Starship Fairfax: Chapter 2

I’m still working on the first draft of The Lunar Gambit (Starship Fairfax Book 1), so here is another chapter to whet your whistle! The first chapter is also available under Categories: Stories by Benjamin. Enjoy 😉

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Colonel Sand’s lower lip was propping up his upper lip, as if to keep the obvious frown at bay. He looked like he had just taken a bite of a sour old lemon. He started talking, and the sound washed over Lucas, void of meaning, just more of the same. You did this when you should have done that. Blah blah blah, not competent. Blah blah, not sure you understand the standard of leadership. Blah. Blah. Blah.

And then that magical, holy word: “But.”

“But,” Sand said, taking a deep breath, “my colleagues and I have conferred at length, and we have reached a decision, cadet.”

Lucas’ back straightened and he forced himself to look the older man in the eye. Here it was. His fate hung on the next few seconds.

“It was not unanimous, at first… but we have finally agreed to pass your combat command test, without reservations.”

The glory and exultation swept through him, followed by a sinking in the pit of his stomach. No reservations meant he would surely secure a command. Meant that sooner or later he would face the test again, but in the real world. With a real ship, and crew, and enemy.

“Please understand,” Sand continued. “Off the record? There are a number of reservations. You still have a lot to learn, kid.” He shook his head, smiling a little. “But those other scores. I’ll tell you something, Odin. Your dad would be a proud, proud man.”

Ah. So that was it. Of course Lucas’ excellent scores in every test except combat command may have factored in, but ultimately it was the ghost of his father pulling the strings. Even in death, the old man kept a vice-grip on his son’s destiny. How bittersweet.

Part of him had wanted to reject it, flat out. To tell Sand point-blank “thank you, but I cannot accept on the merit of a man I never knew.” But his sense of duty prevented it. Because the Kuiper colonies were under constant threat, and the fleet needed all the talent it could muster. And while fighting and flying may not have been his fortes, he still knew at the end of the day that he was a truly talented young man. The fleet could do what they wanted with his combat score. They needed his mind.

Now, a year later, after having served a term as Sand’s assistant and then shooting up to first officer on the Fairfax, Lucas was having second thoughts. Especially as he watched the two unidentified pirate ships grow on the view screen.

“Missiles ready, sir.” Caspar’s voice betrayed none of the nerves Lucas felt. Of course not. She lived for combat, thrived on the very thought of it. If anything, she sounded like she hoped things were about to get hot.

“Plasma charge ready, sir.” Lucas quirked an eyebrow. Even the noob gunner sounded more confident than he felt.

“Communications,” Harris said, apparently unbothered by the fact that he didn’t recognize the private at the comm console. “Send a message back to the Council’s embassy on Mars. Give them our coordinates, tell them we are being approached by two unidentified stag-class warships, likely pirates.”

“Uh, um.” The private fumbled his words, looking down at the console in confusion. “Our coordinates, sir?”

It was Harris’ turn to lift his brow, this time at Lucas. “Right, my apologies, sir.” Lucas shooed the private from the console and took his place.

“Too bad we aren’t hauling candy,” Harris muttered. “I hear that’s easy to take from babies.”

Lucas blushed and pulled up their coordinates, then punched in the message. Great. Now he was serving as the comm officer, and he was being derided by his captain. It was doing wonders for his self-esteem, he was sure.

A light flashed at his station. “Sir, we’re being hailed.”

Harris sat. “On screen.”

What appeared was a terribly backlit figure, the face bathed in shadow. When it spoke, the voice was clearly modified. Evidently the pirates had a flair for theatre. Either that, or a significant reason to hide their identity—something pirates usually didn’t hesitate to share. Helped with their notoriety.

“Starship Fairfax,” it said, a jumble of human voice, synthesized speech, and modulators. “You will disarm all weapons and prepare to be boarded. Failure to do so will result in your destruction. You will bring all munitions to your main cargo bay and leave it unattended. Failure to do so will result in your destruction.”

They wanted ammo? Lucas frowned. That hardly seemed worth the risk of threatening one of the Fleet’s flagship vessels. If a firefight got started, they would gamble away everything they were hoping to gain. And probably their lives.

“This is Captain Jonathan Harris. We will do no such thing.” Harris’ voice was hard as steel. “You haven’t the power to back up the threat. And we are here on behalf of the Kuiper Council, backed with the full authority of the Colonies. Unidentified captain, I order you on their behalf to surrender yourself to me unconditionally. We will receive your shuttle peacefully.”

The altered voice laughed, a strange sound through the filter. “We will give you another minute for your scans to bring you up to speed on the situation. I’m sure you will find our terms the more reasonable.”

“Sir.” Randall turned to face the chair. “Sock has detected two Armageddon-class weapons.”

Harris was silent for a moment. Then he sniffed. “Unidentified vessel, it seems you are harboring highly illegal materials on board. You should be shot out of the sky for that.”

“Yes,” the voice responded. “Probably. But now we all know you’re in no position to do that, have you reconsidered our generous offer?”

“I have,” Harris growled. “Portside bay will be ready in ten minutes. Harris out.”

———–

Lucas wiped his sweaty palms on the sides of his pants for what seemed like the hundredth time, then hoisted the crate of small munitions with a grunt. He bit the sound off. Wouldn’t do for the crew to see him struggling to do his part. The whole point of being down here was so they could see him lead by example. Most of the ammo was being rolled down the corridors to the cargo bay by automation, but there wasn’t time to let Sock take care of all of it. They were down to good old fashioned grunt-work.

“Join the Fleet, they said.” A young voice strained to grumble. Lucas turned and saw the kid, Private Tompkins, bending under the weight of his own crate. “It’ll be fun, they said. Glory. Girls. Where was I when they read the fine print about hard labor?”

“Stow it, Gunner.” Lucas grit his teeth and held his breath to keep from showing his own lack of physical fitness as he passed the Private, who was ambling down the hall beside another young officer.

“Yes sir, Officer Odin, sir. And it’s Private Tompkins, sir.”

“Uh huh.”

“Uh, hey, sir?” Tompkins shuffled a little faster to catch up. Lucas heard metal clink against metal from inside the Private’s crate, and winced.

“What’s on your mind, kid?” He blew out some air, unable to hold it in any longer. Oh well. Anyone who’d been on the training deck at the same time as he had been knew he wasn’t in gladiatorial shape, anyway.

“Well, it’s kinda funny, don’t you think?”

“The notion of you, thinking?” Lucas quirked an eyebrow. “Yeah, it’s pretty funny.”

“Oh, good one, sir.” Tompkins shifted the crate in his arms and it clinked again. “I mean, it’s funny that a couple of pirate tugs would risk tussling with the Fairfax over nothing but a few missiles. You know?”

Lucas frowned again, both at the crate and at the notion he’d shared with the kid. The sound of a door hissing open behind him startled him so much he almost dropped his ammo—would have, if Tompkins hadn’t reached out and steadied him with one hand. Lucas turned and saw Taurius, the Martian Ambassador, peering out. He had seen the pale, sun-starved face when they had brought him on board, of course, but it was still a shock. The man looked like a corpse. He supposed that must be normal for someone who had lived all their life underground. At least out in the far belt they had rigged a system of reflecting stones to dole out the distant sunlight. Taurius had only ever known florescent light. The near-translucent hue of his skin was accented by his deep purple robes. Ceremonial? Or just pajamas?

“Something the matter, Officer?” Taurius’ accent was harsh and clipped, reminding Lucas of the distance humanity had come to live in the Belt. He shook his head, suddenly aware he had been staring at the Ambassador.

“Nothing to do with our mission, sir. Just a… an inconvenience.”

Tompkins leaned over his crate and grinned like an idiot. “Pirates,” he whispered gleefully. Lucas would have shoved him if he hadn’t been hauling sixty pounds of light ammo. Taurius’ eyes widened.

“It’s nothing to do with the Summit, sir.” Lucas bumped Tomkins, nudging him out of the line of Taurius’ sight. “You should be safe in your quarters. But for good measure, I recommend you keep the door shut and lay low for an hour or two. I can comm you to let you know when we are back on track.”

Taurius nodded and disappeared back into his room, the door hissing closed again. Lucas glared at Tompkins, ready to tear into him for butting in and scaring the ambassador. But Tompkins was already moving again. He called back to Lucas over his shoulder.

“Good thing I was so alert, huh sir? You should really be more careful when carrying munitions. Almost dropped the whole payload. But aww, don’t worry. I know you’ve got a lot on your mind.”

Lucas ground his teeth once more and followed down the corridor.

————–

The loading bay was a mess. Trailers of heavy ammo skated in on tracks run by Sock, taking up a large chunk of space near the hangar doors. Crewmen carried crate after crate in, looked around, and, despairing of any system, set them down haphazardly. Lucas grimaced.

“Gunner, help me stack these up.”

Tompkins joined him and they began organizing the smaller crates along a back wall. “So how’d you do it, sir?” The Private tried to stay casual, but excitement churned in his voice.

Ah. The mods.

It must have been eating the kid alive. He clearly knew a thing or two about simulators, so he probably realized the kind of modifications he had seen up on the bridge were strictly prohibited from use on Fleet ships. And every Ship’s Operating Computer was programmed to prevent their implementation. For an answer, Lucas stepped up to the nearest dispensary—they were ubiquitous onboard the Fairfax—and ordered a drink. “Sock, club soda. Neat.”

“Order confirmed,” the computer chirped. “Salt-rubbed okra meat.” A few seconds later, a ding, and Lucas took and held out the steaming vegetable to the kid. It had been peeled down and rubbed with sea-salt.

“Hope you like your greens, Gunner.”

Tompkins looked in confusion at the okra. Then it dawned on him.

“That was your backdoor? The dispensaries? That’s how you got around Sock’s firewall and—”

Lucas stopped his mouth with the vegetable. “Learn to keep a secret. And don’t complain about whatever Sock gives you. Apparently there’s some glitch; work order’s been in for weeks but it’s backed up in a wash of technical gobbledy-guck.” He winked subtly and turned around, sighing. There were a lot more crates to move.

“Unidentified shuttle approaching,” Sock announced. “Clear hangar for decompression. Arrival imminent.”

“Officer Odin?” The voice that came over Lucas’ comm didn’t belong to Harris.

“Randall? The Captain with you?”

“Ah, no sir.” Randall sounded even more scattered than usual. “Not actually sure where he is at the moment. But nevermind that. He ordered me to tell you to clear the loading bay as soon as that shuttle showed up. So, ah, clear the bay, sir. Please.”

At least Lucas wasn’t the only one feeling a little out of his element.

“Rodger that, Randall.”

He spent the next minute getting everyone else back out the double doors and away from the bay. He was about to turn and leave when Sock announced the shuttle had landed. He peered through the triple-shielded windows of the decompression chamber to catch a glimpse of their mystery visitors. The nondescript shuttle that touched down gave nothing away—could have been ex-military, could have been civilian. Nothing fancy. The chamber pressurized and three thugs hopped out—tall, broad-shouldered, and masked.

Hmm. He wasn’t getting many clues.

“Think they’re really pirates?” Tompkins stood at his shoulder.

“Why you still here, Gunner?” Lucas frowned at the Private.

“Odin!” He turned to the sound of his name whispered urgently and saw the Captain crouching behind a stack of crates, a pistol at his belt and a shock rifle in his hands. A couple of security privates knelt behind him, armed to the teeth. “Get down!”

Lucas sank to his knees behind his own crates, pulling Tomkins down with him. “Captain,” he whispered. “What are you doing? What’s the plan?”

“Bay doors open,” Sock announced, and the decompression room’s inner doors opened. Harris held a finger to his lips and shook his head. Too late to explain now. They were in a combat situation. Lucas’ stomach rolled. He reached for his belt and felt his own shock pistol there, took it out, turned the safety off, and cursed under his breath.

The loading bay floor gleamed like polished steel, it had been kept so meticulously clean. Harris ran a tight, clean ship. If he couldn’t have a senior staff, the least he could have was a clean floor. Many a Private had watched the hours go by while sweeping and scrubbing, even though Sock was equipped for the job. The Captain believed a little elbow grease was good for one’s character. Now Lucas alternated between looking at the floor to watch the reflection of Harris, who had dodged behind his crates, and peering over the edge of his own crate to keep an eye on their guests.

It felt like an endurably long time, squatting there, doing nothing but trying to breath as quietly as possible while the masked men loaded up crate after crate onto their little freight shuttle. It was amazing the thing still had any room for them to sit, especially given the size of some of the crates. The men grunted as they lifted one together that looked long enough to carry a body. It was close to the Captain and his men. Surely any second now he would give a signal and they would open fire. Lucas forced himself to breathe through his nose and tried to slow his heart rate. He watched them carry the long crate, his eye catching a bit of purple fabric caught in the lid—

Lucas spotted movement from the corner of his eye and glanced down to the floor see the reflection of the third pirate as the man squatted down to lift a nearby crate. That wasn’t good. If Lucas could see his reflection around the crates, the man could doubtless see his. He sucked in his breath and silently told himself to remain perfectly still. All that moved were his eyes.

It must have been enough.

The man dropped back two steps, lifted his rifle to his shoulder, and dropped to one knee. “Show yourself!” His voice was masked but commanding.

Tompkins chose that moment to arm himself and see if he could get the pirate in his sights. Idiot. The pirate fired a warning shot over his head, the plasma round hot enough to warm Lucas’ skin. The gun was set to kill.

“Wait!” Lucas held his pistol out at arm’s length and began to slowly rise to his feet. “Wait, don’t shoot him. He’s just a dumb kid. Here.” He set his pistol down on the crate in front of him, then put his hands up.

The masked man glared at the crate that still hid Tompkins. “Him too.” Lucas caught the private’s eye and nodded. Slowly, Tompkins joined him.

“Two bogies, sir.” The man with the gun reported to one of the others as they joined him. Lucas quirked an eyebrow. Were pirates usually so professional sounding?

One of the men stepped forward, obviously in command. He looked Lucas and Tompkins over, then waved a hand at Lucas. “Waste this one.”

Tompkins cussed. Lucas closed his eyes and waited for the sound of the shot that would end his life.

Cover Reveal: Starship Fairfax, Book I: The Lunar Gambit

I’ve decided to entitle my upcoming science fiction novel The Lunar Gambit! This will be Book I in The Starship Fairfax, a series of at least three (we’ll see how those do and decide from there) military science fiction adventures. I’m happy to reveal my working cover for Book I, which, should all go to plan, be completed a month from now. Come back and check for updates!

01 The Lunar Gambit.jpg

Starship Fairfax: Chapter 1

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.
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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.”

“Aye, sir.”

“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.

To him.

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.”

“Aye, sir.”

“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.”