Authors: Stefan Mazzara
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction
by Stefan C Mazzara
Dedicated to my family, my friends, and to everyone who encouraged me to take it to this point
- 1 -
“Alright, Jack, here's your assignment. I know you've been complaining about the pay recently, but I can't give you a raise so I did the next best thing. I've given you a military transport detail, so you'll qualify for some hazard pay.”
Jack Squier grimaced a little as he reached out and took the slip of paper from his supervisor. He rubbed his jaw, reaching further up to scratch through his sandy blonde hair as he read out the assignment. When he got halfway through it he looked up, blinking his dark blue eyes at the man seated at the desk in front of him.
“You've got me running combat supplies?” he asked, wanting to make sure he understood. “Seriously? I'm looking at this manifest you just handed me and I'm seeing nothing except rifles, ammunition, and military rations.” Jack turned his eyes back to the sheet, reading the rest. His jaw dropped. “And you've got me on a course that takes me right through a hot zone. In fact, you're sending me straight through Ascendancy territory. What gives? This isn't the kind of job they usually give to civilian pilots.”
Jack's supervisor raised his hands in a helpless sort of shrug. “Hey, Jack, I don't make the routes, okay? This assignment comes direct from naval command. Word on the street is that the UN Navy is running low on transport ships, so they're turning to the civilian fleet to pick up the slack.” The man leaned forward in his chair. “Besides, you did your bit in the Navy, right? I mean, you were a fighter pilot. That's how you got this freighter job in the first place.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Boss, I did my two year minimum like everyone else, yeah? And yeah, I was a pilot, but I got out as soon as I could.” He looked back at the paper, biting his lip. “And I never saw combat action, I only flew escort missions. The closest I ever got to an Ailian ship was seeing a captured cruiser in dry dock out in the Centauri sector. Besides, I enlisted a decade ago, before the war really started getting serious.”
“Alright, then,” the boss said. He reached for the slip of paper. “If you don't want the job...”
Jack jerked the paper back. “Hey, whoa, I didn't say that! This is a six-figure cargo run, and I need the money.” He scanned the sheet again, taking a deep breath. “Alright, I'll take it...When do I leave?”
“Tomorrow. Here's your key card.” The boss handed him a small strip of metal about the size and shape of a credit card. “We're giving you the
. She's got decent armor, weapons, and shields. Not the most maneuverable ship, but she should get you there in one piece, and she's fast as long as you're not trying to take any tight turns out there.”
“Well, let's hope I don't run into any trouble,” Jack said, frowning. “Can't give me something smaller? The
“Not large enough to handle the cargo you're carrying. The
is the largest cargo ship we have that still carries a one-man crew. Relax, Jack, you're only gonna be in Ailian space for two realspace stops. The rest of it's hyperspace until you get to the Antaeus sector. By then you'll be well within friendly territory. Don't worry about it. Besides, you hate working with other people, remember? Consider this a blessing.”
Jack walked out of his boss' office into a typical New York City afternoon, looking back over his shoulder at the sign. “Stellar Horizons”, it read, and underneath was emblazoned the company slogan “You have it, we'll ship it! Lightspeed guaranteed!” He shook his head.
What a cheesy slogan...
Jack walked down the street, heading for his apartment. A lot had changed in New York in the last ten years. For one thing, there were a lot more recruiting posters than there used to be. Everything had ramped up since the war with the Ailians had begun in earnest.
Like most humans, Jack could remember how it all began. He'd been sixteen years old when colony planets started reporting probing attacks from an unknown source. At first, everyone had just assumed it was the usual: smugglers or pirates trying to score. That theory had been blown out of the water when an entire colony on one of the Outer Milky Way worlds had been completely destroyed...with nothing being taken. Ships responding to the distress call had reported finding no survivors, locating nothing salvageable, and most unusual of all had spotted ships of an unknown type at the edge of the system, rapidly leaving the area.
These hit and fade attacks had continued for nearly a year, and then finally a naval unit had managed to respond to an attack before the enemy ships could flee. What they had discovered had changed the course of human history.
First contact had been made with the Ascendancy, an empire spanning several galaxies inhabited by the feline race of the Ailians. Looking as a cross between a ten-foot-tall human and a Bengal tiger, the Ailians were strong, ruthless, and extremely protective of their territory. And as it just so happened, humanity had unknowingly begun to encroach upon that territory. Thus humanity had entered into war with the Ascendancy, just as determined to expand their borders and claim much-needed resources as the Ailians were to retain them and take over human territory for their own.
For much of the beginning of the war, humanity seemed to have the advantage. The Ailians were fond of their style of hit and fade, preferring to strike hard and fast and then disappear quickly, often before they could establish any kind of a foothold. UN Naval Command foolishly assumed that it meant they far outnumbered the Ascendancy in terms of naval strength, and pressed their campaign deep into Ascendancy space. Then the enemy had revealed the true strength of their forces, launching a blistering counterattack, dividing and pushing back the UN fleets. Before command had fully adjusted to the new situation, the fleets were separated, holding islands of colony worlds within the main body of Ascendancy space. This had led to the current situation where private cargo carriers were being hired to ferry supplies to the stranded fleets, keeping them restocked and repaired so that they wouldn't be overrun.
Jack shook his head again.
Listen to me, giving myself a history lesson...
He made his way back to his apartment. Small as his salary was, and even with his pittance of a military pension, all that Jack could afford was a cramped little one-bedroom affair on the second floor of a fifty-story building. At least, it would have been cramped if he'd still been sharing it with someone. But she'd left a few years ago, and he had the place to himself.
His stack of takeout menus was in its usual spot on the kitchen counter, and he picked them up, wondering what it would be tonight. Jack looked at the refrigerator and contemplated cracking open a beer, but he decided against it. Knowing him, one beer would become three, or four, or five, and come morning he'd be too hung over to be able to fly. And he'd already called out sick enough times this year that once more would see him in an unemployment line next week.
Jack sighed. He'd fallen a long way since he'd been a brash young fighter pilot, a job that he'd enjoyed more than he was willing to admit to himself. He'd had dreams then, dreams and ambition. But seeing the horrors of those first few years of war, even from his fairly high safety as an escort pilot, had convinced him that he wasn't cut out for the military.
Oh well. Chinese food seemed as good a meal as any.
, you've got clear weather, and winds less than five kilometers per hour. You're clear to take off whenever you're ready.”
Jack strapped himself in, flexing his fingers around the dual joystick-type handgrips which served to control his ship. He winced as the voice crackled over his communication system, squeezing his eyes tight briefly to block out the piercing pain. Jack had been good, hadn't touched a drop of alcohol all night even though he'd had trouble falling asleep, and
he'd woken up with a splitting headache that four aspirin hadn't managed to completely banish.
Control, I copy,” Jack said. “Making my takeoff now. Make sure you've got my pay ready when I get home. Cash only, I don't take credit.”
The polite laugh crackled back with a burst of static. “Whatever you say, Squier. Just make sure the cargo gets where it's supposed to go.”
Jack shut off his comm system and turned his attention back to his control board. He flipped several switches and was rewarded with a strong thrum from the four engines as they powered on. With a press down of his left foot, the ship leapt off the spaceport tarmac to an altitude of a hundred meters in an instant. Jack grinned, despite the headache. He always enjoyed flying. Calming down a little, he angled the rounded nose upward, pointing the the smoothly ovoid ship towards the sky. Pressing the accelerator pedal smoothly down, he jetted upwards, gaining speed and altitude steadily. A thousand meters, ten thousand, one hundred kilometers...Before long the pale blue skies faded into dull purple, then deep purple, and finally black as he passed through the outer reaches of the atmosphere.
The thrill of spaceflight pounded in Jack's chest, and he turned his head to check that he had a clear path. The nearest ship to him was a massive war cruiser that seemed huge even though he knew it had to be twenty kilometers from him at least. Clear skies, so to speak, all around.
Taking his right hand off his lateral control stick, Jack punched up the heads-up display for his navigation computer, which displayed in front of him on the forward viewport. Sighing, he punched in the coordinates for his first stop, just within the inner edge of Ascendancy space. The computer chirped acceptance of his coordinates, recognizing that they weren't within the mass of a star, planet, or anything else that could reduce his ship to so much space scrap. With a final tap of several console buttons, he settled back in his pilot chair. The automatic pilot would take it from here.
With a dull roar, his engines went to full power, and he was pressed back into his chair as his ship accelerated to lightspeed briefly before flashing into hyperspace.
It had been nearly two days since he'd left Earth, and Jack was starting to feel pretty silly for having been worried about his route earlier. His first stop in Ailian space had been completely uneventful, and he hadn't been within a million kilometers of an inhabited planet, let alone any other ships. An hour's rest for the ship's computer to re-calibrate with his new position, and re-position itself for the next jump, and then he'd been sent back into hyperspace for his next leg.
Jack yawned and got up from his chair in the cockpit, exiting and walking back into the ship to the small cabin in the midsection. There was a small bed in there, and it was comfortable enough to be good for quite a long nap. Jack had been up for two days, and he could use a few hours shut-eye. Besides, his autopilot was quite good enough to handle a simple hyperspace jump, and the shipboard computer would alert him, either if something went wrong or when he reached his checkpoint further in Ailian space. He laid down and closed his eyes, grateful for a chance to relax.
Five hours later, Jack was awoken by the soft chime of the ship's computer. He blinked, alarmed for a few moments without realizing why, but he told himself to calm down when he recognized the sound as the normal alert that he was coming out of hyperspace. He got out of bed, stretching his arms, and went back to the cockpit, flopping down in his chair and surveying the space before him. All clear, except for the small disc of a planet off to one side. Uninhabited, he knew, at least according to the star charts in his computer. All clear, though he was deep in enemy territory. All clear.
So why, he wondered, did he feel like there was something wrong?
A moment later, his question was abruptly answered as a ship flashed by his viewport, accompanied by a loud crash and a shudder of his ship as a cannon blast struck his passive shields.
“Shit!” Jack yelled, completely surprised. He watched the unknown ship as it heeled over, facing back towards him. The craft was painted completely black with fringes of yellow and red along its edges, which were jagged and angular, and wasn't all that smaller than his own. From his time in the military Jack could tell that it was a patrol vessel of some kind, probably one- or two-manned. Out of reflex, he boosted power to his shields and switched on what few weapons he had.
Suddenly his comm speakers screeched with feedback. Jack cursed again, reaching for the cutoff switches, but no matter how many times he pounded on them the noise persisted. Belatedly he realized that whoever was in that ship was tapping into his own ship's computer and overriding his comm systems, probably to keep him from trying to call for help. Jack glanced at his status monitor, seeing that he still had a few seconds before his weapons would be powered up. The screechy static on his speakers ceased just as suddenly as it had begun.
” a sharp, mewling voice echoed through his cockpit. “
La aria me'lia kan ailia're. Suri te sala'a'kre.
Jack's blood went cold when he heard those words. He had absolutely no idea what the words meant, but there was no mistaking the language. Whoever was in that ship was most definitely Ailian, and the fully powered weapons that his sensors were detecting meant that they were most definitely not friendly.