Blue Burn by M.R. Forbes
“Dropping out of hyperspace in one minute,” Alter announced through Head Case’s shipwide comms.
“Everybody buckle up,” I added, making sure the rest of the crew would be prepared for our loss of FTL travel.
The announcement was mostly for the sake of Quasar and Druck. Keep, Matt and Gia were already locked in on the sofa behind the pilot station, keeping an eye on space through the forward viewport and the sensor grid that would fill in once space flattened out around us. I didn’t know where the former Royal Marine and the soldier of fortune were on the ship at the moment. Hopefully, if they were still in bed, the announcement would get them up and moving to the lounge or joining us on the flight deck where they could strap into the extra jump seats near the back.
Not that I wanted re-entry to be that frantic. In fact, Alter had set coordinates for nearly six hours away from the planet Atlas’ typical drop zone to avoid the potential for immediate confrontation. Nobody on board had forgotten that we were still fugitives wanted by the Royal Guard, our ship an easily identifiable target at close range. Unlike on Furion, we wouldn’t be able to bribe Atlas Orbital Control to mix up identifiers and make it easier to avoid detection. There was a reason we had a new addition to the family. A smaller space hopper just big enough to carry our crew and make hyperspace jumps to adjacent systems and just small enough to fit inside the hangar. Of course, Druck had been upset when we’d chosen to make that purchase instead of picking up the Avenger on our way to the Hegemony homeworld, but he didn’t have much of a leg to stand on after I told him he was free to go when we landed on Jafar to pick up the space hopper. He chose to stick around. He had said escaped convicts needed to stick together.
Other than that, the trip had been mostly uneventful. The highlight for me at least was that I had managed to go three days between bouts of nausea and dizziness, though I’d also developed a light cough I knew was going to continue to get worse. The symptoms were an internal timer, counting down to the moment I wouldn’t be part of this fight anymore. With Atlas nearly in sight, I was hopeful we could find a way to pass the responsibility for Sedaya’s sigiltech-focused scheming to the Empress. Maybe she would even pardon us for giving her the heads-up. Either way, our part in the story would be finished and I could turn my concentration to finding a cure for my cancer, whether that came from rediscovering the sigil carved on the inside of Keep’s skull, locating another skilled surgeon who might be able to clean it out, or finding some other means to save my own life.
Barring that, I wanted to see as much of the Spiral as possible, especially the most exotic planets. I wanted to swim in unbelievable oceans, take in more alien landscapes, meet more exotic intelligent races. For all I had been through, the violence, trouble, and fear since Keep had sent me that first text message, was equally met with excitement, awe, and friendship that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I was grateful for the opportunity to be exactly where I was, no matter what happened in the end.
That didn’t mean I wanted the end to come soon, but I had made peace with the idea that it might. Once we met with the Empress, I could at least rest easy knowing Matt and the others would be safe.
“Here we go,” Alter said, flipping the toggle on the co-pilot console to bring us out of hyperspace. The darkness surrounding us faded as starlight was able to catch up to us once more, becoming brighter as the hyperspace field dissipated. From six hours away, Atlas was about the size of a pea. Even from this distance, I could make out the shades of blue, green, white, and silver that announced it as a highly-populated Earthlike world.
“So far so good,” Matt said. “It’s always nice not to be attacked the moment we come out of hyperspace.”
“When have we ever been attacked the moment we come out of hyperspace?” Keep asked. “That’s not a thing that happens.”
“So far,” Matt added. “Which is still nice. And if it couldn’t happen, then why do we need to be buckled up?”
“You never know when you’ll drop into an asteroid field or something,” Keep said. “Or wind up in a crowded drop zone and need to make emergency maneuvers.”
“That’s not a thing that happens either,” Matt countered.
“It’s a lot more likely to happen than being attacked right away. It’s not like a ship can target the exact position where you’re going to appear.”
“I’d be a lot more worried about being attacked.”
“Then you’d be worrying about the wrong thing, Sherlock.”
“Can you guys, I don’t know, give it a rest?” I asked, glancing back at them over my shoulder. “It’s better to be prepared for any situation than to be caught with our pants down.”
“Speaking of which,” Alter said, motioning to the sensor grid as it started populating.
“What the hell?” I said, staring at it.
I expected the grid to be active. As the seat of the Hegemony government and the Empress, Atlas was the most trafficked planet in the Spiral. There were always hundreds of ships orbiting the planet or in transit to and from the atmosphere.
I didn’t expect a handful of them to be headed right for us, including a Royal Sentry.
“You were just saying?” Matt quipped, no doubt looking at Keep.
“That’s impossible,” Keep replied. “They couldn’t know we would come out of hyperspace right here, right now.”
“Yet here we are.”
We were six hours out from Atlas. The ships coming toward us were only thirty minutes away, which meant they would have had to leave the planet’s orbit some time ago to be where they were now.
“Keep’s right,” I said. “This doesn’t make sense. But sense or not, that flotilla is coming our way.”
The glow of the ships’ main thrusters became visible through the forward viewport, with dark centers that would form into the starships themselves once the range between us closed a bit more.
“Maybe we should get out of here,” Matt suggested. “Come back later.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” I agreed. “Alter, can you enter coordinates? Not too far, but far enough we can slip away without a trace.”
“On it,” she replied.
“They’re firing,” Keep said, thrusting a finger at the sensor grid as the system picked up a handful of torpedoes, outlining them in red.
“Shit!” I snapped. “Get ready for—”
“Ben, wait,” Alter said. “They aren’t targeting us.”
Looking at the sensor grid again, I didn’t see another target. Eight large ships were headed in our direction, their distances staggered but all within an AU of one another. The Royal Sentry near the center of the group had fired the torpedoes, which shot past the lead ship, continuing forward into the space between us and them. If the torpedoes were locked onto us, the PSC would be blasting my ears with frenzied warnings. So she wasn’t wrong. We weren’t the targets.
But if not us…?
“Who are they firing at?” I asked, confused.
“Unclear,” she replied.
“Ben, I think I’ve got something,” Gia said. “I’m passing the connection.”
The center console slab display changed, offering a connection to a wideband audio feed as her top-of-the-line neural link continued to outpace our seventy-year-old comms array. I reached down to the slab and tapped the button to tune in to the broadcast.
“…all armed vessels. Attention all armed vessels. This is a Blue Burn. This is a Blue Burn. Unidentified starship identifier 74K3NP21NC3 has been designated as an L6VOI. A twenty million credit bounty has been issued for the disablement or capture of the ship. Again, unidentified starship identifier 74K3NP21NC3 has been designated as an L6VOI. A twenty million electro bounty has been issued for the disablement or capture of the ship.”
The feed went silent for a few seconds before repeating.
“Blue Burn? L6VOI?” Matt asked. If he hadn’t, I would have.
“Level Six Vessel of Interest,” Alter replied. “A fugitive, like us. Blue Burn is a special status given to a vessel the Royal Guard wants to get a hold of very, very badly. It suspends certain rules and regulations with relation to private ships engaging targets within range of an inhabited planet and/or a Royal Sentry. Even your escape from Persiphon didn’t rate a Blue Burn.”
“What do they want it for?” I questioned.
“There’s no way to know. In most cases, the Royal Guard will never say. It’s enough to know that the ship is wanted, and for twenty million electro. That’s a tremendous bounty.”
“It sure is,” Keep said. “Maybe we should try to nab it ourselves.”
“Do you think that’s where the torpedoes are going?”
“Without a doubt.”
“But there isn’t a ship with that identifier on our grid.”
“If it’s small and fast enough, it won’t show up on the grid until it’s within a few thousand kilometers. But we can estimate its position once those torpedoes detonate.”
“The message just said disablement or capture. Won’t a torpedo blow the VOI to smithereens?”
“They were fired from the Royal Sentry. They’re likely disruptor warheads, not explosive.”
The thruster glow of the torpedoes came into distant view, all of them moving along the same course. They shifted vectors, spreading apart as they turned to follow the unseen ship, which was obviously fleeing.
“Where’s the blueburn’s thruster flare?” I asked. If I could see the glow from the torpedoes, there was no reason not to see the light from the fugitive vessel.
“It may be shrouded,” Keep replied. “The ship may have sensor blocking surfaces as well.”
“You mean it’s stealth?”
“Bingo. Very illegal, but I imagine whoever’s flying it doesn’t care. Ballsy to operate a ship like that. Steel ballsy to bring it to Atlas, whatever they used it for. Badabing badaboom.”
The torpedoes began twisting and corkscrewing through space, spreading further apart as they tried to follow the blueburn. I thought I caught a glimpse of something as it crossed ahead of one of the more distant vessels. Nearly twice as long as Head Case, slender like a needle, it barely had a side profile save for the rear protrusion that shrouded the thrusters. I had a feeling they just couldn’t make engines as skinny as the rest of the ship.
“What should we do?” I asked.
“It’s twenty million electro, kid,” Keep replied. “And we’re closer to them than anyone else.”
“But we’re fugitives too.”
“They’re on a Blue Burn. We stop that ship, and the Empress will probably pardon you.”
“I was hoping she would pardon us for warning her about Sedaya.”
“Maybe. If that’s the case, you still get twenty million.”
“Aren’t the ion cannons lethal?”
“That’s the good thing about ion cannons,” Alter said. “We can dial them back. A clean hit to the shroud will block the thruster exhaust and disable the ship.”
I glanced at her, a smile spreading across my face. “In that case, let’s go bag us a criminal.”
|August 29, 2022
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