Starquest — Space Pirates of Andromeda, Episode Six!

Chapter 01  Aboard the Devil's Delight
Galactic Year 12820, Planet Zavijava, Geostationary Orbit

3. Black Tech

The two converging groups of cuthroats called out hoarse greetings and cursed as their handlamp beams flickered in each other's faces. These swaying cones of light threw black shadows across deck, bulkhead, overhead.

They did not look up. They did not see Athos.

The complex fields produced by the ancient mask Athos wore also could create solid energy-claws issuing from between his knuckles. Similar claws could issue from his feet. These shapes were pure, solidified kinetic force, and could sever intermolecular bonds. The energy-claws bit into the steel plates overhead with ease.

Their size and sharpness could vary according to an unspoken thought in his brain. That fact that something dwelling inside the mask could apparently read his mind was one of the several things Athos found unnerving about the ancient artifact.

Energy circuits or fields that could directly influence the nervous system were black tech. Even under the Empire, such things had been strictly forbidden. At least for civilians.

Was it legal for him to allow this thing on his face? More to the point, was it honorable? He was not sure.

Legal or not, the thought-controlled energy-claws could adjust instantly between one moment and the next. The claws were sharp and thin on whichever hand or foot was moving to pierce the ceiling plate, but grew thicker and duller to support his weight on his other.

Athos was agile normally. With the strange mask augmenting his body, he could scuttle swiftly and silently across a sheer ceiling. He passed directly over the heads of two pirates emerging from the bridge by mere inches, and yet neither looked up. The young patrolman slid into the cramped triangular space between the now-opened door, the adjacent bulkhead, and the corner of the passage. His feet were not in view beneath the curving lower lip of the oval door, because he clung to the wheel.

Of the six crewmen, four were hominids, one was a befeathered and duck-billed bird-like dwarf called a Fuliguline.

The final fellow was a Cervine, a race of horned men taller and thinner than hominids, born of a Boreal world of mountain peaks, pines and glaciers. A crown of proud and branching antlers, typical of the males of his race, protruded from his skull. Athos was surprised to see such a creature serving aboard a hominid ship. Cervine were universally thought to be bad luck on ships; a race of Jonahs. They usually stuck to ships manned and built by their own kind. Athos wondered if, like himself, this horned man had mingled human and alien blood in his family background.

"Hoy! Why lights out? Is it a drill? I signed onto this bucket for loot, not for games!" The short Duck spoke in a voice that somehow managed to sound both angry and jolly at once.

Another hooligan hooted, "Maybe Captain Liska’s seen a ghost again, and shut ‘em off to hide from her. You know them Foxes are rightly afeared of spooks. A cursed race, them!"

"Stow that bilge-wash, shipmate!" Growled the biggest man there, a thick-jawed Neanderthal as shaggy as a gorilla, and who was leading the squad. "The Bosun’s sent us to roust out the ‘Lectrician. He’s lying somewhere drunk, I wager. Heard he was here in Officer’s Country. Told us to find him."

"What? And you broke into the arms locker first?" Asked the first guard stepping through the pressure door. This ruffian was short but powerfully-built Cromagnon, perhaps from a high-gravity world, and his face was disfigured by multiple scars from blades and radiation burns. He eyed the blasters being toted by the oncoming squad suspiciously.

"Precaution!" said the shaggy man. "Captain Liska wants us ready for action if things go awry, what with this cargo. Now step aside, for we mean to search fore."

"No doing, boys!" retorted the scarred man. "No hots afore of Pressure Two. Them’s orders."

"Space your orders! We’re to find the Lectrician double time. This outage might delay the cargo stow."

One of the pirates was a gray-haired hunchbacked cyborg, with a metal skull and mechanical prosthetic for his right leg. He was a Noachian, as the name implied, a water-going hominid. Not a true water-breather, Noachians had protruding noses and hairless hides useful for swimming. Their scientific name was Homo sapiens, and they were the most common, most dominant strain of hominids found in Andromeda.

"Mark me, lads. It’s bad business trafficking with that stuff! Ghosts are the least of what such unchancy doings draw in! The Templars are not dead. On a hidden world like a green jewel buried in a black nebula they be studying the old scrolls and learning the unseen arts once more. They go around freeing ‘bots, who mean to rise up and murder us in our sleep. Many a ship in space there be with nary a living soul aboard! And the Dark Overlords return from the grave, and brood in the darkness in some lost world without a sun, eating the stars one by one! Keep your charges hot!" And he adjusted the power dial on his firing chamber, so the hum of his weapon rose an octave in pitch.

"Latrine-wash in the grog!" A slant-eyed, sneering youth with many precious chains of gold about his neck but precious few wisps of whisker on his cheek, answered his elder with a mocking laugh. He was a Denisovan, a type of hominid sallower than the other three types, suited for higher altitudes and thinner atmosphere. Denisovans grew no hair on lip or chin.

This one wore brass knuckles on both hands, and had space pistols and land pistols tucked into his wide sash. "Next you be jawing to us as how the Ancient Mariner with his Iron Face and teeth of steel has sneaked him aboard, and is lurking nigh, a-hearing all our talk! Are we pups for you to affright with your scuttlebutt and yammer? You hex-brained old space-loon!"   

At that exact moment, Athos felt a prod at his back, and craning around his head, he saw his spine was touching the atmosphere sensor for this deck. Naturally, it was next to the pressure door, and shared a circuit with it.

Stealthily he doffed the hood of his spacecloak, reached down, and tightened it over the sensor bulb. Then he set the hood internal control to zero atmosphere. The micro-pore pumps inside the hood sucked all the air away from the tiny measuring instrument, which suddenly was in a vacuum. It was like lighting a match under a thermometer.

The hull integrity alarm screamed. The door also uttered a hum of motorized hinges, and began to swing shut, so Athos found the triangle of shadow he was hiding behind shrinking rapidly.

Aboard a navy ship, marines would have been in full space-armor when on guard duty, or failing that, procedure would have had one man stand while the other rushed to the nearest emergency locker to get two sets of pressure gear. Here, all the men rushed for the nearest locker at their best speed, jabbing each other with elbows, or knives, clambering over each other. Perhaps they knew the number of emergency suits was smaller than it should have been. 

And the nearest locker on this deck was outside Officer’s Country, because everyone, including the guards allegedly on post, hurried aft, going down the straight passage in a throng.

The commotion was dramatic, and more than one hand lamp was dropped in the scuffle, which threw a wedge of blackest shadow upward from the door to the overhead. Through this angle of darkness Athos slid, leaping silently down through the door when all eyes were elsewhere, even as the groaning hinge-motors pulled the door shut behind him with a bang as loud as a drumbeat. The echo travelled up and down the dark passageway beyond.

No suspicions were aroused at the sight of this door slamming shut. During an atmosphere loss, all the compartments were supposed to seal and dog themselves. He was safe on this side. Evidently, the pressure door had emergency motors not connected to the light circuits: In his heart, Athos blessed the redundancy of old-fashioned engineering.

The lights in these passageways were lit. There were only a few men in this whole section of the ship: everyone else was helping with docking and stowing cargo. Or perhaps they were climbing into pressure suits.

 Now that his sense of hearing was sharpened, and his reflexes quicker, Athos was able to find a twisting path through cabin and corridor avoiding the eyes of the men on these decks. He sprinted silently from pressure closet to cabin door, from hatch to lighting fixture, once clinging to the bottom of a table in the wardroom waiting for footsteps to recede. 

With his sense of smell sharpened, he knew precisely where to go. The deck in and around the officer's billets was carpeted, but rarely cleaned. He could pick up the scent trails, new and old, of the one Vulpino aboard, mingled among the many human smells. The Vulpino of planet Vulpecula were a bipedal race of foxlike people, red and furry, with prominent tails and side whiskers, older than mankind, and renowned for their cunning.  

All the scent trails converged on the bridge. The bridge was empty. Athos crouched in the hatchway before entering, scenting the air, watching warily.

The bridge itself was a wide, dark, wedge-shaped chamber with stations for the pilot and helmsman, and a chair for the captain set on gimbals. The pilot's station held the hyperspatial engine controls and the navigator's binnacle; the helm controlled the clusters of maneuvering jets dotting the hull, and the sublight space-deformation thrusters used in battle.

The hullmetal of the bridge was tuned to a transparent vibration state, so the awesome panorama of airless space was all about him. With his senses sharpened, the stars seemed like jewels, the distant traces of nebula and gas like rainbows, the microwave background radiation like the northern lights. It was almost overwhelming.

Almost. He was alert enough to see through the prow-facing transparent plates and notice the navigation tower. This was a hollow spar extending like a needle nose away from the energy fields and metal masses of the hull, past the unseen bubbles of radiation, x-ray, and micrometeorite-reflex shields hovering near the hull. He saw that the navigation instruments in the tower were active, turned toward the planet, no doubt watching for the flares of departing or arriving spaceboats. But the hatch leading to the tower was marked with a red lamp: the sign that life support on the other side was shut down. A glance at the pilot's station showed not an empty seat, but an empty socket. The pilot was a robot.   

On the far side of the bridge was the door to the captain's cabin. No one else's scent-trail went past this door, except for the smell of a Fox and several dire-wolves. It was locked, but this was not a pressure door, merely a partition made of wood. His crowbar was able to pop the lock out of the frame, and a sharp kick smashed it open.

With catlike grace, Athos glided into the captain's cabin, every sense alert, crowbar in one fist, dirk in the other. The cabin was appointed with palatial luxury, not at all what Athos, used to Spartan naval quarters, ever expected to see in space. It looked a chamber from a ducal manor or royal mansion. Carpets smothered the floor. Rich tapestries and hangings hid the bulkheads. A jewelry shop worth of gems studded every lamp and alert light. The intercom microphone was made of gold. Even the dog kennels lining one bulkhead were decorated with scrollwork. More grisly decorations were the skulls and skeletal hands hanging in high corners and cupboards or piled in the dire-wolf's bloodstained feeding bowls.

Instead of a hammock, the cabin boasted a four-poster bed of polish oak. Instead of being attuned to the artificial gravity in the cabin, this bed sat atop additional antigravity plates, dialed down to let the sleeper float like a feather. The extravagance was mildly absurd. Like hard vacuum, zero-gee was easier than anything to find in outer space. Most people would merely turn the cabin gravity off, rather than having two plates, one creating gravity and another counteracting it.

Through the lenses of the mask, Athos could see into the infrared, and so he detected a faint shadow of heat-energy from beneath the gigantic bed. Some machine was active there.

He slid under.

The extravagance of the antigravity bed was suddenly explained: the whole bedframe was armored like a battleship. The Fox captain slept on a block of metal alloy. No wonder he had it sheathed in a zero-gee field. He could float above it while he slept, and meanwhile the great weight of the metal slab would not damage the floorboards.

Athos put his hand on the metal. He tapped it. It was hollow. He ran his gloved fingers over the surface, found a hidden panel, pushed it open. Here was the dial, keyslot and bioscanners of the lock mechanism. The whole bed was a safe, adorned with gilded scrollwork. It was cunning Vulpino handiwork, which meant it was a studier safe, designed by an engineer more paranoid, than any found on hominid worlds.

Was what he sought going to be here? An informant had snitched to the Patrol not long ago. The time and place of planetfall, the crew being undermanned, and other information had been correct.

His hands began to tremble. That might have been the fatigue feedback from the mask. Had he worn it too long? Or it might have been just nerves.

Because, the moment that this vault was opened, the nightmare that had been haunting Athos — how long had it been, now? Since childhood, in a way — would be dispelled as a product of overactive imagination, or confirmed as a terrifying reality.

Athos neither knew the combination nor the keyjack nor had the fingerprints and retinal eye patterns of Captain Liska here with him. But he did have an ancient myth-tech artifact which could generate thought-controlled energy-claws from his hands. He extended one claw like a jackknife, and concentrated until it was sharper, brighter, and more incisive than anything made of matter could be.

Athos struck. The metal of the lock mechanism screamed and parted under the blow.

With a hum, the whole bedframe rotated upright. A thin line appeared around the lower edge of the bed, and the bed itself, with a murmur of hinge motors opened like the lid of a chest.

Athos stood, squinting in wonder. The vault now stood before him, coated with light panels, like a display in a jewelry store. Inside were box upon transparent box, rack upon glass rack of finely-crafted weapons. The sidearms, rifles, launchers, energy javelins and so on were streamlined, dark and deadly. The vault was the size of three bookshelves taller than a man, and wide as his outspread arms.

He almost felt relieved. Pirates smuggling weapons? Was that all?

Athos started to relax, but then checked himself.

Funny. He knew more than a little about energy weapons, and these were no make nor model he recognized. Something was familiar about them, though…

As he slid the main glass panel open, too late, he noticed an unsheathed weapon propped up just inside the panel. It was glowing with a heat signature. It was active.

This weapon was a slender black wand as long as a man's arm, tipped with two parallel blades a cubit long and an inch apart, a two-tined bifork called a shocklance.

As the panel came fully open, the bifork came free of a magnetic hook connected to the panel running through the weapon's trigger. The weapon was live, blazing, as it toppled onto Athos.

Blue white sparks of neuro-psychoreactive energy flared from the shocklance, and electrified the whole vault, including hinges, legs and metal grav panel on which he stood. It was too late to dodge. He parried the glowing blades with his claws, and the energy leaped from blade to claw, through his glove, and into his body. This energy passed easily through the allegedly energy-resistant fabric of his spacecloak.

He felt tendrils of paralysis enter his brain, his thoughts. He went blind. The visual centers of his cortex shut down. A shock of numbness passed through his brain.

This was black tech, one of the forbidden weapons of the Deathtroopers from long ago. The secrets of its making, and how to defend against it, no civilized world knew. Normal space armor was helpless against it, and even forcefields only partly useful.

To have such things reappear in the modern day, in the hands of deadly space pirates, was as bad any anything Athos had feared, if not worse. 

Blind, deaf, and helpless, Athos stumbled back outside the antigrav zone. Weight returned. He collapsed. He did not feel the blow as he fell to the carpeted cabin deck.

Next Installment: Anomalous Life Form Detected!