Battlecruisers anchored in orbit cast terror through the curved window. Dashboards blinked as the port and starboard gun turrets started firing.
“We got two on our tail.” An explosion later Lieutenant Commander Zorpia corrected herself. “Make that one.”
A second blast shook the ship and alarms rang out.
“That was the engine. Internal communications are down.”
The middle-aged grizzly looking Captain jumped out of his seat as Zorpia was already getting out of hers. “Check it out. I’ll take navigation.” He took her place next to the pilot.
“Why aren’t they shooting?” asked Doogë.
He wasn’t a year out of flight school and not a day over twenty, yet this was his third blockade run. The siege ships looked bigger by the second.
“Keep heading right at ‘em.”
The Captain turned his attention to the science officer who at least had a few years deep space experience under her belt. Intellectual and athletic, a classic Zorr, she wore her bright blue hair in long dreadlocks.
“Let ’em know we’re hit.”
She clicked the controls. “This is the Piper, taking fire, maintaining exit trajectory. They haven’t jammed us yet, but they’re listening.”
“Sergeant, at the ready,” added the Captain.
The Piper’s gunner gritted his teeth and locked the forward cannon on the closest blockade ship.
Zorpia sprinted through the cargo bay toward the aft section. The freighter turned warship was simply designed; a skinny nose with forward facing cannon and flight deck, a thick middle with gun turrets to protect the cargo, and a fusion room to keep the triple rear thrusters running at maximum. When the engine room door opened smoke came out.
“What’s the damage?”
Zorpia looked through the smoke at TikToc, who was frantically working an interface control. The other engineer lay on the floor. She knelt down and put two fingers to his mangled throat. He was still warm and dark blue blood was pooling around his body. No pulse.
The ship’s private, Figgs, crawled out of a smoke billowing hole in the wall.
Figgs went through the academy with Zorpia. She was top of their class, could’ve been Captain of any ship in the fleet, but she had authority issues. She didn’t give a fuck about protocol, regulations, or following the chain of command. Zorpia liked her a lot.
TikToc hardly looked up. “Great.” He continued to adjust controls. “There, internal communications are back and we have all engines. It’s a shame about Johnny.”
All three looked down at the burnt body on the floor.
“No time for him now. Captain…” The ship’s com-system crackled a bit and went clear.
“Engines are go. Com restored. We lost John.”
“Ok. Get back up here.”
The guns stopped firing and Corporal L. Sam in the starboard turret proudly stated, “the last fighter is no more.”
“Great shooting, Corporal.” Zorpia headed to the front of the ship.
Out the flight deck window, three Klandar warships and one ferociously armored Gastraddar floating fortress filled space ahead of them. The hundred deck battlecruisers dwarfed them in size. When they started firing, the entire horizon exploded.
The port side turret was hit and a meter-wide turbo pulse bolt went right through the flight deck window. The ship shook so hard it knocked Zorpia down mid-run. When she got to the bridge door it wouldn’t open. The security system told her why.
“PRESSURE LOSS. MAIN CABIN. CLOSING BLAST SHIELDS.”
Outside the slick freighter was still racing forward. Fire belched out of the port turret and the flight deck window. Bodies drifted in space behind them.
The blast shields went down and the bridge re-pressurized.
“ATMOSPHERE STABILIZED. LOCKDOWN RETRACTED.”
The door opened and Zorpia stepped in. The room smelled of burnt plasma, yet was freezing cold. Everyone was gone except for the pilot. He was the only one wearing a seatbelt.
“Doogë, you’re alive!?”
He ignored her and activated the view screen. Between him and the navi-computer, they were managing to avoid oncoming blasts.
Zorpia jumped into her seat, put on a harness, and double-checked navigation. She ran the math on possible projectile angles coming from the blockade ships and set a course through.
She looked over at Doogë. The entire front half of his body was burned. He’d attached a respirator and was breathing pure oxygen. She got up, grabbed a first aid kit, and injected him with morphine.
He looked at the empty seats. “They teased me about always buckling up?”
“You’re gonna be OK. We’re gonna make it. Hit the interstellar overdrive.”
The Zorr Consortium freighter zig-zagged and rocketed out of the system.
Inside the Gastraddar mercenary ship, its commander looked at an enhanced image of the blockade runner. Painted on the side was a bright blue furry goat-boy dancing and playing a Pan flute. Behind the little satyr, the blue sun of Zorr was rising.
The big Gastraddar snarled at the mythical scene.
“Fuck, that shit works quick.” Doogë took off the respirator and wiped his face. “I feel great.”
He didn’t look great. His short blue hair was singed to his scalp. The part of his face he had shielded with his arm wasn’t bad, but he had dark nasty looking burns on his neck and the right side of his head. His right eye was closed and caked in blood. The outer shell of his flight jacket was blackened and cracked.
“I want you to go in the back, clean yourself up, and lay down for a while.”
Doogë unbuckled and stood up a little wobbly. “Aye Aye, Captain Zorr.” He turned and walked out of the room, steadying himself with a hand on the wall.
Zopria Zorr had a lot to live up to. Her brown complexion earned her plenty of attention at an academy full of azure blue-skinned Zorrs. Her last name made her stand out even more. Half her DNA made her the direct descendant of the founding father of her species. Her mother was human from a drifter colony that lived on the small subcontinent. Her father gave her crystalline sapphire nails, sky blue streaks in her dark hair, and radiant blue eyes. He also gave her superb intelligence and heightened dexterity. She looked human but without a doubt, she was Zorr.
And then she was Captain.
She locked in the coordinates to the rendezvous point and headed back to the engine room. Corporal L. Sam was sitting on the floor of the cargo bay.
“The whole turret’s gone. There’s no pressure in there anymore. Pow’s dead.”
Sergeant Powlis was the port gunner. Zorpia put a hand on Sam’s shoulder.
“You’re the only marine I have left. We lost the Captain, science officer, an engineer, and two gunners.”
“Who’d we lose in the back?”
“I know. I’m promoting you to Sergeant Major. Report to the bridge and take the helm.”
Lucifer smiled like a Cheshire cat imbued with a new sense of purpose. “Alright, Captain.”
He got up off the deck and headed to the bridge. She’d bought his respect.
Zorpia went into the still smoky engine room. TikToc and Figgs were working away. Johnny’s body was bagged on the floor.
“I need to promote one of you to First Mate.”
Figgs frowned. “The Cap’s dead? I kinda liked him.”
“I’m going to make you chief engineer.”
TikToc stood up and flushed bluer. “No one knows these engines as well as I do.”
“Figgs can handle the engine room alone just as well as you can.”
“I’ve rebuilt this engine four times. This ship is my baby. I can hear it breathe. I belong here.”
Figgs would, of course, make an excellent first officer as her skills far outweighed an engineer. The top brass would demand an explanation of why she was promoted. They busted her down to private for a reason.
Figgs grinned. “It’s been a while since I’ve been numero uno.”
“Alright Figgs, you’re First Mate of the Piper.” She might be able to handle it with a friend as her Captain. “When you’re done here report to the bridge.”
Sitting far outside the shipping lanes that skirt the edge of #71EEB8 space, sat a gargantuan deep space cargo ship with the Scarecrow’s beacon hanging above it. When the Piper came into sensor range there was no communiqué. They glided along the two-kilometer wall that was the side of the vessel. An enormous hangar door opened and the Piper looked like a hummingbird flying into a cave.
Zorpia went to her bunk and grabbed her dagger. Only the oldest of old-school Captains carried bladed side arms. She’d made more than a few friends with fleet commanders over it. Her short sword was her good luck charm on hazardous missions.
The surviving crew met in the empty cargo hold. L. Sam held a turbo rifle, Doogë and Figgs had holstered pistols, and TikToc was unarmed. Zorpia wore her sword off her hip on an old leather belt.
“Doogë, stay with the ship.” He still looked like shit.
“Gladly.” He climbed into the hover lift and collapsed into the bucket seat while the rest of the crew walked down the loading ramp.
The cavernous hangar bay was at least twenty decks high. The rear wall was glass with a stunning turquoise sea behind it. In the water floated a galactic sperm whale. It was almost as big as the Piper.
Two armored tanks sat between them and ten loaded flatbeds. They trained their cannons on the Piper crew. Atop the tanks sat synthetic super soldiers, wildly expensive to manufacture war hulks. A human-sized synthetic female in slick body armor walked up to them. In her hand, she held a tiny Ursa Minor gnome dressed in black and green.
“What happened?” asked the Scarecrow.
“We lost half the crew and our pilot is a mess.”
With a wave of his little arm, a medical unit walked up the ramp to attend to Doogë. The Scarecrow jumped from the synthetic’s metallic colored hand into Zorpia’s.
“It’s Captain Zorr then?” They’d met her on previous missions.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a pilot droid or two you could spare?”
The crew went into action. Figgs guided in the flatbeds loaded with food and supplies, TikToc hit up the commandos for weapons and gear, and Sam stood behind Zorpia looking tough. The Scarecrow directed them over to the wall of water.
The whale fanned its leviathan tail slowly. Its large gray emotion filled eye looked at Zorpia as it clicked a series of vocal sounds.
“He says, the whale’s support your fight for freedom. He recognized your sword last time. Where did you get such a weapon, he wonders?”
“It was a present from my Uncle, my first fencing instructor.” She set her hand on the grip.
“A Varan?” asked the Scarecrow.
“I haven’t seen him since I was five years old. He was a lizard man.”
“Ursa Minor and the galactic whales call the Varan friend. Do you know what it signifies?”
“My Uncle liked me?” She looked at the little man, then at the huge whale floating above them.
“Clearly he did. We’re motivated to help anyone that close to a Varan ambassador and we’d like to offer you some special assistance on this run.” The gnome snapped his fingers. “This is a perfect replica. I assure you, every bit as reliable as the Varan golden ones. Quite capable. Full military training, tracking, hacking, personal protection, unarmed combat.”
A robotic hyena ran up and sat on the floor in front of Zorpia. It scanned her, then nuzzled its cold metal head against her.
“It’s locked your profile. It’ll take voice commands. And since you’re short on your crew I’d like to also offer Matilda here. She has ten times the skill of any pilot droid.”
The female synthetic handed Zorpia a small ear devise and took the Scarecrow back into her hands. “Use this to talk to me and the hyena.”
Zorpia placed the transmitter in her ear. “Can you hear me?”
She heard Matilda’s voice in the transmitter but she wasn’t moving her mouth. Her yellow mechanical eyes spun behind the tumbling curls of her short-cropped haircut.
“I hear you, Captain. I have a neural implant that enables communication. I’m glad to serve your crew and the Zorr people. Scarecrow has empowered me to help in your missions. I have all the necessary background, including knowledge of your ship and planetary history.”
“I’m sure you won’t disappoint.” Zorpia didn’t know how to react to such an advanced being and she could have sworn the whale grinned at her.
The Scarecrow smiled too. “You bet she won’t. Matilda is a galaxy class Zero-G commando, the latest model. Now, let’s take a look at your ship and get you on your way.”
Three hours later they were back in space, sporting top of the line cobalt body armor. If caught wearing it, they would immediately be identified as blockade runners and sentenced to death. Zero-G combat fatigues were outlawed by the Siege Authority.
“I can’t believe how comfortable this is. It’s almost like I’m stronger and more flexible for wearing it.” Sam shadow punched the wall of cargo.
“Right? Let’s play fight.” Figgs exchanged a few blocks and jabs. Then she landed a sharp hit center chest. “Get some rest tough guy. You’re on in a couple hours.”
L. Sam climbed into his gun turret and sat back in the reclining chair. It was his safe place.
Figgs returned to the bridge with her helmet face shield down. “This armor is top notch, Matilda.”
The synthetic Zero-G pilot spun around in her chair. “I’ve interlinked their tactical interface with the Piper. The computer will calculate actions with high probable success rates and feed us sensor data. The armor deflects bio-disruptor blasts. And phasers, to an extent.”
Zorpia looked at her gauntleted forearm. It was surprisingly comfortable.
They dropped into Zorr space and immediately took fire. Matilda quicker on the controls than Zorpia could get the words out, sent the ship into a defensive spiral. Sam fired on the patrol ship every half turn when they came into view of his starboard gun.
“They’re gonna ram us!” Zorpia braced for impact.
Matilda did everything she could to avoid them until they crashed into the side of the Piper. The mercenary ship was too small to destroy them, but that wasn’t their agenda. They would board, kill the crew, and steal the supplies. They clamped on and started prying open the port hatch.
“Jam their communications. Figgs, you’ve got the bridge.” Zorpia put her finger to her ear. “Little Tiger, port hatch. Matilda, you’re with me.”
They ran out into the now packed to the ceiling cargo bay.
“You named the hyena?” Matilda asked.
“Maybe a little more than that. She reminds me of a tiger back home.”
The Little Tiger came bounding around the corner with a fresh set of blue and white stripes painted on it. When they got to the port airlock, L. Sam was staring down the barrel of his turbo rifle at the inner door.
“They’re almost in.”
“You two hang back and don’t shoot me.” Zorpia ran up to the airlock and opened the inner door.
The sound of the outer lock being cut filled the hold. Zorpia pressed herself to the left of the door and signaled the Little Tiger to hide on the right. They were out of sight of anyone coming in.
Matilda knocked over a crate and took cover behind it. Sam backed off to the end of the hall. They both fixed their eyes on the outside door.
It popped open and two battle droids ran into the airlock and through the inner door not noticing Zorpia or the Tiger. They fired on Matilda and Sam but were in the open and mowed down as they entered. Matilda took a pulse rifle hit and went down.
“Matilda!” Sam ran to her but she stood up and shook it off.
A rocket came flying out of the merc ship. It sailed past Zorpia, who pressed herself even closer against the wall and exploded on impact with the overturned crate. Zorpia’s ears rang. Sam was down and not getting up. Matilda staggered in the smoke-filled hall.
The barrel of a bio-disruptor pistol and a long white arm came through the doorway. Zorpia raised her sword and brought it down hard. Red blood splattered all over her and Little Tiger. The arm and gun dropped to the floor. Zorpia stepped out into the doorway, face to face with a screaming Klandar. His gnarly pointed teeth growled at her and his red eyes flashed pure hate. Her short sword lit up with green electricity before she slammed it into his chest.
Little Tiger rushed into the airlock. There were two more Klandars and a Gastraddar in there. Zorpia ripped her sword out of the armless one before he could grab her with his remaining hand. The Tiger savagely attacked the Gastraddar. It ran up the front of his big armored body and sunk its teeth into his neck.
Zorpia stepped back out of the doorway as the hairy thug came down with a crash. The Klandar fired at the Tiger but it didn’t stop it. Metal jaws ripped into them. Controlled bursts came from behind as Matilda entered the airlock. She fired three more times and the hall fell silent.
Little Tiger was looking into the mercenary ship like a pointing dog. Thin light beams from its eyes scanned the vessel and the data was transmitted.
“TWO LIFE FORMS MOVING TOWARD THE BRIDGE. ONE ADDITIONAL LIFE FORM AT THE CONTROLS. FOUR BATTLE DROIDS APPROACHING AIRLOCK. 23% PROBABILITY OF BOARDING AND NEUTRALIZING COMBATANTS BEFORE THE SHIPS SEPARATE.”
“Don’t. Let’s jam their doorway with this blob.”
Matilda and Zorpia each grabbed a leg of the Gastraddar and started to drag his body toward the mercenary ship’s hatch. The door began closing. Matilda grabbed Zopria and carried her out of the airlock closing the inner door behind them. They both looked through its window. Little Tiger sat at Zorpia’s feet.
The merc patrol ship pulled away and the bodies were sucked into space to float forever.
“Figgs, they’re making a run for it.” Zorpia turned to head back to the bridge.
They paused at Lucifer’s corpse. He rolled over, still alive! The armor saved him.
“That shit hurt.” He held his chest and gratefully accepted Matilda’s help up. He limped off to his gun turret a burned and bruised wreck. “Payback time, Captain.”
Back on the bridge, they heard him open fire. Figgs took the weapons station when Matilda took over piloting. Zorpia sat at navigation.
“They’re heading straight for the siege ships. TikToc, we’re gonna need everything you’ve got.”
His voice came over the intercom. “We’ll red line back to Zorr. Don’t take any side trips or we won’t make it.”
The Piper lurched forward, its three engines to capacity. The merc ship zigzagged all over the place, heading toward one battleship then changing course toward another.
Zorpia set in a direct trajectory to the southern hemisphere. The lower half of Zorr had lost its planetary defenses and it was all out land war on the subcontinent.
“Minimal defensive maneuvers on the way in.”
“Captain, we won’t be out of range of all their guns,” cautioned Matilda.
“Got a better idea?”
Positronic enhancements forced Matlida’s cloned biological brain to strain. She winced a bit as she inputted the entire data store of the Piper’s navi-computer.
She shook her head. “The current course is the best option. I’ll try to sidestep them, Captain.”
“We’re letting them go? Sam winged ‘em.” Mercenary ships notoriously hunted blockade runners and Figgs was doing everything she could to get a lock on the fleeing ship.
“Take your best shot when we pass them.”
“We can take ’em before our final run.” She wanted some kind of revenge on this trip.
“We’re going in now and that’s an order, Number One.” Zorpia gave her friend a stern smile.
The Piper rocketed past the merc ship firing wildly and drawing attention. They caught the mercs in the tail and it careened toward a siege cruiser.
“Yes!” Figgs jumped up and down in her seat. “Look at that!”
Having no choice but to defend itself, the cruiser destroyed the out of control ship. There was a moment when the explosion hung on the view screen in the silence of space. Then every siege ship above the southern hemisphere fired on the Piper. They sailed full speed into a sea of lasers.
The synthetic pilot executed every maneuver perfectly. When the crew came to, they were landed due north of the Zorr defensive stronghold. The cargo intact. The ship was on fire again and the hole that ripped all the oxygen out began filling the bridge with the soft scent of pine needles. Purple smoke billowed above the great redwood forest in sharp contrast to the sun peeking out over the horizon.
Zorpia blurrily looked at the image of home on the viewscreen. They’d done it again. The blockade runners were the planet’s only chance against the oppressive siege of Zorr.
On the outside of the ship, the playful image of the blue goat-legged god dancing before the sunrise bubbled and charred away to black. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn stole their memories of the landing and spared them the nightmares of remembering it.
Matilda, still sitting calmly at the controls, experienced it all.
An old man with a stethoscope around his neck pedaled an ancient bike across a barley field toward the smoldering wreck; ringing a tin bell as he approached.
“Anybody alive in there?”