Big, Bad Ships from Outer Space
by Jason Lairamore
A retired Grand Master of the space fleet thought his time in the captain’s chair was over, that he could finally spend more time with his wife and cook fancy meals for her, but… he was wrong.
Jason Lairamore is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who lives in Oklahoma with his beautiful wife and their three monstrously marvelous children. He is a 2023 Baen Fantasy Award finalist. He has also won Writer of the Future honors with fourteen honorable mentions, one silver honorable mention, and a semi-finalist. His work is both featured and forthcoming in over 100 publications to include Neo-Opsis, New Myths, Stupefying Stories, and Third Flatiron publications, to name a few.
Other TTTV stories by Jason Lairamore:
An alarm sounded and all my old mental habits kicked in automatically. Without a thought I was out of the stateroom and running toward the bridge. I was halfway down the hall before forcing myself to skid to a stop.
That wasn’t my job anymore.
I had a nice dinner prepared for my Amanda and me. It was good to be able to dote on her and be the attentive husband I had never been able to be when I was commander of the star fleet.
“ATTACK STATIONS” the computerized voice of the ship’s AI sounded.
An officer should have made that announcement. What was the AI doing calling the ship to arms?
With a cold feeling in my gut, I started running again.
The bridge was locked up tight when I reached the door. It only took a single word, a word given to me by the Unified Space Council when I had been named Honorary Grand Master of the fleet, to gain entry.
I entered the officer’s control room and froze.
Nobody was there. My Amanda, an officer on this very bridge, was missing.
Again, my years of training and my long years of experience kicked in of their own accord. Using vocal commands, I turned the metal walls of the bridge transparent.
And saw something I had never seen before.
Our ships were sitting idle in deep space. We should have been blazing, still accelerating toward that little moon mission control had debriefed us all on before take-off.
The ship I was in wasn’t the helm of our flying arrangement. Three other ships were farther ahead. The one at the tip of our V formation, our greatest war engine, was being towed inside the belly of a great, black, square-shaped ship. Other similar behemoths were approaching our other vessels.
I leaped to the captain’s chair and punched in my Grand Master code. The AI informed me that all the ships, with the exception of the battle cruiser, which it could not contact, were still fully manned with the exception of their command posts. The bridges of all the remaining ships were empty and locked up tight.
My fingers danced across the various control boards. My voice issued one monotone command after another. We had nine ships in the convoy. Only three of the remaining eight ships were equipped for fighting. I wasted no time in getting the defenseless ships out of harm’s way.
As the five ships that could not take part in the fight reversed engines, I moved one fighter above the line of black ships and one below. My ship, I left right in the middle of the fray.
The black ships stopped advancing the instant my ships started moving.
I felt a pulling in the pit of my stomach and my vision became fuzzy.
“Emergency 451,” I managed to say in a voice no louder than a whisper.
The bridge door at my back slammed shut as another alarm rang through the ship. I raised my hands in front of my face and watched them go from semi-transparent to solid as the pressure in my stomach released.
451 was the code used for electronic storms and erratic radiation fields that could damage the ship’s mechanical functions. I had, in effect, hardened the hull. I had also severed my connections to all my sensors and the other ships.
I put my ship in an erratic backwards flight pattern then manually started connecting the systems I most needed. Now I knew what had happened to the officers on the bridge. Those black ships had a dematerializing beam of some kind. Nausea tightened my gut and brought bile to my throat. I couldn’t help but think that my Amanda was gone forever.
Sight was most important. I got hard-lines from the ship’s external feeds to put up a visual on the big screen in the front of the room. The black ships weren’t firing an attack yet, but they were closing on me and my two other fighters.
I got my targeting system on line and fired a single shot. I didn’t aim at the approaching black ship. Instead, I shot at the open loading bay that had our big, battle cruiser more than halfway engulfed.
I smiled tightly when my missile blew a hole in the open mouth of the ship eating our cruiser.
The black ships still didn’t retaliate with an answering volley. I knew they possessed technology we had yet to master. I assumed, given my woefully disadvantaged position, that they would simple blow me to bits and be about their heinous operation.
“The black ships are pinging a communication signal off our hull,” the AI said.
I considered the black ship still advancing on me. The monstrous ship didn’t have the maneuverability I had. I could keep up this cat and mouse routine for as long as my fuel lasted or until it decided to open fire. With the rest of the convoy hanging in the balance, that wouldn’t cut it.
“As soon as you lower the shield I want you to fire a hot-spot transmitter to our battle cruiser. We need that ship. Rip it out of that black monster’s maw if you can,” I said to the AI.
I paused. Here was the part I couldn’t do, not as a husband. My Amanda might still be alive. She could very well be a prisoner on the black ships. That was my only hope, and I was about to give an order that would destroy even that meager thread of a possibility.
“If you win the cruiser free, I want you to fire her entire arsenal at the black ships. Set a five minute timer reversible only by my order.”
“Yes Grand Master,” the AI said.
“Send out all our scanner drones too, for cover,” I said. “And be ready to re-enact 451 at the slightest sign of funny business.”
“Grand Master, I am unable to detect the technology that affected the bridge.”
I sighed. It was a chance I was going to have to take.
“Then keep your ears open and be ready to raise the shields.”
“I can do that Grand Master.”
I didn’t have time to think of what kind of creature I might suddenly see pop up on the screen. Man had yet to encounter another intelligent race. I had seen any number of other alien life forms though, and they had all been strange. I assumed my mind wouldn’t be able to grasp what I was looking at. That’s what happened when the brain encountered something it had never seen before. There was no frame of reference.
I wasn’t disappointed. I was confused at the creature on the screen.
General Battry, the commander of our expedition, a friend, and someone I had personally trained, stood before me with his hands on his hips as he tried for an imposing posture.
“Who are you?” he asked. All I could see in his eyes was anger.
“I’m Peking Duck,” I said as a half dozen drones and the hot-spot shot out from my ship.
“Peking Duck,” the General said. “Your commanders are our prisoner. Surrender.”
A spark of bitter-sweet dread thrilled up and down my spine. Amanda was alive and, if my plan worked out, I was about to kill her.
My drones went offline one after another. All I had been able to find out was where, maybe, their engine ports were located.
I fired all of my remaining missiles at the possible exhaust ports the drones had identified.
“You don’t know this duck,” I said.
“Surrender or we kill the prisoners,” the General said. The anger in his voice was pronounced and fiery. I saw no sign of fear or worry in the man’s face.
I gave no thought to how the aliens had sucked out the General’s brains. All I could think about was Amanda, of our life together, and of how after all my long years of exploring the cosmos that it was about to end.
“I want to look in the eye of the wretched species that would attack a peaceful exploration convoy,” I said. I couldn’t keep the repulsion and disgust out of my voice, and I didn’t try.
Surprisingly, the General nodded. Before he left the view screen, his eyes dropped in what I could only define as shame.
It was strange, but this whole affair was the strangest thing I had ever been a part of.
My rockets struck home and still the black ships didn’t fire at me.
An alien entered my screen. The creature was half the General’s height and purple. Its three eyes were on little stalks extending from the top of its furry head. Spindly, almost squid-like arms stuck out from its thick, tubular trunk. I didn’t count its legs, but there were over a dozen that fanned out from the bottom of its long body.
A sputtering sound came from its mouth and I frowned.
“That’s the name of our home world,” it said, “the moon you are headed toward. We are its defense team against attack.”
“We didn’t attack,” I said.
Its three eyes weaved around, each in its own little circle.
“Others have. We aren’t war-like, but we’ve had to learn. We aren’t going to hurt you or your people, I promise.”
I just stared at the thing.
“We have done this before. Once we discover a species is coming, we take their ships and change the memories of all on board. We wipe the minds and computers clean of our existence and of this planet’s viability. Then we send them back home.”
The big battle cruiser’s engines fired and a countdown started on my console.
“Not this time,” I said.
The creature’s three eyes bulged out and its squishy arms undulated. The pit of my stomach pulled and I yelled out the emergency code.
As I steadied myself, I looked at the scrolling timer on my console. The cruiser had weapons that would obliterate those black ships. In mere minutes, my Amanda and all those other officers would die.
But, the rest of the convoy would be safe.
“Lower the shield and hail them,” I told the AI.
“Yes Grand Master.”
I prepared myself to once again raise the shield, but hoped I wouldn’t have to. Maybe the aliens had figured out what I had done and could figure out the capabilities of the battle cruiser.
“Don’t destroy us,” the alien said by way of greeting.
It was like all the air holding me up suddenly released. I smiled at the thing.
All its limbs and its three eyes were in motion.
“We come in peace,” I said. It seemed a fitting start. I might as well lead with a classic.
The thing’s undulations lessened a trifle. I considered my next move. I didn’t have much time to decide. We had to come to terms, or the battle’s cruiser’s missiles were going to destroy everything I loved.
“Send my people back to me and we will leave and never come back,” I said.
The creature’s three eyes did a little dance.
“We cannot. We have no guarantees,” it said.
I couldn’t lose my Amanda, not after all this, not when she was so close to being set free.
“Our mission is exploratory,” I said. “We mean you no harm.”
If my voice was full of desperation, which I knew it was, I didn’t care. The clock was ticking, literally.
“Every other race we have encountered has been awful,” the thing said.
I didn’t have time to argue with this creature. No, humans weren’t perfect and we knew all about war, but I hoped, dearly, that we had learned a thing a two from all the mistakes we’d made, not that this thing would understand, or that I had the time to give it a full accounting of our history.
“In three minutes I will open fire,” I said. “I don’t want it to. We have to come to an agreement.”
The thing’s eyes did their little dance again.
“You will follow us to our home world. There, we will have further discussion,” it said.
“And my people you have captured?” I asked.
“We keep until further talks.”
I stopped the negative answer that came unbidden to my lips. The convoy had planned on heading there anyway, and if these creatures were willing to relent on their mission to stop us outright, then maybe the situation could be salvaged. There was the problem, though, of the convoy flying into enemy hands. I had no guarantees that they wouldn’t try something new once we arrived.
All told, it was a risk, but I didn’t see any other way short of violence, and Amanda’s death.
“On one condition,” I said. “I want one of our people, an officer named Amanda Clair, sent back to me as a show of good faith. I need to know that our people are really alright.”
“Acceptable,” the thing said.
I held my breath as Amanda materialized right in front of me. She stood in her crisp officer’s uniform looking every bit as beautiful as the day I first met her. Her curly brown hair with its gray-shot streaks shook as her head turned in every direction. She saw me stand up from the captain’s chair and frowned.
“Wade, what’s going on? Where is everybody? One second I was sitting at my station thinking about what you were making for dinner, the next I’m standing here.”
I nodded. My heart ached at the sight of her. On some deeper level, I had thought her lost forever, and here she was.
“You’re here now,” I said. My own words brought an ache to my chest.
“We have an agreement,” I said to the view screen.
Her eyes followed mine and she gasped.
“What is that?”
The creature’s three eyes weaved in a different pattern than before and the screen went black. I contacted the AI and stopped the countdown for the battle cruiser’s attack. I had it contact the other five ships that I had sent sailing and told it to bring them back in the fold. I told it to open the bridge and inform the off duty officers there of the situation.
“You know what to do if you see anything fishy?” I asked it.
“Yes Grand Master.”
“Wade?” Amanda asked. I could tell I had reached the end of her patience.
I gave her my elbow and she took it.
“I’ll explain everything while we eat,” I said. “I made duck.”