Smoke & Mirrors

(This is an excerpt from a larger work that is in production. Enjoy!)

 

“Captain, I have detected a gravity spike. We’re being drawn off course!” alerted the sensor officer. The captain of the vessel spun his chair to face the young woman and commanded; “Link the fleet’s Inaki drives. We’re being interdicted. If they snag one of us, they’ll have to deal with us all.” The confidant captain rotated his chair back around and sprang to his feet. Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked to the front viewscreen of the bridge to look out his wide sweeping window. He stood, calm and expectant, as he gazed into the colorful nonsense of zero-space surrounding them. The chaos out the window began to boil as a singular point of darkness materialized ahead of them. The inky dot swelled to a sphere that continued to grow until its leading edge consumed the craft. The seasoned captain just remained standing, solid as stone, while the familiar scene played out in front of him.

When the Captain’s craft emerged from zero-space with a shudder, it was immediately surrounded by fifteen of its identical brethren. The group of lumbering behemoths had materialized amid a tight asteroid cluster, inside an empty void created by the floating stone. The ships were heavily armored cargo transports, undoubtedly purchased from a Federal Navy military surplus auction. Known for their ruggedly reinforced hulls, the Juexol: Atlas I3 was the premier combat cargo runner for front line duty. The battle-tested ships were tough as nails, but they could also deal a wallop themselves with their numerous manned defense turrets.

At over four-hundred meters long each, the transport fleet created an impressive shadow against the star-field. The captain of the flotilla squinted out the window waiting for something, anything, to happen. His employer warned him of pirates that were operating in the area, but details about the bandits were limited. As he scanned his field of view, he detected a glint moving through the darkness out of the corner of his eye. “Three inbound ships, sir. Fighter class.” the sensor officer called out. “Only three fighters?” scoffed the captain, “This’ll be good.”

“Attention transport fleet,” demanded a gruff voice over the open radio channel, “Surrender immediately and drop your cargo. If you comply, you will not be harmed.” The captain let out a huff of laughter, then returned; “Attention unknown vessels. You are in no position to demand anything from me. Jump now or be destroyed.” An odd static cut over the speakers, followed by a new artificial female voice; “Aww come on baby! Don’t be so defensive.” Her words were followed by a wail of alarms calling out across the bridge. “Captain, our shields are down and they are not responding to our commands to restart!” shouted an engineer as he was urgently swiping at his console. “Fleet has reported the same thing across the board!” cried out another voice, fringes of panic rising in her tone.

The veteran captain remained steely and activated the fleet’s intercom as well as his radio, then scoffed; “Neat little trick, but the armoring on these ships will be more than enough to outlast your three little toys. Next time you try to engage a fleet, bring one of your own.” To the confident leader’s surprise, laughter returned over the radio’s speaker. The amused chortle echoed through the halls of the flagship as the intercom carried the eerie sound to the furthest reaches of the fleet. “It’s funny that you would mention that.” returned the gruff male voice again, “Seeing as you brought some friends, I took it upon myself to invite a few of my own.” Once again, as if on queue, the sensor officer called out; “Captain! You need to look at this!”

The old man sighed and strode over to his sensor officer’s station; “What is it?” he demanded. The young woman stammered for a second and merely pointed at her display screen. Red dots had flared to life everywhere, swimming intricate orbits around them in the asteroid field. The sensor officer enlarged a readout and explained; “I’m reading 63 craft including several fighter variants and at least five missile tugs. I’m afraid he did bring a fleet, sir.”

“All crews to battle stations!” cried out the captain over the ship’s intercom, “We have about twenty minutes before we can spool up for another jump. Bring the fleet in tight! I want overlapping fields of defensive fire. Once our cover formation is in place, slave the fleet’s controls to me and lower your bridge’s blast shielding. It’s ramming season, ladies and gentlemen.”

In response to the daring plan, fourteen confirmation blips lit up on the captain’s command readout. Out the bridge’s front window, the massive bulk of one of the command vessel’s sister ships drifted over to fill the view. It lumbered closer and closer until the captain was able to make out individual crew members in the other craft’s bridge as they ran about their duties. The fifteen ships grouped into three neat rows then magnetically clamped onto one-another in a neat grid. The maneuver took just over three minutes, forming a nearly impenetrable phalanx of defensive fire coverage. All while those sixty dots on the tactical display continued to orbit the formation, prowling unseen in the dark. It was an uneasy feeling for the captain as he watched the dots swirl on his screen. He could almost feel them, crawling like ants over his skin.

The captain cleared his throat and injected some confidence into his voice that he certainly wasn’t feeling: “Gunners; don’t waste your time shooting at anything outside of three kilometers. Your priority is to target incoming munitions first. They have some missile boats out there, so keep your head on a swivel and watch for those vapor trails. We run in a straight line until we can spool up the jump-drives. Let’s see if we can’t out-run em’. All ahead, max burn!” With that, in unison, the trio of large thruster housings at the rear of each Atlas began to spew a brilliant purple. As the formation started to accelerate, the blast-shielding over each bridge began to glow as it was heated by the thruster-wash created by the craft in front it.

The flotilla enjoyed a full ten seconds of steady acceleration before their drives went dark and alarms started wailing across the bridge again. “It’s rude to walk away from a conversation, ya know.” chided the gruff voice on the open radio channel again. “Where’s my systems officer?!” demanded the frustrated captain, “I need you to find out how the hell they’re doing that. And Hurry!” The seasoned fleet commander’s mask of confidence was slipping as he continued to issue orders; “Gunners, do what you can to keep them off of us while we get these engines going again.” Once again, the unknown gruff voice returned over the radio; “Guns won’t work either, chief. I’m approaching you now, so go ahead and test em on me if you’d like.” The captain huffed with frustration as he shut down the open radio channel. He turned on the fleet intercom and commanded; “Fire on anything that comes into range and prepare to repel boarders. I don’t know how the hell he is doing what he’s doing, but if he wants what we got; He’s gonna pay for it.”

The captain watched in his screen, a remote camera feed showing the gunsights of his dorsal turret. The view showed a sleek fighter craft slipping across the blast-shielded bow. Painted a dark purple to disappear against the inky backdrop of space, the fighter was hard to visually track. It turned in a swinging arc and stopped to float in front of the bridge’s armored window. “Fire!” urged the captain. He waited a few seconds, then impatiently opened a channel to the turret’s gunner; “What the hell are you waiting for? Shoot!” A frustrated voice quickly returned; “I tried, it won’t work! We’ve all been trying and nobody can fire!” A lump formed in the old captain’s throat as he slumped in his chair. His gray hair somehow serving to show his age now, instead of the distinguished poise it normally afforded him. With the resigned sorrow of any Captain going down with his ship, the old man keyed his fleet’s intercom and said; “Don’t bother with the escape pods. It will just make you easier to collect and sell to the imperial slavers. Surrender if you wish, it will not be seen as a betrayal. I, on the other hand, intend to go down with my ship. It has been a pleasure serving with yo-” The captain’s uncharacteristically heartfelt speech was cut off by the pirate’s pleading voice; “Woah woah! Hang on! We aren’t going to open fire, so cool your jets everybody. We just want to talk, that’s it. Now can you please open your blast shielding and have a private conversation with me, captain?”

The gray haired man in the command chair stood then reluctantly gestured to have his bridge’s blast-shielding retracted. He stepped to the window and clasped his hands behind his back with dignity as the metal plates over his window began to slide away. The old fleet commander found himself nose to nose with an equally old Eagle fighter-interceptor, just like the ones he flew during the territorial war in the Vulpecula sector over 40 years ago. The mass produced nature of the craft made them notoriously difficult to keep in the black for more than a few years before repairing them became cost-ineffective. The Captain noticed with surprise that the gently humming machine, poised in the void outside his window, had been meticulously maintained and obviously lovingly cared for.

The sight made the old fighter pilot in him subconsciously grow a soft spot for the man that he could now see gesturing to him through the fighter craft’s thin cockpit canopy. The captain recognized the other man’s command and held up his arm in response. The action was to present his forearm mounted tablet’s tight-beam comm array to the man out the window. Both men would then exchange an infrared laser connection from tablet to tablet to establish a completely private voice and data network. “Can you hear me?” came the now-familiar gruff voice in his earpiece. The captain nodded and dutifully replied; “What are your terms?” He could see the man in the cockpit across from him shake his head as the pirate replied; “I’m not a terms kind of guy. I’m more of the discussion type.” The captain furrowed his brow and retorted; “That’s an odd thing for a pirate to say.”

“Who say’s I’m a pirate?” asked the unknown voice in a reasonable tone. “You instructed me to drop my cargo and implied the use of force if I didn’t comply.” huffed the Captain, “That is literally the definition of pirating.” There was a short silence, then the gruff man concedingly returned; “Ok Fine, you got me there…But let me ask you this; How much do you know about your employer?” The captain shrugged and said; “He’s the one that signs the checks.” “Is that all that matters?” asked the pirate pointedly, “What if I told you that you were working for a monster?” “I’d probably tell you that I’ve heard that one already.” retorted the Captain flatly. “Why don’t you browse through some of the files I’m sending over.” suggested the pirate, “Take a look at some of your boss’s other business ventures.”

The captain felt a vibration to signify the arrival of an incoming file transfer, so he tapped a command to pull it open. Inside were countless photos and video files, all of them featuring horrific scenes of brutality and violence. Public executions, corpses discarded in the streets, pictures of gaunt and starving people violently at one-another’s throats over a few packets of rations. Flipping through the depressing content soured the Captain’s already dreary mood. He closed the files with irritation as he heard the pirate ask; “Well what do you have to say about that?” The captain clenched his jaw in annoyance and replied; “I’d say you spent way too much time surfing the net looking for fucked up pictures.”

“I knew you would say that.” sighed the pirate, “Why don’t you take a look at the four pictures that I’m sending you now.” Against his better judgment, the captain opened the folder containing the mentioned images. They were more scenes of violence, but this time they all featured the same man wearing an out-of-place flowered shirt committing each atrocity. The jovial nature of the man’s shirt made for an uncomfortable juxtaposition next to the depicted scenes of violence. The last in the set of images sent a cold chill down the veteran commander’s spine. It featured the man standing behind a woman who was forced to kneel. He had his pistol trained at the back of her head, preparing to execute the young woman. The captain closed the file and left his anger unchecked as he keyed his comm to respond; “You’d better get to your goddamn point in a hurry.” The pilot inside the craft out the window made a show of putting his hands up in a placating gesture as he replied; “That last photo was taken about two hours prior to this one…”

The Captain felt another vibration on his wrist and reluctantly opened the newly arrived attachment. The photo featured the same executioner wearing the exact outfit as in the previous pictures. He was standing on a dock shaking hands with a man. When the captain zoomed the image, his blood ran cold as he recognized himself as the gentleman politely greeting the murderer. “We followed that piece of shit for just over eight hours.” explained the pirate, “By the time he was signing that load over to you in the afternoon, he had already murdered six people. These are the monsters that you’re dealing with here. And we are the ones trying to stop them.”

The captain just stood there stunned for a moment, incapacitated by a sudden rush of guilt. When he regained his composure, he mournfully said; “The pay was unusually good, which to a mercenary means don’t ask questions. But had I known something like this was going on out here….” The fleet commander’s gaze fell to the floor in self-inflicted shame. “It’s not your fault.” urged the pirate, “You have been contracted by a man named Vendrick. The gentleman you met on the dock was one of his lieutenants.” The captain raised an eyebrow; “Was?” he asked pointedly. “Ya know…” replied the pirate with mock nonchalance, “It was the weirdest thing. He committed suicide in an elevator on the night all those photos were taken. Shot himself a dozen times. Heh. Poor bastard. Nobody deserves to die in a shirt that ugly.”

Knowing that the devil he struck a deal with had met his demise gave the old mercenary small sense of closure to his inner turmoil on the subject. Still with a skeptical mind, the captain pressed on; “So who is this Vendrick guy you keep talking about? I have never heard that name. I was initially hired by a man named Ludro on Heldrin city.” The return of the pirates voice was accompanied by a new incoming file; “Vendrick is a self-installed dictator that has seized absolute control over all the stations in the sector.” explained the gruff voice, “Dustin Ludro is one of Vendrick’s face men that deal with passing merchants and traders. He uses his fake merchants to preserve the appearance of a normal marketplace so he can avoid any undesired scrutiny. Vendrick’s organization prolongs his reign with the liberal use of brutality and terrorism. The criminals and scum under his command do a good job at keeping the residents of the stations separated from the cargo pilots and folks just passing through. He has been in complete control of the populous of the Orion sector for over a decade, and has worked very hard to keep that fact a secret. He starves the citizens and forces them to live on unnecessarily meager rations to further his own unknown agenda. He’s the badguy here, not us. What we are out here doing is intercepting his supplies and ensuring that they are delivered to the people who need them. Now; I can just send a command here on my tablet to have your entire fleet jettison their cargo holds on my whim, and I believe I have thoroughly demonstrated my ability to do so, but I would really prefer it if you were the one to press the button. I was listening as you managed your fleet today, sir. Your resolve under the stress of extremely unusual circumstances has proven you to be a good leader. And it’s my firm belief that good leaders are, more often than not, good men as well. Please let me get your supplies to the right people. Help me save some lives today, Captain.”

“It’s Ingram.” said the fleet commander in a new tone, “My name is Ingram.” “Pleasure to meet you, Captain Ingram.” greeted the pirate, “My name is Sergeant Michael Tano and I, like many of my colleagues, used to be a police officer that served and protected the people of this sector. And I like to think that I still do.” Captain Ingram nodded and replied; “It is a pleasure to meet you as well, Sergeant Tano. I believe that you’re telling the truth and will comply with your request. I will instruct the fleet to jettison all cargo.” Ingram lowered his tablet-laden arm and spun to face his crew. He cleared his throat then ordered; “Direct all vessels in the fleet to jettison their holds.”

This caused a stir among the crew and an alarmed bridge officer blurted; “Do we have any guarantees of safety?! How do we know they won’t still kill us when they get our cargo free of the blast zone?” “Enough!” snapped Captain Ingram, “I issued an order, now carry it out. I can assure everyone that we will be alright. Turns out we were playing for the wrong team on this one. Once our cargo is dumped, our systems will be returned to us so we can jump out. Once we are clear of the operational zone, I will brief you all about what happened today. But for now, I need you to focus and get that cargo unstrapped ASAP. Let’s move everybody!”

“Mr. Tano,” said Ingram over their private channel, “I never thought I would ever thank someone for pirating me, but in this case I will make an exception. If there is anything I can do to help, let me know. I’m sure you’ve been through enough of my systems to know my encryption channel by now, so drop me a line if you ever want to hire some firepower.” “I will keep that in mind.” responded Tano, “and as far as helping; You can spread the word to your fellow contractors about whats happening out here. Taking a job from Vendrick just isn’t worth it. Not if you have a soul, anyways. People outside the sector need to know what we are fighting against here. If enough folks are informed, maybe some will decide to come and help us do something about it.”

“I will gladly spread the word for you, Sergeant.” promised Captain Ingram, his unbreakable word a professional courtesy from one soldier to another. “I appreciate that, Captain.” returned Tano, “I see that your cargo has been offloaded and you’re all zipped back up. I have set a short jump for your fleet out into interstellar space. Once you pop into zero-space, our command signal will drop and full control will be returned to your fleet. Thank you for your donation.” The captain nodded agreeably as systems all around his ship began to warm up. “You have to tell me Sergeant or it’s going to drive me nuts,” urged Captain Ingram, “How did you do this to my fleet? I need to know so I can prepare a defense for when someone less civilized tries the same thing some day.” Tano laughed and said; “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I don’t know too many other pirate gangs out there with an AI on their side. But if you must know, you might want to encrypt your fleet’s entertainment media server. And might I add that lieutenant Dallas has excellent taste in music.”

“Thanks for the tip.” laughed the Captain. The bridge came to life with a low hum that normally preceded the massive discharge of Inaki energy that would propel them into zero-space. Ingram activated his comm one last time and said; “Your fleet showed impressive restraint in not firing on our defenseless ships. Thank you for sending my people home to see their families.” Tano laughed and retorted; “Oh yeah, no problem. I’m as dependable as can be. Wasn’t sure about the other two guys though.” Ingram cocked his head and asked; “Other two?”

“Smoke and mirrors, captain. Smoke and mirrors. Have a safe trip home.” With that, the fleet distorted then appeared to stretch into a singularity as the ships slipped into zero-space.

 

-Leland Brown