The ship dropped out of hyperspace on the edge of the Sylrene nebula. Sixteen hadn’t wanted to push it. He’d boasted to the crew heartily over dinner that it was undetectable by the Coalition blockade, but he hadn’t answered her when she’d asked if he had any proof of that.
Two million kilometres away, the great ring of ships was barely a radar glimmer in Tobias’s display. He gestured in the air, and the stars stopped their crawl past the viewer.
Eldred was holding Bril again. The small bridge was packed, the entire crew up here to watch Sixteen’s magic. Or meet their end the other way. She was in a swivel chair at the rear of the bridge, watching the stars over Tobias’s shoulder. Occasionally Shen would pace across her view like some malevolent cloud, muttering to himself.
“Will you sit down?” Decker barked after a while of this. He was sprawled across the central chair, foot restlessly taping over the arm. Sixteen stood at his shoulder, motionless and watchful. The back of his head twitched occasionally, like he was nodding to himself.
Shen glared at Decker and shot him the finger, but he marched across the bridge and slumped into a seat adjacent to Eldred’s. He pulled up a schematic on his wrist terminal as the ship’s lighting dimmed to an emergency setting. Soft green light glowed faintly through the bridge, exposing shadow and hiding faces. The air smelled tense and hot, like they were waiting for the birth of something ugly.
“Display please, Mr Jensen.” Sixteen whispered. So softly that if there had been any background hum, it would have been lost. But the ship was dead and silent around them, the only sounds their laboured breathing and Bril’s soft purring vibrating her thighs. Sixteen was back in his tux, with the addition of an ancient duelling sword in a scabbard on his hip. It glittered in the jade light like the tooth of a demon.
Eldred had never seen a Trogg ship up close. Typically, if she saw one of their drive signatures, she was moving as rapidly as possible in the other direction. The Trogg were the unofficial warrior arm of the Coalition. One of the founding species, along with Greater Humanity, Herminoids and the mercurial Flendarians. Herminoid strategy might have won the war with the Slir, and humanity the cannon fodder that enabled the plans to succeed, but it was the Trogg who held the line long enough to give them that chance. And it wasn’t hard to see why, as the pair of ships filled the curved viewscreen.
“Big fuckers.” Tobias said.
Minor understatement sent Bril.
The pair of dreadnoughts stood out like slabs of carved ice against the backdrop of the Sylrene nebula, an expanse of rust-coloured cloud and gas two hundred light years across. It was dotted with sparse patches of green, as if space was rusting and rotting at the same time. The image made her shiver.
Each Trogg ship was roughly four kilometres long, a fat drive section tapering gradually to a wicked curved point, like a bird’s beak. The brilliant white paintjobs glittered in the dark like bone, spoiled by dark spots standing out like bristles. Recessed torpedo bays, stubs of hull-mounted railguns, and the long, reflective strips which concealed four particle cannons, each one longer than Sixteen’s vessel.
They hung in space like the giant tusks of some monstrous pachyderm, one with a belly open to space, spilling out smaller ships like a spray of parasites. Tributary vessels, one-man fighters, human destroyers and the occasional Flendarian bio-ship, tendrils glinting darkly, swam in the sea surrounding the monsters.
“We can take them” muttered Shen. Eldred heard Bril roll his eyes.
“We won’t need to.” Said Sixteen. But was she imagining a hint of panic in his tone? She hadn’t seen the blockade in a good five years, when she’d skirted it with Bril as they’d lain low from a deal he’d been rumbled on. It made sense. No-one came within ten light years of the quarantine zone if they could help it. They’d muted the alarms on day two, blaring constantly as multiple ships target-locked them to remind them of their place.
“Subroutine 276.4 please, Mr Jensen.” Sixteen said, and Eldred heard his knuckles sink into the back of Decker’s chair.
“Yes. Uh. Do that.” Decker spluttered. Eldred grinned to herself.
The ship lurched under her feet, and for a moment she was weightless. The lights dimmed further, until she could barely see the viewscreen shimmer and clear, as if rubbed over with a giant eraser. It was now the same opaque grey steel as the deck.
Won’t we need to see where we’re going? She shot at Bril, nestling down into her lap, as if seating himself for a show. His musk was weaker today, but he still smelt of damp earth and horny male.
It’s some pretty advanced stealth tech. Bril replied. 93 percent probability the toads won’t notice a thing. He sounded smug, as if he’d invented it.
“93?” Eldred hissed aloud. “What if-“
It’s simple really. Bril continued. Light is refracted around the-
They might refract you, when I throw you out the fucking airlock.
They won’t see us, in plain moron. Bril sent. She squeezed him and received a squeal.
You seem very nonchalant about all this.
Curious. Bril corrected. These people have tech light years beyond us. When I bring this back, it’ll- He seemed to stop, as if he’d said too much.
Bring it back to that no-balled craven, I believe I heard you refer to him as? Eldred enjoyed gloating. It helped with the fear. There was the barest perception of motion in the decking. The crew were silent around her, but she could hear Decker chewing his nails, the soft clicks like gunshots in the dark. Where were they? Had they reached the blockade already? Maybe they were within centimetres of one of the hulls of those behemoths, and the faintest sneeze would see the Trogg blow them to atoms. She realised she was holding her breath.
The Premier. Bril made sure to inject the title of the preeminent Herminoid leader with as much sarcasm as text allowed, is a- But Eldred never found out what he was.
“We’re clear.” Tobias said, with obvious relief. He even gave a faint laugh, but it was shaky.
“Excellent.” Smiled Sixteen, as the bridge lighting dialled back up to full, and Shen rose from his seat with a sticky sound.
Tobias threw up a holo-screen of the blockade, receding now behind them, the Trogg ships already the size of her fingernail.