The Smoldering Ember
Bright, almost fluorescent, orange blood together with darkening red blood was splattered along the alien freighter's walls and deck. Humans made their way through the triangular corridor toward the battered airlock of their own ship, the Legacy. They hefted crates containing hominid/computer interface cards over flaccid, tentacled Alpha Centauran corpses.
One man stood to the side. Sweat-matted, long, red hair clung to his forehead. He stroked his mustache, pleased to note few casualties among his crew. Captain Ellison Firebrandt began to relax. As he did, he realized he still gripped his high-energy pulsed ray pistol. The captain holstered the hepler, but allowed his fingers to rest on the grip.
Juan de Largo slipped on an orange blood puddle and dropped onto a soft, gray corpse while interface cards clattered across the deck. Out of reflex, Firebrandt yanked the hepler from its holster and aimed at the sound. When he realized the sound was not an enemy ambush, he holstered the pistol and helped the cursing de Largo to his feet.
Firebrandt's lieutenant, Carter Roberts, ran forward and gathered the cards back into the box. "Give me a hand."
Firebrandt nodded to de Largo. "Let's get to work. We don't have much time."
"You are correct, Firebrandt," growled a voice at the other end of the deck. "In fact, you have no time at all." Firebrandt stood, then whirled to face a nine-foot, tentacled Alpha Centauran who'd appeared in the doorway. Firebrandt's hand returned to the hepler grip as he identified the creature to be the ship's captain. The Alpha Centauran leveled a weapon at Roberts and de Largo. "This weapon fires a projectile. Once it's in the body, it blossoms, ripping and tearing its way through your internal organs." The Alpha Centauran grinned at Firebrandt. "It's no less than you and your crew of pirates deserve."
"Allow me a last request." Firebrandt lifted his hand from the hepler and pulled back his coat. With care, he retrieved a pipe and match from his trousers pocket. The Alpha Centauran captain narrowed his gaze at the wooden contrivances as though deciding whether or not they could be harmful.
The Alpha Centauran looked from Firebrandt to Roberts. "Do I kill you Firebrandt, or shall I let you watch as your friends writhe in unspeakable agony?" The Alpha Centauran stood silent for a moment. Firebrandt betrayed no concern for either his crewmembers or himself.
He raised the pipe to his mouth as the Alpha Centauran pointed his weapon at the captain. Roberts recognized the signal and hurried de Largo through the airlock.
"Ever since wooden ships sailed Earth's seas, sailors have taken care to minimize the risks associated with fire. After all, fire can be deadly, especially in enclosed spaces." The captain struck the match on his boot sole and raised it to the pipe. The Alpha Centauran stared in wonder as Firebrandt exhaled smoke. "Too bad Alpha Centauran blood is so combustible." The captain tossed the flaming match into a pool of orange blood, then turned and sprinted for the airlock as flame erupted all through the corridor. Automatic fire suppression kicked in, filling the corridor with chemical rain.
Blind shots pierced the veil behind Firebrandt as he leapt through the airlock. Roberts slammed his fist on the control, shutting the heavy doors.
Later in the afternoon, Captain Firebrandt entered his quarters. He eased into a large, soft chair and raised a familiar, battered pipe to his lips. He watched as smoke swirled upward. Fire on a ship could be deadly. He grinned to himself. If not for the drug, Dairtox, the fire burning in the pipe could well represent an early death. The smoke comforted him and he melted into the chair's contours.
Fine wood paneling covered the cabin walls. Stained glass overlaid the windows. A brass lantern hung from a chain over the table. The captain sighed contentment. He'd never had a better home and he couldn't imagine a place he'd rather be.
A voice sounded on the intercom. "Sorry to interrupt, sir. This is Roberts, at the helm."
The captain stood, hating the creaking of his bones. He placed the pipe on the table next to the chair, walked to the far wall, and touched a glowing sensor pad. "This is the captain, go ahead."
"Computer's picked up a ship at long range," said Roberts. "She's large. A freighter I'd say, sir."
A knock sounded at the door. Firebrandt didn't answer, but the door opened anyway. Suki Mori peered in.
The captain gestured her inside. "A freighter," he said to the intercom. "Are you sure? What's Computer say?"
Roberts hesitated. "She's still a long way off, sir. If you want, we can take a closer look."
Firebrandt thought for a moment. "Don't approach any closer than you have to. If she's a warship, I want time to put some distance between us."
The captain chewed his lower lip for a moment before he hit the touch pad and turned off the intercom.
"Trouble?" Suki sat on the cabin's couch, then narrowed her gaze.
"Maybe." Firebrandt sat down beside the woman he was growing to love. He brushed a strand of black hair from her cheek, then kissed her full, red lips.
She inched closer to him. "Is it a warship?"
The captain shook his head. "Probably a freighter."
"Another raid? So soon?" She looked down at her hands.
"I do it for us. I do it for the crew. They need me."
She stood and ran her hands along the cabin's wood paneling. She grabbed a book from the bookshelf and thumbed through it. "Do you really need all this? Or do you just love the power that comes with being a captain of a pirate ship." She closed the book.
Firebrandt stood, collected the book, and put it back on the shelf. He reached out and gently turned her face toward his. "Easy, Suki. This is no pirate ship. This is a legally licensed privateer. I fight for Earth. You know that."
"I know, but it doesn't make much difference if you get caught." She turned away from him and crossed to the desk.
Firebrandt looked down at the floor then shook his head. "It's all I know how to do."
"You could get a smaller ship … just you and me…"
The captain shrugged. "I ran the numbers. Private trade on a small ship just doesn't pay well. At that rate, I would do as well returning to the home system to be a miner, like my father."
She nodded. "We need to keep investigating choices." She turned, walked back to him, and embraced him. Her warmth radiated through his shirt. "I just want you to think about us. I want you to consider the good you've done and maybe you've earned a real rest. It may be time for us to settle down." She shook her head. "Sometimes I wonder why you're so driven."
"It's a passion, like a smoldering ember. This ship is the only place I know in the galaxy where I can be free." The captain looked into Suki's eyes. "We're both free here."
She looked away as a tear ran down her cheek. "What would you do if you were captured?"
He looked back to the chair and table. The embers in the pipe faded. "I'll burn the bastards. Fire is deadly, you know."
She smiled back at him. "Fire can also be very warm." She ran fingers through his long, red hair.
He stroked her hair and smiled, happy to be free. Firebrandt embraced Suki as her long, delicate fingers explored his back.
The captain dreamed a near-memory from childhood. He ran away from home, through an asteroid mine's dark tunnels. He hid behind a robotic cart. His mother—tall, broad and imposing—reached around and grabbed him. If his dream had followed his memories, he would have remembered her pulling him close, telling him his father waited and worried with dinner. She might have even said she loved him, but he couldn't remember that part for certain.
In the dream, she shoved him back under an overhead lamp's sharp glare. She drew her hepler and aimed. Just as she squeezed the trigger he gasped and sprang awake, the image so vivid, it seemed more real than faded memories.
He shook his head and rubbed sleep from his eyes. He stood, wavered a moment, then padded over to a wall unit where a coffee carafe waited. He poured some in a cup, sipped it, and sighed.
His thoughts returned to his mother. He knew little about her other than his father's stories. She left them when he was quite young. He did remember she carried a hepler pistol, but he never understood why. The recollection made him shudder.
His mother—Barbara was her name—had left Earth to join the navy of Alpha Coma Berenices. Alpha Coma and Earth had long been rivals, but this personal connection enhanced his desire to give the Alpha Comans trouble by raiding their ships.
In space, battles played out like chess tournaments. All moves were made with calculated precision. Firebrandt could never decide whether he was a pawn or a knight. All he knew for certain was that Earth's admiralty controlled the moves.
The intercom chimed. The captain continued to sip his coffee as he padded over to the wall. He pushed the touch pad. "This is the captain."
"Computer's got a positive identification on that ship as well as distance and bearing." Roberts sounded annoyed, as though he'd been trying to raise the captain for some time. The captain glanced over to Suki among his bed's rumpled sheets. Had it been the dream or the intercom chime that had awakened him?
"Well, since we aren't running, I presume it's not a warship."
"She's a large freighter. Computer says she's from Alpha Coma Berenices."
"Really?" The captain shuddered. It wasn't completely unexpected news given the region of the galaxy they were in, but it unnerved him given his dream. Still, a large freighter from Alpha Coma could mean a big payoff in cash as well as giving him personal satisfaction. "Alert the crew. I'll come up."
Firebrandt bent over Suki's sleeping form and kissed her gently. She snuggled further into the sheets. He reached over the bed and retrieved a clean, white tunic. From his chair, he grabbed a pair of crisp black trousers. The captain fastened a wide belt around his tunic, pulled on a pair of boots and strode from the cabin.
He arrived on the Legacy's command deck a moment later. Sloping metallic walls bordered the deck. Wooden handrails ran the length of the walls. Two gunner's consoles stood near the door at the stern. Nicole Lowry and Edwin Neal worked through the weapons' checklist.
Instead of a forward wall, the deck continued into a breathtaking hologram of space. The captain's footsteps resounded on the metal grating. Lights blinked as the ship's network relayed data about fuel consumption, speed, course, and other information throughout the vessel. The helmsman, Kheir el-Din, stood at the deck's center in front of the ship's "wheel"—in fact, a console with controls to steer the ship. A pale man, with hair grown long to cover a scar in the middle of his forehead where a computer chip had been implanted, sat against the starboard wall, ice-blue eyes roving the deck. The man called Computer was the anti-embodiment of the crystalline matrix pulsing with light beneath the captain's feet. The ship's network was a massive thing, interacting intimately with all the ship's systems. Computer was a frail thing, passing along the captain's orders and repeating answers from the ship's network.
The captain looked around el-Din at the glowing status indicators on the wheel console. Pleased with the ship's condition, he turned his attention to the hologram and tried, in vain, to find the freighter among the stars.
"Computer," said the captain, "show me the freighter." A three-dimensional grid appeared within the hologram. A red dot sprang to life in the center. A few words typed out in space above the ship detailing the freighter's size, crew compliment and armaments. Roberts leaned against the starboard wall just ahead of Computer and nodded.
Firebrandt folded his arms. "I think the Alliance would be most pleased to see Alpha Coma lose some riches. What do you think, Roberts?"
Bald with gaunt features, Roberts grinned, making him resemble a death's-head. "I think they would be most pleased indeed, sir." Roberts approached the captain.
"Now, for the problem," mused Firebrandt. "Getting to her. How far away is she?"
"Twenty light-hours," responded Computer in a monotone.
"On her course, how far is the nearest jump point for Alpha Coma?" asked the captain.
"Three light-hours," responded Computer.
"That's it, then," grumbled Roberts. "She has all the time in the world to fire up her EQ engines and jump out of range before we even get close."
Firebrandt sighed. Legacy had a way to deal with this situation, but he'd used it more than he had wanted over the last several months. It had already brought him undue attention and it was expensive to use.
In the late twenty-first century, a scientist named Thomas Quinn had discovered time-traveling particles that could inject three-dimensional vessels into fourth dimensional reality, which had made apparent faster-than-light travel possible. Ships had to jump between gravitational nodal points. For most ships, only stars possessed sufficiently strong gravitational fields to be the focus of those nodal points. However, Firebrandt had acquired a generator that created nodal points anywhere in space. Suki had adapted it to the ship's systems.
The captain concluded they needed to use the nodal point generator. "Have Ms. Mori get to her post. We need to jump to a position one kilometer off the Coma ship's stern." Firebrandt sighed as he grabbed a handrail along the wall.
Two minutes later, Suki arrived on the command deck, shirt untucked and several strands of hair trying to escape a hastily formed ponytail.
"Intrasystem jump is calculated and coordinates are sent to Miss Mori's station," reported Computer.
Suki sat down at the engineering console and activated the nodal point generator. She adjusted the settings and confirmed Computer's calculations. After a moment, she nodded to the captain. "We're ready."
"Jump!" ordered the captain as he closed his eyes. Within a few seconds, he felt as though someone struck him repeatedly in the face. In a dream-like state he imagined the tentacles of an Alpha Centauran encircling his neck to strangle him. As he fought to hold onto the railing, he realized the ship had already jumped. He struggled to look at the hologram image. A hepler pulse fired from the Coma ship's stern.
A moment later, Legacy shuddered. Firebrandt lost his grip and dropped to the deck.
Roberts ran to the stern. "Return fire!"
Neal and Lowry entered firing sequences and unleashed hepler beams from the turret guns.
The two cylindrical ships careened through space, EQ generators glowing blue at the stern. The nearby star bathed the black, erdonium hulls in orange light. Legacy unleashed a second hepler salvo which tore into the Coma vessel's thruster pack. One shot ripped through the hull plating near the Coma ship's bow where its bridge would be. Roberts whirled on Lowry. "Careful! Engines only!"
"Damn you, I know that," she responded.
Roberts looked as though he would fire back a retort, but a glance from Firebrandt stopped him. This was not the time to argue.
The Coma ship returned fire. This time the captain maintained his grip on the handrail.
"Our starboard thrusters are destroyed and we've taken damage to the starboard gangway port," reported Computer.
The Legacy fired again. This time they scored a hit on the EQ generator and its glow diminished. The bulky freighter fired several more shots, clipping the privateer's hull.
Sparks sputtered from Neal's station. The gunner screamed when the panel burst into flames. Roberts grabbed him and pulled him to safety.
"Get the extinguisher," snarled Lowry, giving the panicked man something to focus on.
The captain ordered fire crews onto the command deck while Lowry maintained the barrage on the enemy vessel.
"Computer," called Firebrandt. "Assume control of starboard weapons and maintain assault!" Computer's brow creased as he took control of the guns. Computer might not be as good a shot as Neal, but the captain preferred it to losing half of Legacy's fire power.
A firefighting team stormed onto the command deck and helped Neal extinguish the flames at his station. Acrid smoke issued from the console.
"Second direct hit on enemy's EQ generator, sir!" shouted Computer over the firefighters' din.
"Another shot should do it," observed the captain.
The freighter started to turn. Firebrandt gulped. He suspected their adversary brought a large bow gun to bear. "Evasive!" shouted the captain. Behind him, the fire crew gaped at the holo-viewer.
"Clear the bridge!" called Roberts. The fire crew scurried off the deck and Neal dropped back into the foam-covered seat and secured his harness.
"We're hardly moving, Captain," reported el-Din.
"Ship's performance down twenty percent," reported Computer.
Roberts pounded the wall. He looked at the captain as a thought came to him. "The starboard gangway port!"
The captain turned to Computer. "Seal off deck two, section two. Open the starboard port!"
"Inadvisable, Captain. Opening the port will damage it further."
"I know. Open the port," ordered the captain as he waved smoke out of his face.
Computer nodded. When the port opened, air rushed out and swung the ship out of the hepler gun's range. Roberts pointed to the holo and Lowry fired, destroying the gun.
The freighter shuddered as it resumed course. "Let's shut the rest of those thrusters down." Firebrandt nodded to Lowry.
Roberts coughed. "Get those fans on in here!" he called to the helmsman. Fans buzzed to life and the acrid electrical smoke began to lift. Two red energy pulses struck the freighter's thruster pack. It exploded in a silent shower of sparks and shrapnel. Inertia carried the freighter forward on an altered trajectory at lower speed.
"Catch up with the Coma ship," ordered the captain. He lit his pipe and studied the enemy vessel. "We knocked out her main gun," he mused. "She'll have others to fend off an approaching ship." He sucked the pipe stem. "Computer, using other Coma ships on record as a norm, what would be the range of the guns we have not destroyed?"
"Standard range for close proximity weapons is one kilometer." Computer considered for a moment. "I should also point out, sir, that the large gun we destroyed is not standard for Coma merchant ships."
"That was military hardware," said Roberts as he walked up to the captain.
Firebrandt turned to the helmsman. "Bring us out to five kilometers distance. Fly us in a spiral pattern until we're two kilometers away from the Coma ship." He turned to face Lowry. "I want all of her short-range armaments knocked out. Keep an eye out for surprises."
"Aye aye, sir," said the gunner.
Stars moved in the hologram. The captain turned his attention to the other gunner, sitting dazed in dried foam. "Mr. Neal, you panicked while at your station."
"Yes, sir." He lowered his head.
"Have you settled down enough to perform your duty?"
"Yes, sir," responded Neal, hope glimmering in his eyes.
"Then get your station back on line as soon as possible." The captain contemplated the pipe for a moment. "Do you understand, Mr. Neal?"
"Yes sir, I understand, sir."
Firebrandt walked over to Suki. "Get a toolkit and give him a hand. Let me know if he needs a break from duty."
She nodded. "Shouldn't you give him one anyway?"
The captain considered that. "I want his confidence restored. If he takes a break now, he'll be questioning himself."
Suki gave him a curt nod and strode over to a storage locker.
The captain watched the holographic viewer. Lowry picked off the remaining guns on the freighter's hull. Legacy maneuvered far too sluggishly with the starboard thrusters out of action. Even so, by the time el-Din reported that they'd reached the target position, two kilometers from the ship, all armaments had been disabled.
"Helmsman, you may proceed with docking," ordered the captain.
"Aye aye, sir." Kheir el-Din entered the maneuver, then stroked the beads weaved into his beard.
"Preparing bow grappling ring," reported Computer.
"Mr. Roberts, assemble the boarding crew and meet me at the airlock." The captain tamped out his pipe and strode off the command deck.
* * *
Twenty crewmembers raring for a fight waited with Roberts near the bow airlock when the captain arrived. He looked them over. They had all been on raids with him before and had proven themselves to be brave, sturdy souls. Wordless, the captain strode to the airlock. He turned and faced the crew with a confident grin. His confidence was a ruse, but their eyes and chins lifted, alert and ready just as he wanted. Alpha Coma was a human colony. There would be no terrible aliens on the other side of the airlock. Firebrandt needed a crew who would fight without doubting themselves.
The captain drew his sword and held it high. The crew let out a fierce battle yell. Firebrandt nodded, satisfied. The boarding party fell silent as they waited. Firebrandt drew a hepler pistol. At this signal, the crew drew their own weapons. Legacy bumped into the freighter. Hands tensed.
Roberts moved to the captain's side. Air whooshed as the airlock doors opened. The captain and Roberts blasted through the freighter's airlock. Armored defenders waited on the other side. The boarding party charged headlong into the pulsed high-energy weapon's fire.
Swords cut into armor designed to defend against pulsed rays. Bladed weapons may be anachronistic, but they still served a purpose and inspired a terror that no other weapon could. Heplers fired, flesh burned, and screams came from all sides. Blood splattered the freighter's deck.
The captain stood, breathless, and took in the battle's aftermath. His white tunic had been torn and stained red. Sweat dripped from his forehead as he looked around. All the defenders had fallen. Firebrandt counted himself, Roberts, and two of Legacy's crew still standing—Lowry and de Largo.
"These were professional soldiers," noted Lowry.
The captain turned to give instructions to Roberts. Just then, a hepler pulse crackled through the air. The first mate crumpled to the deck and stared in horror at the cauterized stump where his right hand once had been. Firebrandt and his people dropped to their knees, scanning the passageways to see where the shot had come from. Lowry and de Largo covered the corridor while the captain moved to Roberts' side. Firebrandt helped Roberts to sit up against a wall, then stood, hepler drawn, to face his new adversary.
A gray-haired woman wearing a Lord High Admiral's uniform emerged from the shadows at the far end of the deck. A scar ran from the edge of her mouth to her chin. In one hand, she held a sword. In the other, she held a hepler pistol. Behind her stood a young man and a young woman, both in Alpha Coma military regalia—the admiral's flag lieutenants. "Order your people to drop their weapons!" shouted the admiral, her voice hoarse as though she had been shouting orders for the past hour.
"Looks like a stand-off to me," noted Firebrandt.
The male flag lieutenant fired his hepler. Juan de Largo fell to the deck with a gaping hole in his chest. "Not anymore," said the admiral.
Firebrandt put his hand on Lowry's shoulder. Her hepler clattered to the deck.
"Now, why do I find pirates attacking a military vessel?" demanded the admiral, stepping to Firebrandt.
He sneered. "Transponder records indicated this was a freighter. Disguising a military vessel as a civilian vessel is entrapment and a treaty violation."
"Piracy brings the death penalty on Alpha Coma Berenices," the admiral answered.
"We are privateers operating under a letter of marque. We are not subject to Coma's jurisdiction," growled Firebrandt.
The admiral looked into his eyes. "No?" She looked to the deck and the walls. "Look's like you're in Coma's jurisdiction to me."
Firebrandt raised the hepler. Something pierced his arm. Pain seared through every nerve in his body and he crumpled to the deck. The female flag lieutenant holstered a mini dart gun. The admiral and her lieutenants stepped into Legacy as he blacked out.
* * *
A sick pain throbbed throughout Firebrandt's body and he groaned. He managed to look around. Roberts and Lowry had vanished, but bodies still littered the deck. The captain decided he could not have been unconscious for long. He tried to stand, his head still swimming from the Alpha Coman dart. He staggered on the slippery metal deck. After a second try, he managed to cross back to the Legacy.
The privateer vessel appeared undamaged. Firebrandt stumbled through the corridors to the command deck. Roberts sat at his station, weak and pale, his arm bandaged. No one else occupied the command deck. Even Computer was gone.
"What's happened?" asked Firebrandt. "Where is everyone? Where's Computer?"
"Those who didn't fall in action are my prisoners," came a gruff voice from the stern door.
Firebrandt looked around to see the admiral. As he moved toward her, the female flag lieutenant led Suki onto the command deck. He stopped. "If you've harmed her…" The captain aimed his finger at the admiral.
"Harming her is the last thing on my mind." The admiral flashed a queer smile. "For some reason, she seems to love you."
"That's none of your business," Suki said.
"Humph," muttered the admiral. "What do you say, Firebrandt?"
"How do you know my name?" demanded the captain, even as he realized she seemed strangely familiar.
The admiral narrowed her gaze. "Don't play those games with me." She looked at Suki, then to Roberts. The captain began to fume. "And don't blame them. They're loyal to you. Damn it, everyone on this ship was loyal to you." The admiral snorted. "They're all misguided fools!" She walked up to Firebrandt and looked him up and down. "I don't understand why, but both Suki and Roberts are especially loyal to you."
"So, what are you going to do with us?" asked Firebrandt.
"Ellison Firebrandt is known throughout this sector of the galaxy. I'm within my rights to have you executed." The admiral pursed her lips as she studied the captain. He was defeated and she knew it. "However, I have no desire to destroy you. I will let you go."
"What about my crew?" Firebrandt asked, numb.
"They are good fighters. I may have use for some of them."
"And for those you can't … use?"
"Fair trial. If your letter of marque is genuine, they'll be returned to Earth."
Firebrandt looked at his feet. "What about us?"
"Well, I've stripped your ship of parts necessary to get mine operating again, which is allowed by treaty. Legacy will still fly. I've disarmed your weapons. I want you out of this sector. With Roberts and Suki, you'll be able to manage the ship."
"That's far from certain," complained Roberts, looking down at his bandaged arm, now missing a hand.
"I think you'll manage," said the admiral. "I want you to find a world—a world to make your own. I do this under one condition—that I never hear about new raids by the dread pirate Firebrandt." She took a couple steps away and turned. "If I see you in my jurisdiction again, I will not hesitate to execute you as war criminals."
Firebrandt nodded. "I understand."
The admiral turned to leave. Firebrandt rushed forward and grabbed her arm. "Wait a moment," he said. "Who exactly are you?"
"I'm sad to say, it's been far too long and the years have no doubt changed me." She laughed at his perplexed expression. "I'm pleased to meet you." She held out her hand. "I'm Lord Admiral Barbara Firebrandt."
Find out what happens to Firebrandt, Suki, and Roberts in The Pirates of Sufiro
David Lee Summers © 2013