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Here Be Dragons

This part originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue.

Chapter One

5712 CE / 1194 Imperial
Spinward Marches 0940 Singer D553774-6 Po
Somewhere in the outer star system

The sound of the battle stations klaxon jolted ensign Myra Brun awake. The blaring sound wasn’t the nicest way to wake up, but it was effective. She rolled out of her bunk and hit the floor standing, wide awake. The leggy blonde moved with a speed and precision that spoke of many hours of practice, not to mention a high level of fitness and coordination. At 1.78 meters (5 feet 10 inches) she was tall, with a lean athletic look. She ran a hand thru her short hair and looked at the clock on the wall. She groaned to herself, only three hours of sleep. But there was no time to find out if this was a drill or a real emergency. The assumption in the military was always that it was a real emergency. She threw open a locker door and pulled out a space suit. Dark blue, with a single silver strip on the cuffs, the tight fitting suit had a connector for her wrist comm. Pockets everywhere and a small pack on the back, containing air tanks. The other two bunks in the room were empty, so she didn’t have to worry about bumping into anyone as she put on her suit. One of the other ensigns she shared the room with would be in engineering. He was on first watch and it was his regular duty station. The third junior officer would be on his way to the missile magazine and the fire control station there. The small ship, the six-hundred-ton Oslo-class corvette Jorvik, didn’t even have an emergency bridge, much less a dedicated fire control center or damage control for that matter. In fact, Myra’s duty station would be standing in the hallway outside of engineering. At least until something needed to be fixed. She was on damage control/security when an alert sounded during first watch. As was typical of Sword World naval ships, even the smallest, the Jorvik’s crew was divided into three watches. The watch on duty manned the bridge and engineering. The next watch was off duty, while the last watch slept. During an emergency, the off-duty watch would man the ship’s weapons and re-enforce the bridge or engineering. The sleeping watch would handle damage control and if needed, defend the ship against boarders.

After she finished dressing, including tools and a handgun, she grabbed her helmet and hurried to her post, in the hallway. It wasn’t far, of course; on a ship this small, nothing was far. On top of that, the Jorvik was, like most Sword Worlder designs, a tight, cramped ship. When she arrived, it looked like everyone was there: two petty officers, and six able spacers. So, she keyed her comm and reported “Bridge, damage control ready.” After a brief acknowledgement the captain announced over all comm channels, “All stations ready, depressurize the ship.” Myra sealed her helmet and hooked a carabiner on her belt to one of the safety lines on the wall. She looked to make sure the others were also ready. Pressurized spacecraft were basically metal balloons. If they got a hole, like from a laser or missile hit, the air tended to explode out. Removing the air prevented that. It also helped prevent fires onboard. No air, no fire. Her suit started to stiffen as the pressure began to drop. From this point on, only sickbay would have air.

With her immediate responsibilities taken care of, she brought up her heads-up display and started to find out what was going on. She called up a mirror of the ship’s tactical display. They had been patrolling near the only gas giant in the system. Singer was a poor system, with a fairly low level of technology, about where Earth was at the dawn of pre-stellar space flight. So while they had rockets and could build nukes, they couldn’t even detect anything much beyond their own world’s orbit. That’s why the Jorvik was there. The ship was a mercenary (on paper, anyway), hired by the governments of Singer to patrol and defend the parts of their star system that they couldn’t. The reality was, they were a ship of the Sword Worlds Confederation Navy. The confederation had created a ‘mercenary’ force called the Viking Legion. The name had caused a lot of concern amongst their neighbors at first. Especially since the Sword Worlders were, mostly, descendants of the original Vikings from old Earth. People feared that they were looking to restart old, bad habits, in spite of the fact that those ancestors had been civilized by the rest of Earth’s standards for … well, call it well over 2,000 years by the time starflight was possible.

But after almost sixty years, the Viking Legion had earned an honorable reputation. They were yet to sack a monastery or raid a defenseless village. Just the opposite, they spent almost their entire time defending others—from infantry platoons guarding small settlements, to squadrons of starships protecting vulnerable star systems. The Viking Legion was the force to call for reasonably-priced protection. The Sword World Confederation got more than money out of it, though. The army, navy and marines got priceless real world experience for their personnel. And the Government got even more priceless good will and political capital.

At the moment, this got the Jorvik and her crew into a dangerous position. Being dirt poor meant the Singer system wasn’t able to afford much. Aside from some upgrades to their planetary defenses, all they could afford was one ship to patrol the outer system. This meant the Jorvik was on its own. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem. The Singer system was out-of-the-way, with not much worth stealing. Unfortunately, in this day and age, not all threats operated by what humans would recognize as logic. What the MSS (Mercenary Star Ship) Jorvik had spotted refueling in the gas giant was one such threat: A vampire ship.

These days, a vampire ship didn’t mean a ship full of blood-drinking undead. It was something much worse: a ship whose computers had been taken over by the artificially intelligent virus that had destroyed countless worlds. The ultimate weapon that had ended the last Imperial civil war by ending the Imperium—and most of Charted Space. And most living things, for that matter, in the areas it had taken over. This was THE VIRUS, all caps, run-and-hide-or-fight-for-your-life Virus. And it had come to Singer.

Undoubtedly, the controlling artificial intelligence had its reasons for coming to this unimportant backwater. Most likely it had come to destroy or enslave a vulnerable world of hated organic life forms. How it had managed to get this far past the heavily-defended frontiers was a better question. While the frontiers were guarded as well as possible, there were gaps. And a clever enemy could get through. It happened on occasion; the Virus-controlled ships were beyond clever, after all. The major powers in the area usually kept it secret, so as not to cause panic. But it was rare these days for one to pass the frontiers. And getting this far past the frontier without anyone noticing was rarer still. Singer was literally months travel from the closest border. At the moment, though, none of that really mattered. What mattered was that it was here. And the only thing stopping the vampire ship from standing off at a distance and bombarding singer into the Stone Age was the MSS Jorvik and her crew.

When the Jorvik had first spotted an unscheduled ship skimming hydrogen for fuel in the gas giant’s atmosphere it had moved to investigate. As they got closer they saw it was a Broadsword-class mercenary cruiser. At eight hundred tons it wasn’t much larger than Jorvik. And a fellow mercenary. At least that was what they thought until they tried to communicate with it. The reply to their hails was a compressed data package. Which drove the comm station insane and set off every viral alarm it had. Fortunately, according to the standard antivirus protocols, the comm station wasn’t connected to anything else on the ship. In fact it even had it’s own independent power supply. Simply shutting the comm station’s power down and switching to the backup stopped the infection from spreading to the rest of the ship. But then the intruder had turned and started to head toward them. Battle was about to be joined.

The Broadsword-class ships were an old design, built by the Imperium to transport small units of mercenaries and act as general purpose warships. They were mediocre at best at most tasks, including ship-to-ship combat. But being taken over by Virus gave it several advantages: after over seventy years, most of the vampire ships had replaced their human crews with robots, direct computer control or more often a combination of the two. Most of them had also upgraded their systems as much as possible. This meant they usually had the best sensors and electronics possible. Consequently they reacted like lightning and their weapon fire was literally inhumanly accurate.

The smaller Oslo-class corvettes had their own advantages, though: They were designed for space combat against an opponent that outnumbered them and had higher technology. To offset these disadvantages they were as heavily armed and armored as possible. It was one of the reasons Sword Worlder ships tended to be so cramped and Spartan for the crews. They sacrificed comfort for combat power and protection.

As Myra watched the two ships began launching missiles at each other, Jorvik’s eight launchers verses the enemies sixteen. The humans had something else in their favor though. One of Jorvik’s weapon mounts was a large dual particle accelerator turret, a powerful system for such a small ship. More importantly, the two energy canons were much longer ranged then the more standard laser weapons. Lasers had their uses. At short range they could be devastating. They were also used in a defensive role, to stop attacking missiles. Lasers were also cheaper; the corvette had eight of them, mounted in two turrets. Soon the lasers would be used to try and destroy the missiles headed towards them. But before either ship’s missiles could reach their targets, the particle accelerators opened fire. Myra would watch as long as she could, soon she would be too busy trying to repair damage.

As the battle developed, it was clear the two ships were evenly matched. Jorvik’s missiles couldn’t get through the vampire’s defensive fire. But while Jorvik couldn’t stop all of the vampires missiles, the missiles couldn’t penetrate her armor. They had to hit the same spots over and over again in order to wear down the corvette’s thick hide. But they had plenty of missiles to do just that. On the other hand, Jorvik’s accelerators could punch through the other ship’s armor at will. But the two weapons fired as one. Which meant they could only hit one thing at a time. And the larger ship had more targets to hit. Eventually both ships pounded each other into wrecks. The vampire ran out of functioning weapons and its maneuver drive gave out. But its last missile volley managed to score a direct hit on Jorvik’s power plant. They were both drifting in space. The scrappy defender and the inhuman monster glared at each other as they slowly tumbled away from each other. Each waiting to see who could repair themselves enough to finish off the other first.

The monster won.