Grrrrrr. Trying this again. I had everything ready to schedule this post for later this morning, hit the button and got a “your session has timed out” error message and everything was gone. One piece of chocolate, some kitten snuggles and coffee later and I’m ready to try again. As I noted in the lost post, this is a very rough draft. This book is coming out very much by the seat of my pants and it has been a long time since a completely “pantsed” anything. That means there will be spelling errors, punctuation issues and more that will be fixed, altered or completely rewritten before the book comes out. Now pull up a chair and enjoy!
Captain Travis Locke leaned back and closed his eyes. Only four weeks remained before Windwalkerreturned home to Fuercon. Once there, the cruiser would be turned over to the yard dogs for some much-needed repairs and updates. If everything went according to FleetCom’s schedule, those repairs would be done in time for him to turn command over to Windwalker’s next commanding officer. He didn’t know who that would be and that day remained months away. Then he could finally let someone else be responsible for the ship and its crew.
Whoever the new CO happened to be, Locke hoped they were prepared for duty in this sector of space. He learned quickly it was a combination of boredom relieved by periodic bouts of excitement, followed by more boredom. Not that minded. He’d had his fill of “excitement” during the war. His one prayer since its end was to never lead another crew into battle. He didn’t want to add more names to the loo-long list of dead who continued to haunt his dreams.
He mentally shook himself, pushing down the memories.
You’re getting maudlin the closer to retirement you get.
“Wash, you have the con.” He climbed to his feet. “I’ll be in my quarters. Try not to blow up my ship while I’m getting some shut eye.”
“I’ll do my best, Cap, but you know how it is.” Lt. Commander Geron “Wash” Franklin grinned and moved to stand next to the command chair.
Locke chuckled softly. He and Franklin went back more years than either of them wanted to admit most days. He had been a newly promoted lieutenant on the FSN Windsor when Franklin joined the ship’s company as a very wet behind the ears ensign. Like so many missions during the war, things went south early on. The Windsor was less than a month out of Fuerconese space when it stumbled upon several enemy ships. The battle that ensued left one Callusians ship floating dead in space and the other not much better.
Locke and Franklin were part of one of the boarding parties for the second ship. For the first time, they learned the true meaning of Hell. Fighting broke out almost as soon as they landed in the damaged port bay. Somehow, they managed to make their way to the CIC. Once there, Franklin not only managed to strip out the data banks, the little the enemy hadn’t already scrubbed, but he also overrode the ship’s self-destruct system. The boarding party made it off the ship with only minutes to spare.
“Go on, Jammer,” Franklin said softly. “I’ve got this.”
Locke nodded. After one last look around the bridge, he turned toward the lift. Two steps later, a gasp, followed quickly by a soft curse, brought everyone to a halt, Locke included. He quickly turned his attention to the comms officer. Without conscious thought, he returned to the command chair, waiting for her report.
“Cap, incoming distress signal,” the Comms officer reported.
Locke frowned, fighting the urge to prompt her a second time. Instead, he waited, trusting her to explain as soon as she received more information. The blonde bent over her board, her fingers flying as she input a series of commands. Locke waited, fighting the urge to take over the station himself. Even after all his years in the captain’s seat, he remained a COMMO at heart. Instead, he stood silently next to the command chair, giving the lieutenant time to do her job.
Silence fell over the bridge. Tension grew as the crew waited for Lt. Aliyah Magana to confirm the transmission. The war might be far behind them, but pirates and slavers now worked this sector of space, ambushing unsuspecting ships and stealing away anything—or anyone—of value. The last thing the Windwalker needed was to find itself in the middle of an ambush—or worse.
“Let’s hear it, Magana.”
“Yes, sir.” She nodded once before entering another set of commands.
“. . . This is the Shalimar, Captain Marlon Dathe commanding. We are under attack. Three unknown bogies. Readings show hulls that conform to armed frigates. They attacked without warning. Engineering and life support are compromised. Damage control teams working to bring escape pods back online. Immediate assistance requested. I repeat, immediate assistance is requested.”
The sounds of alarms shrieking the background mixed with the unmistakable sounds of a ship in its death throes. Locke said nothing, one hand fisting at his side, as he listened to the all too familiar sounds of battle. A moment later, he glanced at Magana, his expression set. He would not ignore the call for assistance. He couldn’t. Not if he wanted another moment of peace for the rest of his life.
“Can you raise them, Magana?” Locke asked.
The blonde shook her head. “Negative. All attempts have failed. The message appears to be on a loop.”
Locke cursed under his breath. The looped message meant the ship still survived and maintained at least minimal communication capability. But that didn’t mean it hadn’t been captured or that any of the crew still lived.
Nor did it rule out the message being bait for an ambush.
“Anything on scanners, Chief?”
“Not in this sector, Cap,” CPO Andres Jungerman said.
“Expand the search.”
Jungerman nodded. Locke focused on the holo plot, watching as it expanded to show more of the sector. His gaze tracked back and forth, quickly identifying and then discarding each new icon on the plot. He hoped the distress call turned out to be nothing more than a fading remnant of an earlier attack. But, if that was the case, why hand’t the system government issued a warning to nearby ships? Worse, if the attack was happening now, why hadn’t Bennington’s navy responded? His gut told him something was very wrong and if he wanted to give the Shalimar a chance, he needed to answer the distress call.
But how? If he took action without getting approval from the system government, he risked not only loosing his commission but spending the rest of his life in military prison for violating Bennington’s space and who knew how many treaties signed between Fuercon and Bennington.
Damn it, he did not want to go into battle this side of the grave.
Unfortunately, his gut told him he wasn’t going to get the peaceful retirement he wanted.
Locke hissed out a breath as the holo plot’s display changed once again. Somehow, he managed not to curse. After all, it could be worse. He was hard put to figure out how just then, but it could be.
“It matches, Sir.”
“What class is the Shalimar and what’s her registration?”
“Merchant ship registered out of Bennington.”
He closed his eyes, thinking hard. Every instinct demanded he respond to the distress signal. But his orders prevented it, at least without authorization he didn’t have. Bennington System’s government made that very clear the last time Windwalker intercepted a distress call. They told him then that unless the capital planet was under attack, the Windwalker was not to enter Bennington space.
“Aliyah, try raising the Shalimar. Andres, strip everything you can from the signatures of not only the Shalimar but the other ships. Let’s bring the ship to Alert Status Alpha. I repeat AS Alpha.”
“Aye, Sir. Raising the Shalimar. Ship to Alert Status Alpha,” Magana said.
Locke waited, his attention split between the holo plot and the bridge crew as they worked to carry out his orders. He frowned again when Magana reported no response from the Shalimar. He couldn’t take his ship into Bennington space, and especially not with weapons hot, without permission from the system government or without proof lives were in immediate danger. Neither of which he had at the moment.
“Get me whoever happens to be head of system defense this week.” He ground out the words as he climbed to his feet. “Maintain alert status and let me know when someone from the government deigns to respond. I’ll be in my ready room preparing a message for FleetCom.”
It was about damned time they understood the situation out here. If he had to knock a few heads together to do it, he didn’t care. What could they do to him? Force him to retire a few weeks early?
“You have the con, Wash.”
“I have the con, aye.” Franklin took his place at the command chair.
“Let me know the moment we hear from Bennington System Defense, Aliyah. I don’t care if you have to find someone to drag them out of bed.” Locke paused, breathing deeply as he tried to rein in his temper. “Inform whoever responds to you comm that I am ready to issue orders to transit to the last known position of the Shalimar and that any dead or injured will be on their heads if they refuse permission.”
“Aye, Cap.” Magana started to turn back to her board and stopped, her expression thoughtful. “Isn’t there something we can do in the meantime, sir?”
He drew a deep breath before shaking his head. Then he smiled as inspiration struck.
“Open broadcast, not just to the frigates but to any ship or comm with its ears on, Aliyah.” He moved to stand behind her where the holo link could pick him up.
“This is Captain Travis Locke of the FNS Windwalker. To the three frigates engaging the Shalimar, this is your only warning. Break off your attack at once. Failure to do so will be considered a violation of not only Bennington space but against the various accords and treaties it has signed with Fuercon. I will order the Windwalker to respond to the threat and we will deal with you as we would any pirate or slaver. If you do not immediately withdraw, your deaths will be on your heads alone. Locke out.”
He motioned for Magana to end the transmission. As he did, he wondered who would respond first: the frigates or the system government. Either way, it was probably already too late for the Shalimar and her crew.
Nor did it answer the question of why Bennington ships hadn’t responded to the distress call.
And that was something he intended to make sure FleetCom knew about.
“I’ll be in my ready room. Alert me to any change in status.”
He turned and left the bridge, knowing he could trust his crew to follow orders and not let their guard down. Hopefully, FleetCom would finally let them off their leash so they could do something to help any future ships that came under attack, no matter what the system government might have to say about the matter.