It is my firm belief that Captains Malicious is one of the best science fiction/space opera books ever written. I’m rather proud of it, since I’m one of the co-authors. Also, my hat is off to TR Tom Harris for his excellent writing. Here’s the beginning of the book, a hefty portion of Chapter One:
Captain, I don’t like this,” said Commander Javon Steele as he hunched over the proximity screen, shielding it with his body from the glare of the lights on the bridge. “It sure looks like a six-master. I’ve heard rumors of one prowling around, and this could be her.”
“And you don’t think we can take on a little six-master?” Captain Robert Kincaid asked with a smile. He remained seated in his command chair, knowing that joining his Executive Officer at the screen might be read as panic and negate the air of confidence he was trying to convey to his bridge crew. He could tell by their fidgeting and furtive glances that they were growing nervous knowing full well that if they could detect the other ship, then the alien warcraft could detect them as well. And if this was the rumored Vixxie DN-Z then trying to outrun her would be a waste of time. Their fate was sealed the moment the image on Steele’s screen resolved clear enough to show the gravity signature of the powerful starship, along with her six deadly dots of light.
Steele left the proximity screen and went to where his captain sat, with legs crossed and appearing completely at ease. The tall, slender black man leaned in close so the others on the bridge couldn’t hear.
“Robert, we cannot go up against a ship that big. I know it, you know it…and so do they,” he lifted his hand to indicate the remainder of the bridge crew.
Kincaid kept a placid smile. “Your look of absolute dread isn’t helping things, Javon. The crew is scared enough already.”
“This is serious, Captain,” Steele said, growing frustrated. “And by the way, you ain’t foolin’ nobody. Everyone knows we’re in some deep rhino dung when you start wearing that goofy grin. They’d feel better if you were the irascible, top-deck-dictator you normally are.”
“Dictator! Dammit, Javon, I’m a captain, not a dictator.”
“Six of one….”
Kincaid took a deep breath and let the smile fade away. Shedding his fake countenance made him feel better since it was so out of character for him to mask his feelings just for the sake of his mostly-rookie crew. And his XO was right, it did betray the seriousness of the threat they faced.
There were a total of twenty-two men and women aboard the Malicious, with eight on the bridge, including himself and Steele. Since going to General Quarters, the tension within the ship had notched up palpably. The remainder of his crew were either nervously sweating it out at weapons batteries or sat huddled in passageways with damage control equipment at the ready—just in case. The news of the possible six-master was no doubt spreading rapidly.
Robert narrowed his focus on the forward viewport. The enemy ship was out there still light-years away, yet it represented the gravest threat his crew had ever faced—and everyone knew it. It was now time for some serious captaining. After all, one didn’t sit in this chair because you knew how to coddle a crew. You sat here because you knew how to survive.
“Helm, bring us to one-eight-zero degrees, down fifteen, all ahead flank.”
Steele backed away from the command chair and gave his Captain a nod.
“The Drift Current?” he asked.
“Yep, the Drift Current. If this does turn out to be the Vixx’r forty-gun dreadnaught then she hasn’t been in the Reaches long enough to get a lay of the land. We just may catch her off-guard.”
“It’s worth a try,” Steele said. “Seeing that we’re all going to die otherwise.”
“Have faith, Number Two. Besides, they’re going up against the Malicious. They may be aliens, but they can still shit bricks, and I’m sure that’s what they’re doing right about now.”
“Target tacking to starboard, sir,” Lt. Sean Sinclair reported from tactical.
“They’re coming after us, Captain.”
Kincaid noticed the sudden attitude shift on the part of the bridge crew—the abrupt passage from uncertainty to a resolve to carry on. This was what these people had trained for—even if hastily and mainly on-the-job. Yet already his young crew had four successful raids under their belts, and with each they’d gained proficiency, experience, and most of all, courage. Of course, none of their other prey thus far had been a 40-gun six-master.
From pollywogs to shellbacks in such a short time, Kincaid thought. I’m proud of you people.
Robert Kincaid shook his head as the series of strange terms came to mind. He had no idea where they originated, just their context as they referred to a time long ago and on a far-distant planet called Earth. He often wondered what life was like back then, in the days of real seafaring pirates, when all a man had was the deck beneath his feet and the wind in his sails? He’d read it was glorious.
Many of the terms and traditions from those ancient nautical times were still in use. Sure, the sails they now unfurled were space-bending neutron projectors, and the winds they chased were ribbons of dark matter that guided the creation of the unpredictable and often dangerous stellar warp-currents they sought to catch. Still, the experience had to be the same. And now, like then, the price of failure was death.
Captain Robert Kincaid—formerly of the United Peoples of Earth, 9th Tactical Assault Group—was a seasoned veteran of space warfare and experienced enough to know the reality they faced. It was simple: They would either live today, or they would die. There was no in between. And yet there was still hope, a way for Robert to cheat destiny’s deadly stare.
All he had to do was reach the Drift Current in time.
Take a few hundred trillion tons of the rich soup of the interstellar medium, lace it with a jumble of strands of invisible dark matter the size of a planetary system, and then stretch it over three parsecs of space. What you’d end up with is a region of space called the Drift Current, an almost invisible, nebula-like pool of gravitational spider-silk, strings, ropes and cables. The masts of interstellar starships, with their neutron projectors and electromagnetic accumulators, are but teacups in the roaring maelstrom of swirling, stellar stew. Navigationally, the Current is a hazard for even the most-seasoned helmsman, and its expanding boundaries are carefully marked on star charts as close to actuality as possible in light of the ever-changing conditions.
Captain Kincaid had witnessed what happened to ships caught in the Current. The closest analogy was watching a vessel dashed to pieces on a coral reef. The trick for him would be to lure the Vixx’r into the Current without diving Malicious into the morass as well. It wouldn’t be easy. Not one bit.
“They’re still closing, sir. Weapons range in five minutes.”
“Very good, Mister Sinclair, steady as she goes.”
Robert pressed a button on the armrest of his command chair. “Attention crew of the Malicious. Target will be in range in five minutes, and even though she may outgun us two to one, it’s a pretty good bet she won’t be expecting what we can bring to bear, so we’ll have the element of surprise on our side. Cannon crew: Wait until we’ve made the turn before locking on target. Once we change course, we’ll only have one chance to deliver a salvo, so make it good. And there’s going to be some rough seas for a few minutes after we drop anchor, so factor that in before committing. Anchor crew: Stand ready to drop on my command. Everything must go smoothly; that’s an imperative. Four minutes everyone. Stay frosty. This is where the fun begins. Captain out.”
Robert turned to Javon Steele. “Get down to forward steering and make sure the anchor crew gets it right. We can’t afford to be off by even a degree.”
“Roger that. I’m on my way.” Steele ran from the bridge. It would take him forty seconds to reach the small compartment five decks below the bridge where a nervous anchor crew waited.
“Picking up current anomalies, Captain,” the helmsman reported. “I’m having to fight her quite a bit.”
“That’s the idea, Mister Devlin. Keep us in the channel the best you can, and get ready for a course change to zero-one-five, up twenty. Execute with anchor drop. On my order, not before.”
Robert looked out through the forward viewport just as the stars began to change color, shifting more to the blue, while their single points of light began to stretch out. They were entering the edge of the Drift Current, and if the anchor wasn’t set precisely, they would be sucked all the way in, with deadly consequences.
“Blast detected from the Vixxie ship, Captain!” Sinclair reported. “Tracking on target, contact in fifteen seconds.”
“Crap,” Robert said. This is going to be close.
“Captain?” the helmsman cried out.
“I know. Five more seconds.”
When Robert saw the surrounding starlight suddenly streak to port he pressed the intercom button. “Anchors away; prepare for heavy rolls! Helm, execute course change!”
The ship suddenly shifted to starboard, sending the bridge crew surging against their restraints, inertial compensators pressed to the max. The rest of the crew should have been similarly strapped in by now—and if not, there were going be some serious injuries. The Malicious swung by on a course now one-hundred-eight degrees out from her original heading. The stars in the viewport became nothing more than streaks of white and blue lines across the field of view.
Kincaid had a small tac monitor attached to his command chair and on it he could see a graphic representation of the Malicious as she followed an arcing course to starboard—just as the monstrous alien warship shot past them to port. Flashes of cannon fire erupted from the Vixx’r ship’s weapons deck, and for a moment his blood froze in his veins. He watched with relief as the plasma shells from the enemy vessel folded in upon themselves—an effect of the Current—revealing the alien’s inexperience with this region of space.
“Cut the anchor!” Kincaid commanded. Commander Steele was a split second ahead of him, as the Malicious broke free from her radically-arcing course and shot away from the Drift Current at a ninety-degree angle.
“Fire!” Kincaid shouted.
From their new vantage point behind the Vixx’r dreadnaught, multiple clear targeting sights were presented to his hungry aft gun crews. Unlike the Vixx’r, his gunners were quite familiar with the odd effects the Current would play on their shots and had already compensated for them. Now Robert watched as the Vixx’r ship was bathed in small puff-balls of fire and light, a result of his crew’s dead-on accuracy.
“Fire at will!” Kincaid yelled into the intercom, simultaneously—it turned out—with the first jolt of the ship as the main port cannon unleashed a deadly salvo of fire.
Apart from the hellish onslaught from the guns of the Malicious, the unfathomable clash between regular and dark matter in this region of space also wrought its own brand of havoc upon the warp-sails of the alien starship. She lost all control and began to drift helplessly to starboard, drawn in by the invisible hand of the Current.
Even more holes were blasted into her superstructure just below the main deck from the accurate aim of his gunners; however, Kincaid watched with interest as one of their plasma shells missed the side of the alien ship altogether. To his delight, the treacherous Drift Current plucked up the errant shot, and by a strand of dark matter, swept it back toward the aft mast, shearing it off completely. The giant, billowing sail broke apart and began to flutter off into space, appearing to be under the influence of some hidden breeze.
“Sighting on target, sir; we’re really giving it to them now!” Sinclair turned in his seat.
Kincaid’s smile—this time—was genuine. “Let me know when they can no longer return fire, Mr. Sinclair. I think I might want a souvenir from this battle.”
“Aye, Captain.” His weapon’s officer swiveled back to his panel. “Readings indicate…plasma ignition onboard.” At that moment a brilliant sunburst lit up the bridge through the forward viewport. Hands lifted to cover sensitive eyes, even as the monitors polarized to block out the damaging light.
“Damn…is she gone?”
“No sir; that was her magazine. She’s…sir…she’s dead in the water.”
“Cease fire!” Kincaid shouted, and watched as the salvos from his ship halved in number.
“Cease fire, dammit!”
Finally the deadly eruptions dropped to zero. Their blood is up, he thought.
Years of Vixx’r occupation has made a simple command not nearly enough. By God, they hate them as much as I do.
“Open a ship-wide channel, Mister Sinclair. I want to hear what’s going on below decks.”
The sound of cheering washed across the bridge.
“Well done, people,” Robert said.
“We did it, Cap’n!” an ecstatic voice called out, and he wondered who it was? He couldn’t help but smile.
“You sure did, and you all deserve medals, if pirates gave out medals. Now secure from General Quarters. Set condition yellow. Damage control crews stow all gear. Gunners take inventory and then secure all armament.”
Steele arrived back on the bridge a few minutes later, a big grin on his chocolate brown face. “I see now how spending your misplaced youth wandering around this part of space finally came in handy. Great job Captain.”
“Same to you, Mister Steele.”
“I guess we can learn something from this little mishap, like make sure we know what we’re up against before committing to an engagement.”
“What, and take all the fun out of pirating? No way! But our job here isn’t done, not yet.”
Steele frowned. “What do you mean?”
“That,” Kincaid pointed at the viewscreen. The Vixx’r ship still struggled on the edge of the Drift Current, appearing as though she might break free at any moment. Somewhere aboard the dying ship, there was a Vixxie at his post, working earnestly to get the ship to clear space.
“What about it?” Steele said. “Done deal.”
“If we leave them they’ll eventually make their way out of the Current. We have to go mop up the mess we’ve made. And for our trouble, I think a six-master should be a fair trade.”
“Make that a five-master now, Captain…for what good it will do. We barely have enough crew for the Malicious.”
Kincaid frowned and pursed his lips. “That is a problem; a fancy new starship and with no one to drive her.”
“She’s not so new, not anymore.” Steele now mirrored Robert’s furrowed forehead. “You know every time you make a pitch for new recruits you run the risk of being found out. And then what would we do if the Vixxie have you for dinner?”
“Hopefully I’d give them indigestion.”
Kincaid raised his hand. “I know, Javon, and thanks for your concern, but we both know the time will come eventually.”
Steele grimaced. “I’m your friend and shipmate, but that thing there—the dreadnaught—could be a lot more serious than the revelation that you’re the infamous Captain Malicious. It could have some very dire consequences for the rest of the Human population in the Reaches.”
Kincaid nodded. “Rest assured, Commander, plans have been made to prevent that from happening. We just have to trust the UPE when that time comes.”
Steele’s frown turned into a sour smirk. “Trust the government to do the right thing, like defend the Reaches against the Sludgers? We all know how that turned out.”
“That was different, Javon, and you know it.” And then he smiled. “Besides, all they have to do in this case is betray one person—me! I’m sure even the government of the UPE can’t screw that up!”
It was a young graduate student in the mid-21st century named Holland Norvell who first came up with the formula for faster-than-light travel.
While working on his doctoral thesis in quantum mechanics, Norvell kept hitting the brick wall of a mysterious thing called “gravity,” something that had never been previously well-defined. From not long after the time of Sir Isaac Newton, gravity had been labeled as “the weakest of the nuclear forces,” the implication being that gravity had something to do with the atom and with the laws of cohesion and adhesion. But nothing seemed to fit the model of the universe the young, eccentric genius envisioned—that of mankind traveling throughout the stars in real-time and not over centuries as was the present level of technology.
As the historians record, in the wee hours of the morning, a week before his thesis defense, Norvell picked up his yogurt spoon and dropped it. He picked it up again, and once more let it fall to the table. Again and again he repeated the process. Lift the spoon. Drop the spoon.
It’s then believed he asked the empty room, “What am I looking at?”
His own voice answered: “Gravity.”
Norvell’s mind must have then gone off into a fugue state or a black hole or something—the other side of the universe perhaps—because he was soon asking aloud, “But what would it be like if I dropped the spoon on the surface of something other than a gigantic electromagnet spinning in space?”
It dawned on him that no one in recorded history had ever asked that question, and as the mythology goes, Norvell then opened his computer and erased the title of his thesis, and replaced it with large block letters that read:
GRAVITY IS DEAD.
He then began to reconstruct the universe based upon the supposition that there was no such thing as gravity, that there was only electromagnetism.
The day of Norvell’s thesis defense came and went, and nobody saw him and he wouldn’t answer his pad. He emerged from his room three weeks later, much thinner, yet with the answer to his question. Within that time he had figured out how galaxies adhere and why they pool into squashed spirals. It was so obvious to him now. So-called gravity was instantaneous.
Einstein must have turned over in his grave so fast that he blurred to invisibility.
From Norvell’s early theories came many more, including the equation that permitted travel to the stars.
In the Captain’s lounge aboard the Malicious, Steele raised a glass of rare specialty port and toasted, “To Norvell!”
“To Norvell!” Kincaid replied. After draining the glass of its potent contents, Robert got down to business. “As soon as we get the tow lines secured, let’s make best speed back to base. Then we’ll take my flitter back to Ione. We should be home by late afternoon the day after tomorrow.” “So you’re still going through with it?” Steele asked.
“I don’t have a choice. You said it yourself: we barely have enough crew for the Malicious. I need bodies, and I need them now. And after that, there’s a meeting scheduled at KST that I don’t want to miss. Gaolic’s going to be there, I believe.”
“You need to be careful, Robert. That old Vixxie is a patient son-of-a-bitch, while you’re the most impatient man I know. That’s not a good combination. Also, I wouldn’t expect much out of your friends at the Duck. It takes a special breed of fool to do what we do.”
Kincaid smiled. “I hear that. But I’ve only invited the ones I believe have what it takes.”
“What’s that—a terminal illness and with nothing left to lose?”
“You are one sour cynic, aren’t you, Commander? I’m expecting you to make the meeting. I’m going to need your back-up.”
“I’ll be there. In fact I think it might be quite entertaining watching you explain our mission to a bunch of landlubbers.” Steele them lifted his glass and observed the dark burgundy color through the light. “Good stuff this port of yours. Beats the hell out of the swill they’re brewing in the Reaches these days.”
“The recipe’s been in my family for hundreds of years. A distant branch of the family still owns a winery back on Earth—or so I’ve been told. I’ve never been there myself.”
“You could go, you know?”
“To Earth?” Kincaid shook his head. “No way, I have to stay here and nursemaid this glorious revolution we have going against the Vixx’r Occupation of the Reaches.”
“I don’t know that it’s technically a revolution yet, not until….”
“Until the people rise up. That’s why they call it…an uprising. It seems to me everyone is settling down for the long run, everyone except us.”
“That’s why I can’t go to Earth. Someone needs to light a fire under them. Too many are accepting the current situation as a permanent state of affairs.”
Javon Steele nodded.
At that moment Sinclair’s voice intruded over the comm. “Captain, tow lines are secure. We’ve got the ship.”
“Very good, Mister Sinclair. Captain out.”
“I still say you should cancel the meeting at the Duck,” Steele said. “We can find recruits in a less public way, more one-on-one.”
“I have to go, Javon. Besides, I know all these people; have my whole life. I’ll be fine.” Robert Kincaid was tired, and he wore his exhaustion on his face and in his every movement. He set the empty glass on the coffee table. “Give the word Mister Steele: Best speed back to base. Our destiny awaits.”
Get Captains Malicious.