With my attention focused on the main screens, my eyes glued to the free plasma levels, I barely heard the door to the command deck slide open. Indeed, I might not have heard it, even if I hadn’t been distracted. Chief Engineer Hansen had just been through last week with a can of atomized graphite, complaining about “the infernal squeaking every time it opens.”
Instead, I kept every bit of attention focused on the screens, watching the readouts. All I had to do was make sure I didn’t miss seeing-
There! Rad-surge from one of the red-hulled ships, off our starboard Axis-south bow! “Brace!” I shouted, silently thanking Hansen for his stubborn insistence on doubling up our plasma generators. I threw a switch and boosted the shields on that side of the *Nova Surfer*, just in time to deflect the incoming energy barrage.
“Mister LaGrange! Excuse me!”
“It’s Captain,” I snapped, even as I turned to see who was addressing me. My eyes landed on the empty space in front of the door – and then dropped down, landing on the diminutive form. “And who are you?”
I heard the clinking of weaponry from my other officers at those words. The instruments hadn’t registered any enemy boarding actions, but if a band of pirates managed to sneak aboard…
The tiny little man, not quite five feet tall, shrank back as half a dozen energy pistols, and Lieutenant Sartan’s ridiculously oversized Matter Annihilator, pointed towards his face. “Er,” he managed, his face draining of color. He looked on the verge of fainting.
I checked my instruments, making sure that we weren’t in imminent danger of breeching, and then groaned as my memory finally placed the face. “Ah, shit. Kalestra, can you take the helm?”
The green-and-purple navigator snapped two tentacles into a braid, her version of a salute. I stood up, and she reached out, wrapping her six main manipulating tentacles around the controls. I stood up and turned back to the little man, who looked in serious danger of collapsing into a boneless heap.
“Mister Pessimal,” I said, trying to keep my voice soft and unthreatening. “I… wasn’t expecting your intrusion.”
There. That was a decent way of phrasing that I’d totally forgotten that the accountant was on board. Stupid Galactic Federation jobs, insisting that I bring along a bean-counter, as if I only accepted the job with the purpose of ripping off the Federation.
“My intrusion?” the tiny little man sputtered, after a few seconds of blankly flapping his mouth. “Captain! Forgive my language, but what exactly is happening?”
“That’s language?” muttered Lieutenant Sartan, his tusks not quite hiding his sneer. “Fuckin’ never been in a hrr bar in his life?”
I shot a quick glare over at Sartan. “Apologies, Mr. Pessimal,” I said to the accountant. “It seems that the Federation ships we’ve been hired to escort have come under attack, and we’re moving to their defense.”
“Under attack?” The man stared wildly back up at me. “We need to get away! Why aren’t we getting away?”
“Because if we-” I began, but Kalestra cut in.
“More shots from underneath, Captain!” she hollered. “They’re trying to catch us in a cross-fire, up and left-crossed!”
“Swing right and axis-down!” I commanded, placing the angles in my mental map of the conflict. It was one of the toughest skills for new captains to learn, managing positions on a three-dimensional maneuvering space. But a good captain knew how to use it to his advantage.
“What is HAPPENING!?” screamed out Mr. Pessimal as the ship flexed from sudden engine burn as we threw ourselves in the indicated direction.
I reached out to catch the little man and keep him from getting knocked off his feet. “The pirates are focusing on us, trying to pin us down,” I explained as the stars swam in the front monitors. “But we’re pulling between them, keeping them from shooting for fear of hitting their comrades.”
“I, but, er,” sputtered Mr. Pessimal.
Let him sputter. “Sartan!” I snapped. “Why aren’t we shooting back?”
The lieutenant snarled, but I knew that it was mostly due to his permanently ferocious expression. “We had most of the energy output devoted to the plasma generators, Hrr Captain.”
“Well, we’re out of the way now,” I said. “Let’s give these pirates something they weren’t expecting.”
That ferocious tusked grin grew wider. “Right away, Hrr Captain.” He dropped his hands to the controls, taloned fingers flying over holographic menus as he targeted weak points on the attacking ships.
“ESCAPE!” screamed Mr. Pessimal.
I sighed, fighting the urge to roll my eyes. “Mr. Pessimal,” I said in my calmest voice, dropping a hand onto his shoulder. “We were hired to escort Senator Inchelfoam to the Council meeting. He’s in a typical peacetime ship, which cannot outrun these pirates. If we run, we’ll be abandoning a Federation Senator.” I tried to give the little man a reassuring smile. “This is what we were hired to do, Mr. Pessimal.”
The man didn’t look comforted. “What if they shoot at us?” he asked fearfully.
“We have shields and a Captain with some of the best battle scores in the Academy,” Kalestra said, not taking her eyes off the controls. “We’ll avoid them, and shoot back.”
“Academy?” Pessimal’s eyes shifted back to me, and I tried to hide my wince. “Your records didn’t state that you were Academy-trained.”
I wished that Kalestra hadn’t mentioned that particular stat about me. “Yeah, well, I didn’t graduate. They scrubbed my records.”
“You dropped out?” Pessimal’s face went white again. “No, they wouldn’t scrub it for that. You were expelled??”
Thankfully, Sartan opened fire before I had to provide an answer. The Barangian roared out his battle cry as he fired off salvos. On the screens, I saw two of the attacking ships collapse out of existence, the piercing high-fluc rad-beams causing cataclysmic engine meltdown. Kalestra pulled us around, keeping us between the enemy ships as they tried to find a clear shot. Sartan roared again, clearly thrilled to be in a target rich environment.
“Mr. Pessimal, perhaps you should just take a seat,” I suggested, using my hand on the little accountant to guide him towards a bench towards the rear of the command deck. “Let us handle this.”
The man shook his head, muttering. “Get an office job, they told me,” he whispered. “It will be calm, boring. Put in your forty years, and you can retire.”
“And it will be boring once again, very soon,” I said, but he wasn’t listening.
“Space pirates!” He dropped his head to his hands, shaking. “They didn’t say anything about dealing with space pirates!”
I glanced at him for another moment, but the ongoing battle needed my attention. I paged Dr. Tam to the command deck. Maybe the doctor would be able to calm down our bean-counter.
And then, putting Mr. Pessimal out of my mind, I focused on the battle. We had the pirates on the defensive, but they still had numbers and firepower. On paper, they had all the advantages – except skill.
And besides, if we could capture a few of the ships, we might turn some extra profit on this less-dull-than-expected escort mission.
“Crippling shots, Mr. Sartan,” I said, resuming control from Kalestra. “Let’s earn some bonus pay, shall we?”