BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 1
— Episode 11
SS Blue Horizon PA1261
The Blue Horizon is presently within orbiting range of Crescentis; our journey from Tanthe thankfully uneventful. I’m just about to head up to the bridge to take my usual place in the center seat to bring us in, and my crew is ready to rest planetside on the beaches of the island world. The gift of documents promising a new ship has infused the crew with a good spirit. However, several members have the same feelings I do, most significantly Patch and Pockets, who don’t necessarily want to give up the ship just yet. They feel that despite her many shortcomings, the Horizon still has a few good years left in her before they’ll be ready to retire her. For the time being, the parchment packet is locked away in my cabin vault until such time as it may be needed.
Sparky’s absence can still be felt here, even though Max has done an admirable job of filling in where she left off. The boy has proven a handy relief pitcher not only in the galley, but in general upkeep of the ship. He’s almost always cleaning something or tidying up here and there, no matter how many times we’ve all assured him that it’s not necessary. He really wants to prove himself, though. This morning I gave him an old pair of ensign insignia from my earlier years. They mean nothing on this ship, but the chrome reflects nicely and his posture has improved now that he can make them flash when he walks right.
I’m pleased to report that —
Merlin’s quarters suddenly lurched to the side with a jolt hard enough to launch him out of his desk chair, his journal hitting the deck beside him. The wolf tumbled to the floor in a heap, sliding across the carpet to slam into the side of his bunk. His lupine senses alerted, firing off in a state of near-panic as he fought to regain his footing and equilibrium. The room shuddered with a low growl as another heavy jolt rocked the ship again.
Above his head, a speaker came on, “Captain! We need you on the bridge right now!”
Sinclair’s neck snapped up at the sound and he struggled to his feet as another titanic blast rippled through the ship, sending him careening against a wall as he launched himself out of the door and down the hallway.
The ship became an inferno of red lights and sirens as she took another hit.
On the bridge, Taro’s fingers gripped into the arms of her seat at the Com Station as she barked orders behind her at the center seat.
“Where’s it coming from?”
A bath of red light filled the bridge as a warning klaxon blared. Renny snapped his head up to report above the din of chaotic explosions around the ship. “It’s coming from the starboard side! Whatever it is, it’s got a kick to it!”
“Evasive!” Taro shouted, and the ship banked to port while pushing up speed to aid in escape. All three vidscreens filled with a shower of green energy spraying around them, narrowly avoiding the sleek blue saucer as Renny swung it around at deep angles. This near to the atmosphere of Crescentis, they were effectively boxed in by the layer of charged troposphere that shielded the world from its star.
The upper atmosphere of Crescentis reacted to the laser fire from the battle with flashes of ionic energy, weaving a deadly spider’s web of death just below them. The ship banked sharply as wicked fingers of energy slashed out at the pinned-in freighter, only to sail right back into the barrage of green energy. It was like trying to escape in an electrified maze.
Behind the Blue Horizon, a black, wraithlike object moved swiftly, silently through space. Its shape was that of a long, flat curve—a manta ray floating ghostlike in the blackness. Moving noiselessly through the vista of stars, the ship had come up on the Horizon totally unnoticed. But when its cannons spoke, searing blasts of white-green energy cut into the unsuspecting freighter before the automatic defense systems kicked in and the shields strengthened.
At the controls of the ship, a massive form manipulated a pair of red controls with the aplomb of a master fencer. The thick black hands flamed with an eerie blue sheen in the low light of the bridge, and dark green eyes glowed with a deranged luminescence from deep-set pits under the gunner’s brow.
Behind the gunner, a broad, dark shape moved forward to place a heavy hand on a shoulder. “Don’t lose them,” its voice rumbled.
The gunner nodded, bringing the red crosshairs back up to bear on his now-agile target. The design shone across his face like a brand, painting half his own face in its crimson glow. “We have them right where we want them,” he replied.
“Take as long as you like,” his leader rumbled.
Sinclair charged up onto the bridge. Taro was already there for him.
“Captain,” she leapt up from the Engineering station. “We’re being attacked from the starboard by an unknown aggressor. Ship scanner has only picked up a trace of class G spatial distortion and—”
“Class G?” Merlin’s jaw dropped. The idea was terrifying.
“Yes sir,” she said, “It’s got to be Captain Natasha.”
He looked out into the vidscreen. The idea seized around his mind like a fist, but… no. “It isn’t Natasha,” he replied. “It’s got to be someone else. She could have already destroyed—”
Another titanic blast rocked the ship, spinning it off its axis so hard that it began to tumble end over end through the black of space, out of control.
“Engine room to bridge!” came a plaintive voice. “We’re losing control of the ship back here! One more direct hit could button us up!”
“We can’t maneuver this close to the atmosphere!” Renny yipped, terror beginning to creep into his voice.
The cheetah quickly vacated the center seat and Merlin swiftly took his place. The wolf tapped keys on the armrest pads, checking to see if the cargo hold was occupied.
“Seal yourselves into engineering!” Merlin ordered.
“Already sealed in!”
“Went to the upper decks an hour ago.”
With all hands accounted for, he flicked a switch and then seized the guidance shifts. “This is the Captain,” he said over the ship-wide intercom, “Hold on to something, now!”
“Captain!” Taro gulped, “What…?”
“See how easily the white meat slices,” a dark, rumbling voice purled around the gunner’s ears. “You, who have caused me so much dishonor… who almost cost me my life. You will pay…”
“Sir,” the gunner said, “we can destroy them now.”
“No,” came the reply. “Don’t destroy them yet. I want them to burn… let them cook and burrrrn in the atmosphere.”
The gunner grinned, his sharp, white teeth glinting in the sunrise just appearing over the horizon of the planet below.
A moment later, the dark commander’s screen lit with the Blue Horizon’s engines flaring in a peculiar arc. The blue saucer dipped quickly, crazily as its cargo bay door opened with a blast of freezing air and the debris of jettisoned cargo on its underside, catching a buffet of troposphere from the planet below. Catching the wave, the ship whipped down on its Y-axis at an impossibly sharp angle. The bank caused the ship to catch some of its own exhaust trail in the wake, but the Blue Horizon went straight down, whirled beneath its attacker, and rose straight back up again like a slingshot to face it from behind.
“What the…?” the black feline captain growled.
With the enemy now against the glow of Crescentis instead of the black of space, the bridge crew of the Blue Horizon saw it clearly in the corona of light splitting over the curve of the planet. It was long and thin; the smooth wedge shape of a manta ray flamed against the white star’s light as the cloaking device reflected the glorious dawn like a prism. The Basilisk.
“Kill it.” Merlin rumbled, drawing the cargo bay doors shut with the flick of another switch.
The Basilisk’s screen shifted to the rear sensors as a hail of ordnance erupted from the Blue Horizon’s pulse cannons, filling the Basilisk’s screen with a blue inferno. The shimmering shape moved evasively, but not fast enough to avoid the hail of wicked blue flame. The pirate ship quivered under the brunt of the blast and Sagan was catapulted off his feet with the roar of concussion slamming against his bridge. A ripple of energy splintered across the hull of the Basilisk and the broad screen before the gunner exploded, sending white-hot fingers of electricity riddling through his body as he screamed.
Sagan bared his teeth at the turn of events and jerked up from the bridge floor. The jaguar slammed his fist down on his control panel, bringing the shields up to bear as he lurched forward and shoved his gunner out of the station cockpit.
“Aft weapons, return fire!”
From the rear or the Basilisk, a barrage of the white-green energy loosed, strafing the blue saucer across its bow. Below, the charged atmosphere flared with the exchange of fire.
Samantha’s fingers passed over the console before her, tapping out digits as she worriedly prepared a distress signal. A series of red numbers appeared on the console before her and Renny caught a glance of the series.
…subspace channel 13/666…
…under attack at Crescentis…
… request immediate assistance…
What channel was that? the cheetah wondered.
“Fire,” Merlin growled.
Another blast of energy filled the screen before him, but his ship only lurched slightly now that the shields were engaged. The black manta ray sailed up from the atmosphere to hide in the black of space, momentarily occluding the star and casting its shadow over the Horizon. Renny took his chance and hurled another salvo of pulsar fire at the ship, rocking it laterally before it flew out of the corona of light.
Sagan hammered controls on his console, finding that the ship systems didn’t respond to his commands. The jaguar snarled at the impotence of his anger, pounding the face of switches and buttons. He tore from the bridge, leaving his second with instructions to pound them until they stood still as a corpse.
“This is going to be bad,” Merlin grumbled as a trail of flame and smoke marked the location of the Basilisk as it turned in space to face them. Renny wasted no time and opened fire on the enemy vessel, blue flashes of energy reflecting ineffectively off the powerful shields like water on a balloon. Merlin swerved the ship at a steep angle, using solar wind shears as embankments, and avoided the hail of wicked green that slashed through space at his own ship. Although equipped with a bit of military weaponry, the freighter did not have the maneuverability of their assailant. Shields were down to twenty percent after the initial attack and he couldn’t afford a hit anywhere.
But he got one.
A blast sent a ripple of electricity through the rear thruster and straight into the secondary energizer of the liquid crystal engines. Across the chamber Pockets and Patch, working feverishly to restore power to the shields, stopped in stunned terror at the ball of fire that lit the engine room. The array exploded in a boiling wall of flame before a shower of white coolant sprayed it down, extinguishing the explosion. Each of the singed raccoons whipped a breathing apparatus from the wall and strapped it on. A viscous cloud of black smoke filled the chamber as the blast’s spent energy found another way to impede their work.
In a specially-designed chamber, the pirate Sagan locked down a synthplast cover over himself as another of his crew tapped a series of keys on the outer face of the stolen capsule. Natasha Kasho’s trademark arc-and-skull symbol still stood out on the clear cover, even though all of the other features and cables had been replaced with power conduits from the Basilisk. The cryptic instructions of stolen technology could not be precisely deciphered, but they had made best assumptions with what they could not understand.
In another moment, Natasha’s micro-Vault prototype transporter was ready.
“Wosret to bridge,” the crewmate said into a com. “The captain is ready to transport.”
“We’ll keep it steady for you,” Sagan’s second assured him.
Nakhti Wosret steadily tapped keys, keeping his mind on his job as the ship jolted slightly again. They had tested this prototype transporter out on inanimate objects and the captain’s pet, and everything had come out perfectly fine. This would be the first real test of the transporter. Sagan turned to face him as the Vault tube hummed to life.
The Horizon whipped around in a sharp arc, deftly avoiding its oncoming adversary, and planted a precise ripple of energy across the damaged aft section of the Basilisk with its shock-thread emitters. Even with its shields at maximum capacity, the black vessel rocked sharply with the new assault.
Wosret lost his balance and lurched toward a forward panel, instinctively breaking his fall with an out-thrust hand. His palm landed across a face of touch pads, lighting them with the pressure and altering the computations for the Vault. His face betrayed a look of panic as his mind froze—what calculations to correct the error? Sagan’s eyes went wide when he saw his crewmate’s countenance.
Too late, the micro-Vault phased up and engulfed the pirate in a glittering field of blue-white energy. His scream was cut off in the sizzling light, but his last thought was his wish to kill the captain of the Blue Horizon.
On the other side of the Planetary Alignment, a screen lit. A pair of massive hands tapped keys and read an encrypted tachyon message. The thick, muscular form tore from his seat to find his commander.
Above Crescentis, the Basilisk had acquired the upper hand.
“Target their weapons arrays, disarm them,” Sagan’s second commanded. The ship whipped up around to face the Horizon full-on, and a series of pinpoint blasts lit up the blue vessel’s weapons, shattering them in a tight pulse of energy. Sensors and critical circuits for guidance destroyed in collateral, the Blue Horizon dipped forward, tilting its face toward the planet.
Durant stumbled out of the lift into a wave of heated air and surveyed the damage to the cargo bay to find it almost a complete loss. Merlin’s use of the bay doors as a catapult had saved the ship, but also cost them their cargo — again. The inner walls of the hold were scorched black and still superheated with the residual energy of his piloting trick, and a haze of smoke still emerged from the nearby engine room.
In the middle of the chamber, a white sphere of ball lightning splintered out to the inner walls, catching the bear’s attention. He peered at it, wondering if it was some unforeseen effect of the bay damage—charged particles or something reacting to the chemical or metallic properties of the ruined cargo—before the ship suddenly lurched forward.
A black shape appeared in the center of the electrical blast and quickly plummeted from its discharge, the force of gravity and skewed inertia – straight toward him.
“Weapons are out!” Renny shouted. “Guidance is out!”
“Captain, the engines have sustained too much damage!” came a voice over the com port. “We have to shut down or we’re dead no matter what they do!”
Merlin grimaced tightly. This was not the way he wanted to go out.
“Shut down the engines,” he growled. “Samantha… signal our surrender.”
“Sir?” she bit back her words, rage and humiliation flaring through her blood like acid.
“Now!” he barked. “While we still can.”
A tremor passed through the bridge, and after a moment’s hesitation, the canine tightly relayed the message to the dark, slender ship before them. In the next moment, her communication panel sparked, and a ripple of red snaked across its face.
“They want to surrender, sir.”
The commander, Briggs, scrubbed his chin with a finger, pursing his lips in thought. “Lock on with the attractor beam, but don’t do anything else.” He looked down at a simple amber light on his bridge panel and he nodded to himself. “The captain’s tracker shows he made it across all right and I don’t want to take any chances while he’s over there.”
“Aye, sir,” Gauss replied. “Are we accepting their surrender?”
Briggs paused a moment before replying, “Let them wonder.”
“What are they waiting for?” Renny asked aloud.
“They’ve locked an attractor beam onto us,” Taro spat. “They want to take us alive.”
“Surely they realize we’ve jettisoned our cargo? What else do they want?”
“Revenge,” Merlin growled, fingers gripping into the command chair arms like vises. “Open ship-wide message to the crew…”
“Internal com is down beyond mid-ship, captain,” Samantha bit back, jamming fingers at her smoking panel.
“You and you,” he indicated Taro and Renny, too furious to repeat their names, “get to the rest of the crew and tell them to arm themselves. We’re about to have boarders.” Memories of the last time they had had boarders brought Jiro’s death vividly in front of the captain’s eyes.
Durant smashed a thick hand against the black-furred skull, sending Sagan hurling across the room to slam against a blistering wall. The floor was growing too hot to stand on, and even the air singed his fur. But he had to keep this menace from getting into the main body of the ship.
Sagan was different now… larger, stronger and more aggressive than the bear remembered him. A thick rope of drool hung from the jaguar’s gaping jaws and he was howling in some primal rage. The pirate launched off the wall to slam into Durant full-force, but the load master maintained his stance and caught his enemy in a vicious bear-hug.
An unholy howl erupted from the jaguar as thick cords in the bear’s arms pulsed, an iron grip slowly constricting around him. Snap! A rib broke under the pressure, driving the feral jaguar insane with agony. His clawed hands slashed at the bear’s face, viciously bringing thick ribbons of blood surging from vessels below the skin, spouting from pulsing arteries as the bear kept his head down, protecting the thick cords in his neck.
But Sagan’s bare feet had claws as well, and when he began to shred the bear’s tunic, bright rivulets of crimson spilled down the front and began to sizzle on the floor below. Knowing he was going to be disemboweled, the bear tightened his grip and squeezed harder as blood surged up into his mouth.
Crunch! Snap! More ribs cracked under the pressure and Durant sank his muzzle into the jaguar’s shoulder, spilling eerie, dark blood on Sagan’s grey uniform.
“Kill him! Kill him!” the jaguar repeated. A heavy cuff landed on the tortured head and Durant suddenly lost his bearings. Loss of blood and the vicious attack relaxed his grip, and the jaguar slithered out of his grasp and onto the bay floor. With another heavy smash to the face, Sagan sent Durant to the floor in a heavy heap. The bear was conscious of the heat, searing into his body as he lay on the metal deck.
The deranged and injured Sagan tore across the bay toward the red lift door, upending an extinguisher and sending it across the room where the hose tore loose and the contents spouted out into the air. A splash of liquid nitrogen spilled across the superheated floor, sending spidery cracks through the metal around the fallen bear.
Patch snarled behind the oxygen mask, pounding a panel with his fist. Pockets hosed down the liquid crystal engines with an extinguisher, trying to lower the temperature before the system parts fused.
“Boarders,” Pockets grumbled. “We have weapons down here, right?”
“The biggest one of all,” his brother rumbled. Patch reached above the main console and gripped a handle. With a rough jerk, he pulled down a cylindrical piston ringed with switches and green lights.
Pockets stopped and inhaled sharply, meeting his brother’s eyes with trepidation. If they got as far as the engine room, there was no stopping them. He dropped the extinguisher and stood beside his brother. He reached up above the console and drew out another thick cylinder on the other side.
“Have you ever seen a liquid crystal core go up?” Patch asked. His brother shook his head. “It’s a beautiful flower in the vacuum of space.”
He pressed a pattern in the switches, seventeen in order, and the lights changed from green to red. His brother tapped in another seventeen unit code, and both cylinders illuminated in red.
Pockets stepped back from the console as the central panel flipped over, exposing a single, red trigger handle. His brother sat in the small, utilitarian chair before it, and waited.
Pockets, with nothing else to do, sat beside his brother. Each glanced occasionally at the door, waiting for the inevitable. With the blaze abated and the air clearing, Patch pulled off his mask. The self-destruct had never been included in with the original LightDrive engines, but the Porter brothers had installed it themselves years ago. They had never seen the need to use it until now, but it had long been available.
Taro rounded a corner at a dangerous pace, Renny close behind. “We’ve got to get down to the cargo bay!” she shouted. “See if Dur—” She never completed her words. The vixen suddenly hunched forward, howling in pain as her body left the floor, raising a good ten inches into the air. Renny stopped short, shocked at the sight. Taro’s body wilted backward to reveal the huge, misshapen black form of Sagan. The jaguar’s claws were embedded in her abdomen and covered in blood.
“You…” Renny snarled. The glittering green eyes fell on him, and a blasphemous sound erupted from the form as he dropped the tall fox, charging at the cheetah at full speed.
Renny darted out of the way, sending the jaguar to the floor with a thud before he rocketed back up to face the new enemy. Renny sped past him, slashing at the pirate with razor-sharp claws and opening up blood vessels in the thighs. Sagan whipped his head around to follow the blinding yellow streak, but it ricocheted off the walls like a rubber ball faster than the hateful green eyes could follow.
A wail of agony sounded behind them; Taro stared down at her belly as she saw organs seeping out around the cruel gashes. It was enough distraction for Renny to lose his bearings. The monstrous Sagan caught the cheetah in his vise-like hands.
Taro pulled herself up and slapped a face of buttons; the internal com system still worked in the forward half of the ship.
Merlin heard the commotion: something was on board. When the strained tone of Taro’s voice wafted through the com link, he knew they were in trouble.
“Sagan,” the voice gasped. “Sagan is on the ship…”
Merlin stood, pointed at Samantha. “Take the con!” Without waiting for a response, the captain opened a panel in the bridge and drew out a heavy, dual-edged blade, then disappeared through the doorway.
Samantha, all alone on the bridge, ground her teeth. No weapons, no communications, no power to the engines. They were dead in space. She looked to the vidscreen at the hateful manta ray that held them at their mercy, and resolved that if she was going to die, she would take as many of them with her as possible.
Then her ears pricked up at a familiar sound. She turned her head to look back at the doorway. At the bottom of the jamb, a frightened Max wept openly, clutching at the metal of the door in terror. The metal on his ensign’s insignia caught a glint of red light and flashed back into her eyes. Her mouth dropped and she turned to look at her console—yes, it was still operative!
“Come over here,” she commanded the teen. Max, conditioned to obey orders instantly, rose from his spot and ambled forward.
Var Briggs peered at the vidscreen as a pair of flat, web-like structures opened on either side of the Blue Horizon’s top. He rubbed his chin and tapped nails against the command seat’s armrest.
“Sir, they’re deploying solar sails,” one voice interjected in disbelief.
“They’re going to try to escape on solar wind?” he chuckled. “They must think we’re worse off than we really are. Sennedjem, maintain attractor beam; they’re not going anywhere.”
Merlin rounded a corner to the sound of struggle. There was Sagan, standing in the darkened hall with his crewmate’s throat in his hands, holding the struggling cheetah a full two feet off the ground. Renny’s claws were imbedded in the wiry thews of the jaguar’s forearms, streams of blackish blood spilling down his hands as he fought to shred the tendons crushing the life from him. From the dark killer’s throat came a sound not unlike rolling thunder, but Merlin realized that it was calm purring. The intruder was killing slowly, deliberately.
Nearby, Taro lay in a fetal position, desperately sobbing and trying to keep herself together—trying to inch toward the door to find some safety. A pool of dark red surrounded her on the floor, streaks in the floor from where she had pulled herself so far.
“Demon!” Merlin shouted at the jaguar.
Sagan’s head snapped to the new sound, his glass-green eyes flaming at the new contact. He dropped the cheetah to the floor in a heap and stood still, heaving mightily and emitting that low, vicious purr. Merlin did not know how to take that, but he motioned with the blade for Renny to step aside. Instead, the cheetah tucked and rolled, then came up beside his captain, his body a massive coil of unspent energy. His breath came in ragged gasps, but he was not gone yet.
Just hang in there, Merlin thought, glancing over at Taro.
Sagan stood, unmoving, glaring at Merlin Sinclair. The wolf saw something in the jaguar’s face—this was not the same nemesis he had fought before. He was different somehow. Not the cold, calculating murderer he once was… He—this—was something wholly unnatural. A shudder passed through the captain as he fully realized that he was probably about to die.
Sagan saw it in his face and charged.
In the dark of the wounded bridge, Samantha pressed glowing switches, whispering to herself, “Stay calm… lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky … just keep calm… you can do it…”
“What are you doing?” Max asked, worried now that things had gotten so bad. He could feel tautness in her manner like an oppressive blanket.
She spoke, barely above a whisper with the adrenaline pumping through her system. “We hit them pretty bad last time and they disabled our weapons system. I’m hoping that they dropped their shields to conserve power now that they think we can’t harm them.”
“What good will the solar sails do?” the boy whimpered.
She turned to him. “Max, I need you to man that station right over there, okay?”
“Okay,” he nodded, crossed the room and waited for further instructions.
“When I say so, I need you to press the solar sail’s collector panel density up to two hundred percent, okay? It is that brown slide-control.”
The boy nodded, but wondered why she was pursuing this course of action. Durant had given him some tutorial about the solar sails, but from what little he understood about them, performing this action would not propel them with any speed at all. It would just make the sails really shiny. Had Samantha gone crazy?
“Don’t look at me. Don’t look at me. Lucky, lucky, lucky…” she continued to chant, manipulating the angle, adjusting the sails’ energy receptor level to zero percent.
“Well, you have to give them credit for their tenacity,” Briggs said to no one in particular. He tapped a control on the command chair and opened a hailing frequency: “Blue Horizon. You are outnumbered and outgunned. We’ll take you alive; there’s no sense in trying to escape.”
A spray of white-hot electricity filled the hall as another conduit ruptured, showering the combatants in a maelstrom of light. Renny Thornton flew through the air, slamming against a far wall as Merlin moved in for another shot. The wolf sliced the blade down in the cramped quarters, and a deft move from his target spared the jaguar a disemboweling stroke. The blade clanged to the floor and Sagan slammed a foot into Merlin’s face, sending the wolf sprawling across the hall to crash into another sheer, metal wall. The weapon fell to the floor and the dark intruder kicked it hard enough to send it spinning to the side near the dying fox.
Merlin rolled up back onto his feet, only to be met with the charging jaguar’s body slamming into him like a hurled boulder. The wolf grunted as the back of his head cracked against the wall, and Sagan withdrew just enough to pull back for another blow. His thick, muscular fist was slick with a mixture of crimson and black blood. Part in panic and part in fatigue, Merlin dropped to his knees; the vicious blow missed him and landed in the metal wall, denting the grey surface with the crunch of torn cartilage and bones. As the captain rolled out of the way, the massive jaguar moved serpentine to follow him. His thick tail slashed at the air like a pendulum above a helpless victim. He crouched slightly, legs quivering with energy—with the lust of pouncing a trapped kill.
A recovered Renny shot from a low point into the jaguar’s legs and sent him down in a flurry of limbs scrabbling for purchase. The cheetah no longer moved like quicksilver, and one desperate movement found his ankle snared in a black fist. That fist clenched instantly, shattering the fragile bones of the navigator’s foot and bringing a sharp, painful scream from him as a splinter pierced through the skin. Sagan worried the wounded ankle, wrenching as much agony out of his victim as possible. Renny clawed at the floor, unable to pull himself free of the monstrous grip. Sagan gripped tighter, enjoying the helpless cries of his prey.
Then it was the jaguar that screamed, releasing the limb as he felt Merlin Sinclair’s lupine teeth tear at his throat. The wolf came close—oh so close—to ripping the major artery, but missed it by only a fraction of an inch. Sagan’s powerful arms gripped the captain around his breast and pulled him in, pinning his arms to his sides and crushing the breath from him in a powerful bear-hug.
Caught off guard, Merlin gasped, trying desperately to seize a moment’s breath, but to no avail. His throat burned for oxygen and he felt his ribs compressing, compacting, and ready to break. His nails sought purchase in the jaguar’s flanks, but the pressure of the unnatural grip sapped strength from him.
The world began to contract, the red lights grew dim, and Merlin saw only a haze of orange moving awkwardly, slowly in the mist before him. He could feel the hot breath on his face as Sagan’s grin grew wider and the jaguar licked blood from his lips in anticipation. Merlin felt his body spasm, convulsing in a last, desperate attempt to free itself and find precious air to stay alive. It didn’t feel like his own body… he was somehow detached.
Then he saw himself, differently than before. He was looking down on the scene. Sagan lay on his back on the dark hallway floor, the limp body of a familiar grey wolf sprawled across his breast as the dark jaguar squeezed life out of it. And there, not too far away, was the tall fox, still clutching at her belly, moving toward the discarded blade.
Merlin saw this scene clearly, though he felt no more pain, no more horror. It was a very comforting feeling… he saw it dispassionately, as if viewing a movie of no real interest. And then, on the right side of his field of vision, the tawny body of Renny Thornton approached with a long, grey cord in his hand. The cord flamed with sparks, and the cheetah fell to his knees in pain and exhaustion, jamming the sparking end of the cord into the jaguar’s face.
A shower of blue-white sparks erupted and Sagan released the grey wolf’s body with a roar, and then Merlin felt himself falling, fast and agonizing, back down to the floor. A new pain ripped through him as the cold floor came up to smash him in the face, and his numb body staggered back to life. He hurt all over, he was shaking, and his vision was clouded, but he knew he was alive. Sagan squirmed, screaming in pitches of agony as the electric shock burned his face, until he scuttled out of the way, lurching his way to his feet and planting a heavy fist hard against the wounded cheetah’s sternum. The acrid smell of burned flesh and fur filled the corridor.
Sagan stood again, his two adversaries on the floor before him and the dying fox behind. “Now,” the jaguar rumbled, his voice like a skin stretched over broken glass, “you will all die.”
Merlin ground his teeth, nostrils flaring. He had not yet recovered and Renny writhed in too much pain to fight on. He was going to die here and now, and he couldn’t do a thing about it.
Then a grunt followed, and the sound of metal on metal as the silvery blade of the sword flashed. The blade-tip clinked against the metal floor beneath the carpet it pierced as Taro used it as a crutch to vault up from her position on the hallway floor. It was enough to get her vertical, and, releasing her gushing abdomen, the fox fell forward, seizing the mad jaguar around his skull. Sagan spat viciously, taken off guard as she wrapped a muscular hand beneath his chin and cupped the other around the crown of his head.
With a single, Herculean effort, the Hestran fox wrenched Sagan’s head, cracking his jawbone so hard it unhinged and sagged, swinging free of his face. Merlin’s face dropped at the sight as a steady stream of her blood—and other somethings he tried not too hard to think about—trickled onto the floor between them. With the other hand, Taro pushed his head forward and again wrenched the jaw, splintering his vertebrae in a sickening crunch. In the next instant, Sagan’s head faced backward, looking into her eyes in disbelief.
Taro released him and slumped to the hallway floor again, resuming her fetal pose as tears spilled out of her eyes.
Sagan remained standing as his head slowly and gradually spiraled back around to normal. The glass-green eyes still flared, but with a flat, lifeless expression. He wobbled on uneasy legs for a moment, his face falling to meet Merlin’s as he extended one arm, pointing with one finger in a final accusation—a final damnation. Then he fell to his knees, wobbled again, and slammed to the floor. A splatter of the eerie, black blood spilled out of his body in a sickening gurgle as he expired.
For a long moment, no one moved in the hallway. Then Taro groaned in agony, raking her nails against the curved wall. Renny hobbled up onto his knees and seized the sword. With it, he helped himself stand, gingerly avoiding his crushed foot, and gently seized around her shoulders. She had passed out from the effort.
He tried to lift the mortally wounded fox into his free arm to take her to the Infirmary, but the slick floor, his injured foot and overall weariness was too much for him. He slumped beside her and looked hopefully to his captain.
Merlin gathered his feet from beneath him, shook out his head, and shuffled over to help them both to the Sick Bay before he could check in on the bridge.
Samantha finished calculations and gave a nod to Max, growling quietly, “Ever fry ants with a magnifying glass, Max?”
The youth pushed the sail density to two hundred percent as she whipped a control, angling the sails to face the nearby star. The dense sheen of material flamed in space, catching the light of stellar energy. The flash filled both solar sails like halogen lamps, blinding the crew of the Basilisk for a crucial moment as Samantha moved a control, flexing the sails to a convex, half-egg shape. The reflection on the sails shrank and merged into a single beam one centimeter in diameter at five-trillion candlepower. The beam sliced through the unprotected Basilisk like a hot needle through butter before the solar sails collapsed under the strain of reflecting that much energy.
A ribbon of superheated slag spiraled out of the Basilisk as its fore and aft hulls began to buckle in the vacuum of space. It was a neat hole, exactly one centimeter wide from stem to stern on the black vessel, at a slightly rising angle. It would have done a surgeon proud.
Briggs found his ship suddenly collapsing around him, but managed to seal off the bulkheads at the four major sections of the ship before losing everything. The stab at the controls had been blind, with rows of dancing green and yellow flashes filling his eyes while his mind registered what had happened. He vehemently cursed the Blue Horizon.
“Sir?” came a voice below him. He rubbed his eyes, vision returning but with a huge yellow flash still remaining on his retinas. He managed to focus on the captain’s life signal tracker on his bridge panel. It was dark. He snarled and wiped at his eyes again.
“Destroy them, now!”
“What of the captain?”
Briggs turned his icy eyes on him and snarled. “That was an order!”
The gunner swallowed and nodded without another argument.
Samantha’s stomach fell as she realized the enemy ship was still capable of destroying them. It would have been better, she knew, to fall to Crescentis and burn up in the resulting crash than to fall to Sagan’s murderous crew. Max crossed the bridge, whimpering into her arms for safety as the Basilisk approached. The canine pulled the young male close, cradling him in a sheltering embrace.
Their eyes met, and the youth gulped hard, closed his eyes and kissed her directly on the lips. She pulled back in surprise to see his face, full of fear and sadness. She gasped, wondering how long he had wanted to do that.
Merlin stormed onto the bridge, eyes full of confusion at the change of events. On the vidscreen before them, the hated ship moved forward, bearing down on them as a hail of blue-white electricity filled the black of space. In another moment, the corona of the nearby star was extinguished, eclipsed from their view.
Merlin’s jaw fell and his eyes flew wide. Samantha raised herself and turned to peer over the console in awe; Max followed her gaze in confusion. A huge structure suddenly filled the space directly behind the Basilisk.
“Sir?” a crewmate yelped.
Briggs waved him off, “Not now, Sennedjem!”
“Sir!” came the insistent voice. Briggs suddenly noticed that members of his crew were panicking.
Then he saw it.
“Mr. Robbins,” purred a throaty voice.
“Aye, captain!” he replied, a pair of blue joysticks flipping up into his thick hands.
Captain Natasha stood up from the command seat of the Lady of Dreams and pointed to the flat-black manta ray in a forward section of the spherical hologram before her. “If you please, sir.”
The Basilisk rocked in space, beaten by a barrage of white-green bolts of energy from all twenty of the dreadnought’s forward batteries. The blasts cudgeled the black ship, smashing it back and forth like a ball tossed between hands as the shields sputtered, flaming and flickering in tortured protest.
Then a thick, terrific blast pierced through the shield and glanced off the ship, blistering the hull and raking a starboard section open. Thin fingers of crimson and orange splintered across the naked orifice in the ship as a shower of sparks followed. The shields failed and the Basilisk’s remaining engine cells kicked in for escape, trailing a thick tail of smoke as it departed for deeper space as fast as it could manage.
The Blue Horizon, released from the attractor beam, began a slow spiral to Crescentis below.
“Catch them!” Natasha boomed. Robbins activated the attractor beam and locked on to the faltering Blue Horizon. The rounded disc, limping roughly, continued to descend toward the planet surface.
“Can’t maintain a good lock on them, Captain!” the cougar protested. “The atmosphere has absorbed too much energy from the battle and is charged with too much static. The best we can do is slow them.”
“Then set them down as easy as you can and prepare a landing party with medical and mechanical crews,” she growled, tapping another switch on her console. “Mr. Devon, Mr. Blackthorne, deploy to pursue the Basilisk and destroy it.”
Moments later, a pair of forward-swept-wing fighters dropped gracefully from the middle of the Lady of Dreams and shot off in pursuit. In the next moment, a trio of smooth grey triangles dropped from the bay.
Patch held on desperately to the harness of his chair as the ship around them shook and shuddered. Then both brothers startled as the engine room hatchway grated open, the metal protesting as it had to be forced. Pockets fidgeted in his chair, and Patch wrapped fingers around the crimson trigger, ready to ignite the engines right after he saw the look on…
Durant, haggard and covered in red and black blood, leaned weakly into the engine room. “We’ve got to get to the upper decks – right now.”
Patch dropped the trigger as he and his brother bounded out of their harnesses.
The ship toppled roughly, sending Max tumbling across the bridge to slide into a wall as the inside heat increased. The inertial dampers had stopped functioning and the contents of the freighter were now at gravity and momentum’s whim. Bright fingers of white snaked across the vidscreen as the Horizon plummeted toward the surface of the planet.
“We have no control!” Sam shouted above the screaming metal around them. A deafening roar surrounded them, growing higher in pitch as the careening ship gathered speed.
Merlin swore beneath his breath and hurled himself across the bridge to seize Max by one scrawny ankle and pull the youth to him. He bundled the ensign into his lap and threw himself under a console, hoping it would provide at least some protection from whatever came next.
Durant and the brothers made a steady path toward the bridge, stopping to catch their bearings as the ship pitched wildly. What was happening? They were about to press further when a long, dark river of blood seeped around the hallway curve in the flashing red lights. The three stood stock-still, eyes wide at the sight.
As the ship pitched upward, something massive slid down in the slick pool of blood and gathered together in a pile against a wall. Durant moved back in shock, looking down at the crumpled heap that was Sagan’s body. The eyes still burned that iridescent green, but the face was deformed, ripped apart with the bottom jaw at an impossible angle. Oily black liquid seeped from the body, mixing with the dark crimson in a scene out of Hell’s blackest pit.
Patch took the initiative and stepped around the corner, as far away from the mound of broken flesh as he could manage. The raccoon had never been superstitious like his sibling, but he had no wish to challenge fate with this one. His brother followed absently, the grizzly bear close behind. They left it alone.
Then the ship banked sharply, spinning on its axis like the saucer it resembled, sending the three of them slamming against the dented and scarred walls. Pockets fell too close to a still-sparking cable and yelped in shock. Durant slipped in the slick pools on the floor and crashed down almost on top of Patch.
“Just hold on,” Renny said, unaware of his voice. He wept openly, speaking in the high-pitched wail of a kitten. Taro Nichols lay strapped onto a sickbed, drenched in blood. Tanis had applied three compresses to her abdomen before the bleeding had stemmed, but she remained unconscious. Acutely aware of the pain in his own foot and over the medic’s protests, the cheetah had not sat down, but remained clutching the bed at her side as the ship spun on its way to oblivion.
He wanted her to open her eyes, to say something, to squeeze his fingers if she could. Nothing came. The rhythmic heartbeat on the monitor sparked in green, unwilling to give up just yet. Her breathing came in long wheezes, occasionally choked with a rivulet of blood that would spill out of her mouth.
“Just hold on,” he repeated.
Suddenly the ship stopped rocking and steadied out. For a long moment, Merlin didn’t know what to do or think, but he forced himself to sit up. Gentle white light was pouring in through the transparent vidscreen windows, but the high-pitched howl of rushing air was still there. He pried the petrified Max from his chest and looked over the console.
They had passed through the atmosphere. They were still alive, having never engaged the heat shields. This was not possible.
A Crescentan shoreline was approaching with terrifying speed. They were headed right for the coast, where a land mass met the famed Forvea Trench, a shelf of land that dropped straight down for uncharted miles just two hundred yards away from an isthmus between two of the largest islands.
If we go into the Trench, we’ll all drown. If we hit the island, we’ll splatter and be destroyed. Either way, we’ll probably die with the force of impact.
“Sam!” Merlin barked.
Her face appeared from behind her hiding place.
“Deploy the solar sails – use them as a parachute! We can try to glide down,” he ordered.
She began to move, but then stopped. She opened her mouth to speak, but turned to the pilot’s control panel instead. The solar sails were gone, but there was no time to explain. She manipulated controls, and reopened the cargo bay door just a crack. Then her feet left the floor as the ship began to careen slowly end over end as it plummeted toward the ocean below.
Merlin shot her a look of surprise, and perhaps even betrayal. The Border collie gripped the console and caught its underside with her knees. She realized that if her gamble didn’t work, the captain would fire her for insubordination if the crash didn’t kill them all.
What was there to lose?
The Horizon’s descent altered with the trajectory change. The massive blue ship slammed into the ocean flat on its back instead of on one edge. Inertia pulled it forward still, despite the seething, sloshing water’s protest. The bodies on board were thrown helter-skelter around the compartments as the ship was completely enveloped in the icy water of the Forvea Trench.
The blistered wounds on the ship’s underside allowed the surging ocean inside, and in an instant the superheated liquid crystal engines were engulfed in a fist of freezing water.
On the shore, a small human boy had been fishing with his grandfather when the streak of blue fire slammed into the water. A ripple of wave boiled up from the impact and heat and surged toward them, almost toppling the fishing dock on which the two stood.
After that, the ship whirled in the water once before going under, leaving a steaming hole in the ocean where it used to be. In only seconds, the water was filling the hole again.
A thump, deep and ominous, emanated from under the water. Then the boy’s jaw dropped and the old man gripped his shoulder as a bright yellow ring appeared around the hole in the ocean, and a fragment of the ship blew out of the hole with a sound they had never heard before. With a force unimaginable, the ship sailed out of the ocean, rumbling over the fishers’ heads. Its smooth belly moved it gently along unseen air currents until it plowed into the land below, sliding across the soil and throwing up clouds of dirt and rock. The ship continued on, driven by inertia and the loose earth beneath it, until it had crossed the length of the isthmus and slowed to a halt on the beach on the opposite side.
The front of the inverted ship sat in two feet of water before its weight collapsed the sand beneath, and its nose began to sink. Down, down… the ship settled into the water nearly ten feet, and stopped. In its wake, a swatch of torn-up land stretched for over two miles.
The boy looked at his grandfather and the old man looked at the boy. Neither could think of anything to say. Then the two were cognizant of another sound: a whirring drone came up from behind them. They turned together to see a squadron of tri-wing ships gliding down from the clouds toward them.
Having nothing else to do, the fishermen merely pointed to where the ship had landed.
Merlin Sinclair sat, shivering, covered in a blanket and recovering his wits. Nearby, Samantha answered questions in a choked voice as the tension released itself and she let her emotions loose. The captain surveyed the scene around him.
Five sleek, triangular shuttles encircled the smoldering hulk of the Blue Horizon. Natasha’s rescue ships had arrived just in time. A small throng of locals had gathered around, including what appeared to be officials. However, a ring of rough-looking uniformed guards had surrounded the crash site almost immediately, and a wide-shouldered cougar was deflecting anyone who looked official.
Renny lay stretched out on a hovering gurney as someone looked at his crushed foot. The cheetah yelped in a high chirp now and again when the otter probed a sensitive spot, but he kept asking about Taro. Taro was nowhere to be seen.
Pockets sat over to the side out of danger, nursing a head bruise with a cold pack pressed against his temple while Patch cradled a splinted broken arm. Durant sat wheezing on the soft grass, refusing medical attention until the others were taken care of. The first removed from the wreckage, the grizzly had been sedated via stunner when he had tried to rush back into the ship and find those who had not yet come out.
Tanis and Max, largely unhurt, were helping the rescue crew.
“Sinclair,” came a raspy, masculine voice. The wolf turned to see Natasha strolling up to him. He stood, still dwarfed by the tall fox, to answer her arrival. “Looks like you took one incredible beating up there. Most people I know would have lost it.”
Sinclair didn’t recognize it as a compliment. He blinked twice, trying to find a response. “I… I don’t know why we’re all alive.”
“You’re welcome,” she responded. Not sarcasm, but genuine concern. “When the Horizon went down I had Robbins follow you with the attractor beam. We couldn’t get a good lock through the charged atmosphere but instead deployed three shuttles and they made it in time to shield you and lock onto the main body of your ship before the LC core went up. Propelled by the explosion, they were able to get the bulk of the ship out of the water, though I imagine the landing was quite a bumpy ride for you.”
Merlin was stunned. “You?”
“How did you even know…?”
Natasha ran a hand through her head fur, looking around at the other crewmembers, “Somebody on board your ship is apparently learned enough to know a secret subspace channel used exclusively by privateers, but that we’d be the only ones with the communications equipment powerful enough to pick it up. Whoever sent us that message saved you.”
“Thank you for your help. I’m indebted to you, Captain,” Merlin murmured with his ears and tail down in submission.
“Not at all,” Natasha responded with a shake of her head. She lifted his chin with a finger to look him in the eye. “I don’t require compensation, but if there ever comes a time when I could use your services, I’m sure we can come to some kind of agreement.”
Stunned that a pirate would pass up the opportunity to indenture others to her cause, Merlin nodded gratefully.
A protest, a primal grunt erupted from behind them.
“No!” Natasha growled as Durant charged the wreckage, lumbering off balance and drunkenly toward the blistering, crackling metal. Still blinded by rage, grief, pain and the sedative, the bear stampeded toward the dying ship in an effort to save—something.
“I don’t think so!” came another voice. A huge body stepped in front of the bear, taking him down in a football tackle. Inertia pushed them both over and Mr. Robbins held onto Durant with iron thews. Worn, injured and drugged as he was, the bear was no match for the massive cougar, but he continued to struggle.
“Ma’am?” another voice asked. Natasha turned to the figure of Tim as the boy hefted a two-ton chunk of the debris above his head. Inside the cybernetic exosuit, the mouse stood a good seven feet tall and had the strength of fifty men. With the ease of tossing a small stick, the lad hurled the weight away from the ship into a gathering pile of rubble.
“What is it, Tim?” she asked.
“I think you should see this,” he said, backing away from the newly-opened hatch. Natasha frowned, gathering herself and moving forward. Merlin, suddenly seized with a new feeling of dread, followed on unsteady legs.
Tim backed up slightly to allow her a vantage point of the inside of the ship’s hallway. There, out of the lip of metal, a flow of thick, oily material seeped out onto the sand, and in the half-light that still remained inside the ship, was Sagan’s corpse.
Merlin and Natasha stood for a long moment, saying nothing.
A blaze lit behind them, illuminating the body in a halo of blue light. Merlin startled and turned, only to see a blowtorch had extended from the boy’s top-right armature. But what concerned him more was the blank look on the young mouse’s face. With one eye behind a red monocle hardwired into the suit, the boy betrayed no horror, no remorse as he beheld the grisly, broken cadaver. Tim looked on the face of twisted, mutilated death with a calm dissociation that chilled the wolf. Merlin had no way of knowing that Sagan had been the cause of the boy’s crippling injuries.
“Let me finish the job,” the mouse said tonelessly.
“No,” she snapped, as a mother berating a rude child. “They’ll need this when the formal inquest happens. Speaking of which…” she checked a timepiece, “we need to get out of here before the SPF arrives.”
“Leave?” Merlin asked, wide-eyed with an almost supernatural fear at the thought.
She sighed, “Yes, I’m afraid so. We can’t be here when they arrive, even though we’d like to help you out as much as we can. We’ve taken statements from everybody so that the SPF can be out of your fur ASAP. Our guy is an ex-cop, so he knows what info to get. We’ve provided general first aid to everybody who needs it, but for the more extensive jobs, you are on your own.”
“Taro…” he rasped. “I know you have technology that nobody else does. C-can you help her? I don’t want to lose her…”
“Taro Nichols will accompany me to Pomen for medical treatment,” she said flatly, as though stating a fact not open to discussion. “And it’s not a favor to you, either.”
“Let’s just say that it’s a personal matter between two Hestrans. Let it go.”
Sinclair didn’t know what to say to all her generosity. He wanted to kiss her, but the tall vixen strode off without so much as a handshake and called the rest of her crew to follow.
Renny was set on a regular cotton gurney with a sterile bandage around his foot, and the others were allowed to keep their generic medical bandages and salves. However, all traces of Natasha’s advanced technology were quickly, methodically removed before her party boarded their shuttles and gracefully pulled away from the scene.
When the SPF forces arrived thirty minutes later, the local magistrates had taken control of the situation and the fate of the hulk of the Blue Horizon had been placed in the paws of the diplomats. Merlin, frustrated at the thought of the matter being tied up for months or years in the interstellar court system, found himself at a loss. His one consolation was that the SPF Rangers recognized the body of the pirate Sagan and immediately informed SPF Headquarters on Joplin. Merlin was informed that he and the crew would be awarded his bounty, placed in escrow until their arrival on a planet that could handle the transfer. This tightened the noose even further, as the Crescentis fishing fleet made a play for partial credit for the villain’s death.
However, news of the famous Blue Horizon traveled fast, and representatives from the Crescentan embassies from Sillon and Tanthe stepped in. The matter was finalized within a week, the insurance with the fishing fleet for the lost cargo was resolved, and the crew of the Blue Horizon was transported off Crescentis in stylish Tanthean Corvettes.
The Lady of Dreams sat in cloaked orbit around the planet Pomen, having delivered their precious cargo to someone at a planetside location that Natasha had not cared to name.
Jape Devon stepped out of his warbird as the rasping engines shut down. The alien seemed visibly distressed as he removed his characteristic black flying helmet.
“Mr. Devon, what news?”
Devon replied. “Blackthorne is dead.”
Natasha’s face drew into a tight grimace as she clenched a fist.
“Following the crippled Basilisk,” he continued, “we were set upon by another ship of similar make. We beat a quick retreat but Blackthorne got sloppy and tried to take them on. After… that happened, the new contact turned back to aid the Basilisk. I didn’t stick around for anything else.”
Natasha ground her teeth, rubbing a finger against her chin. There was another player in town.
— NEXT EPISODE —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.