I wasn’t going to post this, but the sequence of events was just too good to keep to myself. This is unprecedented for me, but what you are about to read is the conclusion to Parallax, Chapter 21. I can’t guarantee that there won’t be changes in the final published version but here it is anyway. Enjoy:
A man and a woman, smartly dressed in matching black and white officer uniforms waited for them as they entered the bridge area. Pratt couldn’t help but think about how impossibly young they looked as he sized them up. Both were well built, but while the man had distinctly Asian features, the woman appeared to be a cultural mix of olive skin, rounded eyes, and coarse hair.
“Must have been a short list.” He said to DuBois as he watched the pair snap to attention. He waved an impatient hand. “At Ease, at Ease.”
“Sir?” The man spoke first. “Multispec First Class Jonathan Pi, reporting for duty.” He gestured to his companion. “This is my wife, Chief Multispec Michelle Pi.”
Pratt looked at both of them. “I’m not familiar with the Multispec rating, Mr. Pi.”
“The Multispec rating is a new service occupation, Sir. Essentially, we are trained in a variety of occupations before we specialize. My specialty is Neural Weaponry Interface Operations.” Pi gestured to Michelle. “My wife specializes in Neural Engineering Interface Operations.”
“You did what with what?” Pratt turned to DuBois. “How long was I gone?”
“They’re not with the Union Navy, Jack.” DuBois replied. “Civilian Defense Corps. Because it’s a smaller agency, it doesn’t have access to the same budgets as the military. It’s kind of like the old Coast Guard was in the United States back in the Old Days.”
“Even the old Coast Guard became military during wartime.” Pratt fought off the birth of a new headache as he turned back to the Pis. “First off, you’re too young to be married. Second, Welcome Aboard, though I should warn you that since we’re a small crew, there’s no chance for any kind of advancement and every chance that you might live a longer life if you stayed here in Mixton.” He turned back to DuBois. “Are we even covered for crew pay?”
DuBois nodded. “It’s in the operating budget.”
“Sir, even with the automation upgrades you have installed onboard Artemis, you still need at least four people to run her efficiently.” Michelle Pi said. “Commander Pendrake informed us of the risk and Agent DuBois reinforced them to us. We’re well aware of what we’re signing on for.”
Pratt scrutinized them closely. “No, there’s another reason. Neural Interface Operators…” He went to a console and began typing in a command. Within seconds, the console screen lit up with a report. He read the report, a frown forming on his face like an approaching thunderstorm. He looked up. “Your CDC ranks may be Chief Multispecialists, but your personnel files list you as recently discharged Captains with Alliance Research and Development with Doctorates in Engineering. I don’t like having my ship being used as a flying test bed and if you plan on staying a member of this crew, you will learn to give me all relevant information. Do I make myself clear?” He paused. “Doctors?”
Both Pis spoke at once, snapping to attention. “Perfectly, Sir. May we assume our duties?”
Pratt shook his head. “Get settled in for tonight. Prelaunch will commence at 0600. I’m sure Agent DuBois has already assigned your quarters.”
The Pis left the bridge.
“I’m becoming paranoid.” Pratt said, to no one in particular. “I hate feeling like I have to suspect everyone around me.”
DuBois put an arm around his shoulders. “I’m surprised that you’ve managed to hold it together as long as you have.”
“Don’t stand so close to me.”
DuBois smirked. “Why? Don’t trust yourself around me?”
“No, the problem is that I do and I need to focus on more important things than how pleased I am to have you around again.”
She walked her fingers along his back as she took her arm away. “Something to think about, Captain.” They heard a crash in the corridor. “I’d better help the Pis get settled in.”
Pratt waited until the Bridge was clear. Things were simpler when it was him in a cockpit. Now, with a crew to watch over, he realized that his responsibilities had quadrupled. Damn Signiferians, he thought, you’ve turned me into a family man.
“Artemis, please log into the System Network and get me a status on the Perimeter Hyperspace Beacons?”
“All Mixton Hyperspace Beacons are reporting full operational status as of this time, Captain.”
“Call me Jack when we’re alone.” Pratt said. “Wake me in four hours, please. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Confirmed Wake Up at 0400, Jack. Sleep well.”
“Thanks.” Pratt turned and went to his cabin. He was going to try to sleep but he knew in his heart that he stood a better chance of protecting an ice cube in Hell. Still, his gut told him that it was going to be a busy day. Of course, his gut was also telling him that he was hungry, but one galactic crisis at a time.
Four hours came and went. He awoke ten minutes before Artemis’ prompt and allowed himself a leisurely fifteen-minute shower before dressing in a fresh blue merchant uniform that was obviously modeled on the Navy pattern. He left off the rank insignia, but pinned the wings in place before slipping on a new pair of black boots under the straight trouser cuffs. Hell, he’d earned those without saving anyone. He appreciated the warm breakfast that the dispenser provided though the mechanics of how the machine worked were temporarily beyond him for the moment.
The corridor was quiet and the lighting in a darker Night Mode as he began a casual inspection of the ship, guided by small lights mounted along the deck trim. Recent events had given him precious few opportunities to simply walk around and he relished the chance as he strolled into Engineering. He studied the engines, the reactors that powered them, the manual turret station that lay directly between the two engine pairs and finally, the emergency ejection system that had served them so well at Gorashto. Everything had been cleaned and repainted in fresh colors so all of it looked as new as when it was first installed. A shame it won’t stay like this, he thought as he left the compartment. The rest of his tour included another visit to the Cargo Hold, a return to the Main Deck to study the wing corridors and a last visit to the Forward Observation Nose, where he located and memorized the location of the secondary access hatch leading down to the Chin Turrets. When he’d finished, he returned to the Bridge and took a seat in the Captain’s Chair, contemplating upcoming events.
“I should have known I’d find you up earlier than the crew.” DuBois startled him, making him spin around in the chair to face her. She was dressed in a red and blue version of her new jumpsuit style outfits, which set her red hair and pale green eyes off very well. “You’re definitely getting the Brooding Captain thing down pat.” She handed him a small intricately wrapped package. “For you to enjoy until you run out and we have to use the synthetic stuff. I have it programmed into the Dispensers. You look like you need one.”
“I’ve had lots of practice worrying about when and where the other shoe’s going to drop.” Pratt opened the package and found a long rectangular carton of Earth Tobacco, individually wrapped in ten smaller packs. The invigorating scent of fresh tobacco wafted into his nostrils, making him want to open a pack and indulge. “Wait a minute. How did you manage to get cigarettes out here? And fresh?”
“I called in a few favors.” DuBois replied, enjoying both his surprise and pleasure. “It wasn’t easy and you may need to kill someone down the road as a return favor.”
Pratt stopped. “I may need to what?”
DuBois winked. “I’m kidding. The market for those things may be extremely low, but a cargo ship delivers some for the less health-conscious members of Society. I also took the liberty of modifying the ship protocols to allow for certain smoking times aboard ship and adjusted the ventilation system to screen out the new impurities. After all, you can’t exactly go outside for a smoke, can you?”
“You put in a Smoking Lamp.” Pratt chuckled. “I’m starting to like you more and more, DuBois.”
Her features softened for the briefest of moments before she rebuilt her shields and regained her composure. “Thanks, Jack, I like you as well. Before I forget, we’ve converted the last crew quarters to a central meeting area. To give this place some semblance of Home.” She looked at her watch as she walked toward the Port Exit. “We still have an hour before Prelaunch. Go have a smoke. I’m going to visit the Station Quartermaster for some last minute supplies.”
Pratt watched her leave. After she was out of earshot, he cradled the carton and left for his cabin. “Maybe things won’t be so bad after all.” He muttered as he entered his cabin and sat down at his desk. “Artemis, please turn on the Smoking Protocol in my cabin.” Without an acknowledgment, he felt a cool breeze caress his cheek and a hidden ashtray emerge from a hidden slot in the window frame. “That woman thinks of everything.” He mused as he extracted a cigarette and lit it. The first couple of puffs made him cough, but after a while, the action was as natural as breathing and infinitely more relaxing.
“Captain, I have an incoming message from Commander Pendrake.”
He set the cigarette in the ashtray and turned toward the desk monitor. “Very well, Artemis. Put her through.”
Pendrake appeared on the screen. Her hair was disheveled and her normally attractive looks were blotchy from lack of sleep and stress. She was breathing heavy as if coming from an arduous task. Behind her, assorted crew members were running back and forth as if dealing with a crisis of unknown yet serious proportions.
“Jack, we have a problem.” She said, breathlessly as she fought to compose herself. “Can you launch immediately? There’s been an incident.”
“Whoa, slow down.” Pratt said. “What’s going on?”
“A Fleet Courier reported narrowly escaping an attack in Hyperspace. They managed to get into the system without damage, but they reported a massive alien fleet.”
“It couldn’t be The Locknar.” Pratt said. “They’re too honorable to go back on their word. Did you get a description?”
“Long and slender black ships was all they were able to record before their scanners were knocked out.” Pendrake replied. “Jack, would these be the ones you were trying to warn me about?”
“Yes, and now that their cover’s been blown, they’re going to be jumping in with everything they’ve got. I guess their cloaks don’t work well in Hyperspace. Anyway, what are you doing in the meantime?”
Pendrake accepted a report and read it while speaking. “I’ve issued a General Mobilization Alert and sent out an official request to Fleet Command for heavy reinforcements. At least, I hope the message went out because we’re having some trouble with the Comm Beacons.”
“I suspect that’s not a coincidence.” Pratt replied, studying Artemis’ status readouts. Despite the early hour, the Pis were at their stations and DuBois was sending requests to the Dockmaster to disengage the docking clamps that held them fast to Mercator Station. “Get Docking Control to hurry up and get our moorings cleared and we’ll join you out on the line.”
“Out of the question, Jack.” Pendrake shook her head. “If they’re here for you, then the best I can do is run interference and clear you a path out of the system. Get to your Bridge and wait for my signal. As soon as you receive it, get underway as fast as you can. I hate saying goodbye this way, but I have more than you to be thinking about. Get moving.”
He stubbed out his cigarette and dashed from the cabin.
The Bridge wasn’t as chaotic as he expected. The Pis were busy with unusual looking headsets that completely covered their heads while DuBois was busy arguing with an officious looking woman on one of her console screens.
“Okay, Guys, I was hoping for a smoother launch, but there’s been reports that the Signiferians are massing to jump into Mixton and we are the target. Set General Quarters and prepare to give me all you’ve got.” He took his position on the platform and rose to the Pilot’s Station. The controls had been upgraded here to holographic displays as well, but at least they left the original manual controls. He finished buckling his harness and opened the dome as a voice message came over the intercom telling him that they were free to depart.
Mercator Station floated outside the bubble for several seconds as the ship turned away to face outward. Pratt advanced the throttles and slowly Artemis crept away, leaving the station hub to fall behind, followed next by the attached ring of orbital habitats. Soon, Mixton’s star shrank behind them and the only thing ahead was open Space and what the scanners told him was beyond visual range. What were they waiting for? He thought as he programmed in a waypoint to the Jump Point. The Weapon Status indicators lit up as Artemis’s eight defensive turrets extended from the hull and locked into firing positions without his permission.
“I didn’t order Weapons to be armed.” He yelled.
“We’re testing the neural interface, Captain.” Jonathan called back. “Michelle and I figured that this was as good a time as any. Do you want us to stand down?”
“No, but give me some warning next time.” Pratt saw a flash in the distance. “Oh Hell. Stand by for engagement and leave those weapons hot. We’re going to need them shortly. DuBois, what is the status of the Defense Fleet?”
“Stand by.” DuBois checked her console. “Jack, they aren’t where they’re supposed to be.”
“I can see that from up here.” Pratt shot back. “Somebody just jumped into the System. Get me a status on System Traffic.”
“Hang on, I’m having some trouble logging on to the System Net.”
Then Pratt saw them. Twenty large black icicles, thick bands in their middles, glittered in the distance from reflected starlight. He watched them turn in his direction and shivered as they disappeared from view. Perspective? He mused. “DuBois, tell me that when you were ripping Artemis apart that you upgraded the weapons?”
“There were some upgrades to the tracking systems, why?”
“That’s not what I want to hear.” Pratt replied. “The Signiferians are in-system and heading our way. Can we fight them?”
“Jack, despite everything we’ve done to Artemis, she’s still only a drop ship. The weapons were intended to clear a landing zone, not engage in ship to ship combat. Perhaps we should abort the Jump and head back to Mercator.”
Pratt shook his head, although he knew she couldn’t see him. “No, that would put everyone there at risk. We need to push forward and hope.” He paused. “A few prayers wouldn’t hurt either.”
The enemy fleet sat directly in their path, blocking the way to the Jump Point. The long range scanners lit up with new contacts from several points of the compass and overloading the equipment’s ability to account for them all. Grudgingly, Pratt had to give respect to not only their ability to field large numbers but also their persistence. It didn’t mean they were going to win.
He reached over and flipped up a small unmarked red cover. Inside the cover sat three small yellow-tipped toggle switches that appeared incongruous with the higher-tech touch plates and on-screen graphical displays that surrounded them. The switches had no pomp and circumstance to them, only three labels marked Standby, Arm, and Execute. He flipped the first two switches and acknowledged the silent confirmation that appeared on his monitors.
“Jack, you’ve armed the Self-Destruct.”
“I don’t have any illusions about how this is going to play out if we don’t get help soon.” He said. “I will not be captured again. Prep the Escape Pods and get ready to evacuate yourself and the Pis.”
“Jack, this is suicide.”
“Better suicide than what they probably have planned. If I can stop them here, they may reconsider their plans. Carry out my orders.” He locked the platform in place.
“Get ready.” He advanced the throttles. “We’re going in.”