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  • Writer's pictureMark Meier

Running Before the Storm 2

A flurry of blaster fire shredded a pair of Terran light cruisers. They lost power and coasted toward the edge of the fight, slowing toward light speed.

L-T audibly gulped. “My next posting might have been on one of them.”

Lannetay’s heart leaped when the Terran heavy cruiser fired a full salvo. The first Wanti fleet carrier fragmented under the assault. At the same time, the destroyers sent a volley of missiles toward the second carrier. Then the Earth ships hit the Wanti carrier’s point-defense batteries with waves of disrupter fire. With almost no anti-missile guns to stop them, the missiles slammed into the massive ship, vaporizing large swaths of armor. Another series of disrupter blasts gutted the interior of the massive vessel.

The crew of the William Placard cheered. Lannetay felt sick. So many deaths for nothing more than a greedy man’s quest for power.

Bill sent, Watching from a “safe” distance is a lot different from being in the thick of things.

We have the luxury of seeing the whole, Lannetay replied. They only get to see portions of the battle.

Moments later the heavy cruiser altered course by a few degrees to intercept the third Wanti fleet carrier. The surviving destroyers converged as well. The carrier boosted to escape, pushing engines far beyond their design parameters.

Lannetay breathed a quick prayer for the survivors. While a person lived, hope existed for God to make Himself known.

Wanti escort carriers also retreated, with cruisers, destroyers, and frigates screening the withdrawal. The Terrans pursued for a few minutes, then the larger ships let fighters harry the enemy while they mopped up dwindling resistance in the battle zone. Rescue ships would do what they could to minimize casualties. Even Wanti survivors would be rescued – eventually.

The whole encounter with the battle took four hours. Flying back and forth trying to evade the combatants had cost the William Placard almost a half-day in progress. With hostilities winding down, Lannetay expected they could pass without further incident. She slumped in her chair, drained and exhausted.

“So.” Iresha clapped and rubbed her hands together. “What’s this mission you’re on?”

Lannetay blinked. Iresha had evidently blocked out the carnage. Doing so wasn’t as easy for Lannetay.

Carnifor recovered and turned to answer. “We’re taking O2 machines to Swonorikus. We’re traders.”

Iresha sneered. “Don’t lie to me, Carny. I’ve been in the Wanti military for more than a year. I had to deceive people every day I was there, so I recognize someone else doing that to me. Try again.”

Lannetay hated lying, but a certain amount was necessary in order to recruit spies. With a Wanti on board, the requirement was greater than ever. Bill, do you have enough data on her for a baseline?

If she’s not very good at it I could tell a lie from the truth. Of course, if I had access to her implants it would be a cake walk.

Then what are we waiting for? Lannetay knew the answer, but frustration got the better of her.

You know I can’t do that without her permission.

Lannetay ground her teeth. Have you asked?

Bill spoke. “Iresha, would you give me access? I think Lannetay wants to ask you some questions before she tells you anything.”

Iresha thought for a moment and crossed her arms. “That you asked instead of just doing it tells me you have some ethical programming, Bill. I thought AIs were too flaky to trust.”

“The same could be said about humans,” Bill responded.

Iresha uncrossed her arms. “Proceed.”

“Lannetay, you’re good to go,” Bill said.

Lannetay pondered. Let’s get some known answers as a test, Bill. “Iresha, what is your full name?”

“I gave you my full name and rank already.” Iresha scowled.

“Give them again, please.”

“My name is Iresha Donter, corporal in the Wrantibani Marine Corps.”

Lannetay nodded. “Now lie when you tell me what ship you’re aboard.”

“I’m currently aboard the Lannetay Carnifor.” Iresha smirked.

“Very funny.” Carnifor’s deadpan delivery showed his sarcasm.

Bill said, “Okay, Lannetay. We have as good of a baseline as we’re going to get.”

Over the next hour Iresha’s story came out, with prodding from Lannetay and Carnifor. Because very little food was available on Wrantiban, people starved. Food synthesizers stretched available organic material, but after passing through the system so many times the nutritional value became nearly worthless. Wrantiban’s soil had so many heavy metals, nothing useful would grow.

Iresha, upon turning sixteen, joined the Marines to get enough food to survive. The family of enlistees also received a slight boost in rations. She hated Wrantiban and all it stood for, remembering quite well the collapse of the starship market and the associated recession on her home planet.

L-T said, “You enlisted at sixteen? That seems unlikely even for Wantis.”

“You’re forgetting to translate Standard to Traditional,” Bill said. “Sixteen is more like twenty where you grew up, L-T.”

Marc fought to keep his voice from cracking. “L-T, shouldn’t you be used to Standard time by now?”

Lannetay shook her head. “He’s only been in the service for a little more than a year. He still thinks in Traditional time. Iresha, what would you like to have happen on Wrantiban?”

“Good question. I don’t know enough to make suggestions. Kio Otmitter is too entrenched to listen to anyone, much less me. He’s not so much able to manipulate the system as he is the system.”

Carnifor cleared his throat and exchanged an amused glance with Lannetay. “We might soon be in a position to make him listen.”

“You?” Iresha scoffed. “A cargo ship with six people aboard, one of them almost a baby?”

Marc growled. “I’m nine, nearly nine and a half!” His voice snapped from one octave to another without warning.

Iresha smiled with just a hint of condescension. “Your voice has just started changing, though you’re sure to turn into a fine young man.”

“Enough.” Lannetay waved her hand to dismiss that subject. Navigating an adolescent’s development wasn’t a subject for the crew, much less someone of questionable allegiance. She’d take care of Marc’s issues in private. “Carnifor was talking about Earth and her other colonies forcing Otmitter to listen.”

Iresha still scoffed. “There’s another whole theater to your war, what with the Nats blasting everyone who has nanites in their brains. What kind of fool is Director Sotinar to get embroiled with two interstellar empires at the same time?”

Carnifor drove a fist into the palm of his other hand. “The Terran Space Navy has already conquered two of Wrantiban’s original ten signatories, as well as a lot of the colonies they conquered. It won’t be long before Otmitter sues for peace.”

Lannetay added, “And the spy we placed will help out.”

“You just sent a spy to Wrantiban and you think he’ll be in a position important enough to turn the tide of war?” Iresha shook her head. “Optimists are so annoying.”

“Not by himself, of course.” Lannetay shifted mental gears and changed the direction of conversation. “Tell me your estimation of Wrantiban, especially its strengths and weaknesses.”

“The biggest strength is easy. They’ve established total government control. There are people who ask their local officials which bathroom to use and how often.”

“I don’t believe that.” Marc’s soprano was back. His next sentence, though, had his voice dropping an octave. “Nobody would put up with that kind of thing.”

Iresha continued as if Marc hadn’t spoken. “Of course I exaggerate, but not by much. Get the populace used to asking permission for everything, and pretty soon whatever isn’t mandatory is forbidden. That’s where the Wantis have an iron grip on the people – they do what they’re told.”

“What about their weaknesses?” Carnifor asked.

“Food.” Iresha saddened. “There have been riots at the mere mention of food. The authorities mowed down everyone who participated and expunged their names from the planetary Core.”

Lannetay gasped. “Would they really do that?”

“She’s not lying,” Bill said.

Carnifor raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “When you think about it, you end up with fewer mouths to feed. The ones who rioted are either the hungriest or most willing to resist. Killing them makes the average population less likely to be defiant.”

“They try to erase the dead.” Iresha’s voice cracked with emotion. “When I enlisted, they asked for the names of my family members – you know, to increase their rations – and nearly executed me when I listed cousins who had died and were no longer in the Core. They accused me of trying to pad my family’s food allotment.”

Bill cut off the questioning. “We have a pair of Terran frigates coming alongside. A Commander Xich is demanding we allow them aboard for inspection.”

Lannetay gritted her teeth. She’d thought they were far enough away to not be bothered. “Slow to a stop, Bill. Don’t be too quick about it. We have to hide Iresha’s space suit.”

“What about my blasters?” Iresha stood, and her chair dissolved back into the decking. “Won’t they wonder about my rifle and pistol?”

“That’s already hidden.” Carnifor gave the Wanti an ingenuous smile. “Bill, is L-T’s shoulder healed enough to withstand having his arm free for a while?”

Bill harrumphed for effect. “As long as he doesn’t go swinging it around, it should hold up for an hour.”

L-T appeared worried. “Why chance it?I’d rather not have to regrow the whole arm.”

Lannetay scowled. “If they see something out of the ordinary they’re likely to look closer at everything. If they see an injured crewman, they might just take it upon themselves to scan that injury. No doubt there are still traces indicating a Wanti blaster bolt hit him, and they’ll want to know why.”

“So what?” Marc asked. “Just tell them Admiral Choergatan is your . . . .” He struggled for the right word.

Bill provided the answer. “Controller.”

“Yeah. Controller.”

Lannetay scowled. Marc and Bill had just give Iresha information that could compromise their mission. If she decided to defect back to Wrantiban, she’d have more of a bargaining chip.

Carnifor shook his head. “It’ll be quicker to not let the issue come up. Once they become suspicious, we’ll be here for days while they sort things out and pass requests up and down the chain of command.”

“Five minutes,” Bill said. “One ship is setting up to dock, the other is standing off with weapons charged.”

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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