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Legend of the Stalker's Fang

Gahv watched the last trained medic of his crew put Kael in a cold berth. Apparently Kael had received more than just a shoulder wound. This was a major blow to Gahv, since Kael was the most competent science tech he had ever had on any of his crews. He and Zhegh had kept the Stalker’s Fang flying for longer without main fleet support than perhaps any ship anywhere should have had the rights to.

The medic himself was a former royal soldier in his high lords space borne forces. He had signed onto Gahv’s troop during the opening and chaotic stages of the civil war that had put the high lord’s kingdom in peril. The real medic was a commander, a surgeon, Ghayaf-gah from deep in the extents. About Gah’s height, but with far more sympathy and empathy towards his fellow pack member than Gahv could ever hope for, he had been killed many months ago on a raid into Imperial space. The crew seemed to suffer with his loss. Gahv could not understand why. But the ship would suffer without Kael, and he needed to be repaired or replaced.

“Will this repair him?” Gahv, for one of the few instances in his life, asked the young medical technician.

“Possibly, captain. In time, perhaps, but this is more of a temporary measure to keep him alive. He needs medical treatment that’s beyond my skill. Doctor Ghayaf would have the proper medical training. Any port facility will have medical facilities capable of treating his wounds. Right now all I can do is allow his healing processes a chance to catch up with the damage, and keep him comfortable.”

“We need him alive. He will be tough to replace if he dies.” Gahv flatly stated.

But to the crew looking on that was an emotional testament to the captain’s fondness for one of the more popular officers amongst the crew. To Gahv it was a statement of fact, and nothing more. He left the dispensary with all of his usual plain gruffness—no further words. Again his crew saw this as a sign of leadership, resolve, desire for Kael to grow strong and healthy once more as he continued to command missions with stern resolve. How little did they know.

Gahv consulted with Zhegh about scavenging through the wreckage of the pirate fleet. There were a few corsairs and other similar classed vessels that had been savaged by the Zhodani anti-piracy sweep. Some with intact drives, but the specter of hanging out in space—in a known pirate haven—with the Consulate navy just having made a sweep, leaving a patroller which was now wildly out of control many light seconds away by now, did not leave much of a safety margin. The fleet could return at any moment now, and the prospect of being caught while performing a major drive transplant from one corsair to another, was not worth the risk in Gahv’s eyes. He did not know engineering, as his order to fix a destroyed unit demonstrated, but he understood tactics, strategy, and survival, and field repairs in unsecured space was a gamble.

The Stalker’s Fang still had one good fully operational drive unit. That was all she needed for now. Even salvaging a similar drive from one of the hulks floating in orbit, cutting it free from its engine mounts and transferring it to the Fang’s hold would be time consuming. Again it would be tantamount to a field repair, and it would take days. That, compared to finding a sympathetic freehold or Vargr port that would be willing to do repairs for a nominal fee and a cut of whatever treasure or goods Gahv had in his hold.

Kael himself felt the berths drugs take hold of him, and unlike many an Imperial design, the stasis he experienced was more chemical based than temperature dependent, though the life support container did chill him to an operational norm.

Even so, he was still conscious, and could see the lights and ceiling tiles in the Stalker’s Fang’s hold. He closed his eyes and thought of more pleasant times. The flowered meadows nested in the valley forests, the open grass covered plains on the rolling hills next to permanently snow capped mountains. The wide open spaces juxtaposed to his medical containment, and the vacc suit he had to don every so often, and practically lived in due to the frequent raids the Fang had engaged in.

This time the opposition had found his mark, and luck turned against him. The suits had been specially designed and built to the high lord’s specifications. They had many facets of military armor, including the ability to conceal heat and dampen innate electrical fields, like neural activity, but they simply weren’t hardened shells. They could absorb and take damage unlike any other vaccsuit in known space, but they were not invincible units, nor were their wearers invulnerable. Still, for all that, it took several beams to bring down Kael, which normally for a normal wearer wearing a normal regular duty vaccsuit, would have meant death at the first shot. Again, a cost saving measure with some clever technology ordered by their former monarch.

Kael heard Gahv’s words through the cold unit’s window. He didn’t fully understand his captain, but knew that Gahv would probably just assume jettison him to find another fully rated tech officer for the Stalker’s Fang, if he could. The fact that he was alive showed that Gahv valued him, but Kael knew that it was a matter of practicality for Gahv. There was no sentiment. He understood that now, at this moment lying injured, his body fighting to bring his chemistry and organs back into good working order. Gahv valued his knowledge and his ability to implement it for the success of his raids. Beyond that, Kael might as well have been a piece of equipment or one of the low-ranking troopers. Unimportant and expendable.

Still, Gahv was successful at what he did, even if he was single minded in purpose and goal. If Kael were to do it all over again, he might have stayed at home and stuck with the family business of raising herbs for food seasoning, as the family had done for generations in addition to raising live stock. But at the time he signed up for the navy as the distant promise of stars seemed so inviting. How disappointing to discover that most worlds were barren hunks of airless stone floating around vast brilliant nuclear fires that were equally as dangerous and inhospitable. To him that was space. Raiding, or what humans called “pirating” was its one positive aspect. But, now as he was, he would have preferred to have been a merchant captain shipping the family goods to equally lush worlds, as opposed to smashing into hapless freighters and stealing their cargos.

Yes, stealing and killing. He had to admit that. In spite of his heritage, in spite of the heritage that he and all other Vargr shared, murdering to take others belongings and money was a poor lot to choose for a life. At first they were a lead unit in a six ship flotilla, patrolling the space lanes, driving off or destroying many a pirate or rival Vargr criminal unit. He remembered leading boarding parties in an official capacity, engaging in fire fights with ill-equipped bands of Vargr packs who had turned to criminality as a way of living. He had been sworn to protect the monarch’s commercial shipping lanes.

So how had he become the pirate that he had sworn to hunt down and vanquish as a member of the royal navy? It was over a year ago, if not longer. He had lost track. And as his mind committed itself to chemical and temperature based slumber, he equally lost track of why he was curious, and let the cold take his mind into a dream scape.

* * *​

The thin veil of swirling gray separating the three type-Ts and the thin gossamer line of light that was the Milky Way, all vanished to reveal deep star studded black, with a field of wrecks and wreckage that could have only come from a major fleet action.

But, off in the distance, on one of the auxiliary viewing screens arrayed before the sensor ops officer, was the familiar yellow and black battered form of a Vargr corsair that had seen its share of action.

Tolchin was again hovering over the young officer’s shoulder, his eyes fixated on the image of vessel that had one port drive remaining. It sputtered, the light of its exhaust blinking irregularly as it pushed itself out of the mass of destroyed starship hulls and what appeared to be the remains of an orbital facility.

“Can you ID that ship?”

“Trying sir, but even with our sensor’s resolution, she’s still extremely far away. I’ve got us networked with birds two and three to form an interferometer, which is how we’re getting this—” he pointed at the image, ”—but I can’t make out any markings.”

“What’s her condition? She's on one drive that looks like it’s either on the verge of shutting down …”

“Or maybe she’s got a bad batch of fuel in her tanks, captain. Looks like she took a missile hit to her tanks and … to … her—starboard drive captain! That’s the Fang!”

“Bingo. That’s our dog.” Tolchin straightened up, “Comms, signal the flotilla, that’s our target.

“Aye-aye, sir.”

“Ops, mark it. Weapons, sound action stations. Standby all turrets.

“Captain, she’s accelerating!”

Tolchin was caught off guard, “Did you scan’em?”

“Negative, captain, this is all pure sensor data, no scan returns.”

“Affirmative captain,” Lieutenant commander Robert Douglas called out, “Fire control scanner is not active yet.”

Tolchin clenched his jaw. He couldn’t let him get away, not now! “All ships, go into overdrive. We’re gonna take that ship down.”

“Jump field, captain, forming on the contact.”

Tolchin slammed his fist on his command chair, “All lasers open fire!”

Outside a torrent of highly focused crimson radiation lanced at the yellow and black ship that had acquired an ethereal blue glow about her form. And just as the starship lasers had bridged the gap, the Stalker’s Fang stretched away into jump space.
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Tolchin slammed his fist on the command chair’s arm rest once more. “Get a bearing on his trail. I want to know where he’s headed!”

“On it, sir!”

Luck continued to prevail for Gahv, but for how long? If there were luck gods or goddesses, then Tolchin was cursing them under his breath.

“Helm, secure from zone five. Cut thrust. Steady as she goes.”

“Aye-aye, captain.”

Tolchin instinctively looked up through the canopy, but only saw stars and the band of white that was the Milky Way. Had it been a more crowded area of space, one with a hundred ports and ten times that in destinations, then it would be the proverbial needle in a haystack. But this time Gahv had few options, and Tolchin knew his game; the best place to hide a needle was not a haystack … but among a bunch of other needles.

“Weapons, secure from general quarters. Sensors, do you have him yet?”

“Feeding it to the navigator and weapons’ station, sir. It should be on the ship’s net now.”

Tolchin grabbed his pad from his command chairs side case, and looked it over. Along the trail that Gahv had left behind, there was only one possible destination.

Duekh Prime was a world that had a cocktail of gases for an atmosphere. Unbreathable but habitable with airtight buildings and other amenities that Vargr and Human alike shared, or could share depending on the political climate. It was a free and independent world that had a kind of bureaucracy or City-Hall like government that served the people and helped keep society organized so that its frontier merchant fleet could operate. Whether it had leanings towards law and order or welcomed freebooters like the Stalker’s Fang, Tolchin didn’t know.

He called up Imperial Naval intelligence and the IISS intel files on Duekh Prime. A small number of incidents, some making the subsector media, others being swept under the media noise of other news. Largely Vargr in population, though with a strong human presence. He hadn’t heard of anything important happening on Duekh, but given their proximity to the Consulate they probably would give his three ship formation, at best, the cold shoulder, but since no open hostilities had taken place for a few years, he should be able to find fuel. But could Gahv?

Tolchin considered it. Gahv might receive help, but pirate and corsair status were nebulous right now since the Consulate had destroyed port Saluga. It would take time for the information to hit the rest of the sector, and even more time for the ramifications to set in. Still, Gahv’s reputation probably had reached this government’s ears by now.

The charts listed them as having a type-E landing pad installation, but Tolchin rejected it out of hand. Odds were there were plenty of private spaceports, maybe a half dozen, scattered over the main continents. Still, would they be willing to help Gahv? Tolchin gave it a fifty-fifty chance. Gahv had a reputation, and he knew it, and could ride that wave of popularity. Still, his reputation was that of a ruthless pirate with a heart, if such a thing could exist beyond story books. Again, a fifty-fifty chance, but with a probable chance of any of the local government offices transmitting his presence to an allied navy he had offended, like Tolchin’s own detachment.

A half chance at success or failure were too high odds for Gahv, or so Tolchin surmised. There was a gas giant there. Nitrogen and hydrogen based compounds. Just the thing for a wounded starship to fill its tanks and to jump deeper into the extents where reputation and information became more sketchy the further one travelled. With a gas giant there was no half chance of success or failure, just an opportunity to take on more fuel and to “get out of Dodge”, to coin a phrase.

“Navigator, plot course along the Fang’s Trail, and precipitate us out near it’s jovian body. The one rated for wilderness fueling.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

“Comms, transmit our new course to birds two and three. We jump in five minutes … mark.”

* * *​

Duekh’s gas giant had an official name, but it was essentially a long strand of letters and numbers in a variety of languages. Simply put it was “the gas giant” as far as Duekh’s denizens were concerned. It was out of sight and out of mind, as only transitory starship traffic ever bothered to pass by it to grab some cheap fuel. Streaked with clouds of yellow, ochre, red, black, and even watery white and gray, her mass of metallic liquid hydrogen lay glowing blue deep beneath a black shroud of ammonia clouds that perpetually discharged massive bolts of lightening like a super sized dynamo.

But to Captain Kahyvagh Gahv of the Stalker’s Fang, formerly of his High Lord’s Royal Navy, it was a source for starship nourishment. Again, for some odd reason, his mouth salivated at the idea of free fuel that would keep his vessel running perpetually. And once the starboard drive was replaced, Gahv could take both ship and crew raiding the space lanes once more.

The stars were mere points of light. Interstellar furnaces that hosted worlds. And on some of those worlds were riches for the taking. Gahv had no impediment to taking that which did not belong to him, for once he took it through force of arms, it was his.

The hold, aside from Kael and one or two other injured crewman, was filled with chests of bank notes from a hundred worlds, ingots of priceless alloys used in starship construction, fine art and wines. Indeed his hold was stuffed with riches that could buy a new fleet of starships, should he so desire.

For now, Gahv only wanted fuel. The rest would have to wait.

* * *​

Veanch watched his damage control crew put the last weld into place. He didn’t understand how welding was done nor all of its chemical and physical aspects, but it worked, and sealed the last breach.

The flat spin had been put to a stop by rotating and flipping the patroller, and letting the ship’s navigational computer fire correctional burns to slow and finally stop the spin and other movements.

Veanch, in the meantime, had been in a silent rage. He never trusted the Vargr, and never understood why they, as a race and society, never understood their inferior position against and with Zhodani society and its government. And for them to lash out at his vessel, a potential ally and savior given the right circumstances, just outraged him even further.

What was the prevailing insult that the descendants from Earth called them? Dogs? Dogs. The term, though alien in origin as far as Veanch was concerned, was apropos. He mentally shouted the term, and cursed every single Vargr this side of the rift.

“Captain, damage control reports all field repairs completed. We can make way for home at any time.”

There was only one destination along the Fang’s jump route.

“We will pursue this Corsair to Duekh.”


“Put away your tools, and man your stations.” Veanch calmly relayed, but the fire in his eyes was palpable in spite of his tone. “We’ll refuel at Duekh’s gas giant. Carry out your orders.” Veanch added the extra explanation to show that he was psychologically on top of things in spite of the seething hatred for all things Vargr. Had he any on his crew then he would have made them do double duty just for the spite of it.

Veanch headed for the bridge, the one place that hadn’t been severely damaged during the ambush. Once inside the ship’s nerve center he was given a list of damaged and repair components, including an inventory on food, air and water. That made it all that more imperative to reach Duekh’s gas giant. Revenge was Veanch’s primary goal, but once in the gas giants atmosphere the patroller could top of her tanks and her power plant and drives could replenish lost fresh water and life support. Food was running low, so there would be rationing, but Duekh was also an independent freehold with a good Zhodani minority among the human population. At worst, he would exercise his patroller’s military might, should it come to that, to get reprovisioned.

Veanch went over the course and plan of action with his bridge crew. He could see and even read fear in their eyes and minds with a quick surface scan. No matter. Inferiors tended to frighten easily.

“Rig for jump space. Initiate when ready.” Either way, that dog would die.
For the first time in many weeks, there was sunlight within the Stalker’s Fang’s bridge. The pale gold and whites of the gas giant, tinged with the occasional ochre or even nitrogen blue, reflected off the planet’s gaseous surface, and into the once black setting of the corsair bridge.

To Gahv it meant nothing, but to the rest of the crew it was a welcome visage. The brilliant colors of blue to gray to yellow to green made the crew feel as if they were part of the natural environment again. True, they were confined within the corsair, but the system’s central sun reflecting natural light into artificial confines curled lips and wagged tails.

But she was still nearly fully visible, which meant that she was still a couple of weeks away at maximum acceleration. But once streaming inside the planet’s atmosphere the ship’s scoops would grab volumes of chemicals to keep the power plant and single drive operational. Not to mention the benefits of replenishing life support, albeit with a sulfurous tinge.

Veelash was perhaps the most appreciative and apprehensive, being the best rated pilot, he spent nearly all of his waking hours in the pilot’s seat. Screaming through a gas giant at high mach with a finicky engine was not his idea of the ideal refueling venture. But, there was nothing for it. Gahv’s word was law, and all the crew were now on pins and needles when it came to asking for R&R.

Still, what few windows there were on the corsair were unshaded to let in the natural light, and the galley’s wallpaper was changed to reflect the approaching jovian body.

Gahv’s mouth watered, but his fur was flat. This perhaps was as close to appreciating nature (albeit in a vacuum) as he would ever come.

* * *​

The swirling translucent gray again vanished as did the edge on image of the Milky Way, to reveal a huge gas giant with swirling clouds of a variety of colors, and on the sensors, at extreme range, was the Stalker’s Fang.

Moments later Birds Two and Three exited jump, quickly forming up on Tolchin’s lead Type-T. Coms was done over laser channel, emitter and receiver between the trinary formation so as to keep radio silence.

Inside Tolchin’s craft the young sensor ops officer looked over his shoulder, “Go active on him, sir?”

“Negative ops. He doesn’t know we’re here. Let’s see if he picked us up before he went into jump. Weapons, the same goes for you. No active fire control, just sensor data, and only for guided ordinance.”

“Aye-aye, captain.” The older officer replied, and then with anticipatory and determined glee, “Just as a reminder, sir, I could put several birds up his tail pipe right now, and there’s not a thing he can do about it.”

“Except go Sea-whiz on our birds. If I guess right, he’ll make a sweep with his scanners at some point, and that’s when he’ll pick us up, and our birds when they’re halfway to target. At this range he’ll be able to gun all of them down. We need to close.”

“Aye-aye, sir.”

“Captain,” it was the ship’s female pilot, Lieutenant Allen, “we can keep track of him in the upper ionosphere and stratosphere two weeks from now, but if he goes deeper, with all that lightening, it’ll be like …” she hesitated for a moment.

“Like what, lieutenant?”

“Like trying to find a needle among a bunch of other needles.” She made a point of reflecting the captain’s spacer’s wisdom.

“If we were in a major hub, that might be true.” Tolchin tried to hint that she didn’t get the analogy without making it appear as if he was educating her on the alliteration. “Out here he needs gas, and the only stop is this giant ball of ammonia. He can’t run. If my guess is right, he probably used nearly the last bit of his fuel to get here.”

Weapons, “But captain, if that’s the case, then why not fire on him now? Sure, he’s beyond arm’s reach, but with the three of us pouring it on we’ll be able to overwhelm his defenses. He’ll have to pour on the juice, and that’s when his tanks’ll go dry.”

Tolchin gave his weapons’ officer a sheepish look, again he didn’t want to down dress anybody, but had to educate the officer on tactics. “We don’t know how much fuel he has, and in order to find out we have to go active on him and tip our hand while still at extreme range. I appreciate your aggressiveness weapons, but even though we have three to one odds on this guy, he still has the defensive advantage.”

Tolchin stared at the enhanced image on his own private view screen. Not quite a “tiger by the tail”, but close to something akin. Right now there was nothing Tolchin wanted better to do than to smack Gahv several times over, but the Vargr was no one’s pushover. Any other captain, human, Zho or Vargr would simply step on the gas and try to run for the gas giant, or even make a microjump, but Gahv was quite literally, a dog fighter. He would turn, evaluate where he could strike, commit his weapons, and then get out, all the while Tolchin’s formation would have probably spent half their missile ordinance trying to bring him down.

And laser shots at this range were out of the question. No, they needed to get closer in spite of their numerical superiority. But again, Tolchin had to admit, the tail end of a running Corsair was a juicy and tempting target.
Veanch’s patroller exited jump at an oblique path of travel relative to the solar system’s natural orbital plane, which included the small ring system around the gas giant. Her prosaic yet sleek form heralding from the days of early hypersonic craft, scanned the area, found the Stalker’s Fang, and speared for an intercept course.

* * *​

“New contact, captain. Bearing two-seven-eight mark four-five. Contact designated Psi-One.”

“Psi One? How can that be?” Tolchin asked his sensors op.

“That’s what the computer’s labeling her, captain. Ah, there was a distant contact a week back at port Saluga. Too distant to get a real reading on her other than she was in the six-hundred ton range, and a probable Zhoe.”

“Why didn’t the alert sound back then?”

“According to the long range log she had sustained massive damage and was tumbling out of control. The ship’s AI didn’t classify her as a threat.”

Tolchin did a slow burn. Another so called Artificial Intelligence flub. The ship’s own double-digit IQ computer had decided than an enemy vessel wasn’t a threat, and filed it away under the “to do list” should it show up again. And it had. Repaired. And about to blow Tolchin’s flotilla’s cover. He clenched his jaw. That Zhoe would go active, forcing Gahv to do a sweep, and when he did he would spot Tolchin’s three type-Ts closing in on him from astern.

Assuming the Zhoe was after Gahv, which odds were he was. IF he wasn’t, then things would only get worse. What did his friend from Loch Ness used to say? “The haggis is in the fire for sure.” North Americans had a less flattering way of putting the same situation.

“Helm, stand by to break silence and to go into overdrive.”

“Aye-aye, captain.” Allen replied.

Could things get any worse? He had spent months travelling through the extents and “international” space to get to here to bag this scum bag, only to have some Zhodani hot shot ruin his plan. Well, leave it to the Zhoes to screw things up.

“Weapons, throw up some ECM. Jam their sensors. Try and mask us.”

Weapons; “Aye-aye, sir, but the type-T isn’t exactly an E-W platform.”

Tolchin; “Understood, just do as I say. Ops, let me know when she does a sweep.”

“Aye-aye, sir.” The young officer adjusted his equipment, checked the aft quarter just to be safe, and set a whole range of radiation detection, as if he were surveying a new star. And there it was, the Fang’s fire control was shedding photons and electrons. “Captain, the Fang’s gone active!”

* * *​

Gahv snarled, “Battle stations, standby all weapons. Ops, where did that patroller come from!”

Zheg-fhar, the junior to Kael had taken Kael’s position as the sensor operations officer. “It just exited jump now, captain. According to the sensor log that’s the same ship we drove off a week ago at the Terran freeport!” Zheg-fhar’s voice was wrapped in excitement, speaking so fast he wasn’t sure if Gahv got all of his information.

Gahv’s fur was near vertical. This had been another thing he hadn’t anticipated. More fortune turned awry on him. “Helm, cut engines, and point us towards him. Keep our nose on his beam.”

“Aye captain. But in a short while we’ll need to slow for a refuel insert.”

Gahv didn’t reply. The patroller outweighed him by a full two-hundred tons, and had two more turrets than the corsair. But, if it was the same patroller that he had damaged, then odds were she wasn’t up to full operational capacity.

“Helm, initiate evasive roll. Keep our nose on him.” Gahv’s blood was a boil, but he kept his usual battle calm, and saw the image of the patroller adjust in his view and then rotate. The bridge went back to its normal operational black with only the screens giving light as the Stalker’s Fang’s nose edged and arced away from the gas giant’s reflective brilliance, and put herself in a offensive and defensive posture with all four of her turrets bearing on the Zhodani ship.

The Zhodani’s crimson beams lanced out at the Vargr Corsair, but managed to miss with every single weapon left to her. Four double-barrel laser weapons were operational, while her two double tubed missile turrets had been taken out of action by the Fang one week back.

In the black silence brilliant red lethal and focused radiation flashed next to the Fang as she continued her awkward evasive, flying at incredible mach towards the gas giant, while keeping her nose at the Zhodani and spinning evasively.

“Stand by missiles. All tubes. Once they’re out, I want a timed solution with our lasers on target.”

“Aye captain.” The veteran weapon’s officer quickly replied. Four double barreled turrets. Eight lasers to the Fang’s six. Gahv didn’t want to waste ordinance, but he was out gunned, and needed a way to keep some of those turrets busy and off his ship until he could make a getaway.

Outside the Fang’s two triple turrets ejected six missiles, one after the other, each riding a globe of plumed light. They raced in a staggered formation towards the edged form of the Zhodani patroller. The patroller’s lasers found all but one, at which point the Fang’s own laser batteries swiped at the Zhodani, slashing her hull with high energy intensity. Some fuel bubbled out in globules from underneath the Zhoe’s keel, other parts of her hull were scarred and scorched with glowing molten metal that had been subjected to destructive heat, but she was otherwise undamaged, though her lasers were recycling.

Gahv new that the Zhoe’s lasers would recharge before he could deliver another strike. If there was ever a time for an escape, it was now.

“Helm, full power. Set course for the gas giant. Plot an insertion, and take us deep.”

“Aye captain.”

“Ops, rig for combat. Sound the depressurization alarm.” Gahv knew he should have evacuated the ship of its atmosphere, but the Zhoe jumped out from nowhere, and had caught him off guard. It was a one in a million chance, and again Gahv’s own ingenuity had saved his hunter’s instinct.
Veanch’s bridge was awash with klaxons and lit up like a Christmas tree, red and green lights circulating and flashing, telling of a thousand things wrong and damaged. Some sections of the control panels were simply black, meaning that the Vargr had scored hits on the control lines, and the backups were either overloaded or destroyed themselves.

“Break off. Parallel them, but put some distance between us and that …” Veanch struggled for the right words. Zhodani elites were supposed to be calm, cool, rational, particularly in times of crisis. “that…that…” yet he found himself stammering, “that corsair!” he finally managed.

* * *​

Tolchin couldn’t help but shake his head. That Zhodani captain, whoever he was, should have had a straight shot to cause some damage to the Fang, but instead wound up going on point defense and missing with all of her entire energy barbette. Well, even the best captains had the worse luck at times.

“Ops, any notice of us?”

“Not by sensor scan, captain. They may have gotten a casual visual on us by now, but there’s no way to be certain either way.”

Tolchin leaned forward in his command seat, rubbing his chin. “Bring our ECM screen down by … fifty percent. Try and match this star’s natural radiation.”

“Aye-aye, sir. Rigging for stealth.”

It was an old trick. One that any expert captain with any sense of situational awareness might see through, but both combatants had their own ships on their mind, and as long as he could keep a discreet distance with an eye on them, then all the better. The drama that unfolded was not over.
Next Chapter 9/8/19

Tolchin and the rest of his bridge crew watched the two ships bickering in the form of a few pot shots exchanged between the Zhodani patroller and the corsair during their separation. The Zhoe, for whatever reason, a lack of gunnery training or bad software, missed time and again, while the Fang continued to scrape at the patroller every few intervals. Both were finally thousands of kilometers apart, paralleling one another towards the gas giant that nearly filled every ship’s view.

Tolchin commiserated with Commander Hawkings and Lieutenant Commander Lampson, C Os of birds two and three respectively. There wasn’t too much to talk about other than to whether let the Zhodani have his way with the Vargr, effectively letting the Zhos do their for them (of which Tolchin had his doubts) what they came here to do, or to follow the thing all the way to the end, meaning follow them to and into the gas giant.

Jovian bodies were impressive things. Huge would be stars that had solid cores surrounded by metallic liquid and even more impressive quantities of gas on top of that. The cloud formations of which could form world sized thunder heads or vortices that could electrify and kill a ship with a single discharge, it was rare, and typically only happened to the most unskilled or daring of pilots (one type often being synonymous with the other). And the winds actually did not get any stronger than a typical hurricane found on any habitable world with an atmosphere of any type. So there wasn’t any more appreciable danger than flying into a terrestrial storm on a normal world in that regard.

No, the danger was in losing power and falling well into crush depth regions. Why or how that was Tolchin didn’t know, though he was sure half his officers who had more science training than he did know. Even so it wasn’t important. At least not too important. It might prove to be a strategic element if it came to that, otherwise it was an occupational hazard that all spacers who dared to scoop hydrogen from a gas giant faced.

And in terms of gas giants this one was fairly ordinary and benign. It wasn’t superheated, didn’t rain molten lead or iron, nor whirl frozen ice crystals with the consistency of diamond at hypersonic speeds—all known phenomenon on other gas giants that had a “NO WILDERNESS” rating, meaning it was too dangerous to grab free fuel off of them. But she had all of the standard “don’t go too deep and watch out for Thor like thunderbolts” label tacked onto her.

Tolchin liked both of his two commanding officers on the other two type-Ts, but their tactical knowledge was fairly vanilla flavored; i.e. intercept and engage kind of planning with no real tricks up their sleeves other than a few “dog fight” maneuvers. In this regard, no matter how competent they were, he knew they weren’t much better then the admiralties’ banks of tactical A-I computers back on Efate and Regina.

Gahv was purpose driven, and not in some spiritual nor philosophical way, but in a hard driven survival mode aimed at victory. Tolchin surmised that the smart and risky thing to do would be to dive into the atmosphere, fuel up as quickly as possible, and then jump. Because once done, even if a misjump were to occur, then, in theory, he would still have enough fuel to get to some world that had more ice or even a fueling depot on it—if he misjumped into civilized space. If not, then it wouldn’t take long for him to get his bearings out in deep black, and then to jump to a system that had some form of hydrogen in it, and repeat the whole process all over again. All the while he would still have life support via whatever oxygen he grabbed here and elsewhere.

The final consensus was that no matter what transpired between the Zhodani and the Corsair, Tolchin and his task force would have to stay in visual contact with the Stalker’s Fang. If the Zhoe happened to bring her down, or otherwise destroy or capture her, then that was all well and good. If Gahv fended or drove off the Zho, then Tolchin and his task force would have to finish her off. It was that simple.

There was the temptation to temporarily ask for a truce or alliance with the Zhodani patroller, and it might even prove to relieve local political tensions, but Tolchin wasn’t about to broach standing orders regarding Zhodani military assets outside Consulate space simply for a leg up, though he had to admit, if there was ever a time for a marriage of convenience between rival forces, it was now.

“With all due respect, fleet captain, I say “no”.” Commander Harkov Hawkings, C O of PC-1109, or bird two, answered. “If we ask for help, or let them help us, or however you want to put it, they’ll spin it up in the local sector media. It’ll just add to their superior society rhetoric about how the poor disorganized and barbaric Imperium had to ask for help from a single Consulate navy ship.”

Tolchin shrugged, “What about you, Lampson?”

The younger lieutenant commander, C-O of number three bird, or PC-2809, gave a determined tone, “I can’t say I fully agree with the political aspect, captain. We are after all dealing with a pirate, and not some political dissident filled boat. I say just let the Zhoe fight it out with the Vargr, and then we just clean up what the Zhoe doesn’t finish.”

“That’s probably the most pragmatic analysis. I’m not sanguine about offering nor asking for help from the Patroller. She looks banged up, but raring from a scrape with Gahv and his crew. Personally I think it’s a bit heartless not to offer some kind of added punch, essentially since, I’m guessing here, both of our aims, the Zhodani and ours’, are to take Gahv down. Okay.” Tolchin knew he was going to eat his words on this decision, especially since he had gone “lone wolf” himself with his flotilla. “We stand by and watch what happens, then engage the corsair if needs be. No one fires unless its for point defense, or upon my orders. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly, sir.” Came the combined response.

“Very well. Keep in touch if anything comes up. Tolchin out.” The two laser generated holographic images cut out. Tolchin sometimes wondered why visual communication was needed at all for simple military briefs. The added visual imagery seemed superfluous. As if some technologist thought that seeing the person you were talking to was absolutely necessary for all occasions. It wasn’t, and sometimes added emotional clutter depending on who the parties were.

Thankfully this was a tactical assessment. Tolchin hated playing the cold hearted skipper out in equally cold space, but tensions were rife with the consulate, and there were reports of money and embassages being entreated to various Vargr nations. Traditionally the Vargr had nearly always sided with the Consulate, but not because of any pan Vargr-Zhodani solidarity. Simply put if the Consulate were to invade Imperial space, or at least put a little heat on their worlds, then it was a simple opportunity for pack driven squadrons to take the plunge and pillage what they could.

In this sense Tolchin’s flotilla wouldn’t offer much rhetoric for either side, other than the Imperium did again what the Zhodani refused to do time and again. The Zhodani government media would spin it up their way and otherwise call it a fabrication to bolster whatever political objective they had.

Tolchin wondered if perhaps his actions couldn’t be spun up into a more Imperial friendly propaganda coup if he were commanding a cruiser squadron, or some formation of heavier mainline ships than the interstellar version of a littoral attack group.

Either way it didn’t matter, and he shoved the musing to a dark recess of his mind as he refocused his thoughts on the tactical situation. So far neither ship seemed to take notice of them, or so far as anyone knew. Still, they would eventually, or so Tolchin concluded. At some point either or both combatants would do a general sweep, and possibly spot his three ship formation trailing thousands of kilometers behind them. Again, it all depended on how savvy either captain was. Gahv was sharp on tactics, though even in the heat of a situation he (hopefully) would not take notice of three Imperial type-Ts flying a low profile edge on diamond. The Zho? Tolchin nearly dismissed him as borderline incompetent. Borderline because he had the wherewithal to get his ship under control, repaired, and re-engaged in a hot pursuit. Incompetent because he had his proverbial finger on the trigger with the barrel pressed against a man’s head, and he still couldn’t score a kill with tactical superiority in terms of both position and ship class. Tolchin was still shaking his head at that one.
The gas giant now titanically prevailed both forward viewscreens and the translucent canopy covering the top portion of the type-ts’ bridges, with a thin crescent of black representing space and jovian shadow. The planet was no longer a predominantly pale gold with a few other colors thrown into her distant cloud makeup, but a complex network of fast moving mists that were comprised of any number of chemicals, most of which could sustain the superheated plasmatic fires of a starship’s drives.

And against them were two miniscule dots riding blue flames, hoping to outpace one another and dive into the chemical rich environment to do either battle, refuel, both, or for some other fate that neither intended.

“Ops, did the Fang pick us up?”

“Unknown, captain. She did a local sweep, but we had E-W matching the sun’s natural E-M emissions. The best I can say is that I haven’t detected any scans aimed at us.”

Tolchin mulled that one over, “Thank you ops. Weapons, no FC directed at us?”

“Negative, captain. Threat warnings are all silent, and I’m not picking up any casual scans aimed at us.”

Tolchin clenched his jaw again. Several days they had been pursuing or following both ships, and not one of them had so much as taken a look at them, or so it appeared. His own trinary formation formed another invisible trinary formation with the Zhodani and Corsair, only they didn’t know it. It was a stupid thought, but Tolchin thought it to be a warrior-artists musing. He might commit the thought to paper someday. In the meantime he wondered how much longer he would have to wait before he could commit his fleet to action.

* * *​

Gahv had slept, ate, and otherwise acted as if all was normal. But all wasn’t normal. There was a six-hundred ton Zhodani patroller shadowing him over a thousand kilometer’s distant. The Zhodani had haphazardly jumped in and rapidly closed within visual range with her larger and fully operational drives and superior firepower, but had failed to get off a single effective shot. She singed the Fang’s hull here and there, but nothing compared to the absolute lazing of her hull that the Fang had scored on her. The corsair’s gunner A-I rated the Zhodani gunnery crew very low. Not quite a non-threat, but something on the green side of experience.

It was a welcomed advantage since the Stalker’s Fang was far from in perfect working order. The Zhodani outweighed her, but was a lumbering mess, which meant that the corsair’s comparative nimbleness and aerodynamic alacrity would come into play at some point. The patroller was also aerodynamic, but she was built primarily for straight line runs, not for the tight edge maneuvers that scout ships, fighters and ships of lighter tonnage sometimes found themselves using.

The Zhodani apparently had managed to get a missile turret jury rigged and fired off a few rounds in some vain hope to engage the corsair, but a combination of extreme distance and Gahv’s crew’s alertness, simply gunned them down with the port laser turret’s CIWS routine running. Flashes of crimson beams instantly lancing and detonating the comparatively slow moving projectiles at extreme range, was just another nail in the Zhodani captain’s proficiency.

Gahv had no emotional attachment to the situation. He didn’t take pleasure in downing a bunch of computer guided ordinance. If the Zhodani captain was that determined, then why not close? He didn’t because he knew what the Stalker’s Fang was capable of, and keeping nearly a continent’s distance between himself and the Vargr was the best safety margin yet.

“Captain, we’re coming very close to the ring system. At well over mach fifty. At this angle we’ll impact the atmosphere.” Veelash’s voice quavered.

Gahv didn’t immediately reply. He checked the fuel status. They were essentially running on fumes, or would be. “Adjust entry. Let us bounce on the atmosphere. One-hundred eighty inversion. We’ll grab what we can. Let the ionosphere slow us.”

Veelash gave the perfunctory “Aye-captain.” And rolled the ship so that the corsairs massive aft scoop would scrape the hydrogen thin ionosphere. The gas giant was now an infinite horizon across the bridge’s windows, again punctuating the routinely grim dark of the bridge with a dazzling array of sun reflected colors. Hours later and the pale gold and other colors had the bridge awash in a veritable reflective rainbow as the corsair’s fuel scoops allowed a razor thin amount of hydrogen to get funneled into her tanks.

But it worked. Ever so slowly the fuel gauge began to rise. It was like watching bread being baked in an oven. A cause for a subtle howl among the bridge crew, and for Gahv this was another salivatory moment as several more hours of this, and his tanks would be full once more.
New Chapter 9/16/2019
Veanch’s scans told a grim story of the Fang filling her tanks. Slowly, but the mass accumulated in her hull was undeniable, but the patroller’s breaches had only just been patched and sealed, making a pursuit that much more of a risk. Her wiring was still not fully repaired. Switches and lights were still non-operational, and by proxy whatever function they were attached to were also defunct. And yet the Stalker’s Fang loomed like a target for the taking, taunting Veanch’s ego.

Veanch sensed fear in his crew, and doubt as well, but it didn’t matter what inferiors felt or wanted in a combat situation. “Helm, flank thrust. Pursue and overtake. Standby on all weapons.”

They were still well over a thousand kilometers away, but Veanch simply couldn’t let the Stalker’s Fang fuel up and jump out again. Even if he didn’t have the ship to ship tactical adroitness needed to take on the Vargr captain, he still had the brute strength to overwhelm her, even if it meant sacrificing the rest of his crew.

* * *​

Tolchin wondered if it wasn’t some kind of test. Maybe the Zhoe’s had some knew ordinance and were giving it a try. Rumors of near-hyper-light missiles circled around intelligence circles, and occasionally made it to some military-fan publication, but whether it was magic swords in the age of chariots and horse or super-accurate guns during the industrial age, it was all the same—wishful thinking. Which meant the Zhoe-captain was just wasting ammunition with each volley of missiles from a turret that looked like it didn’t want the job of launching self-guided ordinance.

“The patroller’s closing sir. Increased output from her engines, and she’s vectoring in on an intercept.”

“Orders sir?” Weapons asked.

“All commands, sound general quarters. Energize lasers, stand by all tubes.”

“The Fang’s slowing, captain.” Ops announced. “She’s dipping further into the ionosphere. She’s hot, captain. Plasma’s bleeding off her hull.”

“By how much?” Tolchen could take an educated guess, but preferred hard facts.

“Slowing by approximately one-gee, captain. She’s maintaining thrust against atmospheric drag, but she is slowing.”

Tolchin clenched his jaw again.

“Captain, picking up radio traffic. It’s from the local navy, sir. Vargr. They’re hailing the Fang, querying her situation.” Faorsh, the Vargr communication’s officer or radio-ops announced.

Tolchin exercised his jaw bones some more before relaxing them to speak, “Is she replying?”

Faorsh turned a few dials, threw a few switches to fine tune his reception and grab a wider field of the spectrum, but it was only the local navy. Some well known Vargr dialect in one ear and the English translation via the ship’s software in another, it sounded like a combination of a desire to help with the implied threatening tone that the Fang had better land at a local base or be subject to boarding. Faorsh himself had to admit that that was typical Vargr military politics of the Extents—just another reason he was glad he was a full blooded Imperial citizen and not some flunky dog out of Wolf-Space.

“I’m not picking up a response from the Stalker’s Fang, captain. In fact she’s silent. Wait one, sir …” Faorsh continued his dial adjustment and switch flipping to grab another transmission, “The Zhodani is replying. They’re telling the local’s to back off in the name of the Consulate.”

Tolchin gave Faorsh a sidelong glance.

“They’re mentioning us, captain.” Faorsh announced.

“Affirmative captain.” Ops announced. “Picking up patroller scans. Nothing pinging off our hull yet, but they’re growing in intensity. They’ll burn through our ECM eventually, sir! Hang on…” the ops officer’s eyes went wide as his lips parted in startlement, “The Fang’s diving into the atmosphere!”

There it was. Tolchin had to decide, “Weapons, cut ECM. Helm, slow us, then aim us for the Fang. We’re going in.”

Tolchin had wondered where the locals were. The last thing he wanted to do was to tangle with more corsairs. Assuming the locals were using corsairs, which was anyone’s guess. A real threat would be a battlegroup of frigates. And given the mass difference they no doubt had high caliber sensors and interferometers which could pick up on minor jump disturbances if they spotted them this far out. Frigates or corsairs, it didn’t make any difference. If they were here, then it was bad news. If they were patrolling some other orbits or worlds, then all their threats aimed at the Stalker’s Fang were just empty bluster as it would be a week by microjump or full military thrust to get them here.

The three type-Ts flipped and burned fuel to slow to a relative speed that could match Gahv’s. Once done the three ship formation adjusted their attitude so that they were at a near perpendicular to the gas giant. Not an ideal orientation, but it would let them have a few shots on the Fang if she remained visible.

“Getting mixed returns, captain. Ammonia crystals and hyper-alloy.”

“Any trouble picking them up?”

“Negative captain, just a lot of extra information from the scout suite you ordered installed. The computer’s filtering most of it. But she is …. She’s sounding, captain. And that Zho’s going after her.”

“Navigator, update plot insertion. We’ve got no choice now. Full thrust.”

“Aye-aye, captain.”

Tolchin wanted to wait until the last minute to actually order his flotilla to go into the gas giant’s atmosphere. He was hoping the Zho would have acted sooner, but, like a bad B-grade space movie, their captain, whoever he was, had dragged out the event by not acting. Once bitten twice shy, only the Zho had been damaged before, several times, and yet their captain remained dauntless, even if he was on the cadet side of starship tactics.

* * *​

Veanch heard his comm’s officer call to him about radio traffic, but largely ignored it. Right now he was strictly focused on Gahv and the Fang. He heard mention of another Vargr formation, but even at full burn it would take them weeks or months distance depending to get here unless they did a micro-jump, at which point by the time they exited the whole thing would be over.

“Coms, call all senior officers to the bridge. Full kit.”

“Aye, sir.”

* * *​

Zhegh stared at the glow of the port engine. Parts that were supposed to be hot but otherwise keep their metallic sheen were glowing red and white. Zhegh poured on the ammonia crystals in the realm of beyond the hypersonic fluid gas dynamics, letting the gas giants supercooled ammonia blast away heat as fast as it was generated, hoping and praying and expecting the whole engine to disassociate into a plasma vapor at any moment. The super-mix of crystal lattice and unholy marriage of molecular chemistry with hyper-alloy material science somehow kept all the glowing parts moving and working in spite of heat that would turn the whole crew to cinders. It was the super cooled gas of the jovian atmosphere that kept the Stalker’s Fang’s engine in one piece as she speared through gas and gas like subzero crystals like a banshee on some distant world.

Eyes wide, ears perked, lupine whiskers sensing heat and movement, Zhegh and his engineer’s mates were spiritually welded to the engine and powerplant, waiting for the slightest mistake that would vaporize them should all go wrong.

But the glowing form of the ship’s hull as it screamed at deific speeds through the high altitude ammonia held together. Her tips and other leading edges were red hot, her nose was a glow in white, and her engine was as close to a functioning molten mass as any engine pushed to its limits in a laboratory, yet still engine and hull kept aloft.

Though, as Gahv anticipated and planned, the growing thickness of miniscule changes in height helped replenish mega-liters of plasma charred natural fuel burned in the induction chamber. Gahv was willing to push his ship to its absolute limits, and Zhegh was the genius who could make it happen.
There was no need to guess what was on Veanch’s mind. His elite borders had failed to seize the Fang. The half dozen that went forward had been ambushed, as had the six that had gone to engineering, only to find themselves blown out the airlock within a laser gun storm.

No, it had been pure luck. The Fang ran on luck. It was her stock and trade, her fuel, her spirit guide, her goddess. Whatever anyone wanted to call it, her captain was drenched in luck like mana from heaven. For Veanch it was the only way to explain how Veanch’s entire battery of lasers had missed or only scored passing or glancing hits on a corsair that spun wildly, delivered a counter punch, and then ran for the hills on one engine, leaving Veanch and his crew to lick their wounds a second time.

“Captain,” it was communications, the young female red-head with hair tied back, tried to raise her voice a second time to get her C O’s attention, “Captain.”

“Comms, I heard you the first time. What is it?”

“I’m picking up radio traffic from Deukh prime. They’re inquiring about the Stalker’s Fang, and are reporting four contacts in pursuit.”

That raised an eyebrow. Veanch briefly turned to her, “I assume we’re one of the contacts. Who are the other three?”

“They say their long range scans classify them as Imperial type-Ts.”

The raised eyebrow transformed into a scowl, “Ops, give me a full sweep, now!”

“Sorry sir, but we’re entering the ionosphere now. Ionization won’t make accurate scans possible for another five minutes, unless we slow.”

Veanch’s expression soured and hardened all at once until his face was a nerve wracking raging quiver.

“Captain,” it was weapons, “Showing the corsair has dropped speed considerably. She’s hypersonic but continuing to go deep into the atmosphere. Unless we slow we’ll over shoot her.

“How did she get that far down?!” Veanch demanded.

His navigator was the first to reply, “It looks like she simply cut thrust. I almost lost her on the screens, but she’s re-engaged her engine, and now kicking out nominal thrust.”

“How,” Veanch annunciated, “did she get that deep?”

“Sensor-scan shows her tanks are nearly full.”

And that explained all. The Fang’s captain let the atmosphere casually slow her and bring her further down into the atmosphere. Her tips and nose had glowed white hot, but her signature on the sensors was dimming as her hull temperature normalized with each passing minute.
Zhegh watched the lethal ethereal glow ebb from the port drive to return the engine back to its furtive metallic self, both power plant and engine both keeping their hyper-charged high-energy physics within. But Zhegh and his two ratings’ jobs were not finished.

Both power plant and engine had been pushed, shoved, crushed beyond theoretical limits, and had come back from the scientific and engineering equivalent of the physic’s netherworld, operating as they should be. And yet there were a few sounds, pops and snaps, that neither Zhegh nor his engineering crew recognized coming from both drive and power plant that neither Zhegh nor his ratings had ever heard before this. Zhegh growled. He would have to do a full teardown assuming they ever reached another starport again.

On the bridge blue skies and multicolored streams of cloud banks the size of entire worlds, snaked to a hazy infinite horizon. Were the situation not so dire it would be absolutely picturesque, gliding above rivers of thunderheads, each as a cotton ball clumped into streams of cotton balls that bent like rivers. A colossal sight of layers of gases far more vast than any habitable world could behold for any living creature. And even further below, in the dark and even near black recesses of the jovian atmosphere, flashes of brilliant white-blue. Arcs of pure electricity jumped from cloud to cloud. Arcs that were the size of entire cities or canyons found on rock worlds, leapt and flashes from cloud to cloud, briefly illuminating otherwise black shapes of more river like streams of atmosphere.

Gahv made a mental note, and continued to recline in his command chair as if all were normal. Communications had relayed that a three ship formation of Imperial type-Ts were also in pursuit. If this were so, then dealing with the Zhodani patroller wouldn’t be enough. The Stalker’s Fang, especially deep in a jovian atmosphere, didn’t have the might to take on four craft in her tonnage. No corsair did.

“Helm.” Gahv nearly growled, “rig for jump. Navigator, plot course for Saksoukuer.”

Saksouker was a world in constant turmoil. Divided by various powers engaged in petty ground wars, a chest full of treasure would buy repairs. Zhegh was right, he could buy a whole new fleet, but needed to get deeper into the Extents to a port that might prove friendlier, or at least less influenced by human treachery to purchase a new starship. Here he was still close to the hunting grounds to contract a yard to construct a new vessel. Yet some form of human reprisal would be forthcoming. A consulate vessel and three Imperial hunters were proof of that. Gahv needed to get into the interstellar geo-political haze of the deep Extents, where none but the most crazed humans would dare follow.

Veelash wasn’t sure if he should carry out the order. Jumping this close to a world, and not just a planet, but a gas giant with many times the gravitational pull of a normal terrestrial world, could spell disaster. As he was about to turn his head to address his commanding officer…

“Captain! Two missiles approaching from astern! Closing fast.”

Gahv audibly growled, “Helmsman, navigator, carry out my orders!”

Veelash looked over at the navigator whose cowed ears and dropping tail told all he needed to. But Veelash’s ears didn’t fold back in subdued obedience, instead, hidden as both were behind the captain’s control console, he eyed the navigator, and then patted his sidearm while seeming to carry out Gahv’s orders. The navigator’s ears perked as he did the same. Weapons, communications, the message was spread. Death under the cruelty of Gahv the tactical genius and bringer yet keeper of wealth, or freedom. Which would it be?

“Course plotted, captain.”

“Rig for jump and engage when ready.”

But the ship didn’t respond.

Gahv’s words were a restrained growl, “What is happening? Why aren’t we jumping?”

The explanation came over the ship’s intercom system, “Captain, engineering.” It was Zhegh, “the strain of the breaking and refueling maneuver has thrown a bone into the power plant. I got my crew working on her, but something’s nixed her nominal power output. I can keep us flying, you’ve got weapons if you want them, lights, life support, but getting enough power to jump is going to be a while.”

“Why is there not enough power to jump?” Gahv demanded.

“Both drive and powerplant superheated. I’ve got power shortcircuiting across coils that normally don’t talk to one another. We’ve got nominal power for now, but until I can get the coils isolated again for proper induction, jump is going to have to wait. Zheega and Shen are working on it now.”

“What if we divert all power to jump?”

“Even if we threw in life support, I couldn’t jump us out of here. Not for ten or twenty minutes at least. It’s not an irreparable situation, captain. It’s just going to take time. Trying to force a jump now would only sap our power, and leave us without grav flight against the planet.”

Gahv cut the channel, “Helm, plot an intercept for the patroller. Weapons, call the gunnery crews, standby all weapons.” Any other Vargr captain would have roared in defiance, bellowing out orders to cower his crew and establish dominance. “Rig for combat.”

Gahv didn’t need to. That, and he quite literally smelled a mixture of fear and confidence in his crew. The scent of betrayal.

“And if anyone reaches for their weapon, I’ll kill them here and now.” Gahv added without so much as an inflection of pity or any other emotion.

Suddenly the entire bridge scent changed, and ears were lowered. The Stalker’s Fang went perpendicular to the jovian’s cloud banks, and the whole visage of clouds slowly scrolled by the binary windows as shadows shifted across the bridge’s interior.

Within moments every crewman had their helmet on, and the Corsair was horizontal again, only this time racing for the Consulate Patroller.

The navigator glanced at Veelash through his helmet, and again Veelash patted his sidearm. Again, word was spread, but this time over the vacc suit’s private channel.

Outside the Stalker’s Fang streaked contrails as she thundered on one engine to engage the enemy.
Tolchin’s patrol cruisers made a continent wide lazy high speed loop through the stratosphere. Up here oxygen and nitrogen mixed as on any other world, giving a kind of normalcy to the action as the sun blazed away through the translucent canopy of all three ships with the occasional shade of a wispy feathery cloud giving feeble shade. An almost summer like scene, even though everyone was suited up and the interior was devoid of any breathable atmosphere.

Re-entry had been the normal superheated plasma glow affair, but was not fraught with any of the ships running on a single engine like the Stalker’s Fang. Equal in fire power and performance, a single type-T, under a competent commander, was a match for the best corsair Vargr engineering could create.

The Stalker’s Fang had been forced to refuel, but she couldn’t escape on one engine, meaning that she should have jumped by now, even if it meant jumping out into deep interstellar black. But she hadn’t. Tolchin mulled it over in his mind as he watched the multicolored cloud banks scroll across his view.

Had he been wrong about Gahv? No. They why was he turning to fight? … unless … unless he had no choice. But if that were the case, then that meant there was something wrong with the Stalker’s Fang.

“She can’t jump. Something’s happened to her jump drive. She’s cornered and can’t back out, that’s why she’s turning to fight that patroller!” The words came out like a fresh thought translated into the clearest Galanglic Tolchin could think of. His audible conclusion was heard over the tactical channel, forcing a few heads to turn.

“She’s on one engine. She must have pushed her drive and power plant to the edge to dive this deep to grab more juice, and she’s over taxed it so that they don’t have enough power to jump out.” Tolchin continued. “Helm, what’s she doing now?”

Allen glanced at the target data, “She slowed to subsonic, but is now supersonic again, captain.”

“Ops, what’s her output?”

“Nominal, captain, for a ship on one engine. Her actual output is within specs, but not enough to push her into jump space, as you said, sir.”

Tolchin had ordered his Ops officer to go active on her. There was no point in trying to conceal their presence any longer.

“Helm, keep us abeam of him.”

A targeting reticle appeared on everyone’s station, even on the canopy above their heads. The computer designated it ‘Varg-1’. It was followed by another contact, again designated ‘Psi-1’. Both Vargr and Zhodani on an intercept course.

Communications, “Captain, birds one and two want to know if you want them to go high-lo.”

“Negative. Tell them they can break formation at any time, but not to fire until I give the go ahead.”

“Aye captain.”

Maintaining a diamond three was irrelevant now. And if they were going to engage in old fashioned ACM, then everyone needed elbow room, and big-sky theory had no truer meaning than within a gas giant’s atmosphere.

Outside Tolchin’s type-T maintained it’s singular left hand turn while his two other birds spread out to put some distance between one another.

Back on the bridge Tolchin watched the range numbers whir down to something his mind could imagine. Distance in mega-kilometers or more meant orbital ranges between planets, and that simply didn’t translate to his military mind on a tactical level. Here, now, the ranges were closing, and his starship captain’s instincts were getting a sense of where and how far the Stalker’s Fang and her Patroller pursuer were.

After some time the Fang was no longer an invisible contact, but now a faint dot against a massive nitrogen blue atmosphere, again with streaks of titanic clouds above and below.

Weapons; “She’s within firing range, captain.”

“Hold your fire. We need to see what our Zhodani friend does.”

“Sir, they’ve already exchanged fire.”

“Weapons, stow your opinion. Maintain lock.”

“Aye sir.”

Tolchin didn’t want to act too rashly. One misfire hitting that Zho patroller could mean political disaster. His and the ship’s automated logs would be subject to public scrutiny, and that’s when … he thought for a moment, and again recalled his Scottish friend’s explicative phrasing, “the haggis is in the fire for sure!”

Tolchin and his two commands saw Psi-1 and Varg-1 clearly, but he wanted visual confirmation before trusting the batch of microcircuits stuffed in each ship that constituted the fleet AI. AI had botched things before, miscalculated Gahv’s behavior several times over. He wouldn’t allow another screw up. Not here. Not now.

“I got a visual, captain.” Ops announced.

“Throw it up on the screen.” Tolchin fired off.

Both ships appeared on the canopy in two windows. From the fore appeared the Zhodani, her antiquated frame heralding from the days of when supersonic flight was a novelty, speared through clouds of a variety of colors. From astern the corsair’s single white hot engine exhaust pushed her yellow black serrated form through clear nitrogen skies. The range between the two narrowed until flashes of crimson red were exchanged between the two.

They flashed by one another at blinding speeds, their weapons recycling, the Zhodani kicking out two missiles, the Vargr thrusting out six before nosing downwards and heading for the deck—if there ever was a solid surface on a gas giant.

Tolchin nodded to himself, at first gently, then vigooursly—as if coming to some sudden realization, “Open fire!”
The bridge of the Stalker’s Fang went bright with emergency indicators and flashing lights coupled with klaxons sounding over the ship’s intercom channel tied into the vaccsuits private communications.

The port missile turret had been hit, the starboard laser turret sheered off, engineering had taken several hits, several streaks of fine mist streaked from lacerations on her fuel tanks, her port wing had been cut off, hits to her hold, living spaces and crew quarters, and now even her port drive was sputtering again, only this time it wasn’t because of magnetic laced fuel, but a laser slash across her port side drive. Yet still she continued to function, albeit like a dying swan that she had become.

Gahv growled for the crew to regain control of the ship, and for somehow to instantly fix everything. That’s when a blue glow pulsated behind his command chair at the armored access door. Four figures materialized out of the globular pulsating blue, assault laser rifles held high by black clam-shelled helmeted armored figures.

Gahv unstrapped himself from his command chair, drew his revolver, and emptied the entire cylinder into the materializing mass.

The four troopers, Veanch and his four officer boarding party immediately returned fire, and suddenly the bridge was alit with laser fire from all angles as Gahv’s bridge crew returned fire in kind. Only this time, for whatever reason, the armor for this party of Zhodani, was more resilient. Veelash and the navigator took cover, while weapons and communications hunkered behind their chairs exchanging shots.

Veanch blasted one Vargr crewman, the ops officer, with a psi blast. The young Vargr grabbed his helmet and careened backwards in a hail of Zhodani laser fire. It gave Veanch the opportunity he needed to go forward and approach the command console, only to be met by Gahv.

Growling through his helmet Gahv grabbed the Zhodani by the throat. Veanch’s eyes went wide as he was caught unawares by the largest Vargr he had ever seen. Even through his reinforced swivel seal of the neck portion of his armor, he could feel the strength of this Vargr trying to crush his throat as his fangs dripped with saliva.

Something hit the Corsair again, and this time her flight had been turned into a tumble as she mercilessly plummeted through layers of colored clouds, and into the deep dark near black recesses of carbon stained clouds, with electricity flashing and arcing across the skies. The Fang’s bridge was blindingly strobed by the planet’s natural electrical discharges and light show therefrom.

Veelash grabbed Kael’s ACR, popped up, and sprayed the Zhodani’s position with a full magazine of HEAP rounds, that punched through plastic control consoles coverings and seated into starship bulkhead. No sound came from the weapon, but her flash rivaled that of the lightning storm outside.

For that moment the bridge of the Stalker’s Fang was a veritable underworld for the dead as flashes from weapons and nature itself punctuated the near black. Zhodani trying to take control of the bridge on one side, Vargr pack mentality defying the Zhoes on the other. All the while the ship continued to fall into the black abyss of no return, pressure piling up against her hull with each passing minute.
Tolchin watched the Vargr corsair Stalker’s Fang slowly meld and finally vanish into the darker recesses of the gas giant’s atmosphere, silhouetted briefly by flashes of lightening, until even then the ship could no longer be seen. One flash looked like another, and against the perpetual raging storm of a jovian world, Tolchin couldn’t imagine anything surviving down there for any appreciable amount of time.

All the while the Patroller continued to orbit the area, keeping her active fire control on the Imperial three, but otherwise not firing a shot. Until finally, after some time, she appeared to give up hope and leave. It wasn’t until she was out of sight, though not out of range, that Tolchin secured his flotilla from general quarters.

Even though they were still encapsulated within the hull of a type-T patrol cruiser, the ship’s air, for whatever strange psychological reason, seemed fresher than the air recirculated by the vacc suits. It wasn’t logical, but it was often true.

“Ops, are you getting anything?”

The young officer methodically worked his controls like a surgeon with gentle hands. He shook his head while staring at the screen. “No returns, no passive sensor data, captain. If they’re down there, I can’t pick them up.”

Tolchin sat there like a slayer of the proverbial dragon, unsure of whether the creature he had pushed over the cliff in some allegorical distant mountain range had met its fate on the rocks below, or had somehow managed to flee in some moment of animalistic instinctive genius. In the end all he could do was put “Lost contact” followed by the ship’s time.

“Comms, call back birds two and three. Have them form up on my wing. Then instruct them that we’re heading for home. Navigator, set course for Efate once we’re out of atmosphere.”

“Aye sir.”

* * *​

Haswell flipped through Tolchin’s report as Tolchin sat on the other side of the desk, none the worse for wear. Haswell then casually leaned back in his chair and flipped through the report to the final page, then to the annex to have a glance at the sensor data. He stoically sighed as he read the numbers.

“Fleet Captain, I see you picked up psi-energy impulses. An odd number of them. Any idea of who they were or what happened to them?”

Tolchin wasn’t sure how to answer, “The best we could discern was that the patroller was carrying a squad of special commandos. We didn’t know their actual numbers, but it appears the Fang was boarded twice by that contingent. That’s our best guess, sir.”


“The best we were able to conclude from sensor data, sir.”

Haswell didn’t immediately respond, sighed, put down the report on his desk, and let his chair squeak again he shifted positions. “Any ‘guesses’ as to what happened to the Fang, commodore?”

Another friendly jab, which to Tolchin signified that the mission had been accomplished, and that Haswell wanted his opinion, no matter how bizarre it was.

“I don’t know, commissioner. For all we know she was fried by one of the gas giant’s electrical storms. She may have regained power, she may not have. She was simply too deep for us to follow and keep track of. The patroller lingered in the area for some time after the Fang fell into the gas giant’s deeper altitudes, but nothing definite.”

Haswell nodded. “Do you think the Stalker’s Fang and captain Gahv have been finally dealt with?”

Tolchin clenched his jaw, then relaxed it as he took the liberty of leaning back in Haswell’s guests’ chair. “I think the best I can say is that, for now, she’s been dealt with.”

“Do I detect a spiritual aspect to your report, commodore? You’re not one for believing in ghosts, are you?”

Tolchin waved off his friend. Unlike their previous meeting some months back, this was a private affair, and not a public bull session with other commanders present, “That’s got nothing to do with it, commissioner. It’s just that it wouldn’t surprise me if Captain Gahv had found a way out. I don’t know what or how, but if he somehow managed to escape that, then it wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Do you think he managed to get his power plant back in order, and somehow managed to jump out?”

Tolchin was silent, but in the end he shook his head. “It would seem unlikely, sir.”

“Then the matter is closed.” Haswell settled. “I’m recommending that you and your squadron get a furlough. That’ll give the techs time to give your ships a tear down and rebuild while you go run half naked on some sandy shore somewhere. All right?”

Tolchin half laughed. “All right, commissioner. Just one favor.”

“A favor? That depends on what it is?” Haswell half grinned.

“Don’t’ call me commodore in front of the other C Os.”

Haswell smiled, “Go grab a Pinacolata, and some female companionship … fleet captain.”

Tolchin stood up, saluted, “Yes sir.”, spun while grabbing the door to leave, leaving Haswell once again to enjoy Efate’s air traffic against a blazing orange setting sun.

Kael leaned forward on a wooden fence post of some far flung world in the Extents. Far from Zhodani or Imperial space, he thought about that moment he woke on some desert world with a pile of treasure next to his cold berth, which had been deactivated and opened.

It was only now, now that he saw his wife and his three pups playing on some grass covered knoll with some of the fluffy live stock they rose, that it settled in. All those ships he had raided under the command of Gahv. All those lives they had ended. All those families who had lost loved ones. All those family fortunes and homes they had pillaged and destroyed, putting to the torch or to the laser, and summarily destroyed or otherwise razed, and yet here he was enjoying the good life.

Was that fair? Was that right? Was that justice? Kael already knew the answers to those questions, and others of a political science or philosophical bent. And yet here he was under summer skies with a family to enjoy. He now understood how the humans continued to maintain a social advantage, and why so many Vargr tended towards Imperial space. The tradition, the safety, the stability, a far cry from the perpetual political flux that was Vargr politics.

What had become of Ghav? Zhegh? Veelash and all the rest? He didn’t know. But copies of the ship’s automatic logs had been left in his care, and what a tale they told. He still couldn’t believe it, nor the fact that he somehow managed to make it here, alive, breathing, and thriving.

From a high lord which he vowed to serve with his life, to the life of a free booting of what humans called “a pirate”, to the life of a gentleman farmer and herder. Maybe he would write about those exploits someday. Someday. Someday he would pen the chronicles of his life aboard the corsair, and call it “The Legend of the Stalker’s Fang.”
Many apologies, I just read through the first couple of chapters, and found a number of errors. I'll try to clean them up later on.

Thanks for being tolerant and patient with this fan fiction author.