2950-11-29 – Tales from the Service: The Pack Leader’s Hunt

Pack Captain Ojathl Khedru found the first three intruders on deck two, where they were making a sorry mess of Howling Gale’s main wardroom, pulling the trophies of Khedru’s many years as skipper off the walls, prying up the deck paneling, and cutting into the electronics box below the long table. This proved, if nothing else did, that they had fought Rattanai before – they knew that the rightful spoils of warfare were inventoried and stored there, as a reminder to the officers and crew of the benefits of loyal service.

Khedru crept out of the maintenance crawlspaces out of view of the wardroom door, leveled his flechette-thrower, then ducked around the corner low. None of the three humans were looking in his direction in that crucial instant, and three quick sprays from the weapon sent them crumpling to the deck, each shredded by a tight cone of razor-sharp ceramic projectiles which shattered on impact with a hard obstacle. The weapon, designed by Rattanai mainly for use against their own kind, was massive overkill against the far softer flesh of humans.

Knowing that someone might have heard the weapon’s barking report, Khedru moved into the room and took cover behind the big table, leveling his gun on the door. A fourth human walked in with no urgency in his gait or face, and had only time for his eyes to go wide before another burst of flechettes reduced everything above his shoulders to a bloody mess of jumbled bone, hair, and brains. Gore and a few flechettes spattered against the opposite bulkhead and his body tottered weirdly on its feet for a long moment before falling forward.

Khedru waited another long moment, but no more intruders showed themselves. Still keeping his weapon pointed toward the door, he reached over and patted the corpse of the nearest human until he found the weapon holstered under one arm. Unlike the flesh which stuck to it in gobs, the rugged plasma-coil handgun had suffered no obvious damage from the flechette-thrower, and seemed not to have an electronic safety. It was almost too small for his large paws, but Khedru forced one thick finger into the trigger guard all the same, pointed it at the corpse in the doorway, and pulled the trigger.

The resulting gout of yellow-white plasma ignited the air in a satisfying holocaust of fire, burning the corpse badly and leaving its uniform aflame. The weapon would probably not kill a Rattanai or even a human outright, but it could easily blind or, in tight spaces, asphyxiate by consuming all the oxygen faster than the atmospherics could replace it.

Searching the corpses for comms equipment and spare batteries for the coilgun, Khedru filled a pouch on his utility belt with both before ducking back into the crawlspace and pulling the hinged panel back into place, Khedru headed to the narrow ladder leading up to deck one, where it terminated in the tiny comms hub, a compartment which none of his crew ever needed to enter unless the comms equipment needed maintenance. As he eased open the panel and peeked into the closet-sized space, he found it empty; the intruders had predictably found it unworthy of their time.

After standing and massaging the soreness of muscles unaccustomed to squeezing and crawling, Khedru signed in on the comms hub console and disabled both the comms mediator and bridge control of the ship’s comms antenna. After dashing off a quick text-only message for Governor Trumbull detailing what he knew of the situation, Khedru turned the antenna off altogether. If he survived and retook his ship, there would be much glory and even, perhaps, spoils of battle; if he did not, Trumbull could tell the Confederated Navy what had happened, and they would pay someone else to avenge him.

Listening at the door for a full three minutes, Khedru heard nothing. Pulling the emergency catch to disengage the hatch’s electric drive, he slid it open manually a few inches and peeked out. The short corridor leading along the ship’s dorsal ridge from the astrogation dome forward to the bridge was empty and silent, and both those spaces were hidden behind sealed blast doors. The doors of the lift well, across from the comms hub, stood propped open by some sort of mechanical device, and the lift sat on this level. Its safety interlocks would prevent it from moving as long as the doors remained open.

With a gun in each hand, Khedru crept forward to the bridge blast doors. If the intruders had already gained access to the surveillance system, they’d see him and his stealth would all be for nothing, but he doubted they’d penetrated the ship’s systems that quickly. The slow and steady drop in atmosphere pressure suggested that they’d fiddled with the central atmospherics unit manually; systems control would have permitted them to evacuate individual compartments one at a time, suffocating his crew in a moment.

Of course, lack of control hadn’t stopped them from sealing the blast door, and neither a flechette thrower nor a human plasma-coil gun would do anything against that. A simple datasphere command to open the door returned an immediate error-code.

Khedru, however, was not going to be defeated by a simple door. He fished around for one of the comms devices he’d picked up in the wardroom. It would never fit in his narrow ear-hole, of course, but it didn’t need to. He didn’t need to hear, only to speak. Gingerly, he held it in front of his mouth and pressed one broad fingertip against the activation switch.

In perfect Anglo-Terran, Khedru parroted a near-perfect imitation of Governor Trumbull. “Er, I say, hello?” He rapped lightly on the blast door for emphasis. “My name is Trumbull. Your boys gave me this link and told me to crawl up here to tell you that they found us. Damned nonsense crawling up that little ladder if you ask me.”

After a short period, no doubt with the humans on the bridge calling over their comms to check the story and not getting as many responses as they would have liked, the little earpiece squawked a response.

Khedru couldn’t hear the tinny words without the device being in his ear canal, of course. He made his best guess as to what the question was. “The girls were being awfully friendly with them. Dear me, we’ve all been so frightened, I hardly blame them. We can’t thank you enough for-”

The blast door clanked as its mechanism began to release. Khedru, unsurprised that the way past a human’s brain was still through his reproductive organs, dropped the comms earpiece, crushed it underfoot, and pointed his guns in the direction of his command chair and the helm station, respectively. Most probably, there were more than two, but that would only make this hunt worth its glory and spoils.

While Pack Captain Khedru’s account continues in some detail, we will not be continuing it after this excerpt. After retaking his ship from the small boarding party of pirates, he and his surviving crew chased the foiled raiders away from their station, and returned to accolades and awards from the local governor and his people. Though these rewards were no doubt meager in terms of their value, the crew of Howling Gale probably valued them higher than the payout for their mercenary contract; after all, in most traditional Rattanai cultures, the spoils of a battle against a worthy opponent have greater value than the wages of more mundane service.

We still have not been invaded at Maribel, though the atmosphere here is such that an attack is expected any day.