10 min read

Stardrive Engineer – 5 (final)

Stardrive Engineer – 5 (final)

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.

"No!" Xam screamed as he surged forward, charging toward Delancey.

Kritter twisted in midair to avoid the flechette burst. The ten-millimeter, razor-edged discs spattered into the viewscreen, shattering it. One sliced fur off Kritter’s tail but didn’t cut into her.

The starkat sailed over Delancey's shoulder, her claws raking bloody gashes along the way. Delancey cried out in pain as she spun to get the starkat in her sights again. Kritter landed briefly on the back of a chair, sprang onto one control station, bounded onto another, and then dropped out of sight behind a third. Sparks and pinging scrapes followed her across the front of the bridge as Delancey repeatedly fired at her.

She stopped firing just before her shots would have struck Captain Varga. He was cringing, expecting to get killed. Delancey wasn't that careless, though.

Xam lunged toward her. She spotted him out of the corner of her eye at the last moment and twisted to slice her shimmering force-blade at him. She was too late. He grabbed both her hands and bent them backward. She squeezed the shredder’s trigger. Flechette discs tore through the ceiling.

Xam continued forcing her hands backward until her wrists snapped. Delancey screamed, and both sword and gun fell from her limp hands. Xam removed his right hand from her left and jammed it against her throat. Then his long fingers wrapped all the way around her neck.

"How much are they paying you?" he hissed.

"Xam … please…" she choked.

He lifted her until her toes danced along the floor. "How much?"

"A million … credits."

Xam gaped at Delancey. Her share alone was half the going price of a stardrive. “Every cargo bay on this vessel must be loaded with weaponry.”

"Yes … and … I'd … be happy… to split it … with you."

"Tell me the rest of your plan," he demanded, setting her down and easing his grip so she could speak more easily. "All of it."

"Sabotage the ship … get paid. That's it… I swear."

Xam shook his head. "If it were just about the cargo, you would not have murdered the stardrive. You could've set up the ambush to happen on the edge of one of the star systems along our route."

Fear shined in her eyes. She hadn't missed his use of the word “murder.” Sweat beaded on her brow as she struggled to breathe. He bent her right hand farther backward. Bones in her hand and forearm cracked. She bit her lip, trying to control the pain. When her eyes began to roll backward, he shook her to keep her from passing out.

Captain Varga stepped toward them. His thumb was still locked down on the dead-man’s trigger. "You were going to blame this on me and the pirates, weren't you?"

"That makes sense," Xam said. "Over the last year, she's been bad-mouthing you to any off–worlder who'd listen. At every stop we made, she complained about your leadership and how you overworked the stardrive."

"Is this true?" Varga asked her.

She started to say no, but Xam lifted her a few centimeters off the floor. "Answer him."

"The plan … was," she gasped. "To kill … everyone onboard. Then space … some … of the … bodies … so it … would …"

"Look as if the pirates had taken prisoners?” Varga asked.

Biting her lip to keep from crying out, she nodded. After a few ragged breaths, she continued. "I would … leave…with the … pirates. And then escape … enslavement…a month from … now and…make my … way back. I'd give … my version…of what … happened. They'd never … hear otherwise and … the evidence … on the ship … would … corroborate…my story."

"Put her down, Chen," Captain Varga said. "I want to deal with her before the pirates get here."

"No," Xam replied.

Captain Varga moved toward him. Xam shot him a look, and Varga stepped back.

He lowered Delancey so that he could look her in the eyes. "You planned to kill the entire crew of this ship. Some have already died. Worse, you destroyed a stardrive — for money. That is murder. And it is a murder I cannot forgive."

"She needs to face justice," Captain Varga said.

"She's going to," Xam said. "Right now."

Tears welled in Delancey's frightened blue eyes. "Xam, please…"

With a single squeeze, Xam snapped her neck. Her eyes went wide, then the light faded from them. He tossed her lifeless body aside.

"Captain Varga, get all the crew onto the lifeboats."

"We'd be sitting ducks out there!"

“Trust me. I know how to fix this."

Varga sighed. "I'll issue the order. It can't hurt, right? These damn pirates are going to kill us anyway."

Xam clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll see that you all get home safely."

"It was good serving with you, Chen."

Xam didn't respond in kind. Varga had been hard on the stardrive, and he was an asshole.

Varga activated the emergency evacuation alert and opened the ship-wide comm to order all officers and crew to the lifeboats. Then he gave Xam a nod farewell and hurried off the bridge with his grenade still primed.

Xam sat in the captain’s chair, and Kritter jumped into his lap. He withdrew her helmet and massaged her scruff. "Don't ever scare me like that again." She bumped her head against his chin. "You did an excellent job, though."

Xam opened the comm. "Attention, pirates. This is Chief Engineer Chen. The crew of this ship is headed toward the lifeboats. You will let them go freely, or I will detonate the explosives that are rigged in the cargo bays. All the cargo that isn't destroyed will be vented into space, and you will get nothing."

"Xam, I'm now patched into the ship's sensors. I'm providing you with the locations of every lifeform on board."

A circular locator window opened within his HUD. Melody adjusted the locator to center on the middle of the ship instead of him. Green dots showed members of the crew. Red dots represented the pirates. He and Kritter showed up as purple dots.

From what he could see, the pirates were allowing crewmembers onto the lifeboats. And why shouldn't they? They could easily destroy or capture the lifeboats later if they wanted. Once the entire crew was aboard the lifeboats, Xam opened a channel to the one closest to the bridge.

"Captain?"

"Here," Varga responded.

"Don't launch until I give the word," Xam said.

"Acknowledged."

Remembering that he had one more life to secure, Xam ushered an irritated Kritter into the now-empty weapons locker beside the captain’s chair. "It's just for a short while. I promise."

As he picked up Delancey's shredder, his eyes fell across her body. She lay sprawled on the floor, her head bent at an obscene angle.

He had never killed someone before. He hoped he would never have to do so again. He didn't regret killing her, though. She had murdered a stardrive, and that was a crime against all humanity. Out here, in this situation, his was the only justice.

The shredder was keyed to Delancey only, but with the burst of engnites, he neutralized the low-grade, DNA signature system she’d used. The ready light glowed green, and the ammo readout indicated that the weapon had five bursts left. Next, he picked up Lieutenant Carter's plasma pistol and tucked it into his belt.

Xam had never fired a weapon at anyone before. In fact, he couldn't recall ever having fired one period. Surely, he had been given basic training with a neural disruptor before graduating from the Naval Academy. It had been so long ago that it was hard to remember, though.

Violence wasn't in his nature, but the pirates were conspirators in murdering a stardrive. He wouldn't hesitate to shoot them any more than he had hesitated to kill First Officer Delancey. Once the crew was safely away, he intended to make these pirates pay for their sins.

"Melody, if I die, detonate the explosives in cargo bay five."

"You've got it, Xam."

Twelve pirates stormed onto the bridge — and stopped short as soon as they saw the shredder in his hands and the hard smile on his face.

"If you kill me, the ship will blow up automatically."

The pirates trained their guns on him but didn't fire.

A slender woman with the height of a spacer strolled in confidently behind them. She wore advanced combat mesh along with a reinforced ceramic breastplate. Silver tattoos lined her face, and her entire neck was dyed crimson. Her eyes were brown, her teeth capped in gold. Her force-sword was sheathed, her plasma pistol holstered.

The others parted to let her through. Even though Xam could kill the woman easily, this pirate showed no fear. She glanced around the room, noting the carnage. Her eyes paused for a moment on Delancey before studying Xam.

She nodded at Delancey's body again. "Did you snap her neck?"

Xam gave a single nod.

"I thought engers were passive,” she murmured. “Clearly, you are a man of action."

"Only because I've been forced into the role."

"You're the Chief Engineer, correct?"

"I have several demands to make."

"Do you now?" the pirate captain asked with a sneer.

"All the remaining crewmembers from this ship are on the lifeboats. You're going to let them go."

"Is that a fact?"

"It is."

The pirate captain cocked an eyebrow and pursed her lips. Xam's confidence had clearly caught her by surprise. "So, you think you have an edge on me?"

"I know that I do," Xam replied.

“We scanned for explosives. Only one bay is rigged with them, not all eight of them.”

“You would lose a lot of valuable cargo,” Xam replied. “And there is already a weak spot in the bulkhead there. An explosion in that bay could take out all the bays on that side…"

"The plasma window —"

"Has been disabled in cargo bay five. It would take a long time for a non-enger to repair it."

The captain frowned. "Is that so?"

"Try to disable any of those mines, and they go boom. Kill me, and they go boom. Hurt any of the crew members from the ship and… Well, I think you get the picture."

The pirate's face hardened. "I'm not just going to take your word on this, enger. I'm going to need some proof."

"Tell your men to search cargo bay five."

She tapped her comm and ordered some of her men to verify the threat.

Xam struggled to hold his anger in check. "Were you the one who gave Delancey the Tekk Plague she used to murder the ship's stardrive?"

The pirate captain's eyes widened, and her face twisted up in horror.

“’Nevolence no!" she shouted. "Delancey told me she had a top-secret way to disable the drive so that your ship would drop out at these exact coordinates. I asked her how she could do that several times, but she always refused to say."

Growling, she drew her plasma pistol and stalked around the bridge, her face turning so red that it matched her neck. "Dammit, dammit, dammit! I was going to sell that drive!"

She paused in front of Delancey and fired three plasma bolts into her corpse. "I can't believe this bitch killed a stardrive!" She pumped three more shots into Delancey. “Stardrives are sacred!”

She then holstered her pistol and looked to Xam. "No wonder you snapped her neck."

Xam gave a curt nod but said nothing. He didn't want the captain to think he could only get mad over the death of a stardrive.

As soon as the captain received confirmation that the mines and the triggers were exactly as Xam claimed, she said, "All right, let's hear those demands then."

"You will allow my fellow crewmembers to return to the ship after you leave, and you will not plunder any essential components from this vessel."

"Slaves and hostages are worth a lot of money to me. So are many of the critical components on this ship."

"I'm sure they are," Xam replied. "But are they worth as much as the contraband located in cargo bay five?"

The captain's eyes narrowed. "You drive a hard bargain, Chief Engineer." She sighed. "Very well, I accept."

"Xam, as soon as they have removed the cargo, then they will no longer have any reason to cooperate."

"You're right, of course, Melody."

"They will take you, Xam, and the key components of the ship, and the crew. But ultimately, I do not think they will harm anyone, now that Delancey’s coverup isn’t necessary."

Xam weighed his options. Some crewmembers would never see their homes again, and those who did would not see them for many years. Some would be ransomed back early, of course, but at great cost. As for himself … engers were in short supply to pirates.

With a sigh, he came to his decision.

"Do you have an enger aboard your ship?"

"No," the captain replied. "We could certainly use one, though."

"In that case, in addition to my threats, I offer you my services in exchange for this ship's crew. I'll freely serve your ship for twelve months. During that time, I will give you my best effort. All I ask in return is that I don't have to participate in the piracy itself, that I'm left alone, that I get the second-best room on the ship, and that I am adequately fed."

"You'll fix anything that breaks and fine-tune every system to perfection, particularly our stardrive?"

Xam nodded. "I take great pride in my work."

"I've heard that engers are uncooperative with pirates. Like you're too good for us or something."

"I will cooperate fully for twelve months. You have my word. If, of course, I have yours…"

"Very well then, I accept."

"I understand, captain—"

"Captain Reza."

"I understand, Captain Reza, that you could renege on our deal as soon as the cargo is emptied from this vessel. However, if you do, I can assure you that I will not be cooperative, and you will be forced to lock me up well, lest I wreak havoc upon your ship's systems."

"You're going to be an intolerably principled bastard, aren't you?"

"As long as you keep your word, I see no reason for conflict between us."

Xam suddenly remembered Kritter. He let her out from the weapons locker, and she leaped onto his shoulders. "I do have one more condition. This is Kritter. She's with me. No one will harm her."

"Not a problem," Captain Reza said, revealing her gold-capped teeth in a broad smile. "I love starkats."

“You do?" Xam asked with surprise.

"Who doesn't?" the captain replied. "I have eight of them."

"Maybe we'll get along a lot better than I would've thought … Captain Reza."

The captain grinned. “Maybe we will, Engineer—"

Chief Engineer.”

She chuckled. “Chief Engineer…”

“Chen, Xam Chen.”

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