Work on the middle of Spinward Fringe Broadcast 9: Warpath goes well, with about a chapter every two to three days finished, and some very exciting developments. In the meantime, I'd like to offer another chapter from the book. Again, these are rough chapters, only edited by me, but they're very close to what you'll find in the final draft of the book.
If you want to read the other chapters here are the links:
Prologue: Freeground Alpha
Chapter 1: Day One
Chapter 2: Patrol
Chapter 3: The Message
Chapter 4: Parallels
And now, here's Chapter 2:
Spinward Fringe Broadcast 9: Warpath
Written by Randolph Lalonde, 2014-2015
Copyright © 2015 Randolph Lalonde
Spinward Fringe is a Registered Trademark of Randolph Lalonde
All Rights Reserved
A pair of Uriel Fighters drifted along their patrol route around Kambis. The blue, green and brown ball of Tamber was well distant, a dot on the horizon of its more darkly surfaced parent. Minh-Chu Buu, or Ronin as he was known to his Fighter wing, Samurai Squadron, waved at it as it winked out of sight. They were crossing over to the dark side of Kambis, a looming giant that had once been the target of an incredible effort, complete environmental terraforming.
Hundreds of years before, people had begun digging deep canyons into the planet and removing the matter from it entirely in order to reduce its mass, stabilize the surface and reduce the worlds’ gravity. They began another terraforming effort at the same time on Tamber, which was already a near match for Earth’s gravity. Oxygenating the environment and transplanting life was easier there, it was estimated that results were seen in decades instead of centuries. That is why the contemporary belief was that the life on Tamber was to be used to seed the world it orbited, Kambis.
The people who originally started the process got as far as freeing the water trapped under Kambis’ surface and oxygenating the atmosphere. They finished their work on Tamber, leaving a moon teeming with wild life by the time the Omnivirus killed most if not all of them. There were structures left behind on Kambis that people still marvelled at, but Minh-Chu had only seen the ones visible from orbit. He knew better than to risk a visit to the smaller, planet bound wonders.
The cities of that giant world were all contained in domes with gravity control. Most of them perched on cliffs, or were wedged into the bottoms of canyons, and despite the attempts of Carthan and then British Alliance authorities to tame them, they remained wild and dangerous. None of those places were under the control of governments, but gangs and the others, who called themselves New Lords. The night side of Kambis came up, and the sparse lights of those cities decorated the landscape, along with patches of absolute blackness, canyons that were so deep that the scant light on the night side of the world was not at all evident.
The shadow cast by Kambis submerged Ronin’s barely lit cockpit in inky black. The distant lights of ships seemed distant and solitary.
“Hey, Ronin,” Joyboy, Ronin’s wingman for that patrol, called over their short range communications. “I’ve gotta admit something to you, man.”
“What’s that, Joyboy?” Ronin asked, bracing himself.
“When I saw you on the roster for this patrol, I traded to get the spot as your Wingman,” he said.
“Oh,” Ronin replied, relieved. “I thought you were going to tell me that Paula told you that her bouncing baby boy was actually mine.”
“Uh, no, that’s not funny.”
“Well, you know she could have stolen some genetic material, bribed someone in Triton medical to-“
“Nope, Jim is completely mine and hers, man.”
“Well, you know, he does look a bit-“
“Still not funny,” Joyboy said.
Ronin laughed, he’d forgotten how easy it was to wind Joyboy up. “I’m just kidding. I’m really happy for both of you.”
“The kid really has mellowed her out, she’s pretty amazing now,” Joyboy said. “You and Ashley thinking about having one?”
“No!” Ronin replied, surprising himself with how quickly the response came.
“Wow, had that one locked and loaded,” Joyboy chuclked. “Something wrong?”
“We’re just enjoying the early part of our thing together. Ash gets to exercise her maternal instincts on Zoe, and we babysit.”
“Early part of your thing? You guys have been together almost a year, haven’t you?” Joyboy said.
“Hey, your relationship with Paula went faster than light, doesn’t mean Ashley and I don’t get to have some fun before settling in,” Ronin replied. “We have attended three weddings in the last six weeks though, so we might be headed there.”
“You guys really are that serious? It’s hard to tell, I mean people see you’re crazy about each other, but there’s no public displays or anything. I know three guys in the Skyguard who have serious ambitions for her, if you know what I mean.”
“Names, now,” Ronin said in his best intimidating tone.
Joyboy laughed, “You won’t get anything out of me. Seriously, though, you two have to make more appearances, like at the Oota Galoona, or something, and make a date out of it or something.”
“Look at you with the relationship advice,” Ronin said.
“Hey, Paula really is planning our wedding, you’re invited, by the way. I don’t know if Ashley is, though. Paula still thinks she’s an airhead who likes to take her clothes off.”
“We’ll think about it, but if Ashley isn’t coming, neither am I,” Ronin replied. “Maybe when Jake’s on his feet the Warlord crew will hit Oota Galoona and the Pilot’s Den. Call it another step in his physical therapy, dancing, imbibing, more dancing, maybe some falling.”
“How is he doing? All I heard was that he survived whatever happened aboard that Order ship,” Joyboy asked.
“There’s an expression that Frost uses; ‘That man’s made of miracles,’” Ronin said, doing his best imitation of the grizzled Gunnery Chief.
“Hey, that was pretty good,” Joyboy said.
“Thank you, I practice,” Ronin replied. “Anyway, I’m starting to believe it too, but I think it had more to do with the Warlord’s new doctor. A couple med techs I’ve met were pretty quick to mention that they didn’t approve of her methods whenever they were near someone who would listen, but the results are good, so I’m not one to argue.”
“Why? Did the new Doc think too far outside the box or something?”
“I’m no expert, so I don’t know, but I’ve heard people call her a butcher more than once. Either way, that woman deserves credit. Jake was almost walking after waking up from recovery, and there’s not a scar on him. He’s a little taller, and looks like he took on a lot of muscle, but he’s got functional hand-eye coordination, maybe even better, strength, and a full range of motion. Pretty good for a man with a body that was grown in pieces and put together in a day.”
“Wow, that’s amazing. There’s almost a full blackout about the how and why of what happened to him through the fleet, so thanks for sharing. I was worried. I know I bitched about service on the Warlord sometimes while I was still there, but I’ll follow him anywhere.”
“You and me both,” Ronin said. He knew that whatever he shared with Joyboy would be spread across the fleet by morning, and it would permeate Haven Shore by the end of the week. The opportunity was too good to pass up. “Between you, me and our flight recorders, I have to say it looks like this whole rebirth has made Jake better in the head too. He hurt his face from grinning at his Welcome Back To Life party, and Ayan says he’s easier to be around, more present.”
“Really? Man, maybe that framework tech was doing something,” Joyboy concluded.
“Maybe, but no one knows for sure, so keep it quiet,” Ronin said.
“Yeah, no problem.”
He was sure Joyboy wouldn’t. Tales of the Warlord Captain grinning from ear to ear would be everywhere before long.
“So, is Samurai Squadron going to be based on the Triton when we leave for the Ironhead Nebula?” Joyboy asked.
“I can’t say,” Ronin replied. “It depends on whether or not the Warlord is going to be part of the battle group.”
“Oh, man, that would be cool. The Triton and the Warlord.”
A warning appeared on Ronin’s tactical system. The overlay in his helmet displayed an energy spike and indications of a decelerating ship headed for Kambis. It was already past the outer boundaries of the Rega Gain solar system. “Power up, we have incoming.”
“I see it, Triton Flight Deck sees it too,” Joyboy replied.
The Uriel Fighters’ systems lit up, their thrusters pulsed as they got ready to manoeuvre. The projected displays in Ronin’s cockpit showed a summary of communications between the Triton’s Flight Deck, British Alliance Control, and Haven Shore on his right hand side. To the left the greater galaxy was represented, with listings for nearby objects, incoming ships and missions that could affect his situation. In front of him his fighter’s solid state displays told him everything he needed to know about his and his wingman’s ship, while the projected display over top of that provided all tactical data, and a shortened version of his current orders. His navigational assistant was also included in the overlay, showing nearby navnet routes for other ships, the course he and his wingman were supposed to follow on patrol, his actual position, mission timer, threats and gravity fields. A long red spike across his display showed the expected trajectory of the incoming craft. “Local Navnet has already assigned alternative routes to ships in our area,” Ronin said. “That’s coming in fast, it’ll be here in fifty three seconds. We will be the closest ships.”
“Is that a good thing?” Joyboy asked.
“It’s decelerating fast enough so it won’t make it to Kambis, but it’s transmitted no header or warning signal,” Ronin reported. He saw the British Alliance Control Centre hand all responsibility for the incoming craft to Triton Fleet, and shook his head. “Yup, some help they are.”
“I’m overhearing the British Alliance ordering their patrol ships out of the area,” Joyboy said.
“This is Triton Flight,” said Ensign Dunbar, one of the communications officers aboard the Triton. “We have determined that the new ship in the region is a high speed Korin Industries Spaceliner. The wormhole trajectory suggests she departed Hosanna Station nine days ago. The helm is on autopilot, and has acknowledged our Navnet signal, so she will be entering high orbit around Kambis. You are to flank the spaceliner, scan it and await further orders.”
An image of the one hundred and five metre long ship appeared on Ronin’s main display as he and Joyboy began their approach, firing their engines at the rapidly decelerating ship. It had crossed the threshold from its wormhole into normal space, and continuing to slow down along the course sent to it by Triton’s Navnet. “Acknowledged, beginning our approach.”
Joyboy and Ronin stayed in formation as they accelerated towards the starliner. As he began decelerating and moving into position, Ronin couldn’t help but admire the smooth, long lines of the ship’s designs. Her quad rotary thrusters were cooling at the rear of the craft, while pot manoeuvring thrusters fired sporadically, making minor corrections to her course and position. “I can confirm, there is no human on the stick in that starliner,” Ronin said.
“How do you figure?” Joyboy said.
Ronin began his sensor sweep of the ship while he explained. “Almost all pilots make major course corrections then smaller touches after, so you can see the manoeuvring thrusters firing for a couple seconds at a time. Automated pilots make minor adjustments sooner, and they’re typically programmed to save fuel, so you see these quick pops and pulses from the thrusters instead.”
“Unless you’re watching Ronin,” Joyboy said. “You only give your ship the thrust it needs, you don’t waste anything if you can help it.”
“Why thank you,” Ronin said as he watched the detailed scan data come in. He read the raw feed instead of paying attention to the computer’s interpretation.
“I’m saying you fly like a robot,” Joyboy said.
“That is not nice,” Ronin replied. “I fly artfully, like a stone skipping across water, or a fish in a pond.”
“Like a drone on long patrol,” Joyboy added.
Ronin knew his wingman was just trying to get a rise out of him, and shook his head. “The law of the good space farer: Only use the space, the energy, the food, water and air you need. Oh, and always be courteous first.”
“Wow, never heard that one,” Joyboy said.
“Something they taught us on Freeground, I don’t remember a time when-“ Ronin stopped as he saw that all the systems on the spaceliner were operating except for life support. There were six hundred and nine corpses aboard, and a pair of faint life readings. “You seeing this?”
“It’s another ghost ship,” Joyboy replied. “Fifth one this month.”
“No, this one’s strange. The others finished their deceleration cycle and went dead outside the solar system, this one was programmed to land right on our doorstep. It would have to be for the emergency deceleration system to be overridden, and the emergency beacon is dead, like it’s not there at all.” Ronin checked the fuel readings and the responses the spaceliner’s computer was giving his fighter. “Communication is completely shut down, and this spaceliner should have enough fuel to go on to a few more systems before it needs to refuel, but there’s nothing but fumes in the tanks.”
“What do you think?”
“Triton Flight,” Ronin addressed, “estimated time on a rescue team?”
“We should have one out there in nineteen to twenty two minutes,” replied the communications officer.
“Not fast enough, there are two life signs on this spaceliner, and they’re about to go out,” Ronin replied. He took a closer look at the scans and could see that the only living things on the ship were crowded into a closet, connected to some kind of emergency support gear. “I’m going aboard, the landing bay is open and my fighter will fit.”
“Wait for the rescue team,” replied the communications officer.
“I don’t detect any signs of a bomb, or anything else that could take me out. I’m going in with a support kit,” Ronin said.
“I’m going with you,” Joyboy said. “Triton can send a couple fighters to pilot us, and I have emergency training.”
“Finished the course three weeks ago.”
“Oh,” Ronin replied, turning his craft so it faced the small landing bay running alongside the lower half of the ship. “Time to get you some experience. Follow my lead going in.”
“Aye, aye, Sir,” Joyboy said.
As Ronin approached the landing deck he immediately recognized that the racks containing emergency escape craft were all empty. His Uriel fighter retracted all but two of his thruster pods, reducing the ship’s profile so it could fit in one of the narrow slots for landing craft, and Ronin touched down. There was artificial gravity in the starliner, but he activated his landing clamps anyway. Nothing about the situation felt right.
He climbed out of his fighter, checking his sidearm before he reached behind the seat for the rescue kit. It was a metal case he could carry using its handle or easily affix to his back by touching it to his light armour. He opted to wear the kit and drew his sidearm as he watched Joyboy touch down with a thud. “Easy, this deck is so thin it may as well be decorative.”
“Funny, ship looks really good from the outside,” Joyboy replied. He was out of his cockpit and geared up in under a minute.
“Sure,” Ronin replied, “But these starliner companies cut corners wherever they can. Why do you think we keep getting ghost ships arriving with depleted oxygen supplies or bad heating systems? They still use oxygen tanks and crappy scrubbers that only last about thirty trips, but the emergency deceleration systems are in great shape, because they couldn’t dock anywhere worth flying to otherwise.”
“Yeah, I get it, they’re death traps if you don’t maintain them constantly,” Joyboy replied. “Paula goes on about it whenever a ghost ship drifts near the system.”
“Ah, right, sorry,” Ronin said. “Didn’t mean to go on there.” They saw the first corpse then, perfectly preserved in the vacuum of space in front of the airlock leading to the ship’s interior. “Okay, we have a high-powered plasma blast,” he said as the forensic suite in his command and control unit analysed the body. “This one was killed using a close range weapon.”
“Nearly cut in half with one shot,” Joyboy muttered. “Looks like he was trying to stop whoever was leaving?”
“Yeah, or whoever launched all those pods,” Ronin said. “All right, we’re here to rescue two people. We scan and record everything else, we don’t have time to analyse the scene.”
“Aye, Sir,” Joyboy replied. “Lead the way.”
Ronin plugged an emergency power supply line from his backpack in to a jack at the bottom of the airlock door and triggered it open. He wordlessly led the way into the passenger area, where he and his wingman were confronted by a scene Ronin knew Joyboy would revisit in his dreams. The man was more trustworthy as a pilot and soldier by the day, but he hadn’t truly seen anything like what was in front of them. Ronin had seen worse, but not by much.
The desperate expressions of the horror struck passengers were preserved by the airless cold. “Someone evacuated the air here,” Joyboy said sadly. “Was it the computer? Holocaust Virus got in from an old inactive system somehow?”
“No time to analyse the scene, remember? Stick to the mission,” Ronin said, sure that what he was seeing wasn’t the result of a computer virus.
“Ronin, this is Oz. Triton Fleet Command is watching. Our rescue team leader is staying abreast of the situation and will be there in twelve minutes.”
“This mission clock is ticking slower. The rescue team was supposed to be here in two minutes according to the first estimate your man gave me,” Ronin said. “That puts response time at over thirty one minutes, Oz.”
“That’s why I’m giving you the official go-ahead. Rescue if you can, but if you can’t, keep the situation stable if at all possible.”
“What does that mean, ‘keep the situation stable?’” Joyboy asked.
“It means that if we can’t make the rescue ourselves, we shouldn’t screw it up by making the attempt anyway,” Ronin replied. “Welcome to a real rescue operation.”
As the scant minutes it took to make it all the way to the front of the main passenger deck, past over a hundred corpses that were frozen in poses of dismay, anger and everything in between, it became plain to Ronin that quieting Joyboy was a mistake. He could see the man’s stress readings climbing through the Crewcast display in his helmet. “Looks like it happened quickly,” Ronin said. “But you have to stop looking every passenger in the eye, Joyboy. Stay aware of the situation, there’s nothing we can do for these people.”
“Yeah,” Joyboy replied, “Okay, yeah.”
Ronin was relieved to finally come upon the closet where the faint life readings were emanating from. He examined the doors and took a detailed close range scan. “You seeing this, Triton?” Ronin said. “Two people, crammed together in a support bag made for one. The air recycler in there has almost had it.”
“All right,” Captain McPatrick replied. “We see the scan, that bag is still sealed, and one of them is conscious, but barely. If you get your emergency bag around them, it will take over for what’s keeping them alive right now.”
“Oh my God, that bag only kept their heads and torsos warm,” Joyboy said. “And one of them has no legs, looks they were cut off before they were put in there. Who would do this?”
Ronin didn’t comment, but got his emergency survival bag ready. It was a black self-forming bag that could wrap itself around up to four people and seal in seconds. It would provide heat, air, and medication to the people inside. It was one of the devices everyone adopted once they were found aboard the Triton in abundance, especially since they were so easy to fabricate. “You open the doors, I’ll catch them.”
“What?” Joyboy said.
“You open the doors, step out of the way, and I’ll get them in here,” Ronin said as he pointed to the bag spread out on the deck.
“Aye, aye,” Joyboy said, all hesitation gone. He stepped in, spread the doors apart, and then stepped out of the way.
Ronin caught the intertwined passengers. The survival bag they were stuffed into was transparent, and he saw things he wished he didn’t before he got them onto the deck and atop the Earth technology style bag. He watched as it enveloped them, sealed, inflated and shuffled as it infiltrated the rudimentary life support bag the passengers were found in. The readings on Ronin’s helmet indicated that they pair were immediately put into deep stasis and would survive with serious medical attention. Their major organs were intact.
He squeezed his eyes shut and clamped his jaw, trying to shake the sunken feeling and nausea as he mentally reviewed what he saw before his emergency medical bag closed around the rescued couple. The woman had red hair, fair skin, and was being cradled by the male passenger, who had broad shoulders, was tall, and powerful looking. When the closet first opened he thought he was seeing Ayan and Jake, the likeness was just close enough.
“You okay, Ronin?” Joyboy asked.
“No,” was all he could say.