Cigar smoke became trapped in the last light of Vermasse’s sun as it floated through the ship’s viewport. Captain Albion watched the twisting, twirling patterns the smoke created, before sitting back with a sigh. Heavy boots crashed down on the spaceship’s command console and he lifted a bottle of Martian brandy to his lips.
“This is the life, eh AID. I ask you, Is there anything more beautiful than a brandy at sunset?”
“Beauty is not in my programming, sir.”
“Goddamnit AID. Load personality J-42.”
“Yes, sir. Personality module J-42, First Lieutenant Mathis Denier has been synced.”
“This is the life, eh AID. I ask you, Is there anything more beautiful than a brandy at sunset?”
“Sure is, Xav. Nothing like it. Except maybe a brandy and 3 hours in a Vermassian Cul’nor!”
Captain Xavier Albion closed his eyes as the ship’s Automated Intelligence and Defence system responded in the voice of his old shipmate. Images of his past crew aboard the Aegis-Class Battlecruiser, Andarta, rushed through his mind.
For a moment he allowed himself a brief smile before the memories were consumed in smoke and flame. He felt his heart begin to beat against his chest and his hand muscles clenched at the bottle in his hand. The images came faster, a rapid array of panic and death. He gritted his teeth, tried to think of happier times but the flashbacks had control now. Fire. Everywhere was fire. Orange and red licked at his ship and ravished his crew.
He felt the flames strike his hand and he screamed. Eyes flaring open, Albion threw the burning cigar butt across the cockpit.
“Idiot!” he cursed himself, pushing the bottle of brandy to his lips once more.
“You alright Xav? It’s not another dose of Makasi boils, is it? I warned you about those cheap Cul’nor houses. They’re cheap for a reason!”
Captain Albion returned his gaze to the viewports, breathing steadily. *In through your nose, out through your mouth. In through your nose, out through your mouth. In through your nose…*the words were a constant, soothing mantra.
“AID, return to default personality module. And extend scanner range to 2 parsecs.”
“Yes, captain. What should I scan for?”
“Anything, AID. Anything.”
Albion knew the chances of finding something were slim at best. Vermasse was nothing more than an outpost. There is the edge of space, and then there is Vermasse. Was a saying Vermassian settlers were fond of telling anyone who visited. Not that anyone ever did visit, because the settlers were right- after Vermasse there was nothing. A million parsecs of nothing, most likely. A single planet solar system, patrolled by a single, beat-up frigate which was captained by a single, even more beat-up drunkard.
Still, the odd ship did visit Vermasse occasionally. Traders and wayfarers mostly. Fresh out of the academy recruits with too much money and too little imagination liked to visit Vermasse, just so they could tell their friends and call themselves adventurers.
Adventurers. There was no adventure left in Confederacy space. The Palos war was over, and space had become civilised A million waystations, telecommunication terminals and warp relays inhabited humanity’s territory. Vermasse was likely the most remote of Confederacy planets and yet the nearest telecommunication terminal was barely three lightyears away.
“Captain, sensors are picking up a ship.”
“A ship? Well isn’t that a God damn miracle. Let’s hope for another shipment of brandy! How far out is it?”
“Sensors estimate approximately 0.17 lightyears out”
“0.17? Well, why didn’t we pick it up sooner! Never mind, we still have most of a day, I’d imagine. Set course to intercept, AID. But take her slow, eh. I don’t want you spilling my brandy again.”
“Sir, sensors suggest that, at current speed, the ship will be with us in less than 1 hour.”
“Less than one hour…AID that’s impossible. I swear to god if you’ve been at my brandy…. Bring up the sensor diagnostics.”
“Sir, I assure you the sensors are fine and the readings are accurate.”
“0.17 light-years in 1 hour…AID what’s the fastest confederacy vessel known?”
“That would be the UC-Viddonus, Hunter-Class.”
“And how fast could the Viddonus travel 0.17 lightyears?”
“The Viddonus could travel 0.17 lightyears in approximately 6.4 hours.”
“Jesus. Jesus AID. What’s the weapon’s situation?”
“The Siris has 36 operational photon torpedoes and an array of smaller lasers.”
“Good. Good. And the brandy AID. What’s the brandy situation?”
“All units of brandy remain intact and at current consumptions rates should last for 14 more days.”
“Good. Yes, very good.”
Albion took another swig of strong liquor and pushed himself to his feet. Now, where the hell is that damn uniform. He headed towards the metal panel at the back of the ship but staggered and cursed as his hand struck cold metal.
“Damnit AID, keep the ship steady!”
“Sir, I assure you the ship is showing no signs of turbulence.”
“Right, yes. Well then, can you sync the ship’s movements to match mine? That damn brandy is strong stuff.”
“Never mind, AID.” Albion pushed himself forward once more. “AID, locate my Confederacy uniform.”
“Sir, that is beyond my capabilities. Have you tried your locker?”
“Smartass. So much for not having a personality.” Albion muttered. Reaching the back of the cockpit he pushed a button. A metal panel flew open and he stepped inside a large rectangular room. Taking the first door to his left he pushed another button and stepped through yet another panel to his sleeping quarters.
“How the hell is anyone supposed to find anything in this mess?” The floor was littered with clothes and empty bottles. On his bed sat a copy of Haden’s Fleet Tactics for the Cruiser Captain and there- beneath the book, Albion spotted the familiar deep blue of his uniform. He quickly changed into it and glanced at himself in the full-length mirror of his quarters. Red eyes stared back, hollow in a scarred face mottled with greying black stubble. He ran a hand through his unwashed, thinning hair and wondered if the face staring back at him would be the face of first-contact.
“Sir,” AID’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “The ship is now close enough for a visual.”
“Ok, AID. Bring it up on the screen. I’ll be right there.” Albion headed back through his ship, his steps slow and measured. The familiar sensation of sweat formed in the small of his back, his heart beat increased until it was drubbing in his ears. He forced down a wave of nausea and stepped inside the cockpit.
Captain Albion stopped. The large viewer in front of the captain’s chair was engulfed. There was no other word for it. The alien ship dwarfed Albion’s frigate, its design unlike anything he had ever seen; twisted hull that looped and curved at impossible angles. Try as he might Albion found he couldn’t focus on any one part of the juggernaut. The ship’s strange blue-green colour seemed to shimmer and roll causing hiss eyes to slide off it.
He gripped the back of his chair and spun it towards him, easing his shaking body into a sitting position.
“AID, try and open a transmission.”
Albion found himself holding his breath and forced himself to breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth…
*“*Negative. They are refusing any communications.”
“That can’t be go-” the first barrage of weapon fire hit the UC-Siris, throwing Albion from his chair. Lights flashed before his eyes, again and again, and a high-pitched ring filled his ears. He pushed the palms of his hands into his eyes.
“Damnit AID, turn off the alarms I know we have been hit!”
The flashing subsided and Albion opened his eyes, pushing himself to his feet. “Damage report.”
“Fires in starboard quadrant. I have implemented containment measures.”
“Why didn’t our shields stop it?”
“They did sir. Or rather, they reduced the impact. If we didn’t have shields their weapon would have destroyed us.”
“Brilliant. Just brilliant! Well, if you’d be so kind as to return fire.”
“What would you like me to target, sir?”
“Anything AID, everything. Just hit that damn thing!” Albion pushed himself back into his chair and watched as the Siris’ torpedoes exploded against an invisible shield.
“It appears our weapons had no effect, sir.”
“Yes, thank you AID!” Albion snapped. “Disengage autopilot.”
“Sir, I strongly advise-”
“Just do it!” The front of the Siris’ control board opened up and two holographic tubes appeared in front of Albion. He pushed his hands inside them as the pilot’s holographic face mask also slid into place. “Ok baby, let’s see if we’ve still got it.”
“AID, what can you tell me about that ship? Scan its engines. I want to know everything you can tell me about it.” As he spoke he saw energy build around the enemy vessel as it prepared to launch another barrage of weapons fire. Albion thrust his arms down and left. The Siris responded all too slowly to his commands and a second wave of missiles struck its rear. “Containment measures AID!”
Albion banked the Siris again, left and then down, right and then up, trying to use the Siris’ comparatively small size to his advantage.
“Sir, I am detecting a huge build-up of energy inside the alien ship’s engine drive. It would appear their great speed also results in a great build-up of static electrical charge that they must discharge or risk catastrophic explosions”
“Can we use that AID?”
“I believe so, sir. If we can prevent them from discharging.”
“And just how the hell do we do that?” Albion could feel the sweat dripping down his face and he blinked furiously to shake it from his eyes. He jerked his arms left again, trying desperately to keep the Siris away from the alien vessel’s great weapons.”
“A containment field sir. I believe if we get close enough, we can reposition our own energy shield around their drive core.”
“But without shields how would we survive the explosion, AID?”
“We wouldn’t, sir.”
Albion took a breath. In through the nose. “Plot me a course.”
The UC-Siris, outdated F-Class frigate model and one step away from being fed to a Confederacy Junker, flew towards the enemy like a sparrow chasing a moth on an updraft. Only this time, the moth was attacking the sparrow and the sparrow had photon torpedoes and huge lasers. A projectile struck the Siris’ shields and exploded, throwing the Siris down towards the monstrous alien craft.
Albion gritted his teeth. Up close the ship was even more terrifying, a constant ripple of unknown energy coursing along its exterior. A hundred thousand unknown instruments and apparatus stuck out of the ship like growths on the back of some great beast.
“Where am I going AID? My navigation system is shot to hell here.” Another explosion rocked the Siris and Albion swore. “Quickly, AID!”
“One moment sir, I must plot a new route. Uploading it now.”
Albion sped down along what he assumed was the alien ship’s bow.
“Sir, I am reading incoming smaller alien vessels. It would appear they are coming from within the alien craft.”
Another curse. “How far AID?”
“We are nearly there sir, but I fear on this current course we will be intercepted.” AID’s sentence was punctuated by a trail of small laser fire that struck the front of the Siris.
“I fear you may be right! Target the smaller craft. Hit them with whatever you can.”
The Siris returned fire, a hundred beams of red streaking across the blackness. The grey ball that was Vermasse hung in the background, its people oblivious to the desperate fight going on above them. Another discharge from the Siris’ lasers struck an enemy craft and Albion was rewarded with an explosion.
“Nice work AID!”
“Thank you, sir. We are approaching the engine drive here. You will need to keep the Siris above this portion of the enemy craft until I can trigger an explosion.”
“How long AID?” Another enemy craft disintegrated under Siris’ guns, whilst yet more appeared on the scanner.
“Almost done sir. I am rerouting power from our engines, but I will only be able to maintain our own shields for a moment.”
“Do what you have to AID.” Two more explosions hit the Siris, blowing large chunks of debris into space.
“It is done, sir. The containment field is up and their engine drive is over-heating. They will be unable to discharge their excess static electricity, but I fear to maintain the field we have no power for our own engines.”
“That’s ok AID.” Albion removed his hands from the holographic controls and opened a small metal box beside him. He removed a thick brown cigar and a small metal lighter. His rough hands felt along the inscription in the side of the lighter. He closed his eyes “I’ll be seeing you real soon, Mathis.” He inhaled the harsh, woody taste of the cigar and sighed. His heavy, booted-feet crashed once more down upon the command console.
Fierce explosions struck the Siris, and he could feel her slowly falling apart. He picked up his bottle of brandy and took a swig. “AID.”
“It’s been a real pleasure.”
“You too sir.”
The explosion that tore through the alien vessel’s engine drive ripped the Siris apart as huge sections of human and alien ship alike were blown into space.
So big was the explosion that those settlers who inhabited Vermasse stared on at the light show dominating their night sky. Some wondered at the source of the display, but most simply stated it was just another mystery that plagued the edges of the universe, before laying themselves back down to sleep.