6 min read

Stardrive Engineer – 4

Stardrive Engineer – 4

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.

The door to the bridge opened with a whoosh. Gasping at the carnage within, Xam unconsciously took a half step backward. He barely noticed Kritter dropping down from his shoulder and slinking into the room.

Things had gone south — far south — after Captain Varga had given the order to repel boarders.

Wisps of smoke trailed up from damaged control panels. There was blood everywhere, some of it dripping down the main viewscreen like ruby stars falling through the deep black of space.

Captain Varga and First Officer Delancey were the only ones still alive, and they were locked in an Altirian standoff. The rest of the bridge crew were mangled beyond recognition, their flesh ripped and torn, except for Lieutenant Carter who gaped wide-eyed at the ceiling as he lay on the floor, a still sizzling crater burned into his forehead.

In his left hand, Captain Varga held a plasma grenade large enough to blow up the entire bridge. His thumb was holding down a dead-man trigger. If he released the trigger, the grenade would go off. His right hand was a blood-dripping, mangled mess. Directly below it lay a plasma pistol.

Tightly gripping an illegal micro-flechette repeater, commonly called a shredder, and a bloodied, meter-long shock-blade, Delancey stood on the other side of the bridge, facing Varga.

"What's your take on this, Melody?"

"I think First Officer Delancey and Lieutenant Carter were working together, and they killed everyone except Captain Varga, who killed Lieutenant Carter. What do you think, Xam?"

"The same as you, Melody. We agree that Delancey and Carter were the traitors, right?"

“Yes, Xam. Though I’m not certain Captain Varga is innocent.”

Stepping onto the bridge cautiously, Xam suddenly wished he had picked up a weapon before coming here. There were certainly enough of them in the cargo hold, and he had passed a crew weapon station containing neural disruptors. Oh well, he'd never been much of a fighter. Obviously, since he didn't even think to arm himself when looking for traitors while the ship was being boarded.

First Officer Delancey and Captain Varga turned slightly toward him.

Delancey dared to smile at him — coyly at that. "Xam, I'm so glad you're okay." Her eyes returned to the plasma grenade. "Because I sure could use your help here, my friend."

He knew what help she wanted. By releasing a burst of airborne engnites, programmed by a single command, Xam could potentially disable devices from a distance. The resulting drain would render him unconscious for hours while his body regenerated engnites and neurotransmitters to replace the ones he had lost.

The technique wouldn't work on a mechanical device like the dead-man trigger on the plasma grenade. All he could do was disable the receiver that would allow Varga, through his chippy, to deactivate the dead-man function. Clearly, Delancey didn't know that.

"Don't listen to her, Chen," Captain Varga said nervously. "She and Carter betrayed us to the pirates … somehow.” He narrowed his eyes and growled, “Cowards that they are, they opened fire on the bridge crew when we weren't expecting it."

"I can see that," Xam said as he eased into the room.

"I didn't want to kill anyone," Delancey said. "But we didn't have much choice. Varga had a plan for a surprisingly devious counterattack against the pirates. And he was going to jettison all the ship’s cargo. I had to do something."

"So, you admit to being in league with the pirates?" Xam asked.

Delancey nodded, which surprised him. He had expected her to lie, to attempt to convince him she was innocent and that he should join her.

"You killed the stardrive…"

"Yes,” she admitted.

"You slipped Tekk Plague into my food yesterday, didn’t you?"

Captain Varga's jaw dropped. He clearly hadn't known the cause of the stardrive's failure.

"You're so predictable, Xam. You always go straight to Engineering to check on the drive before we take off. And no one ever thinks to check that the virus scan is still functioning."

"You — you used Tekk Plague?!" Captain Varga sputtered.

"I timed it perfectly," Delancey bragged, "so that we dropped out of hyperspace at these exact coordinates. And believe me, it wasn't easy to calculate how fast the drive would fail. That took a lot of research and planning."

Varga’s hand shook. "I look forward to killing you, you evil bitch!"

First Officer Delancey ignored him and frowned sympathetically at Xam. "You're the last person on the ship I'd want to harm."

"Tekk Plague could have killed me," Xam said.

"On a previous run, I overheard you talking to Cantu. You told him that you'd gotten it as a kid and had survived and that you’re now immune."

"Somehow, I just don’t believe that you would have abandoned your plan if you thought it might kill me too."

Delancey shrugged. “That’s true, but I really didn’t want to kill you.”

"You should just go, Chen,” Captain Varga said. "Get as far away from the bridge as you can. Surrender to the pirates. I'm sure they'd never harm an enger."

"Or you could stay and help a friend," Delancey said. "I'll vouch for you with the pirates. I'm sure you would prefer a quick release to enslavement or being ransomed off."

"That would be preferable," he said flatly.

Though the pirates were no doubt charging toward the bridge, Xam was stalling. He just needed a few more moments to … to figure out some sort of plan and then execute it.

“Xam, First Officer Delancey must have a plan for dealing with the Captain’s plasma grenade. Otherwise, she’d make a run for it.”

“She does seem surprisingly calm, given the situation. Whatever the solution is, she doesn't possess it, but the pirates do. See if you can figure out what that might be.”

"Xam, you don't owe Varga or the Consummate any loyalty,” Delancey said. “And this ship, it’s not as innocent as it may seem. It's —”

"Carrying advanced military weaponry. I know."

They both glanced at him with surprise.

"During the battle, I checked the containers in —" on a whim he lied "— cargo bay seven."

Neither corrected him, which meant the ship held weapons in at least two of its cargo bays.

"On all its worlds, the Terran Federation is arming its troops with advanced weaponry," Delancey said. "Especially planets with strong separatist movements like Ferala II."

"How did you even know about the weapons?" Captain Varga asked Delancey.

"I work for Division Intelligence."

Xam blinked in surprise. He had not expected that.

Varga obviously hadn't either. "You — you’re a government spy?"

"Assigned to this ship to make sure that you did exactly as instructed," she said, chuckling. "Ironic, isn't it?"

"Who watches the watchmen," Xam muttered softly.

"Indeed, Xam," Melody said.

"What about Carter?" Varga asked.

It was evident that the captain was also stalling. He was, no doubt, intent on blowing up the bridge as soon as the pirates arrived.

"Carter worked for me," Delancey said. "And he actually does care about separatists." She glanced at Carter's body. "Well, he did care about them."

"So the plan was to help the separatists by liberating weapons from the ship so that they wouldn't go to government troops," Xam said. "Meanwhile, the pirates would arm themselves and sell what they didn't want to the separatists."

"For a lot of money," Delancey said.

"More than a stardrive's worth?" Xam asked through clenched teeth.

"Obviously so," she answered.

Disgust creasing his face, Varga nodded in agreement. "This ship is carrying several fortunes in weaponry."

"Look, Xam," Delancey said in a soft tone, "I know stardrives mean a lot to you. I get that. But I had no choice."

"No choice?" he asked, clenching his fists as he restrained his anger.

"I'm sick of this assignment. I'm sick of not getting paid a reasonable wage." She gestured toward Varga. "And I'm sick of dealing with this asshole."

"That much I can understand," Xam said honestly. He had never liked Captain Varga.

"And our government is a joke. It's all bureaucrats flailing about with no idea how to run a vast empire. With the money I'll make from this, I can finish my tour of duty then retire in style. And if I end up helping people who want to be free while sticking it to the powers that be, then so much the better."

Xam froze. Kritter was crouched on one of the smoking consoles behind Delancey, her claws extended as she prepared to spring. Before he could do anything to stop her, Kritter unleashed an ear-piercing war cry and launched herself toward the armed woman.

Delancey spun and fired her shredder at the starkat.

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