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  • Writer's pictureMark Meier

Running Before the Storm 1

The planet Rubineker faded into the background as the William Placard flew away. Moments later the red dwarf primary vanished as well. Carnifor leaned back in his control room seat and relaxed for the first time since landing. “Good riddance.”

“I agree.” Lannetay likewise reclined and closed her eyes. She certainly felt old – not because of her age, but because of all the light years behind her.

“We accomplished something, though.” Carnifor didn’t add, And it’s about time. They’d been tasked with recruiting spies and only recently succeeded.

“Olburq will be a good spy.” Lannetay firmly agreed with Carnifor on that point. “They asked him to go to Wrantiban.”

Carnifor smiled, recalling the conversation with Olburq. The former colony administrator had imitated the Wanti apparatchik flawlessly when he’d said, “We need good people. For some reason they keep quitting.”

Carnifor laughed. “Imagine, effective people quitting.”

“If they are truly quitting.” Lannetay clasped her hands behind her head. “When it comes to Wrantiban, there are many ways to ‘resign.’”

“Bill, could I have a footrest please?” Carnifor made use of the new feature under the control panel. “One way is to surrender.” His comment was a pointed reminder they had a Wanti on board.

“Iresha did surrender, though. What more do you want from her?” Lannetay recalled the horror of L-T’s injury when the Wanti soldier had hit him with a blaster bolt. A part of her didn’t trust the Wanti, but there’d been plenty of opportunity for escape and mischief, none of which Iresha had used. Bill still watched her every move – just to be certain.

Carnifor glanced over his shoulder as L-T and Marc entered the control room. The commander stood in respect for a wounded comrade. “L-T, good to see you up and about.”

The lieutenant’s left arm was immobilized to keep the shoulder stable while nanites in his system rebuilt the bones and flesh vaporized by Iresha’s blaster shot. “Good to be given the ‘go ahead’ to move about again, Carnifor.”

“We were just talking about you.” Lannetay also stood, her chair sliding to the side to give her room. “I’m still curious why you laughed when you got shot.”

L-T grimaced. “I saw her taking aim at me so I dove to the side – just as she pulled her shot. Lannetay, she didn’t mean to hit me. She tried to miss. It struck me as funny.”

Lannetay watched L-T give a one-shoulder shrug, thinking there had to be more to his story. Maybe she could convince him to tell her later. She vowed to review his file. There might be a hint or two there.

“There’s the question of logistics.” Carnifor sat again, this time with his seat facing aft. The others sat as well. “She can’t sleep in the common room forever.”

The ship’s AI, Bill, had the solution. “We simply shuffle some walls around and add another room. You’ll all lose a little space, the shape of your rooms will change a bit, but it won’t take much.”

Marc said, “The difference will be less than fifteen percent.”

“Cheater.” Bill and Lannetay spoke in unison.

Lannetay shared a warm smile with Marc. She thought he’d become a very fine man in a few years.

Iresha walked up to the still-open hatch. “Having a meeting about what to do with me?”

Carnifor gave her an innocent smile. “We considered spacing you, but Marc insisted on keeping you alive.”

Marc blushed, as he did every time Iresha neared him. “I . . . um . . . .”

“We weren’t going to send you out the airlock.” Lannetay shot a nasty look at Carnifor. Adolescents had a hard enough time without that kind of innuendo. “We’re only trying to figure out sleeping arrangements.”

Bill grew another seat in the space between the recliners where Marc and L-T sat.

Iresha caught Marc’s eye for a moment and looked away without acknowledging him. “Whatever you could do would be fine. Where I used to be wasn’t very pleasant.”

Marc looked ready to bolt for the common room, but he’d have to squeeze too close to Iresha. Instead he shrank to the port bulkhead.

“I detect weapons fire ahead.” Bill gave a polite cough. “Make that a lot of weapons fire.”

Lannetay turned around and leaned forward. “What can you show us?”

“Not much, for the moment,” Bill said. “There are hundreds of ships involved, so this is a major battle. We’ll be able to resolve some detail in a few minutes.”

Carnifor gave an order. “Take us to nadir, Bill. Would a five degree course change be sufficient?”

“Belay that.” Lannetay scowled at Carnifor. “Find us a course past the fight with the least deflection from our flight path.” Lannetay wished Carnifor would only think for a half-second before issuing orders.

“Calculated and implemented.” Bill’s voice turned officious. “We should have a light year of buffer between us and them, unless the battle meanders. We’ll pass ‘beneath’ them at a comfortable margin.”

Lannetay endured Carnifor’s “I told you so” look and watched the sensor readings in her mind and noticed the scrum drifting to nadir. “Bill, can you goose our velocity by a few lights? Maybe we can get past before they block our path entirely.”

“You can do that?” Iresha leaned forward as a holo sprang to life over the console. “Why aren’t you already going at top speed?” In deep space there’d be no reason to hold back, especially for a ponderous cargo ship. Everyone accelerated to their top rated speed and held it there to minimize travel time.

Marc leaned toward her. “We’re not exactly your run-of-the-mill traders.”

Iresha ignored the youth as if he hadn’t spoken.

Bill sent to Lannetay, She’s playing him like a fiddle.

Lannetay agreed. She was worried about how Marc would deal with Iresha, but he had to learn to cope with uncomfortable situations. Instead of interrupting their byplay, she focused on the holographic image in front of her.

“Intersection in twenty minutes,” Bill said. “Want to change course again?”

“Wait for another minute.” Lannetay mentally sketched an alternate route to apex. “Bill, if they keep moving that way take us to apex instead.”

The combat zone grew and eight Terran heavy corvettes circled, hunting for strays. A quad of Wanti fighters flashed past the larger strike craft, raking them hard enough to leave half of them dead in space. The lead pair of fighters reversed, and the trailing pair set an intercept course for the William Placard.

The superluminal shock wave buffeted the cargo vessel as the Wanti ships shot passed, one to port-apex, the other to starboard-nadir. Lannetay ordered a sharp course change directly away from the battle.

“They’re coming back,” Bill said.

Lannetay fumed. “We’re not fast enough to run from them.”

We could fight back, Goofball sent from the common room. If you want, I’ll take Tabby out there and smoke those Wantis in a second.

Lannetay sent to Bill, Show me Iresha. I want to see her reaction to what I tell Goofball. Then she yelled, “Not our mission, Goofball.”

Bill sent an in-eye overlay image of Iresha, who nodded to herself, eyes squinting. Lannetay didn’t get much of an idea what the woman thought, but the Wanti looked like she knew something significant had been conveyed.

Olthan crowded into the control cabin, elbowing his way into the tight space behind Marc’s chair. The recliner edged forward as Bill gave the Marine a bit more room.

Again the ship rocked as the two fighters flew past. Their artificial gravity wasn’t designed to adjust to high speed passes only a few meters away.

“They’s gettin’ close, ain’t they?” Olthan reached over Marc’s seat back to mess up the youth’s hair.

Marc grabbed the Marine’s wrist and twisted. “Don’t do that.” His voice broke from his normal soprano to a cracking tenor and back again.

Lannetay gulped. Time for a chat with Marc about what’s happening to him.

“They’re closer than they should be.” Carnifor crossed his legs. “They’re just trying to provoke us to see if we’re armed.”

Olthan pursed his lips. “Maybe we should get armed. Dangerous out here.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Lannetay snapped. “I’m busy now, so keep quiet.”

The control cabin quieted. That’s telling them, Bill sent to Lannetay. At least now they’re taking this seriously.

About time.

The battle expanded to cover a rough sphere nearly a light year across.

A brief explosion flared.

“Dangerous for that light cruiser,” L-T murmured to Olthan. Though frigates and destroyers had already been fragmented, the Terran cruiser was by far the biggest warship yet to be wrecked.

Lannetay curved their plot to pass the battle to one side, but a faltering Wanti destroyer, chased by three fighters, chose a vector which cut them off. “Bill, take us directly away from this mess again.” The battle had seriously raised Lannetay’s blood pressure.

Marc, who had grown increasingly intent on the conflict, stood and pointed at a particularly nasty knot of ships. “The Wantis are about to lose at least two of their fleet carriers. Maybe a third one.”

“People are dying out there, Marc.” Lannetay worried her son had been playing too many holographic games and didn’t understand lives were lost in real battles. “Each fleet carrier has a crew of nearly ten thousand star sailors.”

Marc gave his mom a puzzled look. “I know, Mom. My games focus on lives saved, not lost. Right, L-T?”

L-T shook his head. “Not now, Marc.”

Carnifor leaned in toward the display. “He’s right. If those destroyers,” Bill highlighted them, “change course a bit, they’ll close on three Wanti carriers at the same time. Marc has a good eye.”

Lannetay barely listened. Her stomach twisted as a flare in the midst of the skirmish marked the destruction of a Terran escort carrier. She’d served aboard one for her last year in the service. Budgets made them attractive, but only politicians liked them.

Goofball finally entered the crowded control room. “Do we have to sit here and do nothing?”

Olthan said, “Whatcha got in mind? We’re not armed.”

“Tabby.” The fighter pilot pointed toward his access port in the crew quarters portion of the ship.

Lannetay barely glanced over her shoulder. “Quiet! You’re not launching Tabby.”

If you're wondering more about these characters, their origins are detailed in Ebony Sea: Origins. If you appreciate this story, please share on social media, and consider supporting the author's ability to continue writing by purchasing the Origins story and leaving a review at the link above.

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