My just released novel
“Look, Doug, you know the rules.” Li Zhang, owner and commander of the free trader Jin Long leaned back in his chair and looked past lowered lids at Doug Ephraimsen, one of the ship’s maintenance crew.
Ephraimsen stood slouched in front of Li’s desk, his hands clasped in front of him and his head bowed. “Skipper, I…”
“Moderate drinking is permitted off duty,” Li leaned forward and tapped one finger in the center of his desk. “Falling down drunk in the messroom is not.”
The desk, and the small office in which it stood, was the one luxury Li allowed himself aboard ship, and that was a luxury with a purpose. His sleeping quarters were no larger than any other crewperson’s, but the job of running the ship, of arranging cargos, of dealing with customs and tariffs, of managing fuel and other expenses, all required workspace and could not be done in his bunk. And dealing with crew discipline problems required privacy.
“Yes, sir,” Ephraimsen said. “I understand, but…”
“But I didn’t order a BAC test, is that it?”
“No, I didn’t. But is there any doubt what one would have shown?”
Ephraimsen slumped farther. “No, sir. Guess not.”
“Since I didn’t,” Li said, “I don’t have to charge you with drunkenness. That means we don’t put you ashore at the next port. Considering that we’re deep in Eres space and our next stop is the Eres colony Chiktaka, I would think you would thank me.”
Ephraimsen looked up, meeting Li’s eyes for the first time since Li had called him into the office. “Sir…thank you.”
Li nodded. “That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. We still have disruptive conduct. For that, I’m docking you two week’s pay. In addition, you are forbidden to drink alcohol during the rest of the voyage. Are we clear on that?”
“Yes, sir.” Ephraimsen nodded. “No drinking. Two weeks’ pay.”
“Cheer up,” Li said. “With this cargo the bonus will be enough to more than make up the pay. Stay dry. Stay clean. And you can finish your contract with a clean record.” He stood up. “Break my rules again, however, and…”
“No, sir. You can count on me, sir.”
“Good.” Li held out a hand. After a moment’s hesitation Ephraimsen took it. “Back to work. Dismissed.”
After Ephraimsen had left, Li turned his attention to the other occupant of the room. “Well, Brenda, what do you think?”
Brenda Coll, engineering officer and first mate on the Jin Long snorted. “You’re getting soft in your old age, Zhang.”
“He’s young. First offense. I think he’ll make a fine crewman once he settles in and learns that the rules are there for a reason and I expect them to be obeyed.”
“Like I said, you’re getting soft.”
Li’s lips twitched in the hint of a smile and then his expression turned serious. “That aside, I’m a bit concerned about your latest engineering report.” He pointed with an open hand at one of the wall seats before lowering himself into his own chair.
Coll folded a seat out of the wall and sat. “Thought you might be. We’ve picked up a flutter in the starboard wormhole trap.” She held up both hands. “It’s not critical, not even dangerous, nor is it likely to become so, but it is increasing our fuel expenditure.”
“Four percent,” Coll said. “We should be okay but that cuts into our reserve more than I like. I recommend we refuel before returning home.”
“That means paying Eres prices for fuel.”
Coll nodded. “Better than paying for a tanker to come get us.”
“Agreed. Anything else?”
“One of the water recyclers is down. I recommend a first level water restriction until we get it fixed.”
The communicator next to Li’s bed chimed. He wiped sleep out of his eyes with his right hand while pressing the comm switch with his left. “Li. What’s up?”
“We’re passing the Chiktaka outer beacons, Skipper,” Linda Small said from the bridge. “You wanted to be called.”
“Thank you. I’ll be up shortly.”
First level water restriction meant no shower, so Li wiped down with an anti-bacterial cloth before dressing. Less than five minutes passed before he entered the bridge.
The bridge was small, no more than five square meters of floor space. A holotank occupied one wall, currently displaying their approach to the Chiktaka system. To the left and right, consoles containing engineering and navigation repeaters stood convenient to the ship’s watch officer, a role Small currently filled.
Linda Small sat back in the watch seat. Although people still said one “stood” watch, procedure was to be seated and strapped in during watch. Even from behind, Li could see that her gaze was intent on the holotank and the ever-changing numbers that floated next to each of the various icons within it.
Small was of average size, about 168 centimeters tall, and 60 kilograms. She kept her dark brown hair short in a style that feathered back from her face in a wedge shape. She had olive skin and tended to favor dark colors in her dress, like the black pants and dark gray tunic she currently wore.
Coll, the only other occupant of the room, stood close behind Small. She looked back at Li. “Just in time, Skipper. We’ll be dropping sublight soon.”
Li nodded. “Report?”
“Wormhole density is falling off as we near Chiktaka’s primary. Standard falloff rate for this class star. We’ve reduced pseudospeed to maintain fuel efficiency.”
Small had been with the crew for about a year, working nav, a steady, competent worker. Coll had recently started putting her on bridge watch.
“Standard profile. Standard approach,” Coll said softly.
“Standard profile. Standard approach, sir.” Small said with exaggerated confidence.
“Thank you,” Li stepped closer and looked up into the tank. His practiced gaze took in the readings and confirmed Small’s report. “Time to sublight?”
Small looked up, glanced at the nav repeater to her side and said, “Coming up on the mark…now.”
As always, there was no discernable change as their pseudospeed dropped below the speed of light. Some people claimed to be able to feel the transition. Li thought those people were deluding themselves.
“Hail the nearest comm repeater,” Li said. “Let them know we’re here.”
“Yes, sir.” Small spoke softly into the microphone at her seat.
“Recorded message back from the repeater,” Small said. “We’re to proceed straight in to Chiktaka. We’ll be hailed as we approach the planet.”
Coll looked down as Small then back to Li. “That’s…different.”
Li agreed. Previous ventures into Eres space always had control directing them to a specific approach vector and warning that a customs boat would meet them. He sighed. “Well. Whatever’s going on, those are our instructions. Make it so, Ms. Small.”
Starships do not run on Helium three, Li thought, but on paper, or rather its electronic analog. At least the three hours he’d spent in his office had allowed him to finish the various forms he would need on arrival at Chiktaka, including fuel usage reports, a note on the wormhole trap flutter and the effect it had on fuel use, pingback readings from various navigational beacons along their route, all to show that they had not deviated from their flight plan.
The Eres did not want outsiders wandering. The headaches were why most small traders preferred not to deal in Eres space.
The comm on his desk pinged.
“Li,” he said.
“Coll, Skipper. We still haven’t heard anything from Chiktaka since the recorded message. I’m getting a bit concerned.”
Li glanced up at the chrono. “I can see why. Any explanations?”
“I kind of pointed our sensors insystem.”
“Uh, Brenda, Eres policy? You want to bring a Lesser Claw down on our heads?”
“Passives only, I swear. The primary shows signs of recent flare activity which could have affected in system comms but…look, could you switch on your office holo and let me slave it.”
Li tapped a few keys on the computer console built into his desk and the front half of his office filled with a holographic display.
“That’s a lot of traffic,” Li said as he read the various icons. “More than I’d expect from what I know about Chiktaka.”
“More than that,” Coll said. “Let me put up the extracted course data.”
Coll had served as an engineer in the Terran fleet during the last war but had experience as a Tac officer as well. She knew how to squeeze information out of a ship’s sensors.
Lines extruded from the icons representing ships. More than half of those ships were headed outsystem, not just outsystem, but…
“They’re heading our way.”
“Not exactly,” Coll said, “but contra-parallel to our course. Now look as I project forward…”
The icons moved; the seemingly random positions and speeds coalesced into a clear formation by the time they reached…
“They’ll have us surrounded.”
“Yes, sir.” Coll paused. “Skipper, maybe I’m overreacting, but may I suggest we get the hell out of Dodge?”
“Thank you, Brenda. I think you’re right.”
Li tapped on the comm unit. “Bridge, Li.”
“Bridge here, Small speaking.”
“Bridge, I want a reciprocal course now. Maximum speed we can maintain at this wormhole density.”
“Skipper, Eres traffic regs state…”
“They can fine me. We are leaving.”
Li sighed. “Linda, either something very bad happened here or we just dropped into the opening of a fourth Eres war. Either way, our first priority is to get home. Clear.”
“Clear, Skipper. Um, do you want to take the con?”
“I’ll be there shortly. I want to consult with engineering first.”
Ndereba’s, located just off the main shuttle station in Jakakalat, the capital city of Chakentak, served the cuisine of a dozen worlds with an emphasis on the food of sub-Saharan Africa. As one of the few restaurants run by offworlders, this made it popular with visitors to the Eres homeworld.
Tanaka sat at a booth near the entrance sipping an iced tea. The privacy screen, another of the features that made Ndereba’s popular, was currently turned off.
“Hey, Captain Tanaka.”
Tanaka looked up. The large figure of Captain Bill Jeffers loomed in the midnight blue of the Terran Space Fleet; the wide grin that Tanaka thought was a permanent feature splitting his face.
“You forget how to read rank insignia?” Tanaka wiggled his wrist, flashing the braid of a Commander.
“We got the list before coming out. It’s early yet, but you made it. Congratulations.”
Tanaka smiled and waved at the seat across from him. “Join me?”
“I’d love to, but I’m meeting the Captain of the Cuyahoga. It’s been more than a year since we last had a chance to talk.”
Tanaka laughed. “Talk, is it? Just because I was a year behind you at the academy doesn’t mean I didn’t know what was going on. Yes, I know who’s got the Cuyahoga.”
Jeffers’ laugh matched his grin, big and loud.
“Seriously, have a seat. You can give me the news from home before she gets here, and you get caught up in your…talk.”
“I’ll have you know that the bar just received a shipment of Earth stock bourbon.”
Jeffers dropped into the seat opposite Tanaka with an audible thump. “You’ve talked me into it.”
Tanaka grinned and thumbed the booth’s privacy screen active. At the same time, he activated the portable unit at his belt.
The smile on Jeffers face faded a fraction. “What’s up? I really do have a date with Elaine, so…”
“You did a border sweep before coming here. Anything odd on that?”
“Only if you count boring as odd,” Jeffers said. “We didn’t even ping any Eres ships.”
Jeffers shook his head. “Not a one. That mean something?”
“You’re about the fifth ship that reported that in the last month. One, maybe two, without any Eres contact would be normal, but five? Either the Eres are concealing themselves from routine scans in that area or…”
“Or they’re not there. And if they’re not there, they’re somewhere else.”
“Then the other half of my report might make more sense.”
Tanaka tilted his head and waited.
“On the way in, we ran a full passive scan. Every single repair or construction dock in view is occupied. Every single one. And it’s not new construction, it’s repairs. There’s also some new base construction in the outer reaches of the system. They may have thought it was beyond our detection range, but my sensor tech is good. It looks like they’re building new docks, a lot of new docks.”
“What do you think it means?” Tanaka had his own ideas but wanted to hear Jeffers’ thoughts.
“I think that we’ve fought these guys three times. It looks like it’s somebody else’s turn. I do not want to do it again.”
Tanaka laughed. “That’s a good point, a very good point indeed.”
“How much longer?” Li shouted over the sound of the welder. The temporary patch was holding, and air had been restored to this part of the ship. Once they had the plate welded into place they’d be secure again.
“Another ten minutes, Skipper,” Tom Jeardine, the engineering second shouted back. “We won’t be factory spec, but she’ll hold against anything but another direct hit.”
“It’ll have to do,” Li said. “Good job.”
He paused then said, “Bridge, Li here.” The communicator clipped to the collar of his tunic immediately connected him to the ship’s bridge.
“Li, Coll. Go ahead.”
“How are we doing up there? Still keeping ahead of our shadow?”
“Yes, sir,” Coll said. “But we can’t keep up this pace for much longer. Fuel use…”
“I’m aware of that, Bridge. We’ll take ten more minutes to repair battle damage, then bring us around. This time let’s take the fight to them.”
Coll’s warning, and Li’s order to flee, had almost been in time. Most of the ships that had been attempting to englobe them had fallen behind as the Jin Long went to maximum speed. Two of them, however, had held on. Coll had identified them as the Mark VI edition of the Eres Second Claw class ship. While they couldn’t quite match the Jin Long’s top speed, they had longer legs.
With fuel already depleted, the Jin Long did not quite have the speed to get out of sensor range before she would run low on fuel and have to slow anyway. Li had kept their speed a bit slower than the Second Claws’, allowing them to slowly catch up.
One of the two had sprinted ahead of the other and opened fire with tunnel cannon. In a brief engagement the Jin Long had managed to damage the drive of that ship, forcing it to drop away. Li had ordered the Jin Long to accelerate, still not at her fastest possible speed, but enough to pull away from its single remaining pursuer.
“Listen, Brenda,” Li said. “I’ve given some thought to your suggestion.”
“That they’re not Eres over there?”
“Either that or they’re first year cadets or something. Letting us catch one of them alone was stupid.”
“Book taught,” Coll said. “They’re good at prepared maneuvers like that englobing attempt but not at making decisions on the fly.”
“We can’t escape this guy by running. Our only choice is to fight. He outguns us quite a bit, but if he fights stupid like the other one…can we take him?”
“Like you said, Skipper; it’s our only choice. We’ll take him.”