God."
Klaxons suddenly erupted around them. "Report!" Blake demanded.
"Missile incoming," the weapons officer said. "Behind us."
"Launch countermeasures," Blake said.
The Archangel dropped a small pod full of metal particles behind them and the missile struck it and blew it to bits. Unfortunately this allowed another missile to scream past the deceived missile slam into the Archangel's shields.
"Another one," Blake said. "They're trying to overwhelm our shields and bring their big guns to bear."
"Do we turn and attack?" Bryant said. "Our offensive capabilities are limited showing our back to them."
"No," Blake said. "I won't hang the escort ships out to dry. Time to contact?"
"Four minutes, 22 seconds," the weapons officer said.
"Engine room, I need all you can give me," Blake said. "Full speed. We've got to close that gap."
* * *
"Down scope," the blue-haired woman said, pulling the handles on the scope's metal cylinder down to get a better view. "All right Valcuria--just where's our prize supposed to be?"
Valcuria indifferently brushed her red hair from her face. "The forward section," she said coldly. "The most protected part of the ship."
"The Hydra reports one of the escort ships destroyed," Kilana said, flicking her head to get her black hair out of her eyes. "The Gorgon's finishing off the other one. We can't break that ship's shields alone, Red."
The woman known as Pirate Red looked through the scope and sighed, her own eyes confirming what her sister had said. "Order the Hydra and the Gorgon to move in and attack the main ship. Long-range attacks only--just enough to weaken their shields and give us our shot."
Red looked from the scope to Valcuria. "Once the shields are weakened we'll take our shot. I hope your . . .people . . .are ready."
"They are," Valcuria said indifferently.
"Fine," Red said, looking through the scope. The Hydra and Gorgon were closing in and firing on the ship they continued to press their attack. "Kilana, bring up a scan of their shields. Let's see if we've opened up a weak point in their grid yet."
Red saw an overlay of the ship's shields pass over the ship like an orange cocoon. Parts of the overlay flashed red as the ship took more hits from Pirate Red's other ships. Her brown eyes narrowed on a weakening section just behind the bridge tower.
"That's our spot," Red said. "Kilana, give me a firing solution and charge the main gun."
Underneath their ship was slung a long needle-like weapon, the stinging end of the ship's wasp-shape. Machinery on the cylinder began to rotate--slow at first, then steadily gaining speed. Red's ship began a complex series of maneuvers designed to bring it into firing position.
"Fifteen seconds to power build," Kilana said. "Youíre right there, Red. Ten seconds."
"Arming," Red said. She quickly turned to Valcuria. You might want to sit down. This gun has quite a kick."
"Zero," Kilana said.
"Fire," Red said, squeezing the trigger.
* * *
The gun shot a bolt of energy at the Archangel, punching through its shields, it's armor plating and finally into the ship itself. Heat equivalent to the heart of a sun seared through the ship, straining the spaceframe and finally breaking the engine cluster free of the rest of the ship.
Blake held on to the arms of his seat as the blast rocked the ship. Alarms he hadn't even known were installed screeched out that the hull had been critically breached.
"REPORT!" Blake shouted over the noise of the alarms and the activity on the bridge.
"Sir, they've cut our engines," the weapons officer said. "Some kind of highly focused energy weapon. We're dead in space."
Blake was thrown from his chair and to the floor. He licked his lips and tasted blood. The engine cluster must have just gone up, he thought. We're crippled. As lucky shots go that was quite a good one.
Bryant picked himself up off the floor. "Activate our backup generators," he commanded the bridge crew. "Seal off the damaged areas as best you can."
"That won't last," Blake said. "Battery power can't hold us long enough to get a rescue."
Blake shook his head. "Our orders were to protect our cargo. That takes priority. Self-destruct would take care of us, not it." He pressed a series of buttons on his console. The alarms hushed as the attention signal activated.
"This is the captain," Blake said. "To anyone within the sound of my voice, this is my last order. Shortly our attackers will be sending boarding parties. I ask you as your captain to fight to the last man. We must not let these pirates take our ship. Message ends."
Blake closed the channel and turned to Bryant. "Get a fire team out there with the nuclear charges from the forward magazine," he said. "Clear them to entire the forward hold. Order them to plant the charges. Once they're clear we'll eject the section and remote detonate the cargo."
That'll leave us with decompression risk," Bryant said. "Never mind the radiation that'll bleed through our ship without shielding."
"Bryant," Blake said wearily. "You talk like the pirates will let us live long enough to die from the radiation."
* * *
"Order the Hydra and the Gorgon to grapple the forward section and begin boarding," Red said. "We'll enter from the starboard docking hatch."
Kilana nodded, bringing their ship alongside the wreckage and activating their grappling cables. Magnetic tethers snaked out and affixed themselves to the ruin of the ship.
"We've got it," Kilana said. "Extending our docking arms."
Red turned to Valcuria. "I assume your people are in position?"
"Yes," Valcuria said. "In fact, I just blew them out an airlock as we grappled on."
"You WHAT?" Red demanded.
"Calm yourself," Valcuria said. "My Iron Maidens have no need of oxygen and are protected against the hard vacuum of space. They'll have no trouble finding their own way in. Make sure your people stay far away from the forward hold. I'm certain there's plenty of things for you to scavenge while we retrieve the cargo."
Red grit her teeth and fixed Valcuria with a dirty look. While Valcuria had her uses and had certainly paid her very well, the ghostly android's smug superior attitude and cavalier indifference for anything not pertaining to her plans was grating even when Red was in one of her rare good moods.
She slid the scope up from her eyes and sighed. "I'm joining our troopers on the boarding party," Red announced. "Kilana, the bridge is yours." She walked toward her sister and bent over to whisper in her ear. "And keep your eyes on our guest would you?"
"You can either have the ship steered or have me take care of her, sister," Kilana whispered back. "Canít have both."
"All the same," Red said. "Keep her under guard. We took all the risk to get whatever this. I wonít stand for a double-cross."
"Only when we do it," Kilana said.
* * *
Aboard the Archangel, there was utter chaos.
The three ships had unloaded squad after squad of pirate troopers, which had rapidly burned their way through the airlocks and bulkheads and begun to stream into the ship, attacking the surviving members of the crew who had as Blake had ordered them, dug in for a fight.
While most of the surviving officers and crew of the Archangel had been trained and were better equipped than the average pirate trooper, the sheer number of the black, red, and white armored soldiers soon overwhelmed them.
Gradually the troopers were able to escape the corridors the Archangel's officers had pinned them down in and began marching towards the key areas of the ship. They hugged the walls, high speed beam rifles at the ready, the goggles in their helmets searching all spectra for signs of survivors. While their outward appearance was somewhat governed by necessity--a trooper's suit was both body armor and short-term spacesuit all in one, there was a curious aesthetic sense as well--each trooper's helmet was plumed with a horned hat with a red ponytail to echo the seagoing pirates of antiquity.
On a lower deck, closer to the forward section, a fire team clad in their spacesuits and covered by two more soldiers, rifles at the ready busy affixed small hemispherical charges to a heavy metal crate in the center of the hold.
One of the soldiers flanking them raised his weapon. "I've got movement twenty meters down the corridor," he said nervously. The soldier braced against the other wall nodded and raised his weapon, anticipating a squadron of troopers to come pouring through the corridor.
They were somewhat surprised that their hostiles were in fact women. Or rather, machines in the shape of women. Three of them--one cast in gold, one in silver, and one in a blued gunmetal. Their expressions were like statues, cold, and unfeeling, their empty eyes radiating the gaze of cold, unfeeling, machines.
The soldiers began firing, but the blue metallic woman stepped forward and held her hands up, palms outward. The energy bolts from the soldiers' weapons stopped short, as if striking an energy shield.
"Pull back," one of the soldiers said to the demolition team. "Seal yourself inside. We'll hold them here as long as we can."
The head of the demolition team nodded and ran into the hold as the soldiers braced themselves at the doorway. One of the demolition team pulled a panel off of the side of the doorway and began rapidly working a lever back and forth, closing the heavy blast doors and essentially trapping the soldiers outside.
The blue android ran forward, arms still out. The Soldiers felt themselves slammed against the wall by an invisible force barrier. The machine pressed forward, cracking the clear faceplate of their helmets and finally crushing every bone in their body. It shut off its force barrier and their dead bodies slumped against the wall as the golden and silver androids began to work at the blast door.
The demolition team completed their wiring of the detonators just in time. The blast door that they had just shut glowed white-hot and finally blew outward. The leader of the team pressed down on the remote detonator. The deadman switch would see to it that the cargo was destroyed even if they were killed, which he fully expected would happen.
The three androids ran into the hold, the golden one immediately running to the huge cargo container. The leader of the demolition team watched this and let go of the remote, fully expecting to immediately cease to exist.
Nothing happened. He quickly readied his beam rifle to attack, but before he could a glowing chain-like weapon sliced him in half. The other members of the demolition team were brutally disposed of as the golden android began pulling off the charges like a human would idly brush dandruff off their shoulder.
* * *
Pirate Red arrogantly strode onto the bridge of the Archangel flanked by her troopers. The crew had fought well enough, but most resistance was easily routed or eliminated. She stood out even more in the pale bright light of the ship, cutting an odd figure indeed in her black and red bodysuit. Despite looking more like a woman of the night than a commander of a pirate army looks, she commanded the respect of her troopers with her deeds more than her appearance.
Pirate Red had wrested control of the pirate clans with swift brutal action and united scattered groups under her own rule. She was generous with the spoils of a raid, but to her enemies she was cruel and capricious.
She looked around the bridge, which had been spared most of the damage thanks to its heavy armor and shielded location. There were three survivors on the bridge. The troopers had taken great delight in bayoneting the rest of them.
She looked around impatiently. "Where's the captain?"
"I am," Bryant said, stepping forward.
Red gestured to the trooper on her right. The trooper took aim and fired at Bryant, blasting a hole in his chest. Red stepped over his.
"You stepped up way too fast to be captain," Red said to the corpse. "Now, out of the two remaining, I'm guessing youíre the captain. You look old and smart."
She was pointing to Blake.
Blake nodded. "You can take the ship," he said. "But please--spare my crew."
"Your crew's fighting a bit too hard to be allowed to live. But we just came for something you have on board. We'll be gone in a second."
Red looked around and smiled. "I have to say, there's really no way I could have taken this ship in a straight-up fight," she said. "Fortunately for me I have the advantage of knowing this sector of space well enough to ambush you. Just as well: I hate fair fights anyway."
Valcuria stepped onto the bridge, looking with disdain at the bodies littering the bridge. It wasn't the barbarism with which they had been killed that bothered her, if anything that delighted her.
After all, she thought. By the time my plan is complete there will be far more dead humans than just these.
"Pirate Red," she said. "We've got what we came here for."
"Excellent," she replied. She looked at Blake and gestured to the trooper on her left. The trooper brought the butt of his rifle down on Blake's neck, driving him to the deck.
"Now, Captain, I--" Red began. Before she could finish her sentence, the last remaining member of the bridge crew fired at Valcuria, grazing her arm.
Before the troopers could react Valcuria seized the officer and raised him high above her head, flicking her wrist and casually snapping his neck. She slung him against the far bulkhead in a display of strength, the wet snapping of his spine as he hit confirming Blake's worst fears. He was now alone.
Red raised an eyebrow and nodded, genuinely impressed. Valcuria was an android, but she had rarely seen her display any physical power of her own. Red made a note of her strength.
For future reference.
"Now, as I was saying, we'll just be going now," she said to Blake. "But we'll be back. This ship of yours is full of all sorts of wonderful toys but since there's still a handful of your crew causing problems and we have what we really came for we figured we'd just pull back, flood this derelict with G3 gas and come back when youíre all nice, relaxed, and very dead."
"Chemical attacks are illegal," Blake said. "I've already offered to surrender--"
"Spare me the posturing Captain," Red said. "Do you honestly think I'm scared of breaking the law? Or violating some silly convention proscribing a gas attack?" She followed Valcuria out of the bridge door, stopping only to turn to a trooper on the way out. She looked back at Blake.
"Keep him alive," she said. "Open the vents and weld the door shut. He loves this ship so much, he can die with it."
"Yes, ma'am," the trooper said, following her out of the bridge in file with the rest of his squad. Blake watched the doors to the bridge slide shut and heard the soft hum of the doors being welded together.
He stood up, rubbing the bruised place on the back of his neck, sighed and straightened up, adjusting the tunic of his uniform and sitting in his chair, surrounded by the bodies of his crew.
They were a good crew on a good ship, he thought. It'll be an honor to die with them.
He closed his eyes and waited for the end.