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 😉
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, 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.