The (W)rites of Rob Knipe

Comic Fantasy and Sci-Fi Novelist, geek, painter, doodler, Riverside Raiders #69

Slip Jevans – Hero of the Union

Below are the first three chapters from Slip Jevans – Hero of the Union, a comic sci-fi novel.

Slip Jevans, security guard on the Union Ship Fearless, has a bad day at the office. Finding a suspect device strapped to one of the Union’s Wasp fighters, he is thrust into battles and espionage in all the places he never wanted to be.

Prologue

The Union ship Galant bucked violently, as if struck amidships by a god with a giant hammer and a grudge. White light blazed from cracks as they branched along the length and breadth of its matt grey hull. A near-blinding flash and it tore apart, casting chunks of debris silently in all directions, like a whale hit by a depth charge.

Capital ship batteries filled the space between ships with a silent and deadly mix of explosions and flak. Fighter craft moved between them at speed, weaving around frigates and gunboats, spontaneously erupting in flames – apparently with great ease.

Slip Jevans screamed.

His Wasp fighter shook wildly as slug-fire peppered the fuselage.

An enemy fighter shot past him, afterburners flaring as it banked away.

To his left, another fighter burst into oblivion with an orange flash, and his stomach tightened.

The fighters were as fragile as eggs.

Slip wailed inside the cramped cockpit. He banged his elbows and knees as he thrashed around in frustration.

He pressed the dashboard buttons in rapid succession, hoping, praying, that something would engage the auto-pilot.

The retro fired, and he was flung forward, slamming his crotch onto the control-stick.

The ship performed a slow dive while he cupped himself and tried not to be sick; the dull ache in his testicles was like someone wrenching his insides apart.

A cold sweat broke out across his forehead, soaking into the helmet’s padding, and he was convinced one of his ears was folded over inside the helmet.

The suspect-device slid along his right leg as he pushed himself back into the seat. He looped his arms through the six point safety-harness and moved the device back onto his lap.

Flashes caught his eye.

Orange staccato slug-fire moved closer.

To the left of the control stick, a green disk on the dashboard showed three pulsing red dots converging on its centre.

He jabbed a finger at the central point before pressing on the red dots.

Finally he punched the disk, then mashed the buttons above it.

The engines fired, flinging him back into the thinly padded seat by forces that made him nauseous.

The helmet rattled against the metal edging around the bucket seat’s headrest.

His elbows banged into the sides of the cockpit.

He couldn’t straighten his legs.

There was no room to stretch.

It was a tiny chamber of discomfort.

He’d never imagined pilots to be so small.

Where did they find so many tiny people to be pilots?

The Wasp shuddered again as it passed through slug-fire, shots punching through the length of hull.

A trail of vapour emerged from the hammerhead nose.

Or air.

It could be air.

Something that should be in the ship was escaping out of it.

He wondered how much air a one-man fighter held. There must be tanks of it somewhere. Maybe they were punctured? While people tried to shoot him from all angles, he’d suffocate in this miserable cockpit. There was no justice.

A red light flashed and he cursed. It could mean anything.

‘For the love of god.’

His hand caught the device, and his eyes locked onto it. He still didn’t know what it was. It could be anything. It could be dangerous. He definitely didn’t want it in the cockpit. He didn’t even want to be in a cockpit, let alone in space. The only thing he wanted, was to be somewhere else entirely. Possibly someone else.

Another enemy fighter overshot him.

Slug-fire tore up the right wing.

It sounded like someone flicking a tin can with irritating repetition.

The wing had the appearance of a well chewed dog-toy. Like that stinking brown bone the commander’s dog always carried. Right now he’d settle for being the dog.

Flashes and bursts of flame announced more destruction between the Union and the Crucible. The exchanges of fire were becoming more intense as the battle-lines closed. Bright flashes of white and orange flecked the surrounding blackness.

Light wasn’t a sign of safety in space, it was the sign of death. A candle flame to a combustible moth. Some of the ships were close enough to fire broadsides, and the fusillades of firepower were devastating.

A fighter zipped in front of him. It flared like a sudden shooting star and gave the opportunity for a quick wish before it vaporised, taking it, and any hopes and dreams the pilot may have had, with it.

Twin lines of strafing slug-fire broke his wish, and another enemy fighter passed overhead. He briefly glimpsed two rows of Union badges, Earth-Corps Security logos and what looked like a basket of fruit painted under its cockpit. Slip hoped that the pilot was an artist, and not a fighter-ace.

With the click of a button, an electronic female voice boomed into the cockpit.

Function – Lingual Assistant: Wasp Electronic Device engaged. Welcome, pilot.’

‘Welcome? Help me.’ Slip pressed one of the foot pedals. The Wasp yawed to the right.

Request not understood. Use correct commands. Pilot’s Handbook located under seat.

‘Get me back to the Fearless.’

Sweat ran down his face. The cockpit was getting hot and clammy. He’d put credits on the ship being on fire.

Request not understood. Use correct commands. Pilot’s Handbook located under seat.

Slip cursed.

Request not understood. Use correct commands. Pilot’s Handbook located under seat.

‘Ram it up your ar-’

Request not understood. Use correct commands. Pilot’s Handbook located under seat.

Silently seething, he pulled out a half-inch thick, worn and dog-eared paperback from under the seat. He fumbled, dropping the book into the foot-well, where it came to rest against his heel.

Unknown item in pilot area. Please remove item.’

‘I know, I’m not meant to be here.’

Request not understood. Use correct commands. Pilot’s Handbook located under seat.

He gritted his teeth and dragged the book towards the seat with his foot. Groping for the book, his elbow caught the control-stick, knocking the Wasp into a barrel roll. He was pushed against the left side of the canopy. The device went with him, pressing on his side.

His right knee caught the stick.

The ship banked hard to the left, forcing him back into the seat.

Gripping the stick with both hands, he brought the Wasp under control while his feet checked the foot-well for the book. Unable to find it, he reached carefully between his legs, and felt around with clammy fingertips.

Slug-fire zipped over his wings.

Grasping its cover between two fingers, he whipped it out of the foot-well, clipping the stick and sending the ship into a loop. The book slipped from his fingers and bounced around inside the cockpit as he fought with the controls.

His eyes darted, checking every nook he could see.

‘Where is the handbook? Where?’

Pilot’s Handbook located under seat.

‘It’s n…’ he gritted his teeth again and made a sound like a deflating balloon.

The Wasp banked toward the battle-lines, and for that moment, he felt like he really was in control of the Wasp. Ducking as something huge spun overhead, he aimed for an area of the battle with less fire and fewer ships.

Checking over his shoulder, he spotted the dog-eared handbook lodged next to the headrest.

He reached up with one hand.

His fingertips brushed the book’s spine. It was wedged. Checking ahead, he turned in his seat as much as possible, lifting one leg so he was half-kneeling and half sitting on his foot. He worked his hand into the gap and gripped the cover. Got it! He pulled.

It wouldn’t move.

He pulled again.

His cuff was caught on something.

His hand was stuck.

Slip grabbed hold of his sleeve with his other hand. Back flat against the side of the cockpit, he couldn’t get any leverage. He waggled his arm.

Another huge piece of wreckage was slowly spinning toward him.

‘Come on, come on…’

Request not understood. Use correct commands. Pilot’s Handbook located under seat.

He shook harder. The helmet slipped forward, glas-tech visor digging into his chin and sweaty forehead padding covering his eyes. Slip cursed again when the other cuff snagged on something.

He flicked his head back and forth, but the helmet wouldn’t shift.

The Wasp shuddered as slug-fire raked the ship.

Craning his neck, he managed a glance out of the canopy, ignoring the red flashing lights that had appeared on the console. The drifting debris was big enough to park ten fighters in, and easier still to crash one into. The remains of decking and corridors lined one side, scorched and tempered.

Still screaming, he shuffled and worked his foot on to the control stick, pushing it for all he was worth.

The ship dived.

The centrifugal force pressed him into the top of the canopy.

His cuffs ripped free and his foot slipped from the stick as the wreckage passed overhead.

He fell back, catching the base of his spine on the bucket seat. ‘Gah!’

Request not understood. Use correct commands. Pilot’s Handbook located under seat.

The device landed on his lap, and the book flopped on top.

The front showed a black and white image of a smiling Union Pilot giving a thumbs up, “Pilot’s Handbook; including F-L.A:W.E.D. Commands”. He rapidly flicked to the index.

‘Useful commands, one hundred and thirty one,’ he muttered, flicking back through the book.

He traced the list with a finger, moving the stick and pressing the pedals as he did, anything to stop the Wasp flying in a straight line.

Some commands had been scribbled out.

Arrows pointed to hand written notes next to the book’s spine.

“Learn to fly newb”.

“Shudda trained harder”.

He hated pilots.

Wankers.

‘Engage Auto-pilot,’ he said.

Please set destination.

‘The Fearless.’

Destination unknown. Please set destination.

‘You prick.’

Destination unknown. Please set destination. Instructions for setting destination in Pilot’s Handbook located under seat.

His words were drowned out by a bang behind him, and the ship pitched forward.

Destination confirmed. Plotting course for Govuk Yar-zel.

The Wasp shook again and the device slid into the foot-well. There was hissing, and a constant blow of warm air on the back of his neck. It smelled of oil. Another red warning light flashed. He flicked through the manual.

Auto-pilot damaged. Attempting repair.

Throwing the manual onto the device, he started thrashing around again, screaming until there was no air in his lungs to expel. There had to be a button that would save his life, surely.

Chapter 1

On the Union flagship, Fearless, Slip Jevans, Sub-Sector Delta Security was patrolling the gleaming white corridors. Commander Brazier insisted on the highest setting for every source of illumination. “Shadows bred mischief” he always said, and it was true. The only respite from the general glare was the toilet cubicles, and that was the only place there was ever graffiti.

‘You don’t have to be so awkward, Jevans.’ Lieutenant Jefferson gave him that look. It was the look she gave him when he left an empty coffee carton next to his monitor, when he turned up a few minutes late, or spent too long in the toilet. ‘Just because I’m your superior now doesn’t mean we can’t still get along.’

It was the look that said he wasn’t good enough.

‘Sorry, ma’am, I’m just used to patrolling with Romero.’ She was friendly enough, but every time he called her ma’am, or she ordered him to do something, he was reminded of his own failure at the promotion board. One ill-timed belch had ruined it all.

Jefferson nodded. ‘It pays to do the rounds with your Senior Security Officer every once in a while.’

It didn’t feel like a year ago since she’d got the promotion he wanted.

Slip bit his tongue. ‘You never know, ma’am.’

‘How do you find this route?’

Slip shrugged. ‘It’s not the worst by any stretch. I feel sorry for the bastards down on Yankee-’

‘Language, Jevans.’

‘Sorry.’

She tapped the pip on the epaulette of her shirt. ‘Aren’t you forgetting something?’

‘Ma’am.’ She nodded her approval. ‘The guys on Yankee, they’re always filthy and stinking after a patrol. The engineering levels are the bowels of the ship.’

A T-junction separated the hangars from the logistics offices. The hangars covered acres, filled with fighters and transports, fuelling equipment and short-term Replen supplies, making the open space a mass of nooks and crannies. It was open space gone wrong.

‘Which way, Jevans?’ She flicked her long black plait over her shoulder. She smirked as he stalled, the way she used to when they were guards together, when they’d been friends.

He raised a hand for rock, paper, scissors. She shook her head and pursed her lips a little.

‘Logistics, ma’am?’

‘You wish.’ She laughed. ‘I’ll take logistics, you take the hangars.’ Her deep brown eyes showed levity, though it faded as he remained expressionless.

‘You’re the boss, ma’am.’

‘Meet at the far stairwell in an hour. We’ll take the shuttle back.’

Slip nodded.

At least he wouldn’t have to make small talk with the pen-pushers and desk jockeys in logistics. He sometimes thought being a guard was bad, but checking documents and invoices all day would push him over the edge. It was bad enough pretending to read the security reports.

They parted at the junction. He swiped his pass on a card reader and a large pair of clear glas-tech doors hissed open. Cool air hit him as he stepped into the hangar. The doors hissed closed behind him.

The hangars were cooler than the rest of the ship. After any launches or landings the air was recycled, and the minimal personnel in such a vast area meant that it wasn’t as stifling.

Machines popped and ticked, breaking up the background hum of the Fearless’s engines. There was a hint of ozone, but mainly the thick dull smell of oils, lubricants and grease, much like every garage across the galaxy. He didn’t know what the machines did, but he’d seen them hooked up to the ships.

A line of Wasp fighters sat idle on either side. Three huge exhaust cones at the rear gave the back end a bulky look, contrasting with the narrow, sleek body, which ended in a hammerhead nose. Two huge cannons protruded from the nose, their barrels wide enough for him to fit his hand in. Red-tipped, white rockets lined the bottom of each wing.

An impressed whistle escaped his lips. He wondered whether he should have worked harder at the Academy and become a fighter ace. But was it worth missing the time spent with Union Cadet Beauchene during one of their secret trysts? He smiled, it probably wasn’t. The survival training, years of hard work culminated in a life spent in a cockpit, in deep space, drinking from a straw and pissing in a tube.

A spanner clanged to the floor at the far side of the hangar. It came from a row of stationary fighters.

Slip ducked underneath one of the Wasps, no doubt an engineer would be cursing somewhere nearby. He spotted the tell-tale spanner lying a few feet away.

‘You need a hand?’ he said, approaching the fighter.

He paused and crouched. There were no legs to be seen. ‘Anyone there?’

He continued to the Wasp, scooping up the spanner and turning it over in his hand. It was cold, and lighter than he expected. Probably left forgotten on the sloped wing by one of the engineers. He placed it on top of a gently humming machine to the rear of the Wasp. Cables and tubes hung between the machine and the fighter, plugged into a number of sockets beneath the exhaust cones.

A bright reflection caught his attention. He stooped under the wing. Held on with two black, canvas straps, was a polished aluminium device. Two coiled black tubes connected the base of a foot-long cylinder with two metal globes set side by side at its base. One strap hadn’t been tightened properly and hung loose, the device resting its weight on it. The next Wasp over didn’t have anything similar, nor the one after that. He unbuckled the rough straps and turned it this way and that. It wasn’t standard Union equipment, it looked too… individual? Too custom? Not mass-produced like everything else.

‘What’ve you got there?’

Slip jumped and cracked his head on the wing with a clang that echoed around the hangar. The device clattered to the floor.

‘Motherf-’ Rubbing his head frantically, he stepped out from under the wing, scooped up the device and set it down next to the spanner. The rounded end was now dented, and flat along one side. An engineer stood on the other side of the humming machine, his eyes on the device.

‘I’ve no idea. It was strapped to the Wasp,’ said Slip.

‘Strapped to the Wasp?’

Slip nodded.

The engineer walked around the machine and stood next to him, clear blue eyes flitting this way and that. ‘Have you reported it yet?’

‘Not yet, I’m g-‘

The engineer lunged, twisting Slip, and pushing him forward, making a grab for his pistol.

Slip grabbed the engineer’s wrist before he could bring the pistol to bear.

He put all his strength into keeping the pistol pointed away, but he could feel his energy waning.

Slip turned so they were face to face.

The engineer snarled.

Each held the other’s wrists as they tried to force the pistol away.

His arms were starting to tremble.

The engineer was winning.

The barrel of the pistol was slowly lowering towards Slip’s face.

He stepped back, turning side on as the engineer pulled the trigger.

Click.

The safety was on.

He kicked at the engineer’s knee and pushed him backward.

The engineer stumbled and fell to the floor next to the machine, both hands on the pistol.

The safety clicked off.

Slip fled across the hangar as two shots rang out.

 

Engineer Dirk Shardonis cursed.

Union Security! Damn them to hell. All the times he’d needed them and they were nowhere to be found. Now one of the grunts had shown up at the worst possible time. He’d have to snuff the guard and hide the body long enough for the bomb to blow.

He gripped the pistol in clammy hands, shuffling to the rear of the humming data-charger. A bead of sweat trickled down his temple and down the side of his face.

It didn’t matter whether he lived or died, he would be martyred anyway. Dirk aimed the pistol at the top of the charger, and slowly stood up. The security guard was nowhere to be seen.

The spanner rested alone on top of the charger.

The guard had taken the bomb.

‘Why don’t we just talk this over? You can’t hide forever.’

Dirk scoffed at himself. The guard could hide anywhere on the Fearless, that much was true, but it wouldn’t be forever. Thirty minutes from now the bomb would explode, taking a good piece of the Fearless with it. He scanned the hangar.

Dirk stooped, checking under the wings of the Wasp, then lowered himself to the floor. There were no feet.

He hadn’t heard any doors open; the guard was still in here. It was only a matter of time before he reclaimed the device.

Standing up again he moved quietly across the hangar, pistol held ready.

 

Slip ducked back into the cockpit as the engineer turned his way.

The device was resting on his lap, and for the moment he was safe. He unclipped the radio from his belt and turned the volume to zero. He couldn’t risk a static response giving away his position.

His voice was little more than a whisper when he pressed transmit. ‘Jefferson. Jefferson do you copy? Over.’ He paused for a moment. ‘An engineer’s trying to kill me. There’s a… device… Jefferson, first hangar. Get your ass in here.’ He took a slow, calming breath. The device weighed heavy on his lap. ‘I…’ He didn’t know what he was going to say, but it felt reassuring when he spoke. ‘Ma’am.’

He raised his head over the edge of the cockpit and caught the engineer’s eyes.

The engineer smiled like a shark. ‘So that’s where you are. Why don’t you come down here and-’

A klaxon sounded, immediately followed by ringing bells.

The hangar plunged into darkness as the bright lighting went out, replaced by red, tactical lighting a couple of seconds later.

The Fearless was under attack.

Pilots and deck crew appeared from doors on either side of the hangar, running to the Wasps and prepping them for take-off.

Lights above the hangar bay doors turned green. The automatic launch protocols had engaged.

Detecting Slip’s weight on the seat, the fighter’s canopy closed.

He caught a glimpse of the engineer, mixing into the other crew. His eyes never left Slip’s, and he ran a thumb across his neck.

The pilots and deck crew watched Slip hammer on the inside of the glass-tech canopy. The bottom of his fists hurt with every blow. He screamed at them, pointing wildly.

The ship sped towards the opening hangar bay doors.

Like a slingshot, the ship fired through the atmospheric bubble of the hangar, and into the blackness of space.

 

‘Damn it, Jevans!’

Jefferson watched the engine flare as the Wasp disappeared into space. Slip had been inside it when it took off, looking panic stricken.

He’d mentioned an engineer. On the opposite side of the hangar a pilot was staring silently at the empty space where a Wasp should have been. Whatever action was about to take place, he wouldn’t be part of it.

Someone was moving against the flow of personnel, trying too hard to appear calm.

‘You, engineer. Stop.’ Even shouting as loud as she could, she was barely audible over the klaxon and the roar of fighters taking off.

Jefferson dashed across the hangar, rolling under a fighter, and charging towards the engineer.

The engineer spotted her and turned on his heels.

He barged the deck crew out of the way as he fled, dragging shelving down and tipping tool carts over to try and slow her progress.

She weaved around the crew, trying to keep her eyes on him. He disappeared behind a group of personnel.

A gunshot.

Ahead of her a pilot lay on the floor clutching a bloody wound to her stomach, uttering curses at the retreating engineer. Jefferson paused.

‘Hello Sierra Sierra Delta Command, this is Jefferson. Immediate Med-evac. Hangar Delta fifteen. Foreside. Pilot. Abdominal slug wound. In pursuit of shooter, over.’

As she took off along the hangar, the radio reported.

‘Jefferson, this is Sierra Sierra Delta Command. Med-evac is on route. Confirm firer details, over.’

‘Caucasian male, brown side-parted hair, brown goatee. Wearing dark blue engineering coveralls. Carrying side-arm. Firer is to be considered extremely dangerous. Request back-up, over.’

‘Sierra Sierra Delta Command, approaching enemy action. Back-up will be sent a soon as is available. Out.’

Dammit.

She un-holstered her pistol.

She was on her own.

Chapter 2

The vidscreens and holoscreens displayed lists of information into the red-lit bridge as the long range sensors picked up unidentified craft. His crew were at their stations prepping the Fearless for battle. Brazier sat in his command chair in the centre of the bridge, smouldering cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth. Adrenalin coursed through him. They had been hunting the Crucible pirate fleet for months. Now they had them – it was all or nothing.

Brazier stood up, removing the cigar from his mouth with a scarred hand. ‘Schwartz, report.’

‘Crucible battle-line forming up, Sir. Eleven thousand clicks at zero three one point one seven four degrees Sol, ninety eight degrees vert.’ Schwartz, the Fearless’s Tactical Officer, stood at one of the many workstations facing a wall of white, blinking lights. With the current bridge lighting, it resembled a disco, but with none of the levity.

‘What are we up against?’

‘Over seventy ships, all modified, Sir. From gunboats to capital ships.’

Brazier savoured the tang of the cigar for a moment. ‘We’re outnumbered?’

‘Their fleet is approximately a third bigger than ours, Sir.’

‘Then we’d better get our shit together.’ Brazier half-smiled, accentuating the crows-foot scar next to his left eye.

‘Orders, sir?’

‘Union craft into battle formation. Escort frigates free to engage. Get a bead on the enemy flagship and form up.’ Brazier blew out a column of smoke. ‘Show them we mean business.’

‘Yes, sir.’

On the holo-screen to Brazier’s left, a wireframe of the Fearless appeared, sections turning from red to green as the systems became battle-ready. Verbal confirmations came seconds later from crew around the bridge.

‘All fighters reported launched, Sir. Commencing close range net formation.’

‘Fore shields up, Sir. Bridge plates moving into position.’

The bridge trembled as armour plating rumbled slowly over the glas-tech windows, which flickered for a moment before displaying a crisp, digital version of each windows view.

‘Full visibility confirmed, Sir.’

Brazier nodded and rubbed his thumb on a smooth patch on the command chair’s armrest.

‘Reactor eighty percent and climbing, Sir. ET full power; eight minutes.’

‘Med-bays on standby, Sir. Depots on floors ten through ninety prepped for emergency.’

Brazier nodded. ‘Oh-Oh. Where’s my firepower?’

The Offense Officer gave him a troubled glance. ‘Systems have a glitch, Sir. Having trouble confirming readiness.’

‘Schwartz?’

Schwartz moved over to the OO’s console and gave it a hard kick. The screen flickered for a moment then started flicking through information.

‘Sir, weapons systems online. Slug-batteries ready, beam weapons will be charged before we’re in range.’

‘Excellent work,’ said Brazier, sitting back in the command chair. He savoured the taste of the cigar for a moment, rolling his tongue around a little. He took it from his lips and grimaced at the soggy end.

‘Hangar reporting an unsanctioned fighter launch, Sir.’ Schwartz moved quickly across the bridge, a mass of his black hair fell over the close cropped sides. He tucked a long piece behind his ear before scrolling through information on a holo-screen. ‘Reports suggest it was taken by a Sub-Sector Delta Security guard.’

‘A guard?’ Brazier leaned forward and traced a thumb along a scar which ran the side of his nose to his earlobe. The scar felt bigger than it looked. ‘Why?’

‘His senior officer reports that he found something suspicious and came under attack. Looks like a saboteur is onboard, Sir.’

The cigar’s ember crunched as he stubbed it out. He rubbed a finger and thumb together to brush ash from them. ‘He fled in a fighter? What class?’

‘Wasp, Sir.’

‘We’re a fighter down because some guard wants to save his own skin? What kind of damn security guards do we have here?’ Brazier sat back and gave a disgruntled laugh. He pulled another cigar from his top pocket and lit it. ‘I’m glad we came under attack. The little rat will be stuck in the battle.’

‘Out of the frying pan, Sir.’

‘Exactly.’ Brazier relaxed back in his chair again. The fore glas-tech showed the Crucible fleet forming up. He cracked the knuckles of one hand as he clenched his fist. He’d been waiting for this. ‘And Schwartz?’

‘Sir?’

‘Get that mop of haircut. High and tight, soldier’

 

Star fields moved across the glas-tech as the Violent Bounty pivoted gracefully. Its port-side hangars vomited fighters and bombers into space as the Franken-ships of the Crucible formed up. Captain Varkettle loved his fleet. Each ship was filled with the best of the worst kind of crew, and bristled with weaponry. Painted on the sides of each ship were the age-old symbols of piracy, skeletons and daggers, slit money pouches, and Jolly Rogers.

Varkettle turned his gaze to the bridge crew and bared his diamond teeth. ‘Get your arses in gear. I want every bastard ship in this fleet ready when them pissy little frigates get in range.’ He turned back to the vid-screen, and his snarl turned to a wicked smile. ‘This Union fleet is outclassed, outnumbered and outgunned. Ready the batteries.’

‘Readying the batteries, Cap’n,’ replied Rettel, the Bounty’s well-scarred Master Gunner. Rettel’s loyalty was unquestioned, the plas-tech jaw and gold teeth were testament to that. Rettel slapped his First and Second Mate hard on the shoulders. ‘Get them guns up and ready you miserable sons of whores.’

‘Sar,’ the Mates replied in unison.

The crew busied themselves at their consoles, increasing the noise on the bridge as orders were given and information responded to.

Pressing his fingertips against the cold glas-tech like five-legged spiders, he could feel the rumble of the nuclear engines through it.

Thump, thump, thump. Deep and rhythmic.

He could tell they were at full power. There was an almost unperceivable, high-pitched whine that accompanied the thumping.

‘Incoming frigates, Cap’n.’

Varkettle nodded acknowledgment to the Navigation Master.

He faced his crew, one hand resting on the pistol grip of his holstered Lorg MkI – Widowmaker, the other gesturing as he spoke. ‘Seven years ago, the Bounty was the Union’s pride and joy, but we took it. It was an ‘ard scrap, but we scuppered them. Today is no different, if we snuff them ‘ere, we’ll take the system as our own. But more than that, we’ll take their flagship, the Fearless.’

Cheers and yars sounded around the bridge as the crew raised their fists.

‘Anyone here doesn’t want to be part of this action, let me know, and you won’t have to worry.’ His fingers caressed the cool metal trigger guard. Fear brought respect, of sorts. They did as they were bid at least. ‘Good. Let’s show them stuck up bastards how we do things ‘ere and give ‘em the baptism of beams they deserve.’ He scrutinised each crew member in turn as his grin broadened. ‘Let them burn!’

‘Frigates at nine thousand clicks. In range one standard Earth minute and counting.’

Two tiny specs of light moved slowly across the fore glas-tech, highlighted by red, digital crosshairs. He clenched both fists. ‘Take us between them. Let’s show the scabby dogs the true meaning of a broadside.’

The escort frigates advanced toward the Crucible battle-line. Only nine clicks away port and starboard. The glas-tech magnified them as Rettel tapped onto specific points, signifying targets to the gunners.

‘Frigates charging weapons, Cap’n,’ the Sensors Mate was focussed on her console screens with her one good eye. The metallic skull-patterned plate that covered her other eye reflected the green light from her display.

‘I want to see them burn.’

She swivelled in her chair. ‘They’ll be ready to fire in a matter of moments, Cap’n.’

‘Their pitiful weaponry doesn’t concern me. Our shields will protect the ship,’ he said, grimacing at her.

The frigate on the starboard side glimmered in the distance. Though it was a white speck to the naked eye, it was probably more than half a click long, and could cause significant damage to them if it attacked from the rear.

‘Tricky little bastards,’ he muttered, ‘they’re going under the Handsome Devil. Why isn’t the Devil firing?’

The Communications Mate spoke into his headset, turning to the captain a moment later. ‘Incoming holo.’

Varkettle picked up an inch-thick aluminium disc from the bridge’s front console, and sneered as a shimmering purple figure appeared stood atop it. While the hologram displayed the illuminated and light sections of Captain Stephano, the darker areas – his hair, moustache and jacket – all appeared non-existent. The Holographic Captain Stephano raised, then sipped from a goblet.

‘Why haven’t you opened fire, Stephano? Are you not in range?’

Stephano’s voice cut into the clamour of the bridge with short, sharp sentences, ‘Union dogs are jamming our systems, Cap’n. Can’t get a manual fix.’ The holograph flickered and Stephano turned away. ‘Damn their hulls. Shields full underside.’ Stephano returned his gaze to Varkettle. ‘Taking fire. Will report back.’

Varkettle tossed the aluminium disc back onto the console and hissed as he moved to the starboard viewing port. He gave a small smile when he saw the tiny frigate’s guns fire toward them.

‘They’re firing, Cap’n.’

‘Brace for impact,’ Varkettle roared. ‘Let them get off a few volleys before we show them how we do things.’

The Bounty shook as slugs and ordinance punctured its side. The lights flickered, dimmed, then returned to full power.

‘Damage, report.’

‘Hull breach floors nineteen through twenty-six, Cap’n.’ The Diagnostics Mate was wide-eyed, eyebrows sloping outward.

‘Hab-Levels? Seal them off.’ Varkettle pressed his hands flat against the glas-tech, his face mere inches from it. ‘ABS life signs?’

‘Two-hundred plus pre-hit. Tracker systems are now down in that section.’

‘That’ll teach the idle dogs for not manning their posts.’ His maniacal diamond smile spread across his face. A second volley was incoming. ‘Brace for impact. All batteries fire at will.’

The Bounty trembled as its batteries fired. Varkettle’s face illuminated orange from the onslaught. The frigate’s shields flared, a multitude of dancing colours as the Bounty’s beam weapons hit their mark. The shields collapsed with a bright flash. The beams burned ragged gouges across the frigate’s grey hull, while slugs punched hole after hole through it.

Varkettle could see his reflection illuminated in the glas-tech. His teeth shining brightly as the light caught them.

The Bounty rocked as the frigate’s second volley struck it.

‘Floors nineteen through thirty breached, Cap’n.’

He followed the frigate’s outline with a finger as a beam cut through its hull. It traced a glowing slice along its length, spilling debris into the vacuum.

The frigate’s guns went silent.

Bright white light shone out from every porthole.

The side of the frigate ruptured as the reactor went critical, bursting out in a shower of wreckage and flame. Light pulsed from the frigate and the faintest hint of the nuclear warmth caressed Varkettle’s skin.

The reflection of his teeth glimmered for a moment and he laughed. The blackened husk of the frigate drifted past the Handsome Devil, which acknowledged its systems were no longer jammed by firing a few shots into the wreck.

‘Yaaarrr,’ he turned to his crew. ‘The first of many. Keep firing on the port frigate, I want them both out of action.’

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