Authors: Jay Allan
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Colonization, #First Contact, #Galactic Empire, #Military, #Space Marine, #Space Opera
For reasons human science had not yet fully explained, there were two small segments of elements on the periodic table that produced isotopes far more stable than those around them. The first island existed in the low-120s, and the elements in that range had half-lives of days and weeks, while those just before and after decayed in microseconds. But it was the second island that produced truly useful elements, with half-lives in the millions of years. These materials were still radioactive, though far less so than those outside the island. There was a plethora of uses for such heavy metals, but the most important was in spaceship drives, where even minute quantities could easily be converted to less-stable super-heavy elements and achieve critical mass almost instantaneously, with the release of enormous energies.
The elements in the second island had been known for over a century, but they had been produced only in the lab by particle accelerators. The process was almost incalculably expensive, at least when producing quantities useful for anything but research. It had been widely believed that no such element would be found in a naturally-occurring state, but that assertion had been proven profoundly wrong when a party of explorers discovered the first veins of the material on a frozen moon in the Beta Cariolis system.
No one had developed a credible hypothesis to explain why the material was found on a few rare—and in nine cases out of eleven—frigid worlds, but that didn’t stop the gold rush mentality every time a new source was found. And now Atlantia had its own priceless resource, one that promised to expand and invigorate the planet’s economy for generations to come.
That’s the future down in my hold, the promise of prosperity for millions of Atlantians
If it gets through.
was a strong ship, one of the best-armed in the Cavenaugh fleet. She was a match for most pirates, one of the reasons Marne had only been attacked once in the almost sixty trips he’d made as her captain. And the true nature of her cargo was a closely-guarded secret. When
returned, Marne knew he and his people would be fifteen minute celebrities, the guardians of the first delivery from the mines of Glaciem. Their single cargo run would double the value of Atlantia’s exports by itself, and the potential wealth from fully exploiting that frozen planet’s treasure was almost incalculable. Atlantians had long enjoyed their planet’s magnificent climate and almost unimaginable natural beauty, but soon they would feel the effects of an influx of real wealth, something none of them could have imagined just a few years before.
But fame, however fleeting, still lay ahead. For now, only a handful of people outside of the crew had any idea what the ship was carrying.
’s launch had been unexciting in appearance, just another run of routine pharmaceuticals to the eyes of anyone interested enough to pay attention.
Still, Marne had a bad feeling.
was bound for Arcadia, a four jump run from Atlantia, and one that didn’t involve passing through any high risk areas. But he couldn’t shake the discomfort that had plagued him since his ship’s launch. His cargo was classified, but he didn’t think much of peoples’ ability to keep secrets. All it would take was one bout of bragging by the pompous Elsworth IV or a politician’s loose lips in bed with his mistress, and the word would be out. And every pirate in Occupied Space would salivate at the chance to bag a cargo of STUs.
“How’s the scope?” Marne had been asking the question every half hour since he’d been on the bridge. It was a waste of time, he knew. The AI would warn them immediately of any contact. But it made him feel better to check. Epsilon-14 was a useless system, its three planets so utterly without value no one had ever maintained so much as an outpost there. It’s only use was as part of the quickest trade route between Atlantia and Arcadia…and Marne knew for a fact there were no Arcadian vessels scheduled for a run to Atlantia right now.
“Clear, Skipper. No contacts.” Durham didn’t sound bored or irritated as Marne knew he’d be if their roles were reversed.
Your paranoia has probably rubbed off on him. He’s been glancing down at the scope every few minutes for the past six hours, even when you haven’t asked
Cal Durham was a great executive officer, and Marne knew he was lucky to have him. He’d have sworn Durham was ex-navy, but he wasn’t. He was just one of those rare people who seemed born to spend their lives blasting through the depths of space, and he was an odds on favorite to secure a captain’s berth before long. Perhaps he’d even take over
one day soon.
Marne himself was close to retirement, perhaps another trip or two, and he’d be done. He’d spent a life in space, and as much as it so often seemed like home, he knew it wasn’t. In recent years his thoughts had focused more on the cost of a career like his. He was ready to hang up his captain’s uniform and try to repair some of the devastation his decades in space had wreaked on his personal life.
He had an estranged wife, one who’d tried for years to deal with the endless separations until she’d finally decided she just didn’t care anymore. And a son and a daughter he hardly knew, both grown now and harboring their own resentments for childhoods spent mostly without a father. He’d told himself there was still time, but he wasn’t sure he really believed it. They didn’t hate him, he was fairly certain of that. He hadn’t been an abusive monster, and his career had supported them all, including expensive educations for both children. They just didn’t know him, not really. He was like nothing to them, someone who should have been part of their lives, but for the most part, wasn’t. He suspected that might be harder to overcome than if he’d done something truly awful.
Forgiveness is one thing, difficult perhaps, but attainable.
But how does one overcome irrelevance?
“Skipper, I’m getting energy readings from the Wolf-441 warp gate.”
Marne snapped his head toward Durham, feeling his stomach clench as he did. “Full power to scanners, Cal. It’s probably nothing to worry about, but let’s make sure.” Marne didn’t believe that. He didn’t believe it for a second.
* * * * *
“Scanning report complete, Captain. It appears to be an Atlantian freighter—a fairly large one, approximately 150,000 tons displacement.” Lars Treven’s tone was mundane, professional, but it was lacking enthusiasm. Atlantian ships tended to be poor prizes. Other than an occasional shipment of some of the more sought-after of its pharmaceutical exports, the planet’s freighters were barely worth attacking.
“All hands to battlestations, Mister Treven. We have ourselves a target.” Ivan Yurich held back a smile at Treven’s lackluster tone. He knew his first mate was expecting a mundane cargo from the Atlantian ship, one that would barely cover the expedition’s costs. But Marne knew better.
He had been
captain for ten years, the first six as an independent pirate, and the last four as a member of the Black Flag Syndicate. He’d enjoyed being answerable to no one, but finally the Black Flag had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse—stunning upgrades for his ship at no cost and an ongoing intel feed leading him to the richest targets in Occupied Space. His recruitment hadn’t been all carrot, though. Significant stick had been in evidence as well, especially when his contact assured him, without any detectable emotion, that he’d walk out of their meeting a member of the syndicate…or with a bounty on his head so large, every pirate and adventurer in Occupied Space would be after him.
His ship’s name had simply been
when she bowed to the nomenclature of the shadowy organization. His new allies—masters?—had been true to their words, and the value of his ship’s prizes had increased dramatically. The Black Flag organization had provided access to better venues to sell booty as well, and even after kicking 40% of the take upstairs, his profitability was way up, more than double what it had been in his days as an independent.
The massive increase in prize money had other advantages as well, not the least of which was recruiting quality crew members. He’d managed to ease out some of his less capable people over the last few years, and now he had more veterans of the various navies than ever before. That made his crew old—anyone who had served in a Superpower’s navy was at least in his mid-fifties—but he found it to be a worthwhile trade. Younger crews were harder to control and more likely to do stupid things, while his combat veterans had lived long enough to appreciate a good situation.
ran much like a naval vessel, and that discipline showed in its extraordinary record of bagging major prizes.
Here was another example of the perks of being part of the Black Flag. Yurich didn’t think much more of Atlantian prizes than his first mate, but he’d been assured there would be a freighter in Epsilon-14, one carrying a cargo of enormous value. Stable trans-uranium elements, a treasure beyond gold, beyond jewels. It didn’t seem likely that an Atlantian ship would be carrying such a load, but four years of flawless intel had made a believer out of him. And it dovetailed with the vague rumors he’d heard that the Atlantians had discovered a source of the precious material somewhere in their solar system.
“The contact is sending us a message, Captain. They are identifying themselves as the Atlantian freighter
and requesting our ID.”
Yurich allowed a little of the repressed smile slip onto his lips. He loved the chase, enjoyed watching his prey slowly figure out the danger…and then try to flee. He hadn’t been particularly bloodthirsty as pirates go—it was more the excitement of the hunt that appealed to him, and he’d often allowed the crews of his targets to flee in whatever lifeboats or escape pods they had. But that was the past. The Black Flag had a few rules that were sacrosanct, and one of them was that no one got away. A valuable hostage might be taken here and there, but otherwise everyone got a bullet in the head or went out the airlock. Yurich had been uncomfortable with it at first, but he shocked himself with how quickly he’d adapted to being a cold blooded killer.
“Let her wonder who we are, Mister Treven. Bring us closer. Not a direct route, nothing that will make her bolt immediately.” He knew the freighter’s captain would be edgy to begin with, and the lack of a response to his communique would only make that worse. Pirates weren’t common in Epsilon-14, but neither was commercial traffic. It was only a matter of time—and not much of it—before his target blasted its engines and made a run for it. But that was of no account.
had thrust capacity no freighter could match. If she ran, Yulich’s ship would catch her. But it would be an easier raid if he could get closer before his prey took off.
Yurich looked down at his screen, calculating a course that would get his ship nearer without looking like it was closing to attack. “Three gees thrust, coordinates 076.098.223,” he said.
“Three gees, 076.098.223,” Treven snapped back. “Commencing now.”
Yurich heard the roar of
engines and felt the pressure pushing against him as his ship accelerated. “Activate needle guns.”
“All needlers report ready, Captain.”
had two laser cannons, but they were strictly for use in emergencies, when the ship found itself facing a dangerous opponent. The heavy weapons were too powerful, too indiscriminant for disabling potential prizes. Yurich’s ship had its needle guns for that. The needlers were a pirate’s weapon, thin, tightly focused beams designed to disable a ship without damaging its cargo.
Yurich stared at his display, watching the thrust slowly alter his ship’s vector. If the Atlantian vessel hesitated another few minutes,
would be on her before she could do anything about it.
“Reading thrust from the enemy ship, Captain. I’d estimate somewhere between 3g and 4g.” Treven lowered his face to his scope, and he paused for a few seconds. “It looks like they’re blasting almost directly away from us…back toward the Atlantia warp gate.”
Damn. This captain is on the ball. And that’s a lot of thrust for a freighter
“Change course to directly pursue. Increase thrust to 5g.” Five gees would make everyone on
profoundly miserable—and it would degrade their performance too. But he didn’t have any intention of letting that ship escape back to the Atlantia system. Not with the cargo he knew she had on board. This prize was worth a dozen normal raids, and Yurich was determined to get her.
* * * * *
“The vessel is changing its thrust vector, Captain. They are blasting directly toward us.” Durham looked up from his workstation toward Marne. “They’re accelerating at five gees, Captain.”
A cold feeling gripped Jackson Marne’s gut.
was maxed out just above 3g, and that meant she wasn’t going to make it back through the warp gate before the pirate caught her. And Marne didn’t have a doubt in his mind it was a pirate chasing them.
“Arm all weapons, prepare to engage.” His naval instincts took over, and he felt the exhilaration he’d experienced years before, when he’d served on one of the Alliance’s cruisers. But he’d been a junior officer then, with little responsibility beyond following orders. Now he was in command…and
was no Alliance warship. A pirate ship that could pull five gees was probably strong enough to defeat any freighter, even one as well-armed as
“Weapons armed, Captain.” Durham’s voice was shaky. Unlike Marne,
first mate had never served on a naval vessel, never encountered a pirate in his years on various freighters. Marne could see his number two was trying to muster his strength, just as he imagined the rest of the crew was doing. He knew one or two of his people had survived a pirate encounter before, but to his knowledge, he was the only naval veteran aboard.