This is a prologue I wrote for Theftworld, a novel in progress in my “Imperial Space” setting. Most of the chapters of Theftworld are going to be locked, as it’s a draft with an eye to publication, but after I got well into the novel proper I decided I neither needed nor wanted the prologue at the beginning.
For the record, the prologue takes place a full twelve hundred years before the novel itself. Ah, grand space opera.
*** *** *** *** ***
The H.M.S. Costigan logged their successful transition into the Standish system at 21:44 Ship’s Standard, April 19, 4362 Old Calendar. She had been running hot over three star systems in pursuit of her prey. Transition times between worlds were the same for flagship or freighter, but crossing the systems from transition point to transition point took hours or days, and the Costigan was much faster than the Locke in realspace. This would be the end of it.
“Secured from transition,” Olson said at helm.
Captain Thomas murmured an acknowledgement, turning to face the Sensory. “Active traces, Mister Carlson,” he said smoothly. “Broad sweeps. If they have half a brain, they’ll know they can’t reach the Alton transition point before we intercept. So, they’ll either try and hide, or make for Planet Standish. They’re still eleven days ahead of us into the system. Signal Officer, send to Planet Standish, apprising them of our pursuit. Request any information on the Locke’sposition.”
The chorus of ‘ayes’ went unnoticed by Thomas, who had already started walking for his office. Bickford nodded at his glance, silently taking the bridge for the captain. It had been a long chase, but within a few days it would be over.
He sat down at his desk heavily, rubbing his eyes and the bridge of his nose. It had been a long chase, and not because of the distance or time it took.
He looked at the holostat on his wall. The one of General McCourt and then-Lieutenant Roderick Thomas. McCourt looked larger than life, as he always did. Thomas believed in that man when he looked at him. The General had gotten his men out of Hell. He had saved the sector from incursion. He had broken up conspiracies and dissent and restored order to Planet Gorham.
McCourt was counting on Thomas. McCourt, and McCourt’s son, and the rest of the regiment, and Gorham herself. They couldn’t let this insult… this crime… go unpunished. The dissidents would be caught. Their goods retrieved. Justice would be done. Thomas wouldn’t accept any other solution.
He turned to his desk. It would be hours before the sensor traces were completed, and longer before Standish’s reply would reach the Imperial Navy ship. In the meantime, there was paperwork to do.
Lieutenant Commander Oscar Bickford looked at the officers next to him. His lips were tightly pressed together. Captain Thomas had taken the flight of the Lockevery personally. Like many officers who had been in the Eastspin Campaigns, he practically revered General Colin McCourt, and McCourt’s youngest son Bradley was one of the victims.
The question was… would Thomas’s loyalty outweigh his judgment?
Bickford knocked on the office hatch. It dilated open in response. Captain Thomas was rising inside. “You have the Locke,” he demanded. “Why wasn’t I called to the bridge? Bring us to full speed and move to inter—”
“Captain,” Bickford said firmly, “we have news, yes. Please, may we come in?”
Thomas’s face contorted in sudden anger, then relented. Thomas wasn’t a harsh captain, normally. Bickford was glad to see some sign of that captain still remained. Bickford and the other two officers came in. “Sir… between trace scan analysis and confirmation from Standish, we have located the Locke.”
Thomas frowned, then stepped back behind his desk. “So what’s the catch. You clearly aren’t here to tell me what course we should set.”
Bickford took a deep breath. “Apparently, the Locke rendezvoused with the slowship Coventry upon making transition. The Coventrythen apparently set course at one seventeen by twenty-six, and accelerated at two point nine gee. They have stayed constant at that speed since.”
“Two point nine…” The color drained from Thomas’s face, and he snapped to Olson, on Bickford’s left. “Time to intercept at maximum speed?”
Olson looked down, reluctant to speak. “Eighty-five hundred hours, Captain.”
“Eighty… five…” Thomas looked lost for a moment, then scowled. “Don’t be a fool—they’ll make transition long before then. What transition points are along that vector? Projecting far if need be.”
“There aren’t any, sir. The patterns of gravity aren’t conducive—”
“They have to be going somewhere, Olson. Figure out where, and we can get on the trail. Or find me an in-system transition that’ll put us in interception range.”
“Sir,” Bickford said, “we believe we know where they’re going.”
Thomas’s glare was turned on Bickford. The Captain’s face was flushed as he waited for the executive officer to continue.
“As I said before… the Locke was taken inboard of the slowship…” he paused, emphasizing the ship type. “…Coventry. From her vector, she’s clearly headed for star system beta zeta gamma seven nine four. Long distance mapping and surveying have found at least one habitable world there.”
Thomas’s flushed face paled once more. “Slowship… you mean they’re actually going to fly the distance? Travel like the ancients and take decades to get there?”
“Apparently, sir. At their acceleration, it will take them seventy five years to arrive. Time dilation will change that from their frame of reference, of course. To them, it should take—” Bickford paused and looked at Carlson, on his right.
“Just over three and a half years,” Carlson said, looking somber.
Thomas settled back in his chair. “All right,” he said, finally. “We’ll let the Imperial Navy take care of them seventy five years from now. They can meet them on the other side. I think the General would accept that.”
“Sir,” Carlson said, sounded defeated, “there aren’t any stage I, II or III transition points in that system. The lowest stage transition would be stage V, from the Ossipee system. There’s no possible way to generate the kind of power a stage V transition would take. Not for a thousand ships of the line.”
Thomas seemed to deflate for a moment, before rage began boiling up in him. “Then prepare to pursue! If it takes us a year to catch up to them, it takes us a year damn it!”
“Carlson? Olson? Return to your stations,” Bickford said. The pair nodded, and looked at Thomas for confirmation. Thomas looked angry, but nodded.
Once alone, Bickford turned to Thomas. “Sir… we can just barely make that kind of trip and back, with our energy stores. We’re not a slowship and haven’t been designed for it. If we do go… we’re not just fighting a glorified skiff. We don’t know what kind of threat the Coventryrepresents. We do know she has over five thousand people on board. Given our numbers, we don’t dare board.”
“Then we’ll blow her out of the sky. You can’t believe she’s armed well enough to fight us.”
“I honestly don’t know how she’s armed, sir. But we’ll assume the Costigancan take her out. That still puts us over a year out of this system, by ship’s frame of reference, at ungodly speeds. By then, we’ll have undergone time dilation effects the same as the Coventry. By the time we had turned and decelerated back into the Standish system, close to eight years will have passed. Eight years, sir. Is this pursuit worth that kind of sacrifice?”
Thomas’s fists clenched. He turned to look out a porthole, perhaps looking for the distant Coventry. “They killed seventeen imperial citizens in their raid, Oscar. And do you have any idea how many were affected in their raid of the Albert facility?” he said, quietly.
“Fifty thousand citizens, Oscar. Fifty thousand genetic profiles, DNA samples, genome series. Including some of the wealthiest imperial citizens in the sector. Including the son of General Colin McCourt. We don’t know why they wanted them. Maybe they want to tailor a plague or sell the samples to Concodia for God knows what. You want me to just let them go?”
“Sir… we do know what they intend. They sent a message to Standish.”
Thomas paused, but didn’t look at Bickford. “Tell me.”
Bickford told him.
Thomas took a deep breath. He held it for a long moment, then released it. It was a stress reduction technique he had shown to Bickford once. “All right,” he said. “Please have Mister Carlson set course for Planet Standish. Once there, we’ll need to speak to local authorities and tie into their planetary data net. I want everything we can gather on these dissidents before we return to base.”
“Aye sir. Will that be all, sir?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s all.” Captain Thomas heard Lieutenant Commander Bickford leave, and heard the door contract behind him. He stared at the stars for a long moment, before walking back to his desk.
The holostat gleamed from the wall. The proud young lieutenant. The larger than life general.
With a sob, Thomas smashed his fist as hard as he could into it, shattering the holostat into so many pieces of etched plastic.