Forsaken Worlds: A Brewing Storm
A short story prequel to The Strain of Hope
By A.D. Shrum
Captain Sara Falconer considered it best the folks on the borderworlds didn’t know how their drugstores got stocked. Knowing pirates liberated the medicine from the Banner of Galactic Peace would put them in a moral quandary. Sara, on the other hand, had put that quandary to rest ages ago, so she gladly managed their supply chain.
The young, raven-haired captain entered the Rosebud’s modest bridge and checked the long-range scanners. Their target had left Lagune’s orbit and had begun a slow approach to the Jumpgate.
She brought her wristcom up. “Mboku, it’s time. I need you on the bridge.”
After a few seconds, she finally got a groggy acknowledgment. She must have caught him napping. Now if they could manage to do the same with the Banner medical frigate, this heist would go well.
Her dark-skinned pilot arrived and took his seat on the small bridge. Though properly dressed in his crimson uniform, his eyes were a little glassy and his normally shaved head had the slightest bit of stubble. After tapping a few keys, an intercept trajectory displayed on-screen.
“Course plotted, Sara. We can start when David’s ready with the Stormcrow.”
“Good.” Sara pulled up her wristcom again. “David, are you ready?”
“Heh, I love playing with my latest toys,” her engineer responded.
“Is that a ‘yes’?” Sara didn’t mind the crew having fun, but when a mission had started, she expected clear communication.
“Yes, Captain,” he replied in a somewhat deflated tone of voice.
“Okay, go ahead.” Sara finally sat at the sensor terminal and pulled up a monitor of the electromagnetic signals emitted by David’s machine. The “Stormcrow,” as he’d taken to calling it, suitably mimicked the electrical storm interference common in the Lagune system. Because of the extreme dangers of travel without adequate sensor coverage, standard procedure was for Banner ships to slow to maneuvering speed until the sensors recovered. A sensor-scrambling “storm” thus provided cover for the Rosebud while increasing the vulnerability of its target.
Sara’s terminal lit up with a broad spectrum of frequencies.
“Dial it back a bit, David. Anything that intense would have a visual cue, and we don’t want them getting suspicious.”
David agreed and the signal interference dimmed to a technically dangerous but not obviously hazardous level.
Sara confirmed the medical frigate’s speed reduction. This would require an update to their planned interception.
“Already compensating. Now twenty-two minutes to intercept.”
“Good. Alright, take us in. Caesar, Ivan, Dani, gear up and meet me in the airlock in fifteen.”
The Rosebud’s drive core hummed as the vessel lurched off of its hiding place on the lunar surface and began its pursuit.
Lieutenant Romulus McCracken lay in his quarters aboard the BGN Penance and held a small cylindrical canister to the light. Strange to think that something so small could wreak havoc on an entire planet. Romulus couldn’t even remember how many had died on the colony world of Hope, but his task was to bring the virus sample back for study. Secretly, of course, since every one of the Banner’s many enemies would love to get their hands on a world-decimating disease.
In fact, the Red Star had already made an overt attempt to steal it from a dummy convoy in a different system. That’s why he’d cleverly brought it aboard an unsuspicious mercy ship making a more circuitous route through a number of less-traveled systems.
“Romulus,” Captain Hillibrand’s voice came over his room’s speakers, “we’ve entered another electrical storm.”
Romulus gingerly situated the canister in the safe by his bedside. “And?”
While the more dramatic storms provided a spectacular view in the nearby nebulae, most were only mildly annoying – hardly useful for wooing any of the attractive nurses aboard the Penance, they served only to slow the vessel’s approach to the Jumpgate.
“This storm has lasted over twenty minutes,” Hillibrand continued. “Our records indicate that’s in the upper ninetieth percentile of storm durations for this time in the solar cycle. It’s just somewhat unusual and we figured we’d let you know.”
Hillibrand was the only other person aboard the Penance who knew Romulus had the virus aboard. Because of this, the captain seemed paranoid about every unexpected event.
“Thank you, Captain. Let me know if anything changes.”
Technically Captain Hillibrand of the Banner Galactic Navy outranked Lieutenant McCracken, but Rom’s role in Banner Special Forces gave him the authority to commandeer vessels at his necessity, especially for a clandestine task of this importance. Plus, Romulus’s father was the Minister of Colonization. Being political royalty did have its perks.
Romulus switched off the communicator and stood from the bed. As he did so, the ship rocked as though from a gentle impact. That wasn’t a typical event in an electrical storm. He waited a minute to listen to Hillibrand’s latest frantic concern over the com system, but nothing came. Finally he decided to call the bridge directly.
“Captain Hillibrand, what was that we just felt?”
The communicator hissed in silence.
That wasn’t good.
Sara watched Ivan make the final adjustments to the explosives he’d placed and stepped back from the Penance’s airlock door to join his three armored comrades.
“Internal coms are down, David?” Sara asked over her communicator.
“Just killed ’em,” David’s voice responded.
“Alright, now kill their lights.”
“You got it.”
Sara then nodded to Ivan who held a detonator.
The external airlock door exploded into hundreds of steel fragments, but the airlock, being depressurized on Penance’s end, sucked the shrapnel in.
“Time to play Robin Hood again,” Dani teased in a sing-song tone.
Caesar clutched his firearm closer. “I prefer my gravitic impulse rifle to a bow.”
“Yeah, but you can’t make s’mores with a rifle.” Ivan adjusted a large flamethrower that almost looked properly proportioned in his massive, tattooed arms.
“Cut the wisecracks, you guys, or I’ll really have you all notching bowstrings for the next raid.” Sara smiled. “Now follow my lead. Don’t kill anyone unless they try to kill you first.” She gripped her rifle at the ready and began moving in. “Or unless I tell you to.”
Caesar, Ivan, and Dani nodded agreement and followed their captain into the vessel.
In complete darkness, Romulus fumbled around in his footlocker. No time for body armor, but if he could get to his gun, he could at least put up some defense.
Who was he kidding? They were under attack, and there was only one faction desperate enough to track the Penance here: the Red Star, a group of militarized religious zealots. They’d almost certainly overwhelm with numbers and fight to the death until they completed their objective. No, he didn’t need to protect the ship, he just had to protect the virus sample.
Romulus adjusted his datapad to provide at least a dull ambience of light. He punched the entry code on the safe and snatched the virus canister. His cargo pants would have to serve as transport. He started another, better-lit, search in the footlocker, but the datapad light faded out. Romulus cursed its battery-saving design. He found his datapad in the dark and disabled the auto-shutoff feature. Back to the task at hand, Romulus pulled out the first aid kit and emptied its contents on the bed. A canister of painkiller injections. Perfect! He began scraping off the instructional label with his combat knife.
Satisfied with his crude handiwork, he placed the bottle, only half the size of the actual virus sample, in the secure safe at his bedside. The ruse wouldn’t fool any of the Red Star scientists, but the frontline grunts wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
The lights blinked on again. That probably meant the Red Star had effectively taken the bridge. With their efficient interrogation procedures, it wouldn’t be long before the zealots determined where his quarters, and the virus, were.
But he didn’t’ intend to be here when they arrived. If he could get the virus sample to the cargo bay and stash it in one of the medical crates, the religious fanatics wouldn’t be the wiser. He dumped the remaining first aid supplies into the footlocker and retrieved his sidearm. After checking the magazine, he loaded a round. With a lethal virus in his pants pocket, and a single X31 Flechette pistol as his only defense, Romulus opened the door and stepped out.
“Dani, Caesar, get the prisoners to the lounge and strip them down.” Sara pointed her rifle at the Penance crew as she spoke. The gesture possessed no malice: she only used the weapon as a pointing instrument. But the effect served to remind the Banner crew not to mess with the pirates. “Ivan, with me. Let’s take inventory.”
“If I may,” the Penance’s captain offered to Sara’s back as she marched down the corridor. “I offer everything in our cargo hold, all the medical supplies we have, if you’ll leave now.”
Sara turned and faced the captain. “That’s a very generous offer, Captain …”
“Captain Hillibrand.” Sara sighed as she turned and continued down the corridor. “But my orders are to take everything on the ship not bolted down.” She rested her hand on a potted plant secured into a wall fixture. “Even then I can take the bolted-down stuff at my discretion.”
“No! We’re on a peaceful mission from—”
Sara whirled around and crossed the distance between her and Captain Hillibrand in an instant, her grav rifle leveled under the man’s chin, ready to snap his head back at the pull of a trigger. “Don’t finish that sentence. There is nothing peaceful about the so-called ‘Banner of Galactic Peace.’ You’re all monsters. If it weren’t for the very clear instructions of my kindly benefactor, you and your crew would not be leaving this raid alive.” Sara let the fury of her emerald eyes sink in for a few seconds. “And if you so much as pull anything to jeopardize my mission, you still might not. Do you understand?”
Hillibrand gulped and nodded as much as the rifle under his jaw allowed.
Sara turned and walked on. After a deep breath, she exhaled the decade of pain her crew had endured under Banner leadership. “Ivan, let’s see what’s so precious on this ship.”
At five feet tall and just as wide, the medical crate in the back of the frigate’s cargo hold adequately hid the crouching Romulus from view. Which was good, because the Red Star would probably kill all the crew and leave the ship as a warning to the Banner. Or they’d scuttle it. Romulus cursed. He should’ve taken up hiding near an escape pod.
Regardless, the virus was perfectly hidden among the cans of steri-gel, antibiotics and other supplies inside the medical crate, ensuring it wouldn’t fall into the hands of fanatics who cared little for life-saving medicines.
He heard a strong but distinctly feminine voice in the distance, but resisted the urge to look around the corner.
“Copy that. Okay, David, get Jason down here to start hauling the medical crates to the Rosebud. That’s our priority. If we have to jet, I want at least that stuff aboard.”
Romulus heard the indistinct reverb of a response over a communicator, but couldn’t make out the words.
“Good idea. Ransack it next. We’ll install our own medical bay aboard the Rosebud.”
The source of the voice was almost directly opposite Romulus’s crate. He gripped his pistol and inched himself to one side. If he could poke his head out briefly …
He felt the cool steel of the woman’s rifle on his forehead before he saw it.
“Drop the gun and back out of there slowly,” she said.
Romulus complied and found himself facing a striking young woman with piercing green eyes and ebony hair. Her perfectly-sculpted legs stood wide to brace herself should she need to use the massive grav rifle in her arms. Only after she spoke did he realize she wasn’t alone.
“Ivan,” she said to a man with thick, tattooed arms, “take this man prisoner with the rest in the lounge. And make sure to strip him like the rest. The market value of that button-up shirt alone could feed one of us for a week.”
The big man with the flamethrower smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”
Romulus’s head reeled. Tattoos? A woman in charge? These weren’t religious fanatics after the virus, these were common pirates looking for medical supplies! He cursed inwardly as he obeyed the man’s prods to move down the corridor. It was a complete fluke, and they were about to get something far more dangerous than they could possibly realize.
Sara’s crew had emptied the primary and secondary cargo bays of all but minimal essentials for the Penance crew’s survival. She left them oxygen, food, water, but not clothing. The Penance crew had their undergarments, and that would have to do. Her contract insisted no harm befall the Bannermen, but it was a little vague on whether or not she could humiliate them.
Sara busied herself by downloading whatever information she could from the Penance’s bridge terminal, but most of it was classified and inaccessible. As she leaned back, she realized the bridge command chair was much more comfortable than the one she had on the Rosebud. She looked underneath and saw it was bolted down. Well, it was at her discretion … Nah.
“Captain?” Caesar prompted over the communicator. She’d assigned him to search the various crew rooms for additional spoils and sounded pretty excited. “I found a Banner Military-Grade datapad in one of the crew rooms.”
“Tell David, he collects Banner MG Datapads as coasters.”
“Yeah, but this one isn’t locked. The security has been bypassed to keep the screen on.”
Sara sat straight up. “Wait, what? Are you serious?”
“It gets better. This one belongs to a Lieutenant Romulus McCracken. Royalty, Sara! It has his vessel commandeer codes, personal files, correspondences with his father, Vaticus …”
Sara tempered her enthusiasm. As soon as the datapad’s absence was known, all the useful military codes would be reset. The intel would be useful, but they didn’t have time to break all the local file encryptions without raising suspicion. Unless …
“David,” Sara pinged over to her mechanic. “I need you to make a complete data wipe and transfer into one of those MG Datapads you collect. We’re going to take something with us that’s a lot more dangerous than the Banner realizes.”