Star Dragon 13
by Michael Ender
Created in the United States of America
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This book is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events or locales, is entirely coincidental.
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© 2016 Michael Robb Mathias Jr.
All Rights Reserved
DSW – SD13 (Deep Space Warcraft – Star Dragon 13)
Near Resource Planet, RP64
5.9 years from Earth
First Officer Adrianna Archa had never felt such oppressive darkness. Captain Jaggen had just given the order to go “Full Gone.” Their deep space stealth fighter disappeared from view half a second after it cleared the cargo door they’d eased out of.
There was a tight cluster of other, seemingly identical, SD ships moving purposefully out of the other side of the mothership. They could be seen as dots on a projected 3D grid display that dominated SD13’s flight deck interior. The other crews hadn’t noticed Star Dragon 13, nor would they. The ship slowly left the protection of the massive research and discovery craft known as Mother Dragon 3 and settled into an observatory position. Then the grid display flickered off, and they were supposedly fully invisible to all known forms of detection. It was the blackest sort of darkness. First Officer Archa couldn’t even see her tightly gloved hand in front of her face.
Star Dragon 13 was their ship. The thirteenth of a dozen, which meant no one but a select few even knew it existed. It was the advanced prototype. It was undetectable by any known enemy tech, to include their own. Star Dragons one through twelve didn’t have the stealth features, nor did they have the anti-matter drive that had just replaced 13’s original hyperthrust generator. The others, which still had the old drive system, were fast, highly maneuverable, and deadly, but they couldn’t catch 13 if they had to.
Long and narrow, the base shape of the SD fighter series reminded Adrianna, not of the mythical beasts they were named after, but of a dart. She could see the resemblance to the dragons of Earth lore; the long neck of the ship and the head-like flight deck at the very front, tilted slightly down. It had ports that looked like eyes, with a narrowed glaz unibrow, and a widening, wing-like body. Two turret cannons, one on top and one on the bottom, at the back of the ship between the wings, would have looked like bubbles, in fact they had on the earlier prototypes. The engineers eventually encased the gunner orbs into the ship’s body and made them fully remote. Now the blaster housings looked more like hatch doors. The gunners used helmet screens and spinning turret simulators, which Officer Archa knew was fine with them. The system could be used in stealth mode, because all the heat and light signatures were contained within the turret station and neither of the gunners were stuck in a glaz bubble looking out face to face at the Floskian’s wicked looking warships.
The three others who made up 13’s five-person crew were at their posts. Two Adrianna knew, handsome Bubbinger “Bubby” Billington and Davrial Nicksal were the gunners. They were in those turret simulators now, ready to use the powerful pulse blasters, if ordered.
The other sat at a station similar to Adrianna’s, but she was just a girl of barely fourteen years, and she was sniffling and full of fear in the flight deck’s pitch blackness.
“There is no crying, Kadri,” Captain Jaggen whispered. “I know you are young, but you were chosen to your position for a reason.”
“Yes, sir.” The girl sniffled again. Adrianna couldn’t see them, but she imagined Kadri stiffening her spine and trying to focus.
“Look,” Adrianna said. She pointed out the thick, glaz at what was going on outside, even though she knew none of them could see her hand.
The other fighters were lined up in two rows of six, one row above the other. Their exterior lights could be seen illuminating the exterior of the ship on either side of them. It;s the opposite of stealth, Adrianna thought.
Were they on display? For who?
Around them, the soft glow from Resource Planet 64 reflecting light from a distant star, made the empty space outside seem less dark than 13’s interior.
The twelve ships moved in perfect sync, twisting, rolling, and reversing direction, all with ease and grace. The commander piloting Dragon Star 1 controlled them all for this series of maneuvers, she knew. There was no way twelve humans, or even hybrids, could move their ships in unison with such perfection.
It was definitely a display of some sort, she decided. But for what, or who, she had no idea. Why they were even out here with the others was a mystery, for up until now, they had done their training on 13 in secret when the other crews were doing long-sleep exercises, or away ranging.
Adrianna saw something gray beyond the maneuvering SDs. It was a frightening sight, especially as the size of it became clearer. A massive destroyer watched the ships from the darkness. Panic shot through her. She went to grab the intercom to tell the other ships it was there, but Captain Jaggen startled her with his quickness and caught her reaching arm. He was a hybrid, and his ability to see with little to no light inside the ship was uncanny. But then there was a flash. Star Dragon 4 exploded and the interior of 13 was momentarily filled with orange light.
The whirling illumination showed her captain’s face. She would have expected to find horror there, or shock. But his look was somber, as if the death of five people they’d sometimes trained with, under the cover of being the Star Dragon alternate crew, meant little. As if it had been expected even.
Two more of the Legion’s prized fighters exploded, and First Officer Archa fought to get her hand away from the captain’s. There was an icy knot in her stomach that felt almost exactly like Kadri’s whining howl sounded.
More of the ships burst into white-orange balls of flame and debris. She saw Captain Jaggen reach for something clipped at his waist. It was an explosive, she knew. A self-destruct grenade clipped to his belt. He was going to blow their ship to protect the technology from the enemy.
“No,” she pleaded. “We’re in stealth.” She managed to slap him with her left hand. It was awkward and weak, but it got his attention. “They can’t see us as they can the others.”
“I don’t want to die yet,” Kadri whined.
A larger booming sound and a wave of heavy vibration swept over them when Mother Dragon 3 jumped away. It was no surprise. There were over six hundred lives aboard the massive vessel; six hundred of the brightest minds the humans and hybrids had left. There was no way they could be risked over a handful.
Realization that she was right about the tech washed over the captain’s stricken face. “I already clicked the fail safe,” he said as he let go of her arm and dove against the closed hatch that led out of the flight deck to the bunk hall that filled the long neck of the craft.
The explosion that followed made her ears go. For a few long moments, the concussion left her stunned and confused. She turned away from the bloody, half-pulped stain that had just been her superior and watched as more of the seemingly defenseless Star Dragon fighters were destroyed by the lone Floskian battleship, or maybe their own captains. The only reason they hadn’t exploded with the others was that Jaggen had kept the self-destruct explosion away from the control panel, where it would have set off the
There were no light signatures from weaponry. Nor were there laser, pulse, or plasma signatures coming from the huge destroyer. In fact, she hadn’t seen the Floskian ship make an aggressive move at all.
Protocol one: Destroy the tech lest it fall into the hands of the enemy.
She’d recited and read that phrase a thousand times or more.
It didn’t make sense, though. None of it did. Her head was scrambled from just seeing Captain Jaggen ruined by his own act, but nevertheless, one thought stayed with her as she faltered and collapsed.
Why hadn’t Mother Dragon 3 known the Floskian ship was there? Or had they?
Why hadn’t Kadri’s sensors picked it up?
The repetitive humming sound of a muted system alarm went off. Adrianna opened her eyes and saw that Captain Jaggen was a ruin. It hadn’t been a dream., He’d minimized his self-destruct explosion by putting the device between himself and a thick hatch door and curling tightly around it. More importantly he’d kept the blast from penetrating the drive console, which contained lines running to the pressure tanks in the rear of the ship. If it had been breached their ship would be space dust now.
His body was a mess, and Kadri was sobbing, probably trying her hardest not to look each time the exploding fuel tanks outside lent them light. The man had saved them, though, and that wasn’t lost on Adrianna.
Seeing that the terrified younger girl was still at her station, Adrianna started going through protocol.
“What warnings are indicated?” she asked. “Focus on what we have to do to survive, Kadri,” she added when the girl didn’t immediately respond. “Look at the screen and tell me what warnings are indicated.”
Kadri sniffled and did as she was told. In the poor light from the screen that flickered to life, it looked like one of the girl’s ear holes was bleeding.
“We are not breached at all. We-we—.” She spoke really loud, looking up just as the last of the twelve Star Dragon fighters exploded.
Adrianna saw hope in her eyes. “Our only irreparable damage is the hatch. We will have to reroute some wiring that was scorched before we use the new drive again, though. And we will have to manually open and close the lid, if it will se-se-seal.” She started sobbing again after glancing at the bloody mess at the base of the hatch door, but this time she didn’t let herself lose it.
Kadri flipped a switch and the repetitive humming sound stopped. There was some black smoke hovering head high on the flight deck, and it smelled like burnt silicon, a smell that Adrianna hated.
“Thank you. Vent the deck as soon as the Floskian ship is out of proximity, then use the landing thrusters to take us down into planet 64’s orbital ring.” She gave Kadri the most reassuring look she could muster, but there was so little light she doubted it was seen. “While we wait, call the guys back up. There is no need for them on the blasters. We couldn’t penetrate that damned thing’s shields if we had to.”
“What the frakkin’ hell?” Bubby asked as he forced his way in through the broken hatch door. His helmet light must have found all the blood.
“Shhhh,” Kadri said, hushing him. He acknowledged her warning and moved around the half-blocked door to better see the captain’s corpse.
“He started to blow us up, but then he saved us when he realized our stealth hadn’t been compromised,” Adrianna explained. She was still in shock over seeing sixty people die while they hid helplessly.
“Why didn’t you tell us to fire?” Davrial asked. He stepped around Bubby, took off his helmet, and winced when he saw the body. He pushed his brown bangs out of his blue-eyed face. He was the thicker and more fit of the two, but tall, thin, dark-haired Bubby was an abstract genius with eyes as amber-brown as syrup.
“They’d see us if we did,” Kadri said. “But they are leaving. They scanned our area and missed us completely. We still haven’t been detected.”
That wasn’t true, Adrianna knew. A careful review of the recorded data would probably reveal a flash of light out through 13’s flight deck glaz from the captain’s explosion, but she doubted the Floskian Command would be reviewing the data that closely. Only a stealth specialist like her would think to do such a thing.
Again, the question of how the Floskian battleship came so close to MD3 without being detected tickled her mind.
Do the Floskians have the same tech?
“Mark it,” Adrianna ordered.
Davrial hurried to his non-combat station and, after flipping a switch that lit up his area with the softest illumination a human could see by, he put a virtual tracking tag on the alien craft. “Now we can follow it and—”
“We can track it as we settle into orbit and stay undetected,” Adrianna was surprised at the conviction of her tone. “We have repairs to make before we do anything else.”
She was surprised when both of the gunners gave her a salute, showing they now accepted her as 13’s commanding officer. Davrial’s look was begrudging, as if he didn’t like the lack of retaliation. In the light from Davrial’s station, Bubby looked as sincere, as he was pale.
“After you have it locked in, Dav.” She used his light to navigate the deck while she went on. “Can you help Bubby bag the captain’s body.”
Once they were all busy, she let out a long sigh and sat in the captain’s chair. She had no idea what to do, but she was glad the flight deck wasn’t tightly quartered.
MD3’s jump location was a mystery, but they would probably come looking for 13 unless they sensed the captain’s explosion and figured the ship derelict. Even then, there would be an attempt at salvaging the antimatter drive and the stealth tech. There was a whole engineering team on MD3 dedicated solely to SD13.
They would search.
She also figured that only a female could manage the rest of the captain’s gory mess so she added. “I’ll clean up the blood.”
The idea of it disgusted her, but one of the few things she remembered of her mother was her saying that, “Men can’t clean messes, but they sure can make them.”
That was back when her life was wonderful. Those early years full of hope and dreams were something that she sometimes cherished. Looking back was bittersweet, though. Once she turned eight, her parents quickly shattered all her illusions.
She found the absorbent talc, and the power vac and, after the guys had both parts of the captain’s body in the black bag and zipped up, she told them to go vacuum seal it and put it in cold storage.
While she sprinkled absorbing powder over all the blood, she thought about her childhood. It was better than thinking about seeing half a hundred people you respected killed before your eyes.
A few days after her eighth birthday party—and it was literally the birthday party to end all birthday parties—her parents sold her to the Legion for credits. There she joined a few hundred other eight, nine, and ten year olds and began prepping for deep space travel.
It took six years to make the full trip out, and like Kadri, Adrianna had arrived in the deep, a scared fourteen year-old girl with six years of rigorous training under her belt.
They were the lucky ones.
The girls who didn’t excel in one needed skill or another were eventually culled and would become what they all called breeders. There were colonies to be filled, economies to build, and trade routes to be established, after all. Babies were a much needed commodity, and with the adaption gene implant now available, hybrids better suited to low gravity were being birthed left and right.
Hybrids didn’t need nearly as much oxygen and, since their muscles had never known true gravity, the gene implant strengthened them in the places most needed. But to what end, Adrianna hadn’t decided yet. The hybrids were the preferred laborers of the deep, nothing more. She’d long since decided that the Legion, with all its spread life propaganda was really something darker and not so wholesome. It was a great and powerful machine and it needed lives, who needed things, so that it could gather the resources needed to deliver them.
Some of the gore wasn’t just blood, and Adrianna nearly vomited when she had to stuff the more solid parts and pieces into a vac-sac. The rest was absorbed and vacuumed or scrubbed clean when she made a few passes the old fashioned way, using a hand brush and a rag.
“That’s odd,” Bubby said from his non-com station. He didn’t wait for anyone to ask him what he was talking about before elaborating. “There was no chatter. Not between the SDs”
“What about between the SDs and Mother?”
“Nothing but a single ‘Go’ command at the beginning.” He gave Kadri a questioning look.
The younger crew member had gotten ahold of herself. She glanced at her screens and gave him a nod. Adrianna had noticed that the two of them often communicated like that, as if they could either project their thoughts or read the other’s. It made her shiver. One thing was clear, when Bubby was in her proximity, Kadri felt safer. Adrianna doubted she’d ever feel comfortable around an older female ever again.
Once your mother sells you, trusting another woman was iffy at best.
When she finished cleaning up the blood, she excused herself to go get cleaned up. “Start diagnostics and get out the tool kit,” she said after checking to see that they were gliding around the Resource Planet within the debris ring.
She knew that here they were undetectable even without their stealth tech. Here they were just another chunk of ore in the ring.
It took the better part of a day to fix the wiring, but it was done. Adrianna felt everyone’s sorrow and allowed them a full shift of rest. She slept, too, and dreamed of that wonderful eighth birthday party and how the clowns and elephant had delighted her. One clown had made balloon animals, and another had a little dog that leapt through a hoop no matter how high, or which direction, the clown asked it to jump. She’d never loved her parents more than on that day, and then, after the party, her father left on business, as he often did. Three days later, her mother dropped her off at the Legion office.
She’d never seen either of them again, and didn’t expect to. A familiar ember of hatred flared to life in her chest. She didn’t really want to ever see them again.
She was a woman now, nineteen years old, beautiful and in control. Mommy and Daddy were not able to hurt her crushed heart because it died somewhere between that eighth birthday party and the day, eight years later, when she made officer.
She woke in a cold sweat. Down the neck of 13, each side of the passage had three tiny bunk rooms. Being that it was a five person crew, the captain’s compartment was twice the size of the other four. Each had a sliding partition that gave them privacy, a personal vacuflush was near the foot of the bunk, and a small desk at the head. There was storage netting along the top, and the area under the bunks had been turned into a locker where one could keep private things. Only this was a stealth craft, and no private items were permitted beyond those of a religious nature.
Adrianna wondered what Kadri’s story was. Had her parents sold her, too? She opened the partition of her compartment and decided to go talk to the girl. The guys needed sleep. They’d worked long, nerve-wracking hours rewiring the antimatter drive. It was the sort of job where one wrong brush, one accidental multi-optic flash, could have turned the power of the engine into a momentary black hole of sorts.
“Kadri?” She knocked lightly on the girl’s partition.
A moment later it slid open and she was invited in.
“Tea?” Kadri asked.
“Sure.” Kadri’s compartment was neat. The bunk was pillowed into a sofa so Adrianna sat at the foot, noticing the fiberboard vacuflush cover. There were three simul-flame candles burning there. It smelled like spring, unlike her room, which smelled like a crappy bunk room on a deep space craft.
“Are those candles regulation?” she asked, not intending to be interrogatory. “I don’t care,” she stammered, seeing the girl’s suddenly confused face. “I’m not asking so I can write you up or anything. I want one. My bunk mostly smells like feet.” She grinned and laughed, trying to settle the young legionnaire.
“They are regulation, but not for this purpose, ma’am,” Kadri answered, handing her a cup full of steaming tea. “They don’t just smell good, they eat odor causing particles.” She stepped onto her bed, and it reminded Adrianna what it was like to be a tiny girl in a big bunk room. Those days had been full of fear and hope, but for her it was the opposite now. Kadri stepped back down and handed her two of the sticks. “They are here to be used by whoever is running the sanitary incinerator to avoid particulate infection. I grabbed an extra box from supply.” She seemed to grow excited. “Am I in trouble, Captain?”
“No.” Adrianna sighed. “And I am not a captain yet.”
“Technically, your title is now Acting Captain, ma’am,” Kadri corrected. “Do you like it?”
It took Adrianna a moment to realize she was asking about the tea, not her new title. She sipped and found it to be very good.
“Bubby doesn’t use his when they are in the ration packs. It take three bags to make one good pot so the tea is only this good maybe twice a week.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Adrianna decided that she liked Kadri. She also liked Bubby, but that was another thing. “you can have my tea bags, too, but I want to share a cup with you every now and then. I like the insta-mud.”
“Oh, then you can have these,” Adrianna looked at what the girl pulled out from under her bunk and it was like looking at a large sum of money or a remarkable treasure. There, in an unsealed vacsac, was at least a hundred instant coffine packets. She took them with a grin and downed her tea. Using the hot water spigot, she filled the cup with steaming liquid and emptied the contents of two coffine packages into the cup. She sat beside Kadri and took a tentative sip, then a deeper one.
“One packet a day just isn’t enough.” Adrianna savored another sip, then noted they should be getting to the flight deck soon. “What’s your story?” she asked Kadri, who seemed pleased Adrianna enjoyed the gift.
“You mean before the Legion?”
“Nothing much.” She shrugged. “I had an older brother that my parents didn’t pass off so we always thought it wouldn’t happen to me.” Sadness overtook her expression, but then it instantly disappeared. “I have a twin sister stationed on RP35. She is an aqualogist.”
“A sister.” Adrianna couldn’t imagine having a sister. “I had the best eight birthday party a girl could ever dream of, and then bam, I was doing pushups and taking tests.”
“That stinks,” Kadri said and gave her a sisterly hug. “Do you want me to go run a scan? Should I ping Mother?””
“Don’t ping anything yet.” Adrianna said a little sharper than she intended. “I’m coming up with you, after I stash these.”
“Good,” Kadri gave her a tight smile. “I can’t open the hatch by myself anymore.”
“There is a ship skirting the belt,” Kadri said in the near dark, “but it isn’t a Legion craft.”
“Have they detected us? What kind of ship?” Adrianna asked. Who would be out here? Hell, she didn’t even know why they were out here?
“I’m reviewing our proximity sensors now.” Kadri was very good at her job when she wasn’t rattled, Adrianna decided. It gave her confidence. This was a solid crew.
“No,” the girl’s voice was sure. “They passed us over twice. They are looking for something, but I don’t think it’s us.”
“Or it is us they hunt, and we are so well hidden they must keep looking.” Adrianna didn’t like it and had hoped to jump away from the area soon, but now they had to wait. “Keep an eye on them and tell me if anything changes. I’m going to sit here and review the captain’s log and see if there are coordinates for an emergency jump or a rendezvous or something.”
After a few minutes of flipping through screens of technical reports, each with its own frustratingly long time, date, and personnel number tag, she saw a set of coordinates. After programming in the numbers, the 3D map showed her the location they represented. She was absolutely sure it wasn’t a Legion rendezvous point, not for a top secret stealth fighter like 13, for it was a location very near the busy trade planet Benk Zahnka. She thought it was most likely one of the notoriously rough planet’s six moons and, as she zoomed in, she saw she was correct.
The coordinates marked Mog Zeeka the smallest moon, which also happened to be the moon farthest away from Benk Zahnka’s base power structure. Adrianna wasn’t inclined to go there. If rumors were even half true, it was a haven for rough, outer orbit satellite crews, smugglers, pirates, and scavengers. She figured three more days, sitting right where they were, would give mother plenty of time to send a probe.
She continued going through the log, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized that, since their stealth tech was actually working, they could rendezvous anywhere. But the LC couldn’t detect them, could they? Common sense told her that Legion Command had a locator somewhere on this ship and that at least one huge head, as Captain Jaggen used to call them, knew exactly where this expensive fighter ship was at all times.
Common sense also said they should stay hidden and wait, but a shadow of doubt crept in and, for a split second, Adrianna had the sense that maybe LC did know where they were, had known, and even sent them intentionally into the danger.
Had Captain Jaggen followed through, and not curled his mass around the self-destruct device, the SD series would have been erased. Adrianna wasn’t so sure that wasn’t how yesterday was supposed to end.
“Who is out there creeping around the belt?” Davrial asked. She turned and saw that Bubby was right behind him, and that Davrial hadn’t been talking to her, but to Kadri.
“I think it is a planet based Rock Picker, but the sensors show it has a long range drive system.”
“It is probably a retired Legion ship.” Bubby shrugged. “Should we go visible and hail them?”
“Go visible?” Adrianna shook her head. What?
“We have to go visible and act like we are just a standard SD fighter that survived.” Bubby scratched his chin. “Don’t we?”
“We are not making contact,” Adrianna said. “I’m not fully certain we weren’t sent right into that mess yesterday. Anyone who knew Captain Jaggen knew he wouldn’t hesitate to activate his self-destruct.”
“That’s crazy,” Davrial said.
“She may be right, Dav,” Bubby backed her up, which made her all the more confident in her assessment. But that wasn’t a good thing.
“I was wondering why we were even out there yesterday,” Bubby said. “And then that ship just glided out of the darkness. It was like those twelve ships were bait. And I understand we have you to thank for slapping some sense into Jaggen.”
“I appreciate that,” Davrial agreed. “If he’d uncorked the head of this dragon, the tanks would have lost pressure but wouldn’t have exploded like the other ships. Our drive would have imploded and pulled apart the planet we’re orbiting.”
“So you guys agree that we saw SDs being self-destructed yesterday, not attacked?” She was relieved that Davrial nodded his agreement. “I didn’t see a single blast, or plasma pulse, from that wicked looking battleship, and neither did our sensors.”
“The ‘Go’ command given when it all started raised my curiosity,” Bubby said. “While we were rewiring the drive, I ran some diagnostics on the debris cloud out there.”
She thought she knew what she was about to hear, but the fact that Bubby had already thought about it, and ran the screens, was a testament to his genius. Thinking about him that way was a testament to her emotion though, so she harrumphed and got a hold of herself as he went on.
“There was only one pilot. The other ships were flying remotely, under his control.”
“Did you run a DNA scan on the particle cloud?” Davrial asked.
“The scan showed it was that older pilot, Captain Siddex,” Bubby explained. “The one who always called us tech dependent brats. He had full 13 clearance.”
“Why was he—” the look that had just come over Bubby and Davrial’s faces, as they saw something outside the glaz behind her, made Adrianna turn.
The ship that had been cruising around the belt hovered right before them. They could see right into the small craft’s well illuminated interior. The helmeted people inside still hadn’t figured out what they’d detected, and there wasn’t much time to make a decision. Adrianna was about to give the order to blast them. Keeping the tech secret was still top protocol. Then Adrianna saw three incoming streaks of green beyond them and knew that Legion fighters were on the way. Being that they were in a triangular attack formation, she wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not.
“To your non-com stations,” she snapped. “Now! Back to Full Gone, interior and all, but be ready to outfly those Legion hyper thrusters.”
“Why are we fleeing,” Kadri asked.
“Just trust her,” Bubby said, and Kadri looked back at her screens, which dimmed with the floor lights.
The darkness that formed around them was absolute, but even though Adrianna could no longer see herself, or anything immediately around her, she could see out the glaz.
“I think the scavengers are about to die,” Bubby said.
“They are,” Adrianna whispered, “because the Legion thinks they are us.”
“What?” Davrial hissed.
“We were supposed—”
“Yes.” She cut Bubby off, but the word was spoken so softly she wasn’t sure she said it aloud.
Outside 13’s glaz, she watched the three Legion starships come to a hover behind the ship that had just figured out they were more than just a chunk of ore.
“If they indicate they’ve detected us, you out fly them,” Adrianna ordered. “Do not fire on the Legion, even if they fire on us.”
“Why would they fire on us” Davrial asked, trying his best to stay quiet.
To Adrianna’s surprise, it was Kadri who answered. Bubby had figured out the disturbing revelation, she knew, but maybe not the viable solution she thought she’d just come up with.
“The other ships were bait,” Kadri whispered. “The Captain’s self-destruct was supposed to blow our antimatter drives yesterday.”
“I still don’t get it,” Davrial’s voice was loud enough to trip a sensor on the junker scoping their area, but it didn’t matter. One of the Legion ships fired on the vessel. A pulse of green-colored energy streaked right into its main thrust vent and the whole craft exploded into a dull gray cloud.
Adrianna wondered if they’d sensed Davrial’s voice, or the Legion ships behind them. By the way the helmeted people inside the junker had been observing them, they probably hadn’t known they were about to die. She hoped her end was as swift, for she understood she and the crew were probably wanted for treason now.
“Someone knew Captain Jaggen would follow protocol, as the other ships were doing when the cloaked Floskian showed itself.” Bubby whispered. Adrianna couldn’t see him, but she knew he watched the Legion ships to see if they were being detected. “Our antimatter drive was supposed to implode and destroy the Floskian’s ship. Captain Siddex and the twelve other SDs were the bait. Jaggen’s predictability was the trap spring.”
Adrianna let out a sigh of relief when the Legion ships turned and left their area. Maybe there wasn’t a tracking device on 13.
“They were going to let the captain blow 13 just to destroy that Floskian?” Davrial seemed to be getting it now.
“By not destroying 13, we went against protocol,” Adrianna spoke in a normal tone. The Legion ships were almost out of sight already. “I—”
“We are guilty of treason and will be ejected alive,” Bubby said.
“No we won’t.” Kadri sobbed. “Tell them, Captain Archa. You have a plan, right?”
Actually, she did, and she was about to blurt it out when Bubby cut her off. She wasn’t sure she like being called Captain Archa, though. Bubby was about to elaborate, she could tell by the way he drew in his breath. She brought the lights up to minimal and put her hand over his mouth before he could start.
“We were supposed to blow up so our implosion would destroy that enemy ship. Instead, we used our training and our tech, which they clearly did not detect. The Legion can still achieve that end.”
“But how?” Davrial asked.
“She had you tag it,” Bubby said. “We can track them.”
“Exactly.” Adrianna wasn’t sure if what she said next was true or not, but it needed to be said, if only to keep Davrial and Kadri from losing focus. “If we can return with 13 intact, and show them we tagged that beast, they will see our wit and worth. We might be cleared.”
“We might be clea—” Adrianna’s hand found Bubby’s mouth again. For such a handsome genius, he had little control of what came out of his mouth. Unfortunately, Adrianna knew he and Kadri had some sort of thought connection for he never had to tell her what he was thinking, and now she was sobbing.
“So do we hail them?” Bubby asked after taking a moment to calm Kadri.
“First, we make sure our tag is active and trackable,” she looked at Bubby and Davrial in turn, trying to take them in. Despite all his intellect, Bubby wore his emotions on his sleeve, but Davrial was a lot harder to read. He was steady though, and Adrianna knew he wasn’t slow-witted. He just didn’t want her to believe that they were so easily expendable.
Bubby moved her hand, and she tried but couldn’t disregard the tingle of attraction his touch sent prickling across her skin. “It is active,” he said. “What now?”
“Where is it?” she asked. “We either go destroy it ourselves, or we turn over our information and hope that the judges see our intent was not to break protocol.”
“I say we destroy it,” Davrial said. His opinion was no surprise for he always opted for aggression. “If we are nothing more than living weapons for the Legion, I do not want to return and face those judges until we have at least corrected our error.”
“He is right,” Kadri and Bubby said at the same time. Bubby was the only one who continued though. “If we return now, nothing we say can take away the possibility—in their eyes, I mean—that we acted out of cowardice and fear.”
“I’m no coward,” Davrial growled. “Jaggen did what he did while we were at station.”
“None of us are cowards.” Adrianna hushed them. “We did not flee. We did not break com silence or lose Legion tech to the Floskians. In fact, I will argue that what we did do saved the Legion our drive system and the stealth tech.” She looked at them, barely able to see any of their expressions. “But I have to agree, if we go back without showing we understood the trap, we will either be judged as traitors, cowards, or as ignorant.”
“Then let’s go destroy that tub and show our worth,” Davrial blurted. “Bubby knows how to make an antimatter implosive that will swallow that Floskian destroyer whole.”
“It won’t swallow that whole beast, and it would turn us into little more than particles if we can’t get away fast enough,” Bubby added.
“How?” Adriahnna asked, but something about the moment made another knot twist in her gut.
“I can use one of our two extra hydrogen capsules,” Bubby started. “The antimatter correlative to hydrogen is the passive antihydrogen atom. A positively charged positron orbiting a negatively charged antipro—”
“I meant, how did you learn this?” Adrianna was confused now. “Did someone from Mother teach you this or did you figure it out yourself?”
“You are asking if anyone on Mother knows that I can do this?” he asked.
Bubby slid the bar that controlled SD13’s interior lighting up enough that she could see his face. His expression showed he’d just thought of what she had.
“No one knows I can do it,” he said, “but a lot of the engineers and scientists on Mother could probably do the same thing, if they thought about it. This is the basic foundation of antimatter tech. The reaction happens so fast, though, that they had to stop using hydrogen and find a slower reacting atom. I mean this is centuries old information from back on Earth.”
“It will blow so fast we can’t get away after we launch it at them?” asked Davrial.
“We can’t launch antihydrogen at them,” Bubby said as if this should be common knowledge. “The vacuum my device would cause won’t have enough range to destroy that whole destroyer. We would have to place it on their ship, near their drive system, and detonate it from a distance. It would disable their engines and, if we are lucky, breach their hull enough that they lose all their heliox and suffocate.”
“They will have escape pods,” Kadri interjected, giving Adrianna a new idea. An idea she wasn’t ready to share with the others yet because it hadn’t fully formed and was ludicrous at best.
“It is decided then,” Adrainna said. “Put the destroyer on the proximity display and bring 13 closer. How long to mak—”
“Not long,” Bubby answered, and she thought he, too, might have grasped the not so new idea she’d just had. “We will have to land on its hull, drop the device, and then jump away as we detonate. Even though the antihydrogen will only pull in a ten meter chunk of that tub, it may drag other unconnected objects into the hole.” He winked at her and added, “We can jump right back after matter equalizes our disturbance.”
The last bit made her think he might have grasped what she was thinking, but she couldn’t be sure. She hadn’t thought about the logistics, or the ramifications yet, but she knew that one sure way to avoid being ejected alive by the Legion’s judges was to have something they would covet.
“Kadri, send all the outboard digital from the moment we left Mother until the Legion fighters left our range and make the files available in the captain’s compartment.”
“Yes, Captain Archa,” she responded. Apparently Bubby’s hopeful mindset was keeping the girl calm. “Audio too?”
“All the digital,” Bubby told her. “And Dav, I mean Gunner Nicksal, I will need everything about that Floskian you can assemble.” Bubby was second in command now, and Adrianna was growing more confident that he was thinking what she was thinking, or at least something similar.
“Reconstruct that tub,” commanded Bubby. “I’ll need visual reconstruction of its full exterior as well as any interior structure you can pull from what we have.”
When Bubby gave Dav the order, Davrial didn’t look too happy that Bubby now had rank over him, but he listened. He then started tapping the touchscreen at his station so hard and fast that the sound reminded Adrianna of the noise Earth rain made on the thin metal roof of her parents back porch.
In Captain Jaggen’s cabin, she found he had followed protocol to the letter, and since he’d been born in space as a hybrid, he’d had no Earthly religious ties, and thus there was nothing personal there at all.
The captain’s compartment was exactly twice the size of the crew compartments and it had a small table with a three dimensional renderer built into it. On the flat top display screen, the two dozen files she wanted to review already waited.
She touched one of the file icons and a two-dimensional screen appeared over the table. This was the view looking behind SD13. Mother Dragon 3 was displayed, and Adrianna watched as they glided away from her when they’d departed above and behind the twelve doomed SD ships.
In the past, the Legion had fought terrible battles with the Floskians, mostly over resource planets, or so they’d been told. Even heliox breathing creatures from the farthest reaches of man’s imagination needed water, minerals, and ore to survive. The difference, she’d learned by thinking beyond what they’d all been taught, was that the Floskians needed some of the rare substances to stay alive, whereas the Legion gathered and sold them to the growing colony populations, mostly just to make everyone’s lives more luxurious, and of course for profit.
The Legion had long since discovered planets that could sustain animal and plant growth. She’d seen firsthand once, MD3’s vast cargo hold full of food stuffs. There was enough to sustain Mother and her crew for a century or more. Water was easily created. There was hydrogen and oxygen available in abundance. Combining them to form liquid was simple, but other minerals and ores the Legion and its manufacturers used to make structures, vehicles, devices, and all the little niceties that the colonists wanted or thought they needed, were also sought by the Floskians for a more base need. Survival.
She saw nothing telling in the scene that was unfolding on her display so she clicked another icon. This one was the forward view that would show her what she had already seen, only there were three forward facing data retainers. From all three views, a three-dimensional rendering could be formed.
The flat viewing screen flickered away. It was replaced by the sight of twelve SDs easing into formation. She watched this part raptly. She hadn’t known when they were leaving Mother Dragon 3 that there were no crews aboard the ships, only a single man. Watching it was easier knowing this. She watched until the first SD exploded and was amazed that the Floskian craft never showed itself in the display where they’d all clearly seen it.
She switched the viewer into two-dimensional mode and the flat screen reappeared. It was showing the view closest to the one their eyes had taken in. This time she saw the Floskian ship.
She watched it intently, trying to see any trace of heat or light from a weapon. Then she replayed it again in both modes, using all the sensors and detection systems available to her, but they revealed nothing that indicated the Floskian destroyer had fired at the SDs.
A knock at the door startled her.
“Open door,” she said, and the compartment door slip open. It was Bubby, and he not only seemed pleased with himself, he had the top half of his jumper tied around his waist, revealing his well-formed upper body and arms in nothing but a sleeveless undershirt. Adrianna had to force her thoughts away from him. Her training had taught her that, in the confines of a spacecraft, attraction would happen. It was unavoidable. They were human, after all. As a species, they were programmed to mate and reproduce. This ideology was promoted throughout the non-Legion populace, but Legionnaires on active duty were strictly forbidden to act on these desires so she closed her eyes and shook her head to clear it.
“I’ve made our explosive, Captain Archa,” he said. “If you’ll put up the file Dav just added to your queue, you’ll see a reconstruct of the target.”
She touched the new icon on the tabletop screen and gasped when she saw the three-dimensional rendering of the enemy destroyer. SD13 was visible beside it for size comparison. The Floskian craft was bigger than she’d expected, but Bubby eased her mind by taking one of the other stools at the table and pointing to a hatch near a cluster of directional thruster ports.
“If we can slide up under it, attach this and this,” he sat two different looking devices on the part of the table that wasn’t being used, “and then jump away before it implodes, we might be able to take it the easy way.”
“What is the easy way?” she asked, knowing now that he had figured out what she was hoping to achieve.
“Empty.” He shrugged. “Dav detected only eight Floskian life signatures aboard that beast.” Bubby grinned and, for a moment, he looked more like a boy than a man. At any other time, this might have caused her to want him more but, in this instance, it only served to remind her that she was in command and that three other lives were on the line, one a scared little girl.
“What is the second thing you made?” She indicated the two crude looking constructions he’d sat on the table.
“Well,” he grinned again, but this time the look was a little more sinister than before, “I don’t know what to call it, but if it does what it is supposed to, then when we jump back to that beast, it should be empty.”
“And if it’s not?”
“Board and fight? Jump away? I don’t know. You’re the Captain.” He shrugged. His smile faded and so did a little of the confidence in his posture. “Either way, if they didn’t see us before, they definitely won’t see us after the implosion.”
She thought about it for a minute. Bubby was a genius by any standard, and she had learned from her superiors that sometimes trusting those under you is all you can do.
“Okay, so explain it to me in a way I will understand.” She took in a deep breath and listened as Bubby laid out his whole idea to her.
The control room at the head of SD13 was silent. It was dark, too. Only the slight illumination coming from the large Floskian destroyer they were flying under allowed them to see it. If they hadn’t tagged it, they would have never found it, for none of their equipment could detect it. Adrianna hadn’t figured out why they could see it with their eyes, or why it appeared in two-dimensional data displays, but not on spatial-displacement detectors, or in 3D.
It was odd. Davrial was bringing SD13 up against its belly while Bubby used a remote arm to reach up and place the non-destructive device he’d made on their hull.
It was nerve-wracking. Every passing moment Adrianna expected to have to push the icon on her screen that would jump 13 into another solar system, but even as she waited for a sign in the blackness, it never came.
“Drop us down, Dav,” Bubby whispered. “Slow. Slower.”
The Floskian destroyer sliding over them was immense. It had a handful of turret cannons and several large openings that looked like exit portals for long range weapons or maybe satellite craft. Had they detected more than eight life signatures aboard it, these things would have rattled Adrianna, but she held steady, ready at the slightest indication, to initiate their jump.
“Match its speed now,” Bubby’s voice, as soft as it was, carried to her ears as if he’d yelled.
“Sir, yes, sir,” Davrial replied with a touch of sarcasm in his tone. She couldn’t see their expressions, but Adrianna knew Bubby was now glaring at Davrial’s volume.
“Here we go,” Kadri’s whisper was so quiet it was almost inaudible. The larger destroyer stopped gliding past them. SD13 was now cruising at the exact same speed the Floskian destroyer was, and they were just under its main thruster ports.
There was vibration coming from its drive system, a vibration their sensors should have easily detected from afar but hadn’t.
“Up, one more meter, Dav,” Bubby said. “When I say go, Captain, jump us out of here.”
Adrianna hadn’t been able to actually see the jump icon for several minutes now, and though she hadn’t moved her arm at all, she could only hope she didn’t miss the mark for she couldn’t see it.
The wait was intense, and Bubby grunted and let out a quiet curse, almost causing her to send them away prematurely. Then he said, “Now,” and she mashed her finger against the touch screen as hard and fast as she could.
The jump was instantaneous. One moment they were under the destroyer, the next they were not even in the same quadrant.
“Lights on,” Adrianna said.
When they came on, she was surprised that Bubby wasn’t standing there near the exterior arm controls. It only took a glance to locate him. Since Bubby wasn’t strapped into a seat as the others were, he’d ended up lying on the floor near the same portal hatch Captain Jaggen had died against. To Adrianna’s great relief, he groaned and reached for his head, not dead.
“I’ve never jumped un seated,” Bubby moaned. “Bad idea.”
“Set the timer for three hundred seconds, and then jump back,” she said, then unbuckled her shoulder straps and hurried to help get Bubby into a seat for the next jump. It wasn’t easy, he was thicker and denser than she’d ever imagined, and the way he smelled, like sweat and grease, caused her to show her attraction with a quick kiss on his cheek.
Bubby didn’t seem to notice. Once he was strapped in and coming back around, Kadri said, “One hundred seconds left, Captain Archa. Back to Full Gone?”
Adrianna hurried to the captain’s seat. “Full Gone, Kadri,” she spoke as she buckled herself in. “Jump on zero clock.”
“Jumping in six, five, four, three, two, one, and—”
Like before, the world blurred around her for a split second, then they were behind the Floskian destroyer, which could clearly be seen drifting askew and smoldering near the gaping sphere of emptiness Bubby’s antihydrogen implosion had caused.
“I see three small craft fleeing,” Kadri called out.
“Min vis,” Adrianna gave the order to light the flight deck to minimum human visibility. Once she could see the equipment screens, she saw that they were still not registering the massive ship outside their glaz.
“One of the three escape crafts already jumped away,” Davrial informed them, “but I am picking up three signatures in each of the other two. No, wait. Now they are gone. They jumped away, too.”
“You are officially a pirate with a prize, Captain Archa,” Bubby’s words were slurred, but his pride showed through. Adrianna was proud, too, for they’d captured an enemy vessel, a stealth vessel still in stealth mode, to boot.
“We will have to board her and figure out how to turn their tech off and on, and fly it,” Bubby said.
“Should I hail Legion Command, Captain Archa,” Kadri asked.
“No, wait until we have inspected it,” she answered. “Bubby is still woozy. Dav, grab our suits. You and I are going to have a look.”
“Me? Really?” He was clearly excited.
“Be careful, Captain,” Bubby cautioned. “And don’t mess around. The only reason they didn’t blow their own tech is because my simulation made them think we lost them.”
Bubby’s second device was constructed from the components of a scenario simulator that would project the approach data from the three legion ships that destroyed the scavenger that found them in the rings of Research Planet 64. It caused the Floskian vessel to see a score of fighters approaching, in tight groups of three from every direction. Once the Floskians were away, they saw that there were no legion ships attacking at all.
“How long until they are back for it?” Adrianna asked Bubby as she zipped up her spacesuit. She knew the best he could do was guess, but Bubby’s guess was all she had to go by.
“Soon.” He unfastened his belts and stumbled from his seat to the captain’s chair. While she was off-craft, he would be acting commander. “If you can’t get the stealth system down, Let Dav fly it out of the area. We can get far enough away that, even if the ship has a rescue beacon, they won’t be able to find us.”
“What if they have a locator beacon?” Davrial asked.
“Then we will be taking home two prizes,” Adrianna joked, hoping to ease his concern.
The inside of the Floskian craft was strange. The enemy was mannish, in the sense that they were bipedal, but they had completely different biology than humanity. Floskians had gray skin, thick tree stump legs, and small compact bodies. Their arms were longer, far longer, with two elbow-like joints instead of one. The controls around each wide seat on their flight deck extended far beyond Davrial’s reach. Adrianna had to help him control the vessel using only its docking thrusters. Luckily, some of the twenty or so known Floskian prisoners of war the Legion had captured had been broken. Adrianna and Davrial didn’t have much trouble figuring out what each knob or lever did, at least not on the flight deck. The area with the controls for their stealth system was impossible to enter on short notice, though. They would have to cut through that sealed hatch later.
They’d just gotten the big lumbering beast moving in the right direction when the bright blue pulse from a handheld weapon went through the back of the chair Dav was sitting in. The pulse exited the front of his suit and entered the control panel in a shower of sparks.
As Adrianna dropped and rolled, drawing her weapon from her hip, she felt the ship speeding up. She had never taken a life before, but she didn’t hesitate to put three blasts of cell eating plasma into the Floskian that had just ended Dav.
“What is happening?” she heard Bubby and Kadri ask in her earpiece. “Why is Dav not registering vitals?” Bubby finished the query.
“He is down,” she stood, looking around cautiously. “Why did you let it sneak up on us?”
“One Floskian is registering now,” Kadri said quickly. “It just appeared when we heard your plasma blaster. Is it dead? It hasn’t faded yet?”
Adrianna looked at the strange looking thing gurgling yellow liquid from its toothy maw. Its weapon was out of its reach. It wore a vest and belted pants. It was reaching for something clipped at its belt, and Adrianna knew it was about to blow the whole destroyer.
She dove at the thing, seeing its strange oval-pupiled eyes shrink into a sliver as she landed atop it. It was too late, though. The alien creature had a hold of its self-destruct activator.
Adrianna squeezed her eyes shut, expecting to die then, but it never happened. Instead, she heard Kadri in her ear. “It disappeared again. Did you kill it?”
She hadn’t killed it, for she felt the thing heaving under her. She heard it rasping for breath, too, but when she looked down she saw nothing, save for some spilled yellow fluid pooling on the floor.
When her mind registered what she was taking in, she spoke aloud. “Body stealth, not a self destruct?”
“What?” Bubby seemed upset now. “Destroy the panel and get back here. There could be a whole army of them in the holds using that tech.”
“Coming,” Adrianna said as she felt around the dying Floskian for the buckle to the belt. As soon as she had it undone she stood and started blasting the controls. She didn’t expect the larger explosion that came next, but she avoided its wrath by using her transporter to flash her back to SD13’s transport room.
“Oh no,” she heard Kadri whimper. “She’s gone.”
“Gone?” Bubby said, his voice betraying more than alarm. “I registered her transport signature. She is here.”
“No,” Kadri sobbed. “She isn’t.”
“Yes I am.” Adrianna touched the button on the belt that the Floskian had touched. “But that thing got Davrial right through the heart.’
She had been standing outside the broken hatch for half a minute. She’d waited to see how well the Floskian tech worked. If it kept 13’s sensors from detecting her while she was aboard 13, it was superior tech, for this ship recognized her presence in a score of ways, some she didn’t even understand.
“What?” Bubby said, taking the belt she handed him. “His look showed as much relief as it did surprise.
“I want a full analysis,” Adrianna said, “but only after we breach that beast a few more times and make sure it isn’t full of Floskies. Once we do that, we can either hail LC or try and tow that thing in ourselves.”
“The antimatter drives are designed to move us, not a destroyer,” Bubby explained. “We will have to hail LC.”
“Use Dav’s reconstructions and figure out where they would house their troops if they are there.” She smiled at him, and then went to Kadri’s side and gave her a hug. “Davvy died quickly, babe,” she comforted. “He felt no pain and never saw it coming.”
“I didn’t see it coming either.” She sobbed even louder than before. “That is my job.”
“You have to contain that emotion, Kadri,” Adrianna ordered.
“How many?” Bubby asked.
“Their stealth control is on the flight deck,” Adrianna knew he meant how many holes to put in the destroyer. “So is Davrial’s body. As many as it takes, but don’t destroy that deck.” To Kadri she said, “13 didn’t recognize me with the belt on, Kadri. It isn’t your fault the sensors didn’t detect that thing.” She gave the girl a squeeze. “It isn’t your fault. Do not blame yourself. That is a direct order.”
“Yes, Captain.” Kadri wiped her nose, but her tears kept falling.
“I’m covered in Floskian goo,” Adrianna said. “I need to change.”
Just then, SD13 rocked backwards from its hover, three times, one right after the other. It was the recoil from the large blast cannon Bubby was using. Adrianna didn’t bother to see the results. She was already composing her report in her head. She had full faith that Bubby could handle the situation.
“I will hail LC when I return. This stuff is starting to stink,” she said as she went to her compartment to grab a clean suit and a shower.
Captain Jaggen’s ejection ceremony was a sad affair, but not nearly as depressing as Davrial’s. Adrianna’s report explained everything, including the fact that she was the sole person who interfered with her captain’s attempt to follow protocol.
She half-expected to be put away, or ejected alive, but she wasn’t. After Bubby and Kadri were interrogated, the three of them were taken to an assembly hall where they stood in front of three stern-looking Legion judges.
“For your heroic action in the face of the enemy, we have decided to make you the new Captain of SD13. Let the record show that First Officer Adrianna Archa is now Captain Adrianna Archa. Bubbinger will be you First Officer.”
Adrianna couldn’t smile. Davrial was dead, and so was their captain. She was a bit disappointed when Kadri was only awarded a Medal of Valor, and even more disappointed when they were told that the proceedings were secret and would remain so.
The edge of Adrianna’s ire was shaved off when another judge nominated Kadri for the Officer Academy. Due to her young age, she wouldn’t be allowed to attend until she had two more years of experience. In the meantime, she would retain her position as sensor analyst on SD13.
They were given two new gunner recruits to man the turrets and allowed the whole SD program’s engineering team to begin deconstructing and studying the Floskian destroyer they captured. 13 ended up being the recipient of the new tech created by using what the Floskian’s had achieved and another mission was already in the planning.
Adrianna and Bubby waited until they were on leave. Only then did they display their emotion to each other. It was a heated affair, one they knew would last a lifetime, if only because they were both capable of restraint while on duty.
Off duty, however, restraint was barely an afterthought.
Star Dragon 13 (Introductory Novella) First Officer Adrianna Archa must take control of Star Dragon 13, one of the Legion's top secret, deep space defenders. Caught in the middle of what might be a trap, the captain tries to blow the ship to protect its classified technology. When Adrianna figures out who was the bait, and what their role was supposed to have been, they learn that just surviving might mean being branded as traitors. In the end, the only way they can prove their loyalty is to finish the mission, no matter how desperate the odds.