10 min read

Stardrive Engineer – 3

Stardrive Engineer – 3

About this series

Want to learn how Benevolency stardrives work? Want to learn more about the Tekk Plague virus? Want to learn about both in the midst of a starship battle? You can in this exciting Benevolency Universe short story about Xam Chen, a stardrive engineer (and starkat owner!) pushed to the breaking point and beyond.

This story is a tie-in to the Outworld Ranger series.

Xam exited engineering, hurried down a narrow but well-protected access corridor, then descended through a shaft into Shield Command.

The Consummate's shields, like her stardrive, had failed too quickly. A single laser blast had somehow pierced the ship’s force-field when it was above seventy percent capacity. No pirate ship of the size they were facing possessed a laser battery powerful enough to do that.

Having felt a tremor through the ship the moment before the attack began, he suspected sabotage. Given that Ensign Zed, one of the possible saboteurs, headed Shield Command, and since it was close to Engineering, it was worth looking there first.

Xam stepped into a room partially blackened by fire. The translucent blue of an emergency plasma window shimmered across a gaping hole in the floor, sealing in the atmosphere. That could mean only one thing. There was a hull breach in the room below.

Ensign Zed lay slumped over a control console. Burns scarred her hands, and blood flowed from her head where a jagged shard of metal had pierced her temple. If she had been a collaborator with the pirates, then she had gotten a raw deal.

Another crewmember lay dead several feet away. Judging from his wounds and the placement of his body, he must've been near the explosion.

Xam scanned the room closely but didn't see any other signs of damage. He peered down the hole. To his trained eyes, the damage below was not indicative of laser fire. It was clear to him that an explosive had detonated within the system chamber below, punching one hole out into space and another up into Shield Command.

The explosion was carefully placed to instantly knock out the ship’s primary shields. And it had been shaped to make it look, to an untrained eye, like a laser strike had taken out the system.

"Melody, I need all the data on what was happening on the ship when the battle began."

The data scrolling through his HUD seemed to confirm his suspicions. The single laser strike that supposedly took out Shield Command had targeted Weapons instead. Whoever had done this was going through a lot of effort to cover up what had happened. Far more effort than their cargo of foodstuffs and luxury goods should be worth.

"No audio or video of the event?"

"I'm sorry, Xam. The only data I have access to right now is ship-wide system readings and anything in your immediate vicinity."

"That's unusual, right?"

"Highly, Xam.”

Except for private crew chambers, Melody usually had access to audio and video feeds throughout the ship, both current and those recorded within the last month.

"Can you access audio or video feeds of anything currently happening?"

"I've been locked out, Xam. I don’t have access to anything from the last three days."

"On whose authority?"

"Unknown."

Xam needed to know for certain what had happened, and for that, he needed as much data as possible. He swiped a hand to bring up the station's holographic control panel. Nothing happened. He tried voice control, but that didn't work either. So, he went to the hardwired control station.

Using the great strength of his people, Xam grabbed Ensign Zed by the shoulders and tossed her aside. He took her seat, wiped blood from the display, then tapped the screen.

The physical console was also dead. Xam placed his hands on the display and focused his mind. Nanoparticles flowed out from the microscopic protrusions on his palms and into the system. Mentally, he used his engnites to repair a burned-out circuit and restore power to the station. The engnites not used up during the repair process flowed back through his hands and into his nervous system.

The screen flickered to life, awaiting his commands. He confirmed the shield power relay in the room below was damaged beyond repair. Using his command override, he opened audio and video feeds for the station and verified that Ensign Zed had remained at her station for an hour before the battle and throughout — until shrapnel from the explosion killed her.

“The ship is now at roughly twenty percent battle effectiveness, Xam.”

“The battle will be over sooner than I’d like.”

Xam exited the shield station and headed toward the cargo bays. Before the pirates boarded, he wanted to see exactly what the ship was carrying that was so valuable it was worth murdering a stardrive.

Nursing their injuries, four crewmembers huddled a few meters away from the door at the end of the corridor leading into the cargo hold.

As he got closer, Xam recognized them as members of Weapons Command. They served under Sergeant Brock, another potential saboteur.

"The weapon station is on fire, Xam."

"Did you manage to open up audio and video throughout the ship?"

"Sorry, Xam, I’m still working on that. I learned about the fire from Ensign Teal's chippy, Douglas.”

"Have any of you seen Sergeant Brock?" Xam asked the men.

"He was in Weapons with us, sir," Ensign Teal said. "We… We lost three good men in there. Sergeant Brock was among them."

Another name scratched off his list. That left only Lieutenant Carter, First Officer Delancey, and Captain Varga as potential traitors.

"I see," Xam said, shaking his head as he walked past them.

Once all this was over, and the guilty party had been dealt with, he would grieve for Ensign Zed, Sergeant Brock, and any other friends he ended up losing today.

As he started to open the door to the cargo hold, one of the men rushed forward to stop him. "I wouldn’t go in there, sir. There was a leak. The radiation levels are dangerously high."

"Melody, scan the radiation levels in the cargo corridor."

“The system says the area is irradiated, but my scans are showing it to be entirely safe.”

“Who’s right?”

“My readings are correct, Xam. I think someone inserted this alert in the system to keep people out of the cargo hold.”

Xam patted his fellow crewmember on the arm. "Thanks, but it's nothing I can't handle. You, however, should back away."

"Acknowledged, sir. Good luck with… With whatever it is you're doing."

"Take care of yourselves. And don't try to be heroes. If the pirates offer you terms, take them."

Xam opened the door, stepped through quickly, then closed it. He trudged down the corridor to cargo bay five, unlocked the door with his security code, and entered.

Improperly secured shipping containers lay scattered everywhere. Several had cracked open, the contents spilling out onto the floor.

The ship rocked from an explosion, and more shipping containers tumbled from their stacks. Xam staggered. The mag boots had almost failed to hold him in place. Kritter cried out and dug her claws into Xam's shoulders.

Just-in-time, he spotted a container teetering at the top of the stack beside him. He darted forward, farther into the cargo bay. The container smacked into the floor behind him and split open.

After the boom from the explosion stopped echoing through the corridors and reverberating through the hull, everything fell silent … unusually silent.

The familiar hum of the ion engines was gone.

No weapons, no shields, no engines. The game was up. There was nothing left to do now but wait for the pirates to board.

Xam spotted a dent the size of Kritter protruding into the outer bulkhead. Most likely a melted fragment from a railgun shell or plasma missile had struck there. A solid hit would've ripped through the bay, possibly destroying whatever it was the pirates were after.

It was a good thing the battle was over. At this point, even a tiny impact near that protrusion would result in a rupture. Given the severe strain the ship was under, the atmospheric containment system might fail, releasing the contents of the cargo bay into space.

Captain Varga, who had been surprisingly quiet so far, made an announcement over the ship's emergency speaker system. "I regret to inform you that we have no further means of combating the enemy ship-to-ship. All crewmembers should arm themselves immediately and prepare to repel boarders."

Hearing such idiocy, Xam shook his head. “Repel the pirates? Seriously? Is he dosing Rage or Stupid?”

"They don't make a drug called Stupid, Xam. There's no need for it."

"Good joke, Melody."

"It was?"

He picked his way through the scattered debris inside the bay.

"Looks like your litter box in here, Kritter. What a mess."

The starkat growled.

"Calm down. It was just a joke. I know you keep a tidy litter box."

The ship was licensed through a Terran Federation charter to transport luxury goods, mechanical items, and the Consummate’s primary cargo: nutrient blocks. Food distributors used the blocks along with a mix of Flava Gels to generate healthy and somewhat edible meals for starships, space stations, outposts, and colonies that weren't self-sufficient.

Along its regular route, the Consummate visited ten outposts, a space station, and the colony world Ferala II, exchanging goods and knickknacks between them while distributing machine parts and nutrient blocks. The entire run took three months to complete. It was tedious, and most of the crew despised it. Xam, however, didn't mind. It gave him plenty of time to read and chill.

Until today, nothing unusual had ever happened on this route. If the ship was running illicit cargo, Xam had never noticed. Of course, he mostly kept to himself. And he didn't have anything to do with the loading, unloading, or distribution of cargo. So, it wouldn't have been difficult to hide something from him.

Honestly, if they were running harmless contraband or smuggling luxury items beneath the noses of tariff collectors while distributing food, he didn’t care one bit. But no, it had to be something more than that.

Kritter jumped down and began to explore.

"Picking up anything unusual, Melody?"

"Nothing so far, Xam.”

He examined the nearest busted container, digging through its contents. Under the nutrient blocks, he found a half-dozen unmarked containers. He dragged one out and opened it. Inside was a cache of military-grade weaponry: fragmentation grenades, force-swords, plasma mines, heavy assault rifles, and more. None of it was legal for regular citizens.

Xam broke open several more shipping containers and dumped out the contents. They were all the same — nutrient blocks on top, weapons underneath.

"This is a bad sign, isn't it?"

"Unless the ship is operating under a secret mission covered by our Terran Federation charter, then it isn’t a good one, Xam."

Kritter nudged a container and meowed. Thanks to centuries of selective breeding and adaptation to life aboard starships, with a few genetic enhancements along the way, starkats possessed long prehensile tails, small bodies, opposable thumbs, higher intelligence than that of their ancestors, and logic-defying intuition. Xam had kept several starkats over the decades, and Kritter was the cleverest by far.

He opened the container and found, underneath the nutrient blocks, three containers, each packed with a battlesuit of Centurion IV battle armor. Using his engnites, he verified that the battlesuits were all functioning.

The value of all this equipment was starting to add up. The Centurion battlesuits alone were worth a small fortune each. If every container in this bay held this much advanced military equipment, then perhaps it made sense, from the pirates’ perspective, to seize the ship at all costs. But if money was their chief concern, why not take the cargo and the Consummate's stardrive to double their income?

"Melody, what is the destination for the goods here in cargo bay five?"

"Ferala II, Xam."

The only colony world along the route, Ferala II was the most remote place the Consummate visited. Despite its small population, it was plagued with corruption, crime, internal strife, and terrorism. Xam never ventured off the ship there, preferring the luxury and safety of his crew compartment. The nutrient blocks they delivered to Ferala II supplied the military outpost there that, theoretically, maintained order.

Despite the fortune of equipment here, it still didn't make sense. Using ridiculously expensive black-market Tekk Plague and timing an attack to occur the moment the ship dropped out of hyperspace… A lot of effort had been put into this, effort that just didn’t seem in keeping with the methods pirates typically used.

If these pirates were in it for more than money and didn't care about destroying a stardrive, then they might not care about sparing engers either. In which case, they definitely wouldn’t care about the rest of the crew, especially if a cover-up was taking place.

Now that he considered it, with a cover-up in place, it was likely that no one aboard the Consummate was safe.

His stomach churned with worry. He had to make sure Kritter and his fellow crewmembers were safe. He chewed at his lip, pondering the problem.

What he needed was a bargaining chip.

The metal around the dent in the bulkhead creaked and groaned as it bulged further. Suddenly, a tiny fissure opened. Before the thin crack could expand, a silvery, protective film on the interior wall immediately expanded and sealed over it.

That wasn't going to hold for more than a few hours. Without proper repairs, the bulkhead would pop open and expose the cargo bay to space. A moment after that, the plasma window atmospheric containment system would kick in, provided the system hadn't been damaged during the battle and wasn’t already overtaxed protecting critical areas.

A smile spread across Xam's broad face, crinkling his deep-set eyes.

He picked up one of the plasma mines he had discovered, activated its magnetic lock, and attached it near the bulge on the outer wall.

Then he reached into one of his tool pouches and took out an adhesive strip that held transparent micro-receivers keyed exclusively to Melody. He peeled off one and stuck it onto the bottom of the mine. Using his engnites, he bonded the micro-receiver to the mine’s circuitry. Now he could detonate the mine from up to a kilometer away, and if anyone other than him so much as tampered with it… Boom!

Next, he placed a mine in each corner of the cargo bay and one in a central crate. He linked them to his chippy as well.

Finally, he went to the cargo bay five control station. After a few minutes of study, he couldn't figure out how this station had been used to disable critical ship systems. Whatever the saboteur had done here, they'd covered their tracks well.

Using his engnites, he disabled the plasma window atmospheric containment system for this cargo bay. It would take days for an ordinary mechanic to fix that system.

"You really should take that a step further, Xam."

With a wry grin, he smashed the control panel then severed the power connections. "How about that?"

"I think it would take even you all day to fix that, Xam. Well done."

The ship shuddered, followed by echoing clanks. The pirate ship was docking. Boarding would soon begin.

He clicked his fingers, and Kritter jumped up and climbed onto his shoulders. "Okay, girl, let's get going. We've only got about ten minutes to reach the bridge and sort out which bastard murdered the stardrive before we have to negotiate with the pirates."

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