Finish the Sci-Fi Story V: Independent's Day

control thread

The Orion was old her crew knew how to take care of her. Her original captain was Ian Marcam, who used her for ore transport. Two plasma cannons and two torpedo tubes were retrofitted when Col. Patrick Marcam pressed her into service to support the invasion of Dona Salo. These modifications were retained as Dimrak’s business soon shifted from mining to supporting Independents. Ian left the Orion to manage the family’s office and Sean Marcam, himself a veteran of minor skirmishes throughout the galaxy, took over.

Alma Armstrong (nee Möthè) had been Sean’s second-in-command for many of those skirmishes and followed her friend to his new command. She acclimated herself to the status panel very easily.

Maxwell Armstrong joined the crew purely by chance. Short a pilot, Sean had been at the helm and responded to the distress signal of a short-range hauler stuck in a decaying orbit. Orion docked with Icarus and rescued her pilot & cargo. Max was smitten with Alma almost immediately but it took a while for her to realize she felt the same about him.

Shad Polazzi’s loyalty tended to be toward whoever paid the most but there’s a lot to be said for friendship. A mercenary’s mercenary, he’s never far from his modified Blaster rifle. He wasn’t always like this, though. Shad had once been a security officer on an Alliance world, until his unorthodox methods became too much of a liability.

By far the oldest of the crew, Tormus Praetormus was an enigma. Tor was Human by all accounts but bore tattoos not unlike what a Xavvian warrior priest would have worn in times past. He seemed to come from a world that was just starting to send populated vessels away from their solar system and took to the gunner’s chair like a fish to water.

Xikartaskoor, a Renallian of Thosti heritage, was the sole obviously non-Human member of the crew. Xi’s station was the other gunner’s chair but also helped out in Engineering from time to time. Her great strength being very useful for holding heavy objects while the mechanic repaired them.

The main person responsible for keeping the old girl in one piece was Kaitlin Rowe, also the most recent addition to the crew. Kate signed on when she fixed a problem that the previous mechanic couldn’t or wouldn’t; Sean put the incumbent off then and there. One night some time after signing up, she woke to an odd, faint noise that she took to be an engine problem. Only the noise didn’t originate there; she went through the engine room and tracked the noise to the other end of the ship, where she walked in on Xi pleasuring herself with her tail! Kate stammered some apologies and backed out, leaving Xi more amused than offended. Kate’s curiosity was piqued, though, so after everyone turned in the next night she made her way back to Xi’s quarters and inquired what else the Thosti could do with her tail.

“Anything, anywhere. No questions asked.” That’s the motto of the Orion. Sometimes Sean’s subordinates wished he would ask questions once in a while; this turned out to be one of those times.

Not long after Sean reunited with his father, the Orion was hired for a very lucrative cargo originating in the deepest recesses of the Far Arm, where hi-tech and lo-tech intermingled. Where it was not unusual to see security personnel keeping peace with an old Kazan pistol while astride an ethanol-burning motorcycle.

This “lucrative cargo” didn’t exist, it was a ruse designed to lead the Orion into a trap. Someone, somewhere, wanted one of the crew to have an “accident”. To that end, a rogue android with female features presently laid in wait for the Orion to make planetfall.

Some liked change, others hated it; and still others killed it. It all depended on how much and when.

Sean and Max were on the bridge. Max was ready to exit the Dust. A pilot hates dust clouds, comet tails, asteroid belts, or whatever is too thick to see the stars through. Sean studied the childish Alliance map on the console and the stars before him. Far Arm was a place people went to but usually never came back from. Just because when you escape the main systems you don’t do it lightly and you don’t usually find a good reason to back. The quiet broke as boots echoed toward the hatch.

Sean called out, “Watch out for the -” but too late as Shad burst in. The sharp corner of a hastily wired-in viewer caught Shad a glancing blow.

“Ni hu qui,” he spat as he covered his head and drew his pistol with his opposite hand quick as lightning.

“Don’t shoot the ship,” drawled Sean without looking around. Shad glared at Max’s supressed laughter and holstered his pistol. “What the hell is that doing there?”

“Lookin’ through the Dust,” said Sean. “I’m sending out Rover along here” he said as he pointed to the navigation path on the screen.

“Why the change?” asked Shad as he nursed his head.

“This Alliance map is worthless. Scans show Rover can make us appear to exit here while we’ll be here to catch anyone who thinks an ambush is a good idea.” Shad looked it over and nodded.

“Cannons and torps are ready.”

“First thing we do is get some good maps,” said Sean. “I don’t normally like going in to a place so blind, but Home Office said the hire was a good one, so we go.” Shad buckled up and smiled. He prepared to direct any firefight and after this boring trip, he wanted one.

The torpedo loading ports and racks were in what had been one of the smaller cargo holds. Xi and Kate had just finished inspecting the Razor pods there and were on their way to buckle in when Xi started flicking her tail around, making sure to playfully brush the tip against Kate.

On her way to the bridge after taking a break in the galley, Alma rapped on Tor’s door. “'Ay, Shokan, time to end the prayer and strap in.”

“Ah, there she is” A bony appendage pointed to the holographic diagram, where a trail of orange dots showed the progress of the Orion, on its’ way to planetfall. “This is going to be easier than I thougt”. A thin and bony face, somewhat longer than a human visage, turned towards the others in the room, and looked at one in particular. “And we have you, Saunders, to thank for it.”

Charles Saunders let a little smirk show. This was going to be sweet. Not only would he have revenge on Sean Marcam for booting him out of his rightful place aboard Orion, but he’d also be showing Kaitlin Rowe and Xi their places as weel. Kat, a rank newcomer on board, had snuck behind his back and done work he’d said she wasn’t qualified for, and made him look like a fool. And Xi, who would make out with anyone, or so it seemed, had turned him down when he came on to her. She’d told him that while he might taste good( and Charlie wasn’t sure what Renallians would or wouldn’t eat) that she, Xikartaskoor, had better taste than to couple with him. Both of them, females, trying to pretend they were as good as men.

“Well, sir, as a mechanic it wasn’t all that hard to get the frequency for the Orion. It’s not surprising what you can find when you go tinkering.”

“Indeed. Well, you will recieve what we agreed upon when our agent is in place.” At that the speaker turned away to keep close watch the signal that was being tracked.

Charlie smirked even more broadly, for it wasn’t money that he was after, or how he would be “paid”.

Alma reached the bridge and settled in behind the status panel. “Any of ya eva find out what’s up with that shokan?”

“No, but not for lack of trying,” answered Sean.

“Right,” added Shad. “You know the drill. He’ll say something about a motherland then clam up.”

“What about Kate? She seems ta have a way with men…”

“Not this one,” wafted in from the mechanic’s station.

Shad thought for a moment. “I think wherever he’s from either ain’t there no more or is there and he thinks he can’t go back.”

“How’s the cargo?” asked Sean. Shad checked the monitors. Dead-heading anywhere was just not profitable, so Sean and Alma had negotiated their outbound cargo. A lot of the big holds had makeshift bunks set up for the colonists. It wasn’t easy or cheap getting out this far, but it was better than being taxed to death or just squeezed out of a place to live. Others just wanted a change from the sterile and regimented Alliance life in the Central Worlds. Still others didn’t quite fit in with polite society. To that end, the rougher elements were segregated from the settlers.

“No skirmishes or panics since we buckled 'em in two hours ago.” replied Shad. Two hours worth of lockdown was designed to spark any malcontents and get ‘em quieted before any external problems arose. Besides, Sean didn’t like a lot of talkin’ and socializing - he got too much from the crew already.

The rest of the cargo, high-precision machine parts, specialty food stuffs and goods, novelties, etc. filled the other bays. This wasn’t accounting for the Rover and the few other items Home Office loaned them - and to be sure, it was a loan - to insure the safe return of the hire.

“Well, everything looks good from the top,” interrupted Kate after she’d scanned the ship’s systems. Shad uncharacteristically held back a remark. “I’m gonna go babysit the engines in case you hotshots start doing backflips to shoot somethin’.” Sean liked Kate from the start, but not just because she was cute. Cute didn’t fix the ship - cute got people killed. No, she was sassy and fit right in. Saunders was an okay mech, but you could tell a mercenary from an opportunist, and a hire from crew.

The android registered a hauler and plotted its course. The silhouette of a naked female hung in space, lit by the monitor. She retracted the hundred meter passive sensor web and used the small propellant canister strapped to the sensor to push herself to the derelict. It was hardly more than scrap metal, some rocky ice, and just enough atmosphere to speak of the heroic story of a pilot fighting against all odds to survive a terrible collision. She set a final engine sputter to push the ship into the lane where the Orion would emerge. She set her internal systems to simulate bruises and checked that the emitter in her abdomen was transmitting the correct human readings to fool the autodocs. Then she donned the tattered suit and holed up in the little compartment to await her rescuers.

Shad Polazzi, when he’d spoken, didn’t know how close to being right his surmise about Tor was. Tormus Praetormus did have a homeworld, Norvan. Settled in the earliest days of the human diaspora from Earth, Norvan had seemed ideal, as near to being Earthlike as any found up until that point. The first colonists had intended to develop hi-tech, intensive farming techniques, and export the highest quality(not to mention the most expensive) . But thirty years after settlement a plague of unknown origins killed ninety percent of the colonists. With not enough people to maintain what had been built up, the colony had eventually dropped back into a Dark Age of sorts, losing contact with the rest of the settled galaxy. Only in the last one hundred years had the Norvans lifted themselves by their bootstraps back into space, and regained contact with other civilizations.

The grim struggle for survival had marked the Norvan character.For the most part they were a stolid and fatalistic lot, intensely focused on those traits or behaviors which contributed to the continuance of their world. And above all they prized their children, loving them intensely. Children were thier hope to grow again as a people. But while nothing they had was spared to keep children safe, nothing was wasted on those who could not have children, and Tormus, once he reached puberty and was tested, was determined to be infertile. Tor’s parents were dead in an accident and so there was nobody to contest the issue when Tor was declared outcast.

But he’d had one lucky break, if you could call it that. Instead of becoming an indentured slave, or given the choice of euthanasia, he’d been offered a chance to go offworld in the fifth spacegoing vessel the Norvans had managed to construct. The first four had all met disaster, so volunteers were scarce by now. When New Hope V met, in deep space, a Xavvian vessel both peoples were in for a culture shock. After helping the Norvans do soeme upgrade work on their vessel, they parted, and the Xavvians carried word of this “Lost World” to the human Confederated Alliance.

And that wasn’t all they carried away. Tormus had been an enbittered young man, hating the fate his people had forced on him. So he shook the dust of Norvan off of his feet and stayed with the Xavvians until, nearly five standard years later, they touched at an Alliance world and urged him to try contact with his own kind.

“You will always have a place with us” said Talanarniav, the captain of the homeship Son of the Mother. “The time you have spent with us makes you one of our own, as well as human. But truly, you need a wider, healthier contact with humans to make you whole.” Tor, still only twenty standard years old, had felt his throat tighten and he’d fought back tears. “But I can come back?” he pleaded. “Someday?”

“Of course you can! Don’t ever think otherwise. And there are ways to communicate you know!” Talanarniav had bared his rather sharp teeth in the Xavvian equivalent of a smile.”

As Son of the Mother lifted off, leaving Tor watching her vapor trail wistfully, a small meteorite, in a one in a billion chance, had struck the ship, demolishing it utterly, leaving a slack-jawed and devastated Tor behind to make his own way.

S’hova karata bayum. S’hova karata bayum.” Tor resumed his prayer as he buckled in. “S’hova karata bayum. S’ho…” He trailed off as his face changed from contemplation to one of concern. “Pikka soma?” Then he glanced around the vast openness that comprised the 270° arc around his chair, although he couldn’t see much besides dust. “Pikka soma!” Tor got the impression that they weren’t alone. Something was out there, and it wasn’t friendly.

Alma happened to look up at the newly installed viewer as they were about to leave the Dust behind. The big, green blob on the screen took a moment to register. “Holy shit!” Then, louder, “Max! Hard-a starboard and climb! Now!

Max knew that tone and it was one he did not want to debate. “Brace!” he called back as the ship went into her turn.

Sean was about to protest when the dust subsided and was quickly replaced by the biggest scavenger any of them had ever seen. Orion passed the scavenger belly-to-belly and just managed to clear her aft section. Alma’s console then went active. “Incoming message. Can’t rightly make sense of what they’re sayin’ but they sound upset.”

“Let’s hear 'em.”

“Toyota! Botswana dubai putnam!”

“Gigas? Here?

“Gigas?” asked Shad. “I thought those were stuff of fairytales!”

“You must not have met Sten.” Sean then addressed the other ship: “No, not at all. Your scanners should show that our weapons are on standby. Would you mind doing the same?”

“Nova!” The scavenger opened fire, parallel to her trajectory as opposed to at the Orion.

“Well, I see why you’d take us for an ambush. How about we even the odds?”

Alma glanced at Orion’s signal bank and noted that the sign for the Rover that had been sent out was now blank, and sensors showed debris consistent with the probe. “Sean!” she barked, “Rover’s gone, and, uh, we’re lookin’ at two vessels out there, not just the scavenger”

“Yeah, thanks” Sean replied, “I’d kind of figured that out already. Got a fix on the other one yet? We’re kinda short on time here, and Tor and Xi need to shoot something, or they’ll be upset.”

“Mmm, yep, got it! Sheesh, it’s a VMC Exegesis I. Someone’s got the credits. Older model, but it’s gonna have legs.”

“All the better for us to play with” came Xi’s voice over the comm.

Sean had maintained an open line to the Gigas ship. “you hear that?” he asked them.

“Glarp! Carruth al ensai!” was what everone else heard, but Sean told Xi and Tor “It’s open season boys and girls. Fire at will.”

Max had already gone about reversing their turn toward a heading that would put the VMC ship between them and the Gigas. Shad looked over his instruments and slammed down a fist. “Don’t hurt the ship, either,” said Sean.

“It’s them gorram ‘fairytales’! They’re in the way of my Razors!”

As if on cue, the scavenger slid toward her starboard side and gave Orion a completely clear shot. Shad absentmindedly gave a gesture of approval then keyed his console while Tor and Xi fired a few opening salvos to fine tune their bead on the VMC ship.

“Woah, hold on. Somethin’ else just showed up!”

Great, thought Sean. “What now?”

“Seems ta be a derelict, on the Gigas’ heading.”

“Okay, so now we know why they’re here.”

Tor heard “derelict” and something connected. He keyed his comm, “Derelict. Trouble.”

Tor felt his skin crawl and flashed back to that day four years after joining Tala and his family aboard the Son of the Mother. Yes, Tor had finally found a home and a family.

He is an apprentice of the Way and was leading a hunting party for the first time. He had earned his place after vigilance and perseverence. The showy teens trying to make a name for themselves and the quiet aesetics desiring only contemplation had never seen the Way. Only those with the inner sight had found the path. He wasn’t special. He just had the inner-sight to feel the ever-present truth, and he was humbled.

As the hunt progressed he felt his Pack more and more until he could sense their every movement. Suddenly he signalled a spiral charge and instinctively took up his own place in the claw formation. The pack broke through the jungle and flew at the Greel. It was only just crouching and preparing a stalk to look for Pack it hadn’t yet sensed. The Pack and the rest of the ship’s family feasted well for the next month. Tor was more attuned to the Way and was ready for his next step.

Seven thousand years previously, Xi and Xtse met on a cold and rainy evening. Xi was drawn back to Xtse and Xtse knew his brother was coming. They silently lifted a prayer for their mother, her teachings, and especially the ritual of Tea and Incense. One of many of their mother’s gifts was Discernment and a journey of forty years across the world had shown them how the Tea and Incense rituals gave them insights far beyond the usual. Xi and Xtse founded the first Order of the Way and spent the next forty years training the first of many generations.

The Order ebbed and flowed as any product of Xavkind would. The aestics never gained hold for the Way required engagement in the world and not objective study of it. The greedy never ruled for the Way required immersion in the world and not manipulation of it. The Order found the Tea ingested and the Incense inhaled or smoked heightened their perceptions. Parchment writings from the Tea leaves focussed ones thoughts and perceptions but only if one was first attuned. While Purges saw some abandon the Teachings, no one who forced their senses or their aspirations seemed to succeed in finding the Way. Only those sensing intrigue instead of manufacturing it ever felt the Way. The selfless Guardians remained and the Guardians became the Good Warriors. The Warriors took the Tea Writings and Incense Ceremonies and eveolved them into something more personal. Baths of Tea gave way to painted tatoos of Tea Ink. Then paint gave way to real tatoos and Incense wax burned the tatoos into the flesh. These tatoos were never ones to be painted on frivolously. No one who earned their tatoos except through slow application over the years ever had affinity in the Way.

Modern science lifted Xavkind to the stars and the Order still practiced its rituals of millenia. Science was distrusted at first but grew to help rather than supplant the Way. There was something in the soil and the Tea plants that was found nowhere else. It stayed in the tatoos. Teas made without the rituals lacked something that sensors were only just beginning to detect. The tatoos themselves were also important. The sign of the Claw on the elbows gave a completely different sensation from the Claw on the knees. Sensors even showed brain patterns were different and matched faint traces signalled off of different tatoos. All the science only confirmed their faith in the Order and its teachings.

The Order grew to this understanding over thousands of years and Tor always felt humbled to be given the gift of Sight into the Way.

What the Order did not yet know was that the rituals preserved a delicate process evolved over millenia. The Tea soil was prepared with natural fertilzers, the blood of Warriors, and crushed pumice from the foothills of Mt. Neehall. The blood and pumice contained microminiature particles of crystal, many two molecules on a side. These stayed in suspension with the right amount of water, and the crystals formed a three-dimensional net when subjected to the right level and duration of heat. Applied too quickly or too thick and the crystals congealed and were eliminated in waste. Applied too slowly and the net never formed. The net tuned itself in the tatoo shape and tuned itself to the other fields within the body. This crystal net was virtually undetectable due to its small size and dispersion, but orders of magnitude larger than the discrete crystals Couriers used. When non-space activity occurred, or strong or intense electromagnetic fields formed, the net sensed it and a person open to the possibilities had the chance to listen in. When Tor said he felt his skin crawl, he wasn’t just waxing poetic.

Tor’s statement had been on an open link, so all the rest of Orion’s crew heard it, and Xi, closest to him, was first to respond.

“What kind of ‘trouble’, Tor? Trouble as in threat? I have my finger on the launch button, time’s tight here!”

“Life sign aboard the derelict, feels odd” Tor wasn’t actually telepathic, but the sensitivities developed by his training made him a sort of empath. His seeming introversion was partly a result of trying to keep the feelings of others from intruding too much.

“Odd is a threat just know, if you ask me, when we’re in a fight” she rapped back. “Captain?”

Just then the Giga ship launched a salvo that caught the Exegesis I attacking a glancing blow amidships. A variety of cheers erupted on board Orion.

“Captain!” said Alma, “small breach in the hull of the attacker. She’s leaking air, and some water vapor.”

“Keep your eyes on the sensors and let me know if she’s powering up to make a run for it” Sean replied. “Can you get anything else on that derelict to back up Tor?”

“Hold on…I’m pickin’ up somethin’ new…two objects off our six, small, movin’ very fast!”

“Type and vector?”

“Passin’ us…look like…Epsilons.”

Just as Alma said “Epsilons”, a pair of two-seat Epsilon gunships passed Orion and headed off into the distance. Their crews reported to their base about three parties having a dispute over a wreck.

The passing of the Epsilons made Shad speak up. “Sean, bet those gunships were heading for their station to report. Two seaters like that, odds are they’re somebodies leos.”

“Think so?”

“Hell, I used to fly 'em, back when…well, a while back”

Max had been thinking too, and something just wasn’t right. “This is an awful lot of fuss over a piece of junk like that, unless Tor’s hunch is right”

“It is” was Tor’s terse response.

“Sean!” This was Alma coming back. “Engines signs are spiking on the Exegesis. She’s going to make a break for it!”

“That’s fine with me, I really don’t like being shot at. Think she’ll make it with that hole?”

“Probably they just self-sealed the closest bulkheads. Wish Orion could do something like that.”

“There she goes!”

“Alright people, we’re good for now. I’ll check with the Gigas and see if they want the derelict or not.”

Max brought Orion about to give Alma a better read on the wreck, ending up on a heading directly at the spot the Exegesis recently vacated. “Thanks, hon. It’s a fighter…unknown origin…hull says somethin’ like Shadaroc. What kinda name is that?”

“Fine name, if you ask me,” mumbled Shad.

Sean ambled toward Alma. “Let me see.” Could it be? Could it possibly be? He pointed at her screen. “See here? The name has a piece missing. Friends, I think that’s the,” Sean lowered his voice out of respect, “Doombringer.”

“Another gorram ‘fairytale’.”

“I think we need ta move in closer before sayin’ that.”

“I’d prefer not.” Although Sean Patrick Marcam wasn’t one given to superstition, he didn’t want anything to do with the Doombringer, or whatever her name in her native language. "Let the Gigas handle this."

Since Sean was the only person aboard Orion with a familiarity with the Gigan language he was the one to handle communications concerning the derelict. But it still strained his ability to understand. “Someone is going to make a stack of credits when they figure out how to build a translater program so we can hear them in Standard” he muttered to himself. Gigans were not particularly populous in the Confederated Alliance however, and so far nobody had thought it worth the effort into unraveling the way Gigans thought. The only reason Sean could do it was because he’d had occasional dealings with Sten Gnistu, one of the rare Gigans who bothered to learned to speak Standard.

Although he assumed that the Gigan sensors had also detected a lifesign, however faint, he transmitted what data Orion already had, including his belief that the derelict was the legendary Doombringer. And, with some trepidation, he mentioned Tor’s hunch, or suspicion, that there was “trouble” on board the hulk.

Alma monitored the derelict as Gigan tractors picked it up and hauled it aboard their own vessel. Aboard both ships preparations were made to continue on their original headings.

Orion still had a cargo to deliver, and money to make, so Sean was about to tell Max to take the conn and head them on for Engedi, their original heading, and mostly likely where the Epsilons had come from. They’d have to be extra cautious in their approach because of that.

Suddenly their was a comm from the Gigan ship. **“Tootsie! Muffin! Litter!” ** And it was loud too. The translator might be able to give no more than a garbled message, but they were programmed to increase volume based on tempo and tone. It didn’t take a linguist to tell that something unusual was going on over there.

Inertial movement with three large magnetic flux vectors - Gigan tractors. Apparently an assist to get this derelict to the Orion.

The tractor looked like a makeshift scaffold with bright oval rings on each side and one over the top. The operator sat in a center seat clad in a spacesuit since the tractor had no cabin or comforts to speak of. Three tractors were used to maneuver the derelict into the hold. It touched down none too gently. The android read the grav plates and knew this wasn’t the Orion.

It performed a lite scan and mapped the vessel. This was the Gigan vessel. It shed the clothes carefully preparing to use them later. Stealth mode was activated and it reformed its exterior into a space black facade. It exited onto the hangar deck. Analysis determined twenty-seven point three minutes to eliminate the impediments before the mission could be resumed.