Lucas Odin woke up with a start and held himself perfectly still, taking a moment to catch his breath and remind himself of where he was. He wasn’t sitting in the captain’s chair on the bridge. Not yet, anyway. He was still in his bunk in his tiny first-officer’s quarters, barely able to stretch out to his full length. His heart slowed to a normal pace as the nightmare left him. No, the Fairfax wasn’t falling apart in the depths of space; no alarms were sounding, no emergency lights flared. Everything was perfectly fine. He sat up and slapped his forehead against the bulkhead over his bunk.
Well, almost everything.
He hadn’t anticipated how deep his anxiety would run when he had accepted the first-officer promotion the month before. In hindsight, that surprised him. On paper, Lucas was the obvious choice for a command position. His grades had been flawless at the academy. Nearly all of his test scores were off the charts. He came from a good lineage, he had been on starships all his life, and he was loyal to the Council. But there was a world of difference between paper and reality. The sort of ‘I can’t survive a barrel roll in a fighter without losing my breakfast and lunch all over the console’ difference. His combat command test had shown that clearly enough.
He shrugged his deep blue uniform shirt over his gaunt shoulders and began fumbling with the buttons, admitting to himself that his was the realm of the mind, not the body. Lucas Odin now held one of the most coveted positions in the Kuiper Fleet, first officer beneath the venerable Captain Jonathan Harris of the Starship Fairfax, one of their flagships, and he was a total, irredeemably nerdy and hopelessly unathletic geek.
A beep sounded from the com unit in his wall. “First Officer Odin to the bridge,” the computer announced.
“Be right there,” Lucas mumbled beneath his breath.
“Order confirmed,” the computer chirped. “Tea éclair.”
“Oh, good grief, Sock.” Lucas slid into his shoes as the cabinet beside his door hummed to life. A few seconds later there was a beep, announcing the arrival of his tea-flavored pastry. He frowned as he shoved it into his mouth on his way out the door. Green tea and French pastries didn’t mix, he decided.
The bridge doors hissed open as Lucas swallowed the last bit of éclair. He cleared his throat and strode through, thinking, as he always did when he saw the captain’s chair, of his father.
“Captain.” He saluted. Harris shot him a cursory glance and waved his hand, turning his attention back to the console in front of him.
“Frosting on your lapel, Odin.”
Lucas fought a blush and brushed the white frosted crumbs from his collar, clearing his throat again. He really needed to stop eating whatever the Ship’s Operating Computer sent him. But he hated the thought of waste.
“Sock, status.” The captain raised his voice, gruff but resonant. The computer beeped and replied.
“Mission objective: convey Martian Ambassador Taurius to the Council of Kuiper on Pluto. Status: Ambassador Taurius secured. En route to Pluto. Arrival in four days, thirteen hours, nine minutes, eight-point-two seconds.”
“Thank you, Sock.” Captain Harris turned to look at Lucas again. “Sounds like you can probably handle things from here. I believe I’m due for a nap.” He ran a weathered hand over his face and stifled a yawn. Lucas watched the tight skin of his cheeks stretch and snap back into place, and wondered if the older man had ever smiled in his life.
“Sir,” he acknowledged. With a nod, Harris rose and left the bridge.
After the doors closed behind the Captain, Lucas meandered toward the chair. “Lieutenant Caspar.” He bent over the console and pretended to study the screens very seriously. “Where is the ambassador now?”
The munitions officer turned to face him, a smile playing in her blue eyes. “Resting in the luxury suite, sir.”
Lucas nodded. “Randall? What about Sock’s path? Any cause for concern?”
The helmsman shook his head. “Looks good, sir. ETA on point. Should skim beneath the belt with no difficulty. Beyond, open seas.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Lucas settled into the chair, felt its weight envelope him for just a moment, suffocating. He straightened his back and breathed. “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have a planet to save.”
“Yes, sir!” The helmsman’s fingers flew over his console, pulling up a subroutine embedded deep within the Sock. “Program is ready,” he said.
Lucas smiled. “On screen.”
In an instant the bridge went from calm and quiet to a mish-mash of blinking red lights, emergency sirens, and a chaotic scene on the view-screen. Directly ahead Lucas saw the alien blue and white swirl of Earth, the mother-planet. A shadow fell over the surface, followed by the hulking body of the enemy ship, an otherworldly creation of twisted metal and effervescent tentacles, like some strange deep-sea creature. A quick series of three beeps sounded, and Sock’s voice came over the speakers.
“Enemy missiles detected. Impact in twelve, eleven, ten…”
“Tactical, where are our countermissiles?” Lucas’ voice was tight, brimming with the excitement of command and near-certain failure. If they were going to go up in a ball of flame, the least he could do was ensure their enemy joined them.
The screen at his console flared to life and showed a wave of perhaps a dozen red dots homing in on their position. Nuclear, each one. If they couldn’t stop the barrage, they were all going to die.
“Countermissiles away, sir.” Caspar’s smile was gone, replaced with a hard look of focus. But the fire hadn’t left her eyes.
The enemy missiles appeared first on the main screen, a blur of space-junk appearing out of the void between them and the alien craft. Then their own defensive munitions rose up from beneath the bridge, and for a moment everyone held their breath in utter silence. The hiss of the bridge doors were deafening. Two privates stood there, unmoving for a moment, their eyes glued to the screen. Lucas caught them out of the corner of his eye and suppressed a smile.
“What’s your business, gentlemen?” Lucas called around without turning. Let them think the first officer was too busy keeping them alive to give them his full attention—why not? But he turned to face the kids after a few more seconds of silence. “State your business!”
“Ah, ah, sir!” One of the privates fumbled through a salute. “I, umm… that is… excuse me sir,” he shook his head in disbelief, “but what’s going on?”
“War game.” The other private hadn’t taken his eyes from the view screen. His voice was full of awe. “But I’ve never seen one like this. Where did you get this footage?”
The screen lit up in a flurry of explosions as their countermissiles slammed into the enemy offensive, stopping it cold in the dead of space. A cheer went up from the bridge. Lucas allowed himself a tight smile, then circled back to the privates.
“Gentlemen, either take a station or get off my bridge. Things are a little hot up here, as you can see.”
The young men glanced at each other, smiled, and each ran to take one of empty stations—second gunner here, a comm station there. Lucas nodded and turned back to face his crew.
“Lieutenant, report.” His voice was sure now—now that they’d survived the first attack. It was their first time calculating the countermissiles correctly. Usually they were shredded to bits by now.
“Nuke stores depleted by ten percent. Second battery loading. Ready for launch in point-five minutes.”
Lucas watched his Lieutenant as her hands flew over her console. She was the best in the fleet. But could they sit another thirty seconds in open space before they were ready to fight again? And how could they take the offensive? The edge of the moon crept onto the right side of the view-screen, cratered and luminous.
“Helmsman.” He turned his gaze back to the screen. “Hard to starboard.”
“A feint, sir?” Randall too began punching in a sequence.
“A gambit.” Lucas gripped the arms of his chair as the pressure of the tight turn weighed him down.
“Sick mods,” the excited private whispered from his gunning station.
“Gunner.” Lucas turned his head toward the private.
“It’s Private Tompkins, sir.”
“Sure. How are the rotary guns looking? Ready to roll?”
Tomkins’ eyebrows met his hairline, then he began searching for the guns on his console. Lucas could understand the kid’s confusion. Rotary guns weren’t a feature of the actual Fairfax; the fleet assumed a ship her size would rely on nukes and non-nuclear missiles. Anymore, guns were usually reserved for fighters. And fighters weren’t seen that often in the Kuiper Fleet.
“Ah, yes, sir.” The kid smiled confidently, still focused on his console. “Rotaries up and ready at will.”
“Good work. Be ready on my mark. We’ve got a squid to skewer.”
“How about my nukes, Lieutenant?”
Caspar smirked and shifted her gaze from her console to the view screen. “Ready to fry some fish, sir.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Lucas engaged the safety harness that pulled him tighter still into the chair. Ahead the view screen showed the darkened back of the moon, her surface a blur as they flew around. It was such a textbook maneuver he was surprised it was actually working. “Alright, people, strap yourselves in. As soon as we get a visual, helm, break us out of this slingshot, Lieutenant, give them the next battery, and Gunner, get ready to strafe with everything we’ve got.”
His crew muttered their “aye, sirs,” and he took a deep breath to calm his nerves. This was it. This was his moment, his chance to finally break the cycle of failure and claim the glory, honor, and success that belonged to the Fairfax. To his crew.
His knuckles whitened from gripping the chair, his breath quickened. They were almost there now, he could see the blinking dot of the enemy on his tactical console. They were seconds away, then a second, and then—
The view screen flared to life with a glaring sun as they emerged from behind the moon, and for a moment everything was reduced to blinding light. But he knew they were there. Had to be.
“Now, now, now!” he yelled. He was thrust back into his chair as Randall took them out of the lunar slingshot. Everything tipped.
“Bombs away!” Caspar’s voice was elated. It was the first time she’d gotten a volley off before the enemy. Now they had the initiative. And it was a beautiful sight. Their nukes rose up and jettisoned out into space in an immaculate row, like perfectly trained field soldiers, each one a destroyer of worlds. Tactical showed the enemy ship get their shots out, but they couldn’t have anticipated the guns that would follow. Lucas bit his lip to keep from grinning like a teenager at a gaming conference. This game was almost over, and they had the ace.
Then Sock spoke up. “Enemy missiles detected portside. Impact in seven, six, five…”
“What?” Caspar shot Lucas a look, incredulous. On his console he saw the little red blips appear behind them. He sat, staring.
“How…?” He slumped in the chair.
“Sir.” Caspar cleared her throat. “Permission to jettison trash chutes.”
Her voice was so distant. Everything was. The flashing red lights blurred around him, and that familiar sickening knot—the same that had visited him in his first three failed attempts to pass the combat command test at the academy—tightened in his stomach. In the end, he’d passed his last shot by the skin of his teeth, and everyone there knew that had only been because the faculty had felt sorry for him and had justified themselves because of his other scores. But here and now? This was just another colossal failure.
“Sir!” Caspar was on her feet now, leaning over his console. He shook himself from his stupor, too late. Sock’s voice was all too chipper for the news she delivered.
“Three, two, one. Impact. Destruction complete, game over. Goodbye.” The screen flashed off and was replaced with the void through which they sailed. Lights and sirens abated. Caspar cursed and returned to her seat, cracking her knuckles on the way. Lucas unstrapped his harness.
“Next time.” Randall seemed the only crewman up to optimism, even if a little forced. “That was better than ever, sir. Next time they’re ours.”
Lucas wasn’t sure when that would be. He was tired of failing in front of his crew. They were tired of it too, he could tell.
His reverie was broken by Sock’s voice. “Unidentified ships ahead, closing.” He glanced up at the screen and thought he saw a distant shape reflecting starlight out into the void. His console lit up with two little blips, dead ahead.
“Captain on the bridge,” Sock announced. The doors slid open and the crew all rose to their feet, Lucas with them.
“Sir.” He saluted. Captain Harris returned it and took his chair. His face was even grimmer than usual as he studied his console. After a moment he cleared his throat.
“All missiles ready, Lieutenant.”
“Gunner, spin up the plasma charge.”
Tompkins turned to face the captain, the question on his lips. Lucas caught his eye and shook his head. The kid returned to his console and began calling up the plasma charger. No point letting the captain know they had been playing their heavily modded game on the bridge just seconds before.
“Sir,” he said. “Are we expecting a fight?”
Harris let out a sigh through his nose, frowning up at the view screen. The distant shapes had coalesced into two distinct vessels, their bodies sleek and fierce. “If I had to place a bet, yes. Expect a fight.”
“Any idea what we’re dealing with here?”
The captain nodded, his eyes never leaving the view. “Pirates.”