Bewildering Stories

A Quiet Burning

David Lee Summers

Bright, almost fluorescent, orange blood stood in puddles of congealing red blood on the deck of the Alpha Centauran freighter. There was an eerie order as humans filed quietly through the corridor, carefully stepping over tentacled Alpha Centauran bodies. The humans hefted crates of hominid/computer interface cards through the battered airlock into their own ship, the Legacy.

One man stood to the side, watching intently. Long, sweat-soaked red hair clung to his forehead. Stroking his moustache with his left hand, Captain Ellison Firebrandt began to relax and holstered the pistol he still held in his right, allowing his fingers to remain lightly on the grip. Just as the captain took a deep breath, one of his crew members mis-stepped and slipped in a puddle of orange blood. The hepler was back in the captain's hand and aimed at the sound. Then he noted the interface cards strewn across the deck and sighed relief when he realized his crewman was not seriously hurt. Firebrandt's lieutenant, Carter Roberts, ran forward, cursing at the fallen man.

"Get him on his feet and back to the ship," shouted Firebrandt. "We don't have much time." The captain snarled as he thrust the hepler back into its holster.

"You are absolutely correct, Pirate," growled a nine-foot Alpha Centauran who appeared in a doorway. "In fact, you have no time at all." Firebrandt recognized the alien's uniform - noting that he was captain of the ship. The Alpha Centauran leveled a weapon at Roberts and the fallen crewman. "This weapon fires a projectile that slowly expands, ripping and tearing its way through your internal organs. It's no less than you deserve."

Slowly, Firebrandt retrieved a pipe and match from the pocket of his trousers. The Alpha Centauran captain inclined his head. He saw no immediate way the wooden contrivances could be dangerous. Firebrandt raised the pipe to his lips. Distracted, the Alpha Centauran's aim wavered. Taking advantage of the lapse, Roberts hurried the fallen crew member through the airlock.

"Ever since the days of wooden ships on Earth, fire could be deadly." The captain struck the match on the sole of his boot and raised it to the pipe. The Alpha Centauran stared in wonder as Firebrandt exhaled smoke. "Too bad Alpha Centauran blood is combustible." The captain lazily tossed the flaming match into a pool of orange blood. Quickly, he turned and sprinted for the airlock.

The Alpha Centauran, freed from his reverie, began to fire at the fleeing captain. Firebrandt leapt through the airlock as Roberts slammed his fist on the control. The airlock shut fast on the screams of the Alpha Centauran captain.

* * *

Later, Captain Firebrandt stepped into his quarters and eased into a large, soft chair, raising the familiar, battered pipe to his lips once again. He watched smoke curl about his head and grinned to himself, realizing the fire burning in his pipe could represent an early death. Even so, that same smoke comforted him.

The captain's cabin was paneled in the finest wood he could find. The windows were overlaid in stained glass. A brass lantern hung from a chain by his side. The captain was home. He was, in fact, in the only place he ever truly considered home. He thought of his youth. There was nothing there but poverty and misery.

A voice sounded from the wall intercom, interrupting Firebrandt's thoughts, "Captain, this is Roberts."

The captain stood reluctantly, placing the pipe on the table next to the chair, and walked to the far wall where he touched a glowing sensor pad. "This is the captain, go ahead."

"Computer's picked up a ship at long range," said Roberts. "She's large. A freighter, I'd say, sir."

"A freighter," growled the captain. "Are you sure? What does Computer say?"

There was a pause. "She's still a long way off, sir. If you want, we can take a closer look."

Firebrandt thought for a moment. "Don't approach any closer than you have to. If she's a warship, I want time to get out of range."

The captain reached up and flicked off the intercom.

There was a rustling of sheets. "Trouble?" came a sultry voice from the darkness where the bed stood.

"Maybe." Firebrandt stepped over to the bed and turned on a faint light. The woman rubbed her eyes and brushed a strand of black hair away from her face. The captain kissed her full red lips.

She inched closer to him. "Is it a warship?"

The captain shook his head gently. "Probably a freighter."

"Another raid! So soon?" She looked down at the sheets.

"Another raid means I can give you more," he shook his head apologetically. In a rush of inspiration, he leapt from the bed and gestured at the gold and silver treasure that glimmered in the faint light of the brass lantern. "Look! Look at all the things I've been able to give you."

She snorted. "What you've given me is a lot of worries. I love you, not these damned baubles. It's not easy being the consort of a pirate!"

"Quiet!" He hurried back to the bed. "Easy. This is not a pirate ship. This is a legally licensed privateer."

"Damn lot of difference that makes if you get caught." Her eyes moistened as she looked at him.

Firebrandt looked down and shook his head. "I can't change what I am. Do you want me to go back to what I was?" He rubbed his tired gray eyes. "Suki, do you really want me to go back to being a miner like my father on some nameless asteroid?"

"No," she whispered. "I don't want that." She embraced him. He felt the warmth of her naked body. "I just want you to think about us. It may be time for us to settle down. We already have so much." She shook her head. "Sometimes I wonder why you're so driven."

"It's a passion. This ship is the only place I know in the galaxy where I can be truly free." The captain looked into Suki's brown eyes. "We're both free here."

She looked away. "What will you do if you get captured?"

He looked back to his chair and table. He saw the pipe, its last embers smoldering to death. "I'll burn the bastards. Fire is deadly, you know."

She smiled back at him. "Fire can also be very warm." She ran fingers through his long, red hair.

* * *

The captain awoke sharply from a dream. He had dreamt that he was a child again, running away from home with his mother in pursuit. When she caught him, she drew a hepler and pointed it at him. Instead of firing, it buzzed, louder and louder, until Firebrandt sat up in bed, covered in a sheen of sweat. Suki was still sound asleep. The privateer captain shook his head groggily then padded his way over to a table and found a carafe of coffee. He poured some in a cup and sipped it, thinking about his dream. He had never really known his mother. All he knew were his father's stories of how she had been killed in the service of Alpha Coma Berenices. His father despised the navy of the colonists of Alpha Coma. Deep down, so did Firebrandt. Alpha Coma's navy cost the captain any semblance of a normal childhood. Firebrandt's father returned to Earth to become a miner.

The captain wholeheartedly supported his standing orders to attack any ship from Alpha Coma Berenices. Historically, Alpha Coma's navy challenged the Earth's dominion over space. Many other colonies followed Alpha Coma's lead. Before long, war broke out. In space, war was like chess - everything happening silently, all moves made with calculated precision. Privateers fought the wars. After twenty years though, Firebrandt was tiring of the game.

The intercom buzzed and the captain looked around in a sense of deja vu. Continuing to sip the coffee, he remembered the merchant ship that might just be a warship. The captain put down his cup and stepped over to the intercom.

"This is the Captain. What do you want?" He leaned on the intercom pad.

"Computer's got a positive identification on that ship as well as distance and bearing," Roberts sounded annoyed.

"Well, since we aren't running, I presume it's not a warship."

"She's a large freighter. Computer says she's from Alpha Coma Berenices."

"She's from Coma?" The captain stroked his moustache thoughtfully, a grin forming as he looked back to the bed. A large freighter from Alpha Coma could mean the end of a long life on the run. He thought of his mother who had given her life for that thankless colony. "Alert the crew. I'll come up."

Firebrandt bent over the sleeping form of his lover and kissed her gently. She moved slightly. He dressed quickly in a clean blousy tunic, black trousers, and boots then strode from the cabin.

Firebrandt arrived on the battle deck of the Legacy a moment later. Wooden handrails ran the length of the sloping metallic walls that bordered the deck. The gunners sat at two consoles which stood in the bow, grimly checking weapon status. In front of them, where a wall should have been, was a sweeping panorama of space. It was only a hologram, but breathtaking nonetheless. The captain's footsteps resounded on a metal-grating that covered blinking lights and rarely-used displays: The ship's computer sped information about fuel consumption, speed, and course throughout the vessel. The helmsman stood at the center of the deck in front of the ship's "wheel" which was, in fact, a console with controls for piloting the ship. Next to the helmsman was a pale man with hair grown long to cover a computer chip implanted in the middle of his forehead. This was Computer, the anti-embodiment of the crystalline thing pulsing with light beneath the captain's feet.

The captain checked the status indicators on the wheel console. All was well with the ship. He looked up to the hologram of open space and tried, in vain, to find the freighter among the stars.

"Computer," growled Captain Firebrandt, "show me the position of the freighter." A three-dimensional grid was superimposed over the hologram with a red dot in the center. A few words appeared in space above the ship giving details about its size, crew compliment and armaments. The captain looked around and saw Roberts leaning against a wall and nodded satisfactorily. "I think our government would be most pleased to see Alpha Coma lose some of its riches. What do you think, Roberts?"

Bald and gaunt, Roberts grinned and looked like a death's-head. "I think our government would be most pleased indeed, sir."

"Now, we need to get to her," mused the captain, stroking his pencil-thin moustache. "How far away is she?"

"Twenty light-hours," responded Computer in a monotone.

"Meaning that she'll have time to prepare for an emergency EQ jump and be out of range," commented Roberts.

"She must be between jump points," declared the captain. "On her course, how far is the nearest jump point for Alpha Coma?"

"Three light-hours," responded Computer.

"That's it, then," grumbled Roberts.

Firebrandt sighed, realizing there was only one option. Though Legacy was specially equipped for that option, it was expensive in Quinnium fuel. In the 30th century, the only deep space warfare between human colonies was conducted by privateers because an entire fleet of warships equipped for at-will EQ jumps would bankrupt a planet in less than a week.

"Prepare to jump to a position one kilometer off the Coma ship's stern," ordered Firebrandt. He grabbed a hand-rail along the wall.

"Calculated," responded Computer.

"Jump!" ordered the captain as he closed his eyes. In the space of a few seconds, he felt as though someone were hitting him repeatedly in the face. In a dream-like state he felt as though the tentacles of an Alpha Centauran were strangling him. He fought to hold onto the railing. As he was fighting, he realized the ship had already jumped. He blinked several times, struggling to focus on the hologram image. When his vision cleared, he gasped in spite of himself as a hepler pulse came from the stern of the Coma ship.

"Defense shields!" ordered the captain.

"Shields up," reported Computer as they were hurtled to the deck.

Roberts quickly pulled himself to his feet. "What's the matter you lazy scum dogs! Fire back, damn you!"

The two gunners manipulated their computer pads, entering their firing sequences. While slower than Computer's direct access, these trained gunners were more accurate.

The two human-built ships moved through space at tremendous speed. Each was a giant cylinder with an EQ generator glowing blue at the stern. The black, Erdonium hulls were bathed in the light of a nearby star. Shots flew from the hepler guns ringing the bow of Legacy and tore into the thruster pack ringing the Coma ship. One shot tore into the hull near the bow of the foreign ship where the bridge was located. The Coma ship returned fire.

"Starboard thrusters destroyed and damage to starboard gangway port," reported Computer.

The Legacy fired again scoring a hit on the EQ generator. On the hologram, Firebrandt saw that the Coma ship's engine glowed less brightly. The large freighter fired several more shots, clipping the hull of the privateer.

Sparks sputtered from one of the gunner's stations. The gunner leapt aside as the station burst into flame. The captain ordered fire crews onto the battle deck while the remaining gunner kept firing.

"Computer," called Firebrandt. "Assume control of starboard weapons and maintain firing!" The captain saw Computer's brow crease as he took over firing control. Computer might not be as accurate as the gunner, but it was better than losing half of Legacy's fire power.

A team of fire fighters stormed onto the battle deck. They sprayed the gunner's console using small, chemical extinguishers. Acrid smoke issued from the console.

"Second direct hit on enemy's EQ generator, sir!" shouted Computer over the din of the fire fighting crew.

"Another shot should do it," snarled the Captain.

The freighter started to turn. Roberts gulped, realizing it was possible that the large ship was bringing a large bow gun about.

"Evasive!" shouted the captain. The fire at the gunner's station was out.

"We're hardly moving, Captain," reported the helmsman.

"Ship's performance down 20%," came the monotone of Computer.

Roberts pounded the wall of the deck. He looked at the captain as a thought came to him. "The starboard gangway port!"

The captain turned to Computer. "Seal off deck 2, section 2. Open the starboard port!"

"Inadvisable, Captain. Opening the port will only damage it further."

"Open the damned port!" shouted the captain, waving smoke out of his face.

Computer nodded. As the port opened, air rushed out, swinging the ship out of range of the freighter's large gun. Roberts pointed to the holo and the gunner fired, destroying the Coma ship's gun.

The gunner turned his attention back to the freighter's EQ generator. The freighter shuddered spastically, struggling to return to course.

"I want the rest of those thrusters out of action," grumbled Firebrandt, waving at the smoke. He started to pace the deck.

"Aim amidships," Roberts ordered the gunner, then coughed. "Get those fans on in here!" he roared at the helmsman. As the acrid electrical smoke began to lift, Roberts could see two red pulses of energy strike the freighter amidships. The thruster pack exploded with fiery brilliance. Afterwards, the freighter lie immobile. The captain lit his pipe and studied the crippled ship.

"We knocked out her main gun, but she'll have others to fend off an approaching ship." The captain sucked the pipe stem. "Computer, using other Coma ships on record as a norm, what would be the range of the guns we have not destroyed?"

"Standard range for close proximity weapons is one half kilometer." Computer looked as if he were thinking for a moment. "I should also point out, sir, that the large gun we destroyed is not standard for Coma merchant ships."

The captain turned to the helmsman. "Bring us out to five kilometers distance. Fly us in a spiral pattern until we are one kilometer away from the Coma ship." Turning his attention to the gunner. "I want all of her short range armaments knocked out. Keep an eye out for surprises."

"Aye aye, sir," said the gunner.

The captain returned his attention to the holographic viewer. Legacy cleanly picked off the remaining guns on the hull of the freighter though she was moving far too sluggishly since the loss of her starboard thrusters. But, by the time the helmsman reported that they were one kilometer from the ship, all the guns on the freighter were destroyed.

"Helmsman, you may proceed with the docking procedure," ordered the captain.

"Preparing bow grappling ring," reported Computer.

"Mr. Roberts, assemble the men for boarding and meet me at the airlock." The captain tamped out his pipe and strode off the battle deck.

* * *

Roberts was at the airlock in Legacy's bow with a boarding party of twenty men when the captain arrived. The captain looked the brave, sturdy souls over. They had all been on raids with him before. Wordless, the captain moved in front of the airlock, then turned and faced the crew grinning confidently. Though his confidence was a ruse, it inspired the crew. Alpha Coma was a human colony. There would be no terrible aliens on the other side of the airlock. Firebrandt's crew had to know they were on the side of right.

The captain drew his sword and held it high. The crew let out a fierce battle yell then fell silent, waiting. Firebrandt drew a hepler pistol. At this signal, the pirates drew their own weapons. A bump could be felt as the ships met. Hands tensed.

Roberts moved to his captain's side. There was a sudden whoosh of air as the airlock doors opened. The captain and Roberts quickly blasted through the freighter's airlock. Poised on the other side was a small group of defenders. The boarding party charged headlong into the pulsed high energy weapons fire.

Swords tore into flesh, inspiring terror in the freighter's crew that "clean" hepler fire alone could not. Still, the helplers fired and flesh burned. Screams came from all sides and blood covered the deck of the freighter.

The captain stood, out of breath, amazed that the battle was over. His white blouse was torn and stained red. He looked around. All of the defenders were down. Including himself and Roberts, there were only four men from the privateer left standing.

"Victory is ours!" shouted one of the men.

Firebrandt growled at him. The man was silent. The captain turned to give instructions to Roberts, but Roberts was kneeling on the deck, staring in horror at the cauterized stump where his right hand once was. Firebrandt and his men dropped to their knees, scanning the passageways, looking to see where the shot came from. The two men covered the corridor while the captain moved to Roberts' side. Firebrandt helped Roberts to a sitting position against a wall. Firebrandt stood, hepler drawn, to face his new adversary.

A gray-haired woman emerged from the shadows at the far end of the deck. A scar ran from the edge of her mouth to her chin. She wore the uniform of a Lord High Admiral of Alpha Coma Berenices. In one hand, she held a sword. In the other, she held a hepler pistol. Behind her were a young man and a young woman, both in the uniforms of Alpha Coma Berenices. Firebrandt assumed that they were both flag lieutenants. "Order your men to drop their weapons!" shouted the admiral, her voice hoarse as though she had been shouting orders for most of the past hour.

"Looks like a stand off to me," growled Firebrandt.

A silent bolt of energy flew from a gun in the hand of the male flag lieutenant. One of Firebrandt's men fell to the deck with a gaping hole in his chest. "Not any more. Two of yours to my three," said the Admiral simply.

Firebrandt put his hand on the shoulder of his remaining crewmate. The man let his hepler clatter to the deck.

"Now, what is the meaning of the attack on this vessel?" demanded the Admiral, stepping to Firebrandt.

Firebrandt sneered. "I thought that it was against the articles of war for an admiral of any fleet to use a civilian vessel as a flag ship."

"Piracy brings the death penalty on Alpha Coma Berenices," the admiral answered.

"We are not under Coma's jurisdiction," growled Firebrandt.

The admiral looked into Firebrandt's eyes. "No?" She looked to the deck and at the walls of the ship. "Looks like you're in Coma's jurisdiction to me."

Firebrandt tried to raised the hepler but the female flag lieutenant sprang forward, kneeing him in the groin. The captain felt something pierce his skin as the lieutenant lowered him to the deck. He saw them step into Legacy as he blacked out.

* * *

Firebrandt awoke some time later, a sick pain throbbing throughout his body. Looking around, he saw that Roberts was gone, but bodies still littered the deck. The captain realized that he could not have been unconscious for very long. He tried to stand though his head still swam from the drug that had been injected into him. He staggered and fell on the slippery metal deck. After a second try he managed to cross back to the Legacy.

Aboard the privateer, there were no signs of battle. She was as clean as when he left her. Firebrandt made his way to the battle deck. Roberts was there alone, weak and pale, sitting in the corner. He was bandaged.

"What's happened?" asked Firebrandt. "Where is everyone? Where's Computer?"

"Those who didn't fall in action are my prisoners," came a gruff, female voice from the rear of the battle deck.

Firebrandt looked around to see the admiral. As Firebrandt moved toward her, the female flag lieutenant led Suki onto the battle deck. Firebrandt stopped. "You had better not harm her!" stated the captain, aiming his finger at the admiral.

"Harming her is the last thing on my mind," the admiral smiled a queer smile. "For some reason, she seems to love you."

"I do love him very much," Suki pleaded.

"What do you say, Firebrandt?" asked the Admiral.

"How do you know my name?" demanded the captain.

"Don't play those games with me, Firebrandt." She looked at Suki, then to Roberts. "And don't blame them. They are loyal to you. Damn it, everyone on this ship was loyal to you. They are all misguided fools!" The admiral walked up to Firebrandt and looked him over.

"So, what are you going to do with us?" asked Firebrandt.

"Ellison Firebrandt is known throughout this sector of the galaxy. Back home, they'd pin a medal on me if I had you executed." The admiral pursed her lips and contemplated Firebrandt's reaction. He was defeated and she knew it. His dream of a life of luxury and pleasant retirement shattered. "However, to destroy someone who is so well loved is virtually evil. I will let you go."

"What about my crew?" Firebrandt asked, numb.

"I will pardon the survivors and return them to their home planets."

Firebrandt looked at his feet. "What about us?"

"Under the articles of war I am allowed to take from your ship what I need. I've already stripped her of many parts, but she'll still fly. I will leave you with your ship and your supplies. I've disarmed your weapons. I want you out of this sector. With Roberts and Suki, you'll be able to manage the ship."

"Just barely," complained Roberts, nursing his severed hand.

"So much the better," grinned the admiral. "I want you to find a world to settle down on together." She paused for a moment. "I do this under one condition: That I never hear anything of raids by the pirate Firebrandt, ever again. If I see any of you in my jurisdiction again, I will not hesitate to execute you as war criminals."

Firebrandt nodded. "I understand."

The admiral turned to leave. Firebrandt rushed forward and grabbed her by the arm. "Wait a moment," he said. "I feel like I should know who you are."

"I'm sad to say, your father never gave us the chance to get to know each other." She laughed lightly at his perplexed expression. "I'm pleased to meet you," she said holding out her hand. "I'm Lord Admiral Barbara Firebrandt, your mother."

First published as Chapter 1 of the author's novel The Pirates of Sufiro, Commonwealth, 1997. The novel is currently available in a print-on-demand edition from Xlibris.



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Copyright 1997-2002 by David Lee Summers and Bewildering Stories.