The freighter slid through space like a shark plumbing darker depths for prey. Custom-built baffles that were designed by a long-dead alien species hid even the faintest spark from the ion trail left by the particle engines. No visible wake, no running lights, dead silence from all emitters. She could have been a derelict, a ghost ship, drifting rudderless among the stars and awaiting some lucky salvage crew, but she was very much alive.
“Report, Mister Yieng,” the captain breathed into his microphone. Seven decks below, in the muted hum of the engine room, the engineer Kon Yieng thumbed the switch to reply.
“Absolute stealth, captain.” He wiped his brow and was surprised to find it already dry. This was only the second time they had engaged the invisibility systems in an actual battle situation, and he should have been nervous. Maybe it’s the dry heat of this tech, he thought, running a palm over the warm surface of the control panel. Glyphs had been engraved alongside and beneath the various levers and knobs that broke up the otherwise featureless black top of the device, pictograms that defied translation. It had only been through careful trial and error that the engineer had gleaned their various meanings, and it had been fortunate that the technology so closely resembled their own or he could just as easily have destroyed the vessel rather than cloak it. He was confident that he grasped at least half of the functions available to him, and that had been enough to hide the ship from detection as she moved into Arcatauran territory.
Not even the warbabies can see us, he thought, and grinned. Not yet, at least, came a cautioning reply from the more rational part of his subconscious. There it was, then, and with it the first beads of perspiration.
Back on the bridge the captain scanned the projected display of the vacuum outside his ship. A phalanx of carrier vessels, each ten times the size of his own, cruised into the far periphery. They glowed a bright phosphor orange, the color of a threat that had neither armed its weapons nor performed defensive scans. The captain knew that each of the carriers held in its belly a squadron of light fighters, each piloted by the deadliest warriors in Solarus. He picked his nose and flicked what he found though the projection. The chunk of nasal debris caused a slight ripple through the center of the carrier group.
“Weaponsmasters,” he breathed, “what say you?”
A pair of command chairs that faced each other and were connected by a spindle that rose from deck to deckhead, swiveled until both seated men could turn and address the captain. The man in the port seat, an unusually slender Sargosan, flicked his forked tongue and offered a languid blink.
“Captain,” he growled, “we won’t be able to fire while the stealth system is running.”
“It is as expected,” the other man said, his dark eyes flashing. “The power drain is simply too great to risk re-routing without disabling something.”
The captain nodded. Yieng had said as much in his last report. They should have test fired before risking this engagement, but time had worked against them. They had received a transmissive only a short while ago from well-paid spies with news of a schedule change. So, there they were, sailing into the most dangerous space in the solar system, days too early.
The captain was not the suicidal type, nor would he needlessly endanger the lives of his crew. They had complete confidence in his judgement, otherwise it would have been mutiny at the mere suggestion of the current course. He scratched his beard and considered his options.
“Sir,” his first mate said, lightly tapping the captain’s shoulder then pointing at the projection. The carrier group had drawn nearer, and something new had appeared at the periphery.
It was a slender vessel, half the length of one of the carriers and shaped like a blunt cylinder. The captain tapped some commands into this control pad and a data stream opened next to the target.
IDCS 2034 (OF 5 IN RANGE)
CLASS: FREIGHT, HEAVY
WEIGHT: 299 IU
ENCRYPTION GRADE: MILITARY (ARCATAURAN)
“It’s her,” the captain whispered. “Perform a life scan.”
Behind him, the science officer’s fingers danced over his console. After several moments during which the convoy crept ever closer, he spoke:
“Six autonomous, likely crew. Surface scans reporting one hundred and ten in stasis. There may be more than that, captain, but I’d advise against deeper scans lest it betray our position, even with the stealth fields engaged.”
“Aye, solid counsel as always Mister Horzak. Still,” the captain allowed a low whistle, “more than a hundred would bring enough for the lot of us to retire several lifetimes over.”
“Undoubtedly,” Horzak agreed, “but how are we to capture them? I’d not take a wager on our odds against an Arcatauran carrier group, fancy stealth tech or no.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to, Mister Horzak. But never fear. I have a plan.”
2014.09.06 – 2023.05.02