Book One of The Kavakian Empire
A Space Opera Saga by Dawn Ross
Note from author: As you may recall from last week’s post, there were a lot of great tips for improvements on this chapter. Some of it was conflicting, but I think I’ve got it figured out. Read chapter 1 of this sci-fi story again and tell me what you think. I’ve got to get this right before publishing so I need all the feedback I can get. Thanks!
The front viewscreen of the bridge displayed an expansive stretch of deep black dotted with an array of shimmering constellations. The universe. So empty yet so full at the same time.
A heaviness settled deep within J.D.’s chest. In a way, the vastness of space reminded him of the forests of his home world. But instead of trees, there were stars. And where the trees sheltered a variety of nature’s creatures, the stars housed a multitude of different human cultures.
Back home, the trees brought serenity. Out here, there was nothing but discord.
Commander J.D. Hapker pushed down the hollowness rising within. There was a time when the prospect of visiting different worlds had made his heart soar. Though every terraformed world was outfitted with Earthen flora and fauna, each had developed their own unique aspects. A range of different landscapes promised a lifetime of adventure. And every human culture had evolved, or devolved, into new and fascinating facets of living.
The Kimpke incident had changed his perspective. The exuberance of his youth was gone, replaced with a disillusionment as depressing as the blackness that surrounded him.
J.D. sucked in his breath, letting his expanding lungs stretch his back. There was no use thinking about this. He stood up and stepped off the central platform down to the half-moon section of work stations located at the front of the bridge. A few officers glanced at him without so much as a head nod or smile. They could have been intent on their work, but J.D. couldn’t help but feel the weight of their judgement. They knew about Kimpke. Everyone knew.
It was a mistake coming here. He should have declined the commission to serve on the Odyssey. He should have just resigned and gone back home. Heck, he probably never should have joined the Prontaean Alliance Fleet to begin with. His father was right. The galaxy wasn’t ready for the enlightened view of a Pholan Protector.
“Sir,” The communications officer’s tone struck through the lull of the starship bridge. “We’re getting a distress signal from outside the Hellana system.”
J.D.’s pensiveness cleared away as though he were coming out of the gloominess of a nebula. He sat back down in the commander’s chair and focused on the new information scrolling across the bottom of the viewscreen.
“From who?” His voice came out louder than intended and with an edge of tension to it. After thirty days of border patrol with absolutely no activity, he’d been hoping it would remain this way. Despite having a background in strategy and combat, the last thing he wanted was to engage in more violence.
Lt. Brenson held the side of his half-bald head into the earpiece designed specifically for the unique shape of his ears. “It’s coming from a Tredon ship, Sir.”
J.D.’s skin went cold and his gut twisted. The Tredons. Just the ones he’d been hoping never to meet. They were a technologically advanced race of humans but with the barbaric mentality and desire for domination of the ancient Earthen Huns. “It’s a trap. It’s got to be.”
He tapped the comm on his console. “Captain, you’re needed on the bridge.” Again. “Lt. Commander Bracht, to the bridge.”
Lt. Brenson turned to him with a tilted head and wrinkled forehead. “Sir, the signal translation says they’re being pursued by the Grapnes.”
J.D. pulled back. “Grapnes? Are you sure?”
Brenson’s brows went up. “Yes, Sir. Quite sure, Sir.”
J.D. leaned forward. His mouth fell slack as he read the translation Branson posted on the viewscreen. This had to be the first. The galaxy’s fiercest warriors being chased by the vultures of the galaxy? It had to be a trick. “Locate the signal source and put it on the screen.”
“And verify their claim. Scan for another ship.”
Captain Robert Arden entered the bridge with a solid and solemn gait. He stepped onto the upper platform with an iron composure and settled in the chair beside him.
J.D. pulled back his shoulders and straightened his spine. He was the captain’s new chief commander and if he expected his career with the Prontaean Aliance to last much longer, he’d best look less like an owl at sunrise and more like a sparrow hawk at dawn.
The captain’s rough tone made J.D.’s stomach do a flip. He’d served under harsh leaders before, but Captain Arden gripped his career by its heart. A career he was no longer sure he wanted, but he’d rather it be his own choice. “A Tredon ship reports they’re being pursued by Grapnes, Captain.”
Captain Arden’s dark bushy brows twitched downward over his eyes, eyes as sharp and as blue as kyanite crystals. A frown appeared through the dark beard covering most of his face.
“I’ve called Lt. Commander Bracht,” J.D. added. His stomach did another somersault. He hated having to notify the man. Adding the Rabnoshk warrior to the bridge meant a battle was surely eminent. But it was protocol to alert the chief of security in such a case.
The captain acknowledged him with a slight head movement. “Do your scanners pick up a Grapne ship?” he asked Lt. Brenson.
The lieutenant reviewed the information on his console. “I do detect another ship, Sir.”
J.D. scrutinized the information on the viewscreen. The Tredons actually told the truth, but there must be more to it.
“Forward the coordinates to the helm.” Captain Arden’s tone was even and calm. “Helm, set a course to intercept.”
J.D.’s shoulders fell. As commander, he probably should have given that order before the captain arrived. But every captain demanded a different level of initiative from his commanding officers. And after three months with Captain Arden, he still had no idea what the man expected of him.
The hulking form of the chief of security entered the bridge with an uncompromising expression and a savage look enhanced by his unruly blonde hair.
J.D.’s chest hardened as Lt. Commander Bracht made his way to the tactical station on the captain’s other side. He’d never met a Tredon, but god help them all if they were anything like the Rabnoshk warriors.
Lt. Commander Bracht seemed to embody every unpleasant stereotype he’d ever heard—loud and abrasive, confrontational, limbs like tree trunks, and, most unsettling, front teeth filed to reveal a carnivorous snarl. Having a man like this serve as chief of security certainly didn’t help change J.D.’s misgivings about taking this commission.
The front viewscreen switched from the displayed data to a single digitized image. J.D. shoved the Rabnoshk out of his mind and watched attentively as two dots moved rapidly towards a planet while the dot of their own ship still hung outside the solar system. “Something isn’t right.”
The captain didn’t respond, not in sound or gesture. The man seemed as cool as ever.
J.D. suppressed the urge to fidget. He hadn’t exactly said anything helpful, but the captain’s utter lack of response was unsettling.
A year ago, he had the confidence to deal with anyone and any situation. He’d been the fleet’s most promising officer, moving up rapidly in the ranks and even receiving a medal. But ever since Kimpke…
He pushed his thoughts aside once more. He had more important things to deal with right now than the state of his career and whether he was making a bad impression on his new captain.
“Can you identify the makes of the two ships?” he asked the operations officer.
“It’s still a bit far but we’ll be in range shortly, Commander.”
J.D. leaned forward in his chair. The dot representing the Odyssey was moving much too slow for his taste. He tapped his finger on the arm of his chair, adding to the other faint sounds of the ship—mechanical beeps, fingers tapping consoles, and a slight hum that he could always hear, and feel, when the Odyssey traveled over a certain speed.
His body itched. Though not much was happening yet, things had been too quiet for too long. A quick glance at the crew and he could tell most of them probably felt the same. Lt. Commander Bracht watched the viewscreen with a fierce focus. The operations officer hovered over his station. Lt. Brenson kept his hand to his earpiece and a hawkish gaze fixed on his console.
Captain Robert Arden, on the other hand, looked almost impassive. The man sat back in his chair with his hands relaxed on the arm rests. His face always appeared to be scowling, but perhaps it was because his brows were so prominent. As far as J.D. could tell, he seldom expressed any emotion. One could only guess at how many enemies he’d dealt with before his time on the Odyssey. The Tredons were just another variation.
J.D. had had his fill of contending with the Alliance’s enemies. After the Kimpke incident, it was obvious the Alliance viewed the protection of their people much differently than Pholans. They seemed to think sacrificing others for the greater good was acceptable whereas the only sacrifice Pholan Protectors made was with themselves.
His stomach soured. A confrontation with the enemy wasn’t what he’d signed up for when he took this commission. Although equipped with weaponry, the Odyssey was not a warship. If not for the escalating friction with the Tredons, the Odyssey crew would be well within the safety of the Alliance territory serving its normal function as a diplomatic and transport ship with civilians on board.
“The Tredon ship is only a small Serpent,” the operations officer said. “And the Grapne ship is actually an Angolan Cougar.”
This explained why the Tredons were running. He had seen a Serpent only once before. Although it was equipped with weaponry, it was far too small for anything other than hit and run tactics. A Cougar, on the other hand, now that was a full-fledged fighting ship—almost as well-equipped as the Odyssey and other Prontaean Alliance vessels. How in the heck the Grapnes managed to get their hands on such a ship was beyond him.
He absently rubbed his jaw, still unused to its clean-shaven smoothness. Knowing the types of ships involved shed some light on the situation, but it didn’t explain why the Grapnes would risk attacking such a dangerous warrior race. No one purposely messed with the Tredons.
“We’re in visual range, Captain,” another bridge officer announced.
J.D. tensed. The captain flick his hand and the officer responded by replacing the viewscreen’s graphic images with an up-close view of the Serpent.
A memory of a black cottonmouth snake popped into his head. This ship resembled its namesake with its flat head and narrowing tail. Its sleek design was worth admiring, even if it did belong to the Tredons.
The Cougar ship was not so elegant. It was more clam-shaped. The only thing cougarish about this ship was its yellow color. Even then, it wasn’t quite the same yellow he’d once seen on the real live cougar he glimpsed during an Earthen-like safari on his home planet.
J.D. inched forward in his seat and caught himself before slipping off the edge. Both ships fired upon one another. The spread of the dissipating energy from their shields indicated both ships were evenly matched in firepower. It was only a matter of time before they’d determine whose shields were stronger.
The perspective on the viewscreen widened, showing the blue-gray planet the ships were headed toward. “Is that Pensla?” he asked no one in particular.
“Yes, Sir.” The operations officer was the one who replied. “Fifth planet from the Hellana system star. It supports life, Sir, but it ain’t inhabitable.”
“Ah, yes. I remember that from my studies.” It was from one of the required readings he had been given shortly after he found out he was going to be assigned to this sector of the Prontaean Alliance territory. “It’s a small mining planet. And without masks or air filters one could only survive a few weeks. Is that right?”
“Yes, Sir, Commander. We call it the Blue Blight.”
“Communications are in range,” Lt. Brenson said.
“Open a channel to both ships,” Captain Arden replied.
The half-bald Vrucian made a few quick taps on his console. “Open, Sir.”
“This is Captain Robert Arden of the Prontaean Alliance ship, the Odyssey. You are in Alliance territory in violation of the Ornman Treaty and committing criminal acts by the use of your weapons. Stand down immediately or you will be fired upon.”
The strength of the captain’s gruff tone penetrated to J.D.’s core. The man seldom spoke, but when he did, it was direct and to the point.
A low beep signaled the comm channel closed.
“We will be within firing range in 2,000 clicks.” Lt. Commander Bracht’s voice boomed. The ends of his long mustached stabbed down like daggers with each word. “I’ve targeted the Serpent.”
J.D. turned his head sharply and frowned at the Rabnoshk warrior. “The Serpent? The Cougar is the aggressor.”
Bracht scowled back. “And probably for good reason.”
“A small ship like that probably means they’re pirates,” one of the officers added.
It was a good point, but hardly enough justification. “We don’t know all the facts yet.”
Bracht’s frown deepened and his nostrils flared. “They’re Tredons. That’s all we need to know.”
J.D. clenched his jaw and returned the look. “Target both ships, Lieutenant Commander.”
He half expected the Rabnoshk warrior to argue. Bracht’s dark look didn’t change, but he did as he was told. “Yes, Sir.”
J.D. glanced at Captain Arden to see if there was any hint of whether he agreed or if he would counter his command. There was none. His new captain was known as a peacemaker for his efforts in negotiating peace with the Rabnoshk. But that was ages ago. The man seemed hard now. And unreadable.
The operations officer turned to him and the captain. “The Serpent is called the StarFire.”
J.D.’s mouth curled from a sour taste of bile rising in his mouth. Bracht may be right. A Tredon ship named after a deadly weapon probably meant pirates. Or worse—slave hunters. “Do we have any records on this ship?”
It wasn’t surprising. Tredon pirates changed the name and call signs of their ships all the time. But maybe, just maybe, the StarFire was just a regular transport ship that had ventured a little too far from home.
Neither ship had responded. He found himself on the edge of his seat again. The StarFire headed directly towards Pensla at an alarming speed. He almost couldn’t bear to watch. The ship was taking a great risk by entering the atmosphere too fast.
“What are they doing?” he asked out loud but more to himself. Surely they weren’t attempting suicide. Tredon’s were more of the ‘die fighting’ type.
“It looks like they’re going to try a skimming maneuver,” the helmsman said.
J.D. shook his head. “They’d better be damned good pilots to try that.” The maneuver was highly frowned upon because it was so dangerous. He had only seen it performed in simulation. In the few times it had worked, the intentional combustion of the upper atmosphere blinded pursuers and allowed the fleeing ship to disappear onto the other side of the planet. It was an amazing feat and there was a time when he’d daydreamed about trying it. Youthful foolishness, of course. Most simulations resulted in the destruction of the very ship that had deployed it.
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the shrinking view of the StarFire as it dashed toward the planet. A bright orange cloud suddenly burst over a section of the atmosphere and rolled out in a gigantic wave. He reflexively pulled back. The fire rippled in waves of orange to yellow to brown and he lost sight of the ship. “Where’s the StarFire?”
“Are we in weapon’s range yet?” The sound of Captain Arden’s voice seemed to snap a few of the officers out of their awe.
“Almost, Sir.” Bracht’s bushy blonde brows were drawn inward as though he was angry at the Tredon warriors for attempting such a daring maneuver.
The Cougar was still firing but its shots were chaotic. They probably had no idea where the StarFire was either.
“They did it!” The operations officer’s voice was an odd mixture of awe and disappointment.
J.D.’s heart jumped. The viewscreen blinked into a focus on the StarFire as it flew away from the inferno. He leaned forward in amazement while other crew members mumbled their disappointment. Few had any liking for the Grapnes, but they hated the Tredons more.
His pulse raced in anticipation while the StarFire sped away. It was almost out of the Cougar’s firing range when one of the random shots struck its tail. His stomach twinged as the ship spiraled out of control.
“Open the comm to the Cougar.” The shape of Captain Arden’s brows were the same as Bracht’s, but he suspected his anger was for a different reason.
A distinct but subtle beep from the lieutenant’s console indicated the comm was open. “Cougar ship! You will fall back at once!”
J.D. stiffened at the heated tone. The captain’s knuckles whitened as his hands gripped the armrests of his chair. This was the most emotion he’d ever seen the captain display. He was obviously not a man to be disobeyed.
“The StarFire’s going to crash.” The officer’s tone was elated.
J.D. turned his head back to the viewscreen. The Tredon ship wobbled into the atmosphere of the planet with its tail in flames. He swallowed down a lump in his throat. Whatever he thought he knew about the Tredons, it was still tragic to see them go down after such an incredible maneuver.
“We’re in range, Sir,” Bracht barked.
“Arm torpedoes!” Captain Arden’s hands were now in fists. “Lock onto the Cougar ship.”
His heart pounded in his ears. The anticipation of battle made him antsy, but he managed to display an outward calm.
“Armed and locked, Sir,” the Rabnoshk warrior boomed from the tactical station.
Captain Arden opened his mouth to give the fire command.
“Wait!” Lt. Brenson’s high tone stabbed into his eardrum. “The Cougar is hailing us, Captain. A Captain Seth.”
“They’ve disengaged their weapons,” the operations officer added.
The captain gave Bracht a look. J.D. wasn’t quite sure what the look meant but he suspected Bracht was to keep the weapons armed and ready. Bracht glowered darkly but nodded respectfully.
The captain flexed his hands. “Open the channel.”
The viewscreen changed to the image of a Grapne. The man was thin and wiry, as was typical of most Grapnes. And there was a sly look about him that reminded J.D. of the eel he’d caught once while fishing with his dad.
“Captain Arden here,” he said just as the Grapne opened his mouth to speak. “What in the hell are you doing firing your weapons in Alliance space?”
“Captain Arden, we apologissse for the intrusion,” Captain Seth replied in the typical Grapne hissing accent. He tipped his head down in a way that reminded J.D. of a groveling dog. “We were in pursuit of these thievesss and didn’t have the opportunity to ssseek permission.”
A brief flicker of smugness crossed the Rabnoshk warrior’s face. J.D. clenched his jaw. Bracht may have been right about the circumstances but he’d been right too. The captain’s recent targeting order proved it.
“I do not have any reports of thieves, Captain Seth,” the captain replied tersely. “Protocol states you are to report such things to the proper authorities. You didn’t even do this much. I can only assume you are here for a personal vendetta rather than an ordinary pursuit of a thief.”
“I assure you, Captain, my intentionsss are honorable.”
“I doubt that,” J.D. muttered.
Captain Arden glanced at him and he realized it was a look of reprove. His gut twisted and the uncertainty of his new position threatened to well up again.
“Nevertheless,” Captain Arden said to the Grapne, “you will stand down and await disciplinary action. Is that understood?”
“Yesss, Captain Arden.” The tone would have been meek if it the Grapne didn’t sound like a devious little snake.
The viewscreen switched back to the full view of the planet. Any evidence of what just happened was completely gone. The fire in the planet’s atmosphere had dissipated quickly, leaving the blue-gray planet as serene-looking as ever.
“The StarFire has crashed,” the operations officer reported before he could ask.
“Survivors?” The captain’s brows were still drawn down, but seemed to have a more troubled than angry look.
“Unknown, Sir. The atmosphere distorts our scans.”
Captain Arden turned to J.D. “Commander, take a team of medical personnel down to the surface. And two teams of security as well.”
J.D. jerked his head back. Medical personnel for Tredons? Despite his surprise, he almost jumped out of his chair. “Yes, Sir.”
He had a feeling the captain was giving him a chance of some sort. Generally, Bracht, as head of security, would lead such a team. Since J.D. had once been head of security on another ship, he was just as qualified—except for the fact that he had failed in that position. At least according to some.
He glanced at Bracht to see if the man resented the fact that J.D. was going and not himself. The warrior was frowning, but this was nothing unusual.
“Commander!” Brenson said. J.D. stopped short. “It looks like the Grapnes are sending a team down as well.”
This can’t be good. He left the bridge and quickened his step. His heart raced in anticipation. If any of the Tredons survived, he doubted they’d be in any shape to fight. But the Grapnes would be there and he had no idea what the heck they were up to. Whatever was going on, he’d better be at his best. The last thing he needed was to get on the wrong side of another superior officer.
(This science fiction novella is protected by copyright) Copyright November, 2016 by Dawn Ross
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