Hide and Seek

Courtesy of The Infinite Bard:  this outer space adventure of a battle against a mysterious alien threat!  Visit the site to enjoy the entire library of  free spectacular stories.

katzen-hide-and-seek

“Clear from silent sailing.” Dannall massaged her temples with her fingertips, then rubbed her tired eyes. The dull pain behind them persisted—nothing that a few years of sleep wouldn’t eliminate. That’s how long it felt like the Curai’Nal had been stalking them. Not even the vastness of outer space surrounding them—revealed in all its glory by the transparent dome comprising the walls and ceiling of the Shinshen’s bridge—ameliorated her exhaustion.

Some people never overcame their initial vertigo, the feeling of claustrophobic exposure. They didn’t last long on interstellar crews. But Dannall loved it—always had, ever since growing up on her mother’s ship when her mother was just a princess instead of the queen of the fleet.

The faintest thrum filled the air, noticeable only due to its previous absence. Likewise the vibration of the deck beneath her feet as the ship’s engines came back to life.

Dannall took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, trying to force the tension from her muscles. She had more success at that than at eliminating the headache and felt the muscles in her body begin to relax as she rolled her shoulders and twisted her neck every which way.

Seated around the perimeter of the bridge, the rest of her crew did the same, stretching and some standing to work out the kinks from hunching over consoles for too long, staying poised in one spot and concentrating on tracking the position of the other ship.

The pilot Kiti kept a vigilant eye on the controls—even though the computer could fly the ship if needed—as she put her hands behind her head and cracked her back. The other two women, one officially the co pilot and the other two monitoring everything from sensors to engines to communications, mimicked the action as well.

The only man on the bridge—the only man on the whole ship—stayed in his seat but stretched long legs out in front of him. He pulled his right arm then his left across his chest as he stretched his back and shoulders.

Everyone said he looked like Dannall’s twin, what with the same tall, lean build, blue eyes and black hair. In fact her brother was two years older.

The Curai’Nal hadn’t been pursuing them for years. It had only been a week. Dannall wondered why they were so tenacious this time. Normally it took just a day before they gave up and continued on their way, leaving the shipping lane. Rarities such as this made her question—ever so slightly—her love of commanding a racer. She loved the hunter/prey game, loved luring the deadly Curai’Nal away from other spacecraft less able to defend themselves.

She didn’t love close calls. And this time, the Curai’Nal hadn’t given up. “Broadcast an alert as soon as that ship is at ten lightyears. Close this spacelane. Then get us out of here.”

Her whole crew knew as soon as the Curai’Nal ship detected the signal, they’d roar back to defend whatever it was they so desperately wanted to hide in this sector.

Well, they could have it.

Space was plenty big enough that Dannall’s people saw no reason to antagonize the xenophobic race that demanded total isolation. The nondescript star system with its seven desolate planets and belt of tumbling asteroids certainly wasn’t worth fighting over.

Yes, Dannall would have liked to know the appeal, so that they could more easily avoid the Curai’Nal in the future, but the knowledge wasn’t worth dying for. Curai’Nal ships—blasters—were as far from stealthy as any vessel could get. Their weaponry demanded respect but wasn’t insurmountable and—compared to most, especially the racers—they just weren’t that fast. And they always chased the ‘aggressive’ racers rather than continuing to attack another ship trying to flee.

“Where to, Princess?” her second in command asked. She stifled a grin. Her brother Danalan was correct to use her title when they were on the bridge. Still, she had to fight the urge to chuckle. She’d idolized her big brother since they were both tiny. Still did.

She knew full well she’d earned her command—and knew he agreed—but it seemed odd to have him as her subordinate. He’d always looked out for her when they were small.

And she felt sad—and perhaps even just a bit angry—that it was taking him so much longer to get his own ship. But such was the way of their world.

At least she could ensure her own crew knew his authority had nothing to do with nepotism.

“Head for the nebula, just in case.” She never took anything for granted, and if the Curai’Nal managed to surprise her, the nebula would provide added cover.

“Message sent. Engines at full power. They’re reversing course, heading right for us,” he said, not surprising anyone on the crew. The Curai’Nal noticed the instant they’d powered up.

“Good thing we won’t be here when they get back.” Now Dannall did grin. No more hide and seek for the moment. This time they’d be long gone—just like the ship they’d acted as a decoy for.

Delicate wisps of blue smoke and flame swirled around them as if the nebula reached out with cautious, caressing fingers. The whorls and strands grew denser and denser, a magical luminous fog engulfing them.

The Shinshen vanished into the nebula just as the freighter they’d helped had. After a whole week, even gliding on inertia until it was out of range, the freighter should be long gone.

“Dannall, we have a problem.” Her brother’s use of her name told her just how startled he was a couple hours later when the brilliant hues of blue gradually reverted to the deepest velvety black speckled by velvet stars. “That freighter is adrift at the edge of the nebula.”

“What?” she knew her brother would never joke about such a thing, but she wished he was just this once. “Take us in close,” she told the pilot, “Match their course then resume silent sailing. Send tightest beam communication possible. Find out what happened. Passive sensors at full.” Dannall wanted to know as soon as possible when the Curai’Nal ship got close. If it skirted the nebula they’d see it coming, but not if it cut through as they had.

All function and no grace, that’s how freighters always looked to her. This one was no different, basically a flying dark gray long rectangular box. Only the bridge at the bow had any windows. The engines at the stern—that wasn’t good.

Aft, angry streaks of black coated the engines’ exhaust. Even just imagining the sulfuric stench of an engine fire, Dannall’s nose began to burn.

“Freighter like that should only have a crew of ten,” Danalan said. “We can evacuate them and get out of here.”

Dannall nodded to him, then asked the woman at the communications console. “Getting a signal from them yet?”

“No reply y—wait, yes,” she turned her attention to the comm unit. “Launch your life pods. We’ll pick you all up.” She paused, listening, then said, “Repeat that,” as she flipped a switch.

A woman’s voice only slightly marred by static filled the bridge. “Negative, Shinshen. We can’t abandon our cargo. It’s food and medicine for the Beturan Colony and it’s already a month late. We need to get there, or people will start dying. We’re the only ship enroute till next month.”

Dannall groaned/growled, wondering whose stupidity had cut it so close then instantly brushing the thought aside. It didn’t matter. People besides her and the commander of the other ship would sort that out later.

“What’s the status of your repairs?” Dannall asked into the air, the comm picking up her voice.

“Another day, maybe a few hours less but not many.”

“Would more hands help?” the Shinshen often served as a transport ship for those in need of extra speed or extra protection and, with its crew of fifty, often helped with repairs and evacuations as well. But at only a fraction of the behemoth freighter’s size, the sleek racer couldn’t take on even a fraction of the cargo.

The disembodied voice answered, “I wish it would, but I’m afraid not. We’re retooling one of the power converters and there’s only room for so many hands. We can’t go any faster.”

As if reading Dannall’s mind, the woman added, “We’ve got the other five rebuilt already. This is the last one, but they work in sequence, so we can’t power up till all of them are in place.”

Dannall grimaced. One of the older ship designs.

“I don’t suppose you could tow us?” The other commander’s voice betrayed a glimmer of hope.

“Sorry, Sessin.” Dannall didn’t know the woman’s name, but as she herself was the only daughter of the queen, all the others who commanded ships received the lesser title. “We’d never get up to speed fast enough. The Curai’Nal are already on the way. We’ll sit tight while you work as fast as you can. When you’re ready, we’ll draw them off again.”

Dannall loathed the very thought, but she couldn’t think of any other option, and it was the purpose of her ship. This was what they did.

For some reason—Dannall and her people had yet to discover why—the Curai’Nal only considered objects with power output a threat to their solitude. If a starship cut all power, no matter how fast it continued to travel, the Curai’Nal ignored it as if it were a comet or some other space debris.

But energy from engines, weapons, or even a strong enough communication or heat signal, attracted them as surely as a shinshen on Dannall’s home planet swooped down from the sky and scooped up fish to devour.

“Princess, the Curai’Nal ship is closing,” Danalan told her, then swore under his breath. “There’s—wait,” he studied the sensors and made several adjustments, “Ten ships approaching from different vectors. The nearest will close on this position in about two hours. The others between two and ten.”

At his sister’s signal, Danalan reestablished communications.

“Sessin, you and your crew prepare to come aboard. We can come back for the supplies when the area is clear,” Dannall said.

“Can’t do that, Princess, they might destroy the ship. Clear out. There’s no reason for you to stay too. We’ll follow as soon as we can. You can monitor from a safe distance and distract them when we need you.”

Except, Dannall fumed silently, that is was her job to protect them and not the other way around. And she couldn’t do that from far away.

“We’re not going anywhere. Work faster, Sessin. Flash us when you’re good to go,” she said, then gestured to cut the signal.

Five people crewed the bridge every shift. So the three women and her brother all swiveled their chairs to look at her.

“If anyone has a better idea, I’m open to suggestions,” Dannall forestalled their understandable but not helpful outbursts of disbelief. She’d listen to constructive advice, not useless complaints.

“I don’t suppose you can order them to abandon ship?” Kiti asked without much hope.

Dannall shook her head. “I don’t think they’d listen to the queen herself. Not with so many lives at stake.”

“And there’s no way to hide our power signature, especially not towing another ship,” Danalan murmured, more to himself than to his shipmates. “We could try to get them to follow us again.”

“I doubt all ten of them will. There’s something here, something about this nebula all of a sudden that they want us to stay away from.” If only they knew what. And, would that knowledge help them deal with the situation at all or not?

“Both ships now silent,” Danalan told her, and she nodded in acknowledgment. “Passively monitoring the freighter. We’ll know when they’re ready.”

The first Curai’Nal ship squirted out of the nebula only a few thousand kilometers from them—practically a collision in the depths of space. A second flashed past a couple minutes later. Shaped like some kind of alien sea creature with a pointed connical front and several tentacles trailing behind, the Curai’Nal ships soared past then arched gracefully back in the direction of the nebula.

The other eight ships grew closer and closer like the points of a net tightening around them.

The Shinshen could slip through—or, more likely, fight through—any time it wanted. But not the freighter, still hanging dead in space.

Hours later, the pair of ships floated in the midst of ten Curai’Nal ships swirling and criss-crossing around them. The pair wasn’t dead center of the pattern—if there even was a pattern—but some of the other vessels passed uncomfortably close.

Dannall felt a few drops of sweat pool in the small of her back and dampen the palms of her hands even as she stood in the center of the bridge and did her best to project a calm, assured appearance.

Her crew wasn’t stupid. They all knew the danger they were in. The Shinshen could hold off two, maybe even four of the other ships. But if all ten fired on them at once, they’d blow her ship to spacedust.

And still the freighter hovered unmoving in space, eerily visible from the Shinshen bridge.

Then its blue running lights flashed on and off once, using even less power than a highly focused communication signal would.

So, the freighter was ready to go. Dannall prayed the other commander wasn’t mistaken. Because if she was, that ships wouldn’t last longer than a heartbeat.

“Get ready,” Dannall told her crew. “We’re going to power up. Plot a course through the biggest gap between the Curai’Nal ships and go to full speed.” That should shock the ships into following them.

If not, they’d need to double back until they did taunt the rest of the Curai’Nal into following. In Dannall’s experience, it wouldn’t take much goading.

The freighter wouldn’t have any weapons, but its shields and speed should be enough to protect it enough to escape—if the Shinshen could give it a big enough head start and ensure it only had to deal with one ship or at most two.

Dannall rested a hand on Kiti’s shoulder. The pilot was one of—if not the—best in the queen’s fleet. If anyone could maneuver them through the Curai’Nal ships, Kiti could.

Kiti spared a glance and one corner of her mouth quirked upward. “Ready when you are, Princess.”

“Now.”

The Shinshen burst to life under Kiti’s deft touch, the starship exploding away from the nebula and racing through space.

The Curai’Nal ships responded instantly with five of them looping around in pursuit.

“Not enough,” Dannall said to herself, then address Kiti. “Get the others’ attention as well.”

Kiti took the ship in a tight loop, coming around below and behind the five and skimming the outer edge of the nebula before shooting ‘up’ and away from it.

Now all ten Curai’Nal spacecraft did follow them and Kiti slowed just enough to allow them to start gaining.

It was up to the freighter now to make its escape.

After another twenty minutes the freighter’s engines came to life and it shot off in the opposite direction with remarkable speed considering its previous condition.

First one, then a second, Curai’Nal ship peeled off to follow.

“Do they have enough acceleration?” Dannall asked.

“Yes, if they can maintain it, the Curai’Nal won’t catch them,” Danalan confirmed. “Their course for the colony is taking them away from the nebula.”

“Good.” Dannall heaved a huge sigh. “Resume top speed. Lets get out of here.” With other traffic warned away, there wasn’t a need any longer for them to run interference. “Track the freighter and the Curai’Nal ships as long as they’re in range.”

The Curai’Nal chased them for another three days before turning around. Then, close to the periphery of sensor range, Danalan said he was picking up more activity from the nebula.

“Please don’t tell me someone ignored our warning.” Dannall went over to look at the same readings he was seeing.

“I don’t think so. I think our mystery is solved.”

The ten ships were joined by hundreds more, all swarming around a gargantuan vessel the size of a small moon cut in half. It had the bowl shape and iridescence of a jellyfish, with a forest of tentacles on its upper hull.

“What is that?” Dannall asked, peering at the image on the small screen.

“Tens of millions of lifesigns on board, maybe even hundreds of millions,” Danalan said, confirming what she could see for herself from the readings. “That has to be why they wanted us to stay away.” Its course a ninety degree angle straight down from the direction the Shinshen and the freighter had taken.

“Extrapolate their course,” Dannall told him, “And broadcast another alert to keep that corridor clear in addition to the warning we already sent.” She didn’t want any other ships subjected to the ten days they’d just had.

It would be far easier, she thought, to have open communications with the enigmatic Curai’Nal. But that didn’t work when the other side wasn’t interested.

Since they wanted to be left alone, Dannall and her people would do their best to honor their wishes. Maybe at some time in the future, the Curai’Nal would become inquisitive and want to associate with others. Maybe not.

But at least if they chose not to, it wouldn’t be because they’d been driven away or accosted.

Dannall couldn’t really complain. Part of the joy for her of being out in space was the new and different cultures she was exposed to. And there were more than enough of those even without the ones who preferred standing apart from the interstellar community.

“Set course for Beturan,” she ordered. “Let’s make sure the freighter gets there this time, before we go looking for more trouble.”

Suddenly she didn’t feel exhausted any more at all.

 

 

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To find out what happens next with Dannell and her crew, go with them on their next exciting mission in Curai’Nal.

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