Well folks, Nano Wrimo has begun. I’ve broken ground on the sequel/prequel to An Unproven Concept, and here’s the first bit in rough draft form.
Chapter 1: When Next We Meet
Spartan Man of War (SMW) The Taken Umbrage
0345 Spartan Military Time (SMT) / 0145 Standard Spacefarer’s Time (SST)
Ellylon /Yankee 975 System
15 December 3035
The command console’s sudden beeping in his ear caused Leftenant Ian Campbell to startle in his seat. While the young Spartan managed to hold onto all of his cards, the sharp upwards motion of his knee caught the edge of the small table set up between The Taken Umbrage’s helm and weapons station. With a spray of colored chips, cards, and the weapons officer’s ration cubes, the table and its contents floated upwards towards the bridge’s roof.
Smooth move, Campbell, Ian thought, his ruddy face coloring in embarrassment as he stretched for the nearest poker chips. Catching two, his thumb clipped a third one and sent it spinning towards his face shield in the zero-g compartment.
“I got the chips,” Midshipman Yubani Mendoza said, giggling as the brown plastic piece skipped off the clear front of Ian’s thimble shaped helmet. “You get the console.”
Taking a moment to watch as Yubani launched herself gracefully after the cloud of poker chips, Ian fought the urge to shout in frustration.
First time I’ve been kicking her ass in five months and the damn console decides to see another ghost, he thought disgustedly. Hell, first time anyone has been winning poker against her since we came out here.
The console beeped once more, reminding Ian once again what had broken up their mid-watch poker game. Finishing his chair swivel, Ian pressed his finger into the corner of the cold touch screen. There was a slight tingle as his suit and the touchscreen exchanged their security handshakes confirming that, yes, indeed the small corvette’s weapons officer wished to interface with the central computer.
I’m not saying that small ship designers are paranoid, Ian thought, but if someone wanted to kill the entire crew I doubt using the central computer would be the method. Hello airlock, sure I’d like to vent the atmosphere, good day powerplant I’d like to make a su…
The sarcastic space shanty died in his throat as the screen displayed what had interrupted their poker game.
Mother of God, Ian thought, suddenly unable to swallow or even breathe. Whipping his eyes to the screen’s side, Ian checked to make sure the ship’s computer had not accidentally initiated a training exercise. Taking a single ragged breath as his eyes told him that, no, The Taken Umbrage’s XO was not playing one of her sadistic tricks, Ian’s mind had one last moment of unabashed terror before his training kicked in. Turning, he whistled to get Mendoza’s attention just as the younger officer was gathering the final poker chip.
“Midshipman Mendoza, go wake up the Captain, the Executive Officer, and the Chief Engineer in that order,” Ian said quickly and steadily. “Tell them we have an unidentified contact, course oh nine oh and range 3 AUs relative. Do not awake any other crew, then report back to your station.”
Mendoza turned to look at him, her brown eyes broadening until the whites were terribly highlighted against her tan skin.
“Now, Yubani,” Ian said, gesturing. Nodding quickly, her face set, Mendoza spun her slight frame and gracefully kicked off the overhead. Arcing her body, she passed through the bridge’s hexagonal hatch and was gone.
Turning back to the sensor screen, Ian watched as the single blip continued to move from port to starboard of the Taken Umbrage’s facing. Ellylon system was relatively sparse, its five planets’ orbits all within six AUs of the single neutron star a little over 175 million kilometers behind the corvette’s stern.
‘Where were you when it all went to Hell, Daddy?’ Ian thought quietly. ‘Oh Princess, Daddy had a front row seat when the shit hit the…’
“Campbell, I really hope this isn’t a sensor ghost,” Lieutenant Commander Kirtida Gorman said as she floated onto the bridge. Still fastening up her suit with her left hand, the Taken Umbrage’s XO rubbed her eyes with the right. “I was in the middle of a great dream.”
“Ma’am, the contact has changed course,” Ian said, taking a look back at his screen.
Kirtida paled as much as her honey toned complexion would allow. Narrowing her blue eyes, she swam to the captain’s chair. Strapping herself in, she reached down and slid the furniture’s heavy readout screen up and over in front of her. Taking a stylus, she began hurriedly displaying, then rewinding the last five minutes of sensor coverage relayed from the passive buoys at the system’s edge.
“Who did you tell Mendoza to wake up?” Gorman asked, then nodded after Ian relayed the information. “Good. Old man’s gonna want to have time to think on this one.”
As if summoned by Gorman’s statements, the Taken Umbrage’s commanding officer was the next to pass through the hatchway. Waving down Gorman before she could stand, Commander Jung-Hee Song snatched a stray poker chip out of midair. Continuing into the bridge area, Song tucked his legs up and activated the magnetic soles of his uniform boots. With a slight metallic clank!, Song’s feet stuck to the deck, allowing him to walk over to Ian’s console. Standing, he was just barely taller than Ian sitting, but with broad shoulders and a narrow waist that emphasized just how muscular the Taken Umbrage’s commanding officer was.
“Well, that’s definitely not a rogue planet,” Commander Song said quietly as the contact began decelerating, then changed course once more. “Or a sensor ghost.”
“Looks like it’s going to do an orbit of Fairfolk,” Ian stated, referring to the Ellylon system’s fourth planet.
“Makes sense,” Song replied. “Only thing that looks remotely habitable.”
All three Spartan officers watched as their unknown contact settled in around the medium-sized planet. Ian looked from Song to Gorman, both of them keeping perfectly straight faces. Looking at him past the command screen, Gorman met his gaze levelly.
“A problem, Lieutenant Campbell?” she asked.
“Trying to figure out if I’m the butt of some elaborate prank XO,” Ian said after a moment. Gorman and Song shared a look, then turned back to him.
“Sometimes there are things one needs to know, Lieutenant,” Commander Song said. “Then there are things that one needs to just accept and continue doing their duty. Speaking of which, start to charge the main battery. With the primary closer to us than them, I doubt the bit of extra energy is going to show up on their sensors.”
“Aye aye, captain,” Ian said, turning back to his console and pressing the necessary controls. The Taken Umbrage’s sixteen railguns were arranged in broadside mounts, eight to a side. In rapid fire mode the rail guns could deliver a veritable hailstorm of duranium projectiles each the size of a medicine ball.
Of course, those projectile won’t do shit against anything much bigger than us, Ian thought grimly. Which is why we have the missiles. Arranged in four silos that ran the length of the corvette’s centerline, twenty Angon missiles arguably gave the Taken Umbrage the ability to punch far above her 25,000 ton displacement.
“Do we have any estimates on that thing’s size yet, Ian?” Song asked, looking up as Yubani reentered the bridge. Pushing off the bulkhead, Yubani executed a near flawless midair flip that allowed her to catch the comms / helm seat with her feet. Folding forward, she braced herself on Ian’s shoulder, then twisted into the seat and strapped herself in.
“No really, people, turn on your magboots,” Song said, chuckling. “If they can detect that energy at this range through the pulsar behind us, we’re fucked. Although that was pretty impressive, Midshipman Mendoza.”
Yubani colored slightly behind her face shield, then turned back to her console. After a moment of looking over at her, Ian did the same. After a couple of minutes of tense silence, the sensor suite beeping caused them all to jump.
“Contact’s size is estimated at approximately 35,000 tons, three hundred meters,” Ian said, reading the print scrolling next to Fairfolk on his screen. Touching the screen, he separated his scrolling key from that of the command console’s and zoomed in on Fairfolk. After a moment’s glitch, he found himself looking at the dark, irradiated rock with the contact’s icon circling it. With a flare of energy, the contact finished its deceleration and established a geosynchronous orbit around the distant world.
Thank you for becoming relatively stationary, Ian thought. In a process that seemed painstakingly slow but was likely only a couple of minutes, the sensor buoys used the radiated energy from Fairfolk like a back light in a photo box to paint an outline of the other vessel. The alien interloper was shaped like an elongated kitchen baster, with the bulb end five times thicker than the rest of the hull. Opening a smaller window to study the sensor feed of the deceleration, Ian determined that the narrow end was forward, the thicker end aft.
Slightly heavier than us, but there can’t be much protection with a hull that thin, Ian thought.
“Looks like she’s almost all engines, doesn’t she?” Commander Song asked.
Forgot the old man was still standing there, Ian thought.
“Yes, Sir,” Ian replied. “But I can’t imagine she doesn’t have something to sting with in that hull.”
Song shook his head.
“I imagine this is a reconnaissance ship,” he replied. “Or an explorer. I can’t imagine any military vessel coming in that recklessly.”
That was a little careless, Ian agreed silently.
“Sir, do you want to move us out to engage?” the XO asked. Out of the corner of his eye, Ian could see Gorman leaning forward in the command seat almost like a Kursk Simishark leaning out of the shallows towards prey.
Yep, the unpleasant surprise of a predator with gills, an IQ to rival a Terran orangutang’s, and jaws that can sever a leg, Ian thought. That about sums up the XO if she had her own ship right now.
“No XO,” Song said, his tone that of a long suffering gang leader having to rein in his favorite hitman. “Let’s observe our friend for a little bit. If she comes further in, then we’ll get a look see.”
Gorman’s face briefly showed what she thought of that idea.
“Aye aye, Sir,” she said, her tone even.
“Think about it, XO,” Song said conversationally. “You saw how quickly she decelerated to get into orbit. We come out of this pulsar shadow like a bloodhound on crack, that thing just might lead us grabbing vacuum on the way to get some friends.”
Gorman thought about it for a second, then nodded with a slightly sheepish look.
The Umbrage is not a slow ship in sublight, Ian thought. But it looked like that contact pulled double the deceleration we’re rated for, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. If the Taken Umbrage had been a human rather than a warship, she would have been best described as “inching towards middle age.” There were faster and stronger corvettes and destroyers in the fleet…but that was why the Umbrage was on the proverbial picket line and not them.
“That being said,” Song continued, “let’s go ahead and start generating a fire solution for the Angons. If she comes into system that fast, a barrage to the face might be just the advantage we need to close within railgun range.”
With a press of several more buttons, Ian activated the missiles’ onboard telemetry. The Angons began to take input from the Taken Umbrage’s sensor relay. While far, far outside of the missiles’ range even with a ballistic profile, being backlit by Fairfolk allowed the Angons’ sensors to get a good, solid image of what their prey looked like.
Helps not to be fooled by a decoy if you know what the real deal looks like, Ian thought. Leaving the missiles to do their thing, he turned back to regard the other vessel.
“How long until the Wayward Lich is in line of sight?” Song asked, referring to the Taken Umbrage’s companion patrol vessel. Ian saw Yubani regard the system map.
“Cynon will be around the primary in ten minutes, Sir,” Yubani replied, referring to the system’s second planet. After a moment, a blue icon with dashed edges winked into being near Cynon’s moon.
“Here’s to hoping they’re watch was as attentive as ours was,” Song said.
Or that Commander Meeker isn’t as aggressive as Lieutenant Commander Gorman, Ian thought. The Wayward Lich was a newer, faster vessel than the Taken Umbrage. If she used Cynon’s gravity to slingshot, she just might have a chance of catching the intruder.
“I take it Midshipman Mendoza continues her unbeaten streak at poker?” Song said, breaking Ian’s concentration.
Ian and Yubani shared a look of mutual embarrassment.
“Lieutenant Campbell was having better luck than most, Commander,” Yubani replied with a slight smile. Ian saw Gorman raise an eyebrow, the command screen keeping her from the midshipman’s line of sight.
“Interesting. Well, XO, since you’re already in the chair, I’m going back to sleep until the Lich is in comm laser range,” Song said. Gorman looked up in surprise, then realized she’d been behind the eight ball pretty much since Song had come into the compartment.
“Aye aye, Sir,” Gorman said.
“No starting interstellar conflicts while I’m gone,” Song continued. “If she gets within 1 AU, bring us to modified yellow alert.”
“Aye aye, Sir,” the XO said. To Ian’s surprise, she sounded almost relieved at Song’s instructions.
“Lieutenant Campbell, Midshipman Mendoza has three tells,” Song said over his shoulder while he walked towards the hatch. “XO can get you the bridge camera files if you’re really interested.”
Ian felt his jaw drop as the hatch closed behind Umbrage Actual.
“Incidentally, Lieutenant Campbell,” Lieutenant Commander Gorman said conversationally, “I didn’t actually break my ex-husband’s leg. That was the six meter drop to the street. If you must know, I wasn’t waving at butcher knife either.”
Yubani turned to look at Ian, her eyes wide in horror. Ian felt the blood rush to his face.
“And it was my sister he was sleeping with, not my superior officer,” Gorman continued. “Now close your mouth, you’re going to start making your suit wonder why you’re hyperventilating.”
Ian did as he was told, turning back to his console almost in shock. The Umbrage’s most recent refit had seen several of the cameras added for “damage control purposes.”
They had said the audio features hadn’t been added yet, Ian thought.
“Don’t feel bad,” Gorman stated. “Lieutenant Drummond apparently believes the rumor that I actually castrated the poor man and made him listen to his balls sizzle in the waste incinerator.”
Ian looked and saw that Yubani was nervously glancing over at him.
Planet awkward, he thought.
“That’s just what I said I was going to do before he jumped out the window,” Gorman said with a laugh. The sound made the hairs stand up n the back of Ian’s neck. Before he could start to slouch behind his seat, the console gave yet another sharp tone.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ian thought. The contact had broken orbit from Fairfolk and was accelerating. After a moment, the Taken Umbrage’s computers assigned a vector line to the icon. Looking, Ian saw that the lengthening line took the vessel to the ecliptic “east” and away from The Taken Umbrage. As he watched, the line almost doubled in a couple of heartbeats.
Okay, no, not even the Lich is catching that thing, Ian thought. I really hope that she is unarmed, because weapons plus engines of that power will be a tough out…
“Looks like she’s accelerating to hyperspace,” Gorman said.
“Shall I wake Commander Song?” Ian asked, reaching for his seat buckle.
“What? So he can increase gravity and slow that thing down?” Gorman snorted.
Before Ian could reply, there was a momentary flash on the sensor screen as the intruder ripped a hole in normal space. A moment later, the dark maroon of a hyperspace event signaled the contact had left. Looking at the clock, Gorman’s eyes narrowed.
“No poker,” the XO ordered. “Talk about home, talk about your first pet, talk about whether the North Americans or the Chinese started the Great War. But you keep your eyes glued to those screens, and send Mendoza to come get me if anything happens.”
“Aye aye, XO,” Ian and Yubani said in unison.
“Failing that, you wake me up twenty minutes before you wake up the old man,” Gorman continued, unbuckling her belt then activating her magshoes. “Not a word about the bridge cameras to anyone else, either. Old man isn’t using them to spy, per se—he’s just trying to figure out who works well together.”
That explains all the watch rotations, Ian thought.
“Aye aye, XO,” he said. Gorman started heading for the door, then stopped.
“Incidentally, Campbell, how is your ancient Cantonese?” Gorman asked. “I see you took three years of it as a cadet.”
“Passable XO,” Campbell said, then continued in Cantonese, “I wouldn’t want to give someone instructions on how to dismantle a rail gun with it, but I can manage.”
Gorman gave a knowing smile at that.
“Brush up on it a bit,” she replied. “Especially phrases you may use in a boarding action.”
With that, Gorman passed through the hatch. It closed behind her, leaving Yubani and Ian in awkward silence.
“I’m so sorr…” Ian started.
“I didn’t mean to miss…” Yubani said simultaneously. They both stopped, laughing at the other.
“I get the feeling there’s something they’re not telling us,” Ian said after a moment’s pause.
“Gee, could it have been that very large pachyderm that danced around the bulkheads?” Yubani replied sarcastically, then added a sheepish, “Sir.”
“I wonder what else they’ve heard?” Ian thought, turning back to his console. Yubani was quiet for a moment, and he turned to see her face starting to blush under her light brown complexion.
“Is there something you’d like to tell me, Midshipman Mendoza?” Ian asked.
“Yes, Sir, my first pet’s name was Mephistopheles,” Yubani replied flatly.
Okay, I’m not going to press my luck, Ian thought. But if ever I wish I could read minds.