Today's scene from Star Runners: Dark Space finds the Barracudas running into a bit of trouble in the orbit of the planet Ashia following a delivery. Will they survive?
"There's another one, boss,” Tocol said, warning bells wailing from his station.
Grumbling, Waylon looked away from the curvature drive display, his leather flight suit stretching. He plunged his fingers into the wild fiery beard extending from his pale square jaw as his boots clanged on the steel deck of the Sparkling Light’s bridge.
“Are you sure?” Waylon asked, resting his arm on the back of Tocol's seat as he peered at his old ship’s ancient readout. "You send our ID ping?"
Touching his translator, Waylon pressed the headset to his ear and clenched his jaw as he listened for any local transmissions. "That blasted rat man and his giant oaf making a run on our world again?"
Tocol cocked his head to the side as he fixated on the display. "It's strange, man," he murmured, ignoring Waylon's question. "I'm picking up a cluster of four ships beyond Ashia’s moon nearly halfway to the fifth planet in the system, then the signal scrambled and turned into twelve before the sensors were blinded again.” He locked eyes with Waylon. "Shrouds?"
In all the years he'd traded with the natives on Ashia, the only other competition he’d dealt with had been the odd pair of Ravi and Blaine—never an outfit rich enough to afford working shrouds or numerous vessels.
“That wouldn’t scramble our sensors,” Waylon said. “Pirates?”
“Scanning.” Tocol’s computer beeped. “The ship types aren’t in our library. Never before seen or recorded use by any known syndicate.”
“They just appeared?”
“Yep. I guess our instruments could’ve missed an opening curve, but I doubt it.”
“Sky’s getting awfully crowded,” he breathed.
With his back rigid, Waylon rested his hands on his hips and stared out the forward viewport, watching as they left the atmosphere of Ashia.
“We just got hit with a sensor sweep!” Tocol shouted. “One of the unknown ships is moving to intercept and—wait!”
Tocol hesitated. “It disappeared and reappeared fifty MUs from our position!”
Waylon balled his fists as his heart fluttered. “Activate the quad turrets. Start your calculations for Tormada."
"Right." Tocol grabbed the handset with one hand, flicked the interior lights to battle stations with the other. “Tima, Drad, get to the guns."
Static squelched from the rusted speakers. "Something up?"
"Just do it!" Tocol yelled, his fingers pounding into the keyboard.
In an instant, the distinct whine of the curvature drive filled the ship, sending slight vibrations tickling under their feet.
"How long?" Waylon asked, falling into the pilot's chair and grabbing the controls.
“Hurry!” He looked toward the Ashia moon. "They're coming in hot!"
"You'll have to lose them!"
Wrapping his fingers around the wheel, Waylon keyed for the intercom to the two aft turret guns. "You guys get ready for a scrap!"
Without waiting for a response, Waylon eased more power into the engines. Sparkling Light’sstandard engines wailed, the bulkheads snapping and popping with the increased stress. He glanced starboard toward the local moon, saw the glint of metal flashing from the system's star. Whoever they were, they were bearing down in a hurry.
A high-pitched beep pulsed through the bridge. Waylon winced.
"Something else is probing us, boss," Tocol said. "Sensors of some kind."
"Scrambled it best I could. No good. Sensors slicing right through."
"I'm going to skip us across atmo, confuse any kind of a lock and give you the time to complete the calculations.”
"Shields won't last long down there, Boss."
"Yeah." Waylon tightened his grip on the controls. "Don't think they'll last too long up here, anyhow."
The space in front of the bow flashed with green light followed by a swirling gas cloud. The Sparkling Lightbounced through the ominous mist.
"What the hell was that?" Waylon shouted. "Report!"
The intercom crackled. "Shot came from the vessels," Drad said. "I—"
"Pulse laser of some kind?" Tocol interrupted.
“More like a liquid."
"A liquid?" Tocol spun around and stared at Waylon. "You ever seen something like that?"
His stomach turned. "I've never even heard of something like that."
The sound of boiling water surrounded the ship, hissing throughout the bridge. His control board burned a deep red.
"Shields are failing!” Tocol snapped. "What is it?"
Waylon transferred all power from the engines to shields. They still dropped to eighty percent, then fifty. He watched the energy on the display board ripple.
"This is no good."
Waylon tugged at his beard. ”That green stuff’s attached to our shields, and it's bleeding it dry."
"How?" Tocol asked, standing and stomping behind him. "Shields are pure energy! Nothing can—"
The hull thumped, and the Sparkling Light listed forward. Tocol tumbled, bracing himself on the dashboard. Klaxons wailed, signifying a break in the hull's integrity.
Waylon searched for answers before Tocol thrust his finger forward.
"Rear shield amplifier’s been melted through! It's eating right through the hull!”
“That stuff! How’s that possible?"
"Doesn't matter!" Waylon screamed, shutting down the shield generator.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"We'll be floating corpses if we leave it on!"
The Sparkling Light dipped into a forward spin, sending Ashia in and out of the viewport. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Waylon watched the parasitic cloud eating through his shields disperse as the final power wave ceased.
Tocol gasped. ”How'd you know that would work?"
Leaning over his shoulder, Tocol focused on the cloud dropping away from the ship. The haze bounced and spun. "What was that?"
His mouth dry, Waylon stared with his jaw dropped open. "It's like it was feeding off the shield power—like nanotech or maybe some kind of organic weapon."
"A biologic weapon?" Tocol asked. "Are you smashed?"
"I didn't say it made any sense," he said as a sickening feeling burned into his gut. "We need to figure out how to get out of here!"
Nodding, Tocol moved back to his station. "Curvature drive's still warming up."
"Got it," he said, pressing the transmit button. "You boys return fire when they're in range—we need all the time you can give us!"
As the turret guns pounded and reverberated through the ship, Waylon coaxed power into the engines to stop the spin and aimed at the planet. The ship's aging primary power generator struggled to restore the shields sapped by the parasite cloud, but the turret weapons, fortunately, operated off the auxiliary power.
"Hit two incoming bogeys, boss."
"No," Drad said in a deep voice, "they accelerated with each direct hit."
Waylon tensed. "How close are—"
The Sparkling Light lunged forward, the interior lights flickering twice before going dark. Battery-powered blue bulbs burned at the bridge’s base, bathing the room in a ghostly aura. All the control boards went out, the curvature drive navigation screen shimmering in white static.
And then the entire ship fell into silence. No engines, no life support—nothing but the quiet hiss of blank radio waves.
"We've lost everything,” Tocol whispered.
"I can see that." Waylon craned his neck toward the bridge viewport.
Sleek obsidian fighters, shaped at the rear like snails with sharpened tentacles protruding from the bow, formed a perimeter around theSparkling Light. A triangular shuttle passed the fighters and moved toward them.
"I see five fighters,” Waylon said. “Looks like that shuttle is heading right for us."
Tocol grunted. "They mean to board us?"
Staring at his hands, Waylon shuddered as he remembered the other time he’d been in captivity. The Tyral Pirates and their abuse, Cyclops with his whips.
Closing his eyes, he rested his fingers on the heavy laser pistol in his thigh holster, the same weapon he used to first impress the Ashian natives long before their war with the invaders and their mind-controlled beasts.
Footsteps pounded the deck leading to the bridge.
"Boss!" Drad yelled, storming inside. "All power's out!"
"Yeah!" Tima screamed, peeking over Drad’s broad shoulders. "I thought you said this would be a milk run!"
"Shut up!" Tocol barked, turning his muscular frame toward Waylon and placing his hand on the old projectile pistols at his hips. "I know you don't plan on letting them taking the ship without a fight.”
Waylon offered a lopsided grin. "They won't take my ship at all. Set the self-destruct for ten minutes. We'll put up a fight until then."
Tocol's face hardened as he picked up the laser rifle beside his station. "Fate be good."
He nodded. "Fate be good."
Star Runners: Dark Space is the fifth book in Star Runners Universe and is now available for pre-order! It releases on August 3!