Smartbomb noun /ˈsmɑːrt ˌbɑːm/ a point-blank explosive weapon designed to deliver the widest possible area of devastation, effecting crippling, if not fatal, damage to everything within range, friend or foe.
The captain issued the order to arm the weapons and load the turrets. The massive ship was still travelling at warp speed and red alert sirens were reverberating throughout the vessel.
Until now, no one in the gun crew had expected to see any fighting on this mission. None of them had ever seen so many smartbombs loaded into the hold for any combat mission. The consensus was they were delivering them somewhere. They must be, they had thought. Somewhere that only a well-armed battleship could deliver them.
The crew scrambled to their posts, jogging through long narrow passageways as they donned their ear protection. In space, explosions make no sound. But smartbombs detonate at close range. Fragments from a victim ship’s hull concuss against a battleship like a drum. So loud in the lower decks, you’d think the whole ship was coming apart at the bulkheads.
Three decks above, no jokes were being told in the targeting room. Even those serving their third tour onboard this ship had never seen more than one or two of its weapon turrets fitted to deliver smartbombs. But on this mission, six of the available eight turrets were equipped to deliver the terrifying devices.
The sirens are silenced, but the ship still stands at red alert. Every operational compartment is bathed in deep crimson. The captain orders the ship to drop out of warp.
The targeting crew had little work to do at their stations. Smartbombs are “target-less,” brute-force weapons. They checked their math. Six turrets, 15 second reload times. They could deliver one of these bombs once every 2.5 seconds until their target succumbed, was vaporized, or they ran out of ammunition.
Down below, the gun crew was sensitive to the familiar shudder that Apocalypse class ships make when they decelerate out of warp. They knew that once out of warp, it could get very loud, very fast.
As the massive hulk of the battleship shuddered below light speed, a few of the targeting displays blinked off then on. The crew wondered to themselves, what could we be targeting with this much juice?
Unlike battleships, a typical privately-owned blockade runner, had a crew that was very small, close-knit, and rarely privy to the contents of its cargo hold. But on this particular blockade runner, Marilene Pardoux, now 37, has been the ship’s engineer for well over 15 years and does know everything that happens onboard. Pardoux and the captain were close. So it seemed very mysterious indeed to Pardoux that the captain was so secretive about their cargo on this particular mission. When Pardoux pried a bit, the captain replied in his best big-brother tone, “It’s all on the cargo manifest, Marilene.”
Pardoux didn’t like that tone.
Pardoux had already examined the cargo manifest. The hold should contain, among other typical station supplies, 60 cubic meters of frozen Gallentean skirt fish. But that was not the only concerning detail about this mission.
Pardoux’s eyes scanned the deep black outside the cockpit window. The ship lay almost still, its scanners running full tilt, using every available moment to assess their environment before they lost the temporary protection of their gate cloak. Satisfied, the captain ordered engines up. Pardoux pressed the controls aligning the ship toward their last system of the Genesis region.
Once out of Genesis, they had just one more region to traverse, then two jumps inside the next before reaching their final destination.
For Pardoux, this trip was what he and the captain referred to as a “working mission” where most of the ship’s maneuvers were performed manually. On normal trips, the ship is on autopilot and Pardoux’s feet are planted on his console, something his added weight suggested he might be doing a little too often.
As busy as they were piloting the blockade runner, Pardoux could not keep pondering the mystery of the skirt fish. The logo on their secure containers was familiar. Pardoux was sure it was the golden symbol of the Ishukone Corporation. Though the logo does resemble an angel fish,
Pardoux was certain the Ishukone Corporation did not have a fishing subsidiary.
But what was most troubling, about those skirt fish, was that on every prior hauling mission involving perishable cargo, the captain asked, at least once a day, “Have you checked the hold temperature Marilene? Are you keeping an eye on it?” They picked up this cargo at the end of January, a little more than a month ago, and the captain hadn’t asked that question even once. That manifest was a lie.
The brand new Concord police cruiser was cleared for undock. Seated at his console, Lesit Dane pressed his hand into his knee to prevent it from skipping up and down in the darkness below the status screens. This is his first command assignment. The young Dane had spent the past 22 weeks training into this class of ship and now he was commanding one. His was one in a squad of three undocking from the largest police command center in the cluster.
He felt the brief change in gravity, like the slowing of an elevator, as the station released its docking hold on the ship.
It was this station where the Directive Enforcement Department (DED) trained most of its plebe officers on new equipment. It’s an area of space unchallenged by criminals and rogue capsuleers due to its dense police presence. A perfect constellation for newly minted officers to get their space legs.
Dane hoped his nerves would calm once they cleared the space dock, beyond the direct gaze of his superiors. He knew they would be watching the trio undock. And from the station’s observation deck high above the maintenance gantry, Dane was right.
Admittedly, his squad was given a milk toast assignment for his first day in command. They will be stationing themselves just outside the Ourapheh gate to set up a check point for random cargo and ship inspections. In low security regions of space this kind of assignment can get pretty exciting. But in Ourapheh, one jump from the DED station itself, they will be lucky to find anything worse than an unlicensed slaver hound.
As the three cruisers cleared the confines of the station, Dane’s leg muscles relaxed at once and he imagined that his few gunners, one deck below, were probably already asleep.
Skirt fish are common. It’s the main ingredient in a very sweet, popular dish named after an old royal nicknamed the Blue Prince. According to the story, that name followed the blue prince through childhood after he was born with a rare oxygen deficiency that quite literally gave his skin a bluish tint.
Not only is the meat of skirt fish very sweet, it is also higher in iron than most foods, making it a perfect dietary supplement for a king and queen to order for their young anemic child with high expectations but low hemoglobin levels.
Other than the fact that this fish wasn’t a cargo that the Faint Memory of the Nouvelle Rouvenor II has ever hauled before, Pardoux could think of nothing else special about it.
Long distance hauling missions like this one consist mainly of extended, almost boring, periods of time spent warping between stargates. Those periods though, are bookended by brief, intense periods of work while approaching and leaving the stargates. Those moments can be exciting, but it’s the boredom in between that kills you.
Pardoux piped up in the dead quiet of the flight deck, “I’m getting kind of hungry. Are you, Shabaud?” The captain did not look up from his reading.
“You know what I could go for right now? Some old fashioned cooking, maybe something with fish.”
Captain en Issier put his data pad down in his lap and rested his gaze outside the cockpit window. “Really Marilene?” he said, without moving his eyes from the glass. “And I’ll bet what you’d really like right now is something made with skirt fish, right?”
“No, I was actually thinking salmon. But now that you’ve brought up the subject of skirt fish…”
“Captain,” interrupted the ship’s onboard navigation system, “we are coming out of warp soon. There is absolutely zero indication of any ships destroyed at the next gate. This is however, a larger than normal police presence assembled there. Just thought you might like a head’s up.” “Thank you, ALLISON,” the captain replied.
“Why does ALLISON have the impression that you’d care about a police presence at the next gate?”
“Marilene, just get the scanners ready. We should start to prepare for the next jump.”
The blockade runner’s warp engines began to spool down.
“Lieutenant, a blockade runner just dropping out of warp,” Dane’s logistics officer blurted. “Thank you Forsan, start the ship and cargo scans on him while I check on the others,” Dane replied, turning to the radio.
“Flight two, are you almost done onboard that Badger yet?” Dane asked into his microphone.
The response came back, “Almost Dane. I mean, Flight Leader, sir. We did not observe anything out of specification in their hold, but I’m afraid we may have a situation brewing over here. We’ve discovered a half empty case of expired milk in the chill locker. You uh, want us to haul ’em down to the station, or you think we could just let him off with a warning. Your call, Flight Leader.”
Those guys are too funny, Dane thought. “Marc, we have a blockade runner just warped on-grid, I’m going to hail its captain. We’re scanning him now. Just bring your boarding crew back, OK?”
“Roger, Flight Leader. Will do. But give me an extra minute. I’m gonna have my guys gear up first, in case we have to board him. You can’t be too careful with blockade runners. They might be smuggling chests of Amarrian spitballs from null-sec.”
Captain en Issier ended his radio call with the police lieutenant and removed his headset. “Bring the engines offline Marilene, they said they may be boarding us.”
“Boarding us? For what? I thought they needed just cause for boarding. Are you going to tell me what’s in those Ishukone Corporation crates now?”
“It isn’t the crates, Marilene. Those crates are double wrapped. Unscannable,” the captain said. “They said their scanners detected illegal drone equipment onboard.”
“What drone equipment? We don’t have any…”
“Where’s Parrot,” the captain interrupted. “Get him on the flight deck. I need to talk to him.”
“He’s in his quarters, I’ll call him now.”
“Marilene, before he gets up here, I need to tell you, there aren’t skirt fish in those Ishukone crates.”
“Really? What is it then? Should I be concerned?”
“Maybe. If the DED finds anything. But if they do, their first action will be to bring me aboard their ship for arrest, and tractor the Rouvenor in for impound. If they do that, I will understand if you want to run. When they take me over to their cruiser, before the tractor beam is up, you have my blessing to take the Rouvenor and try to escape. You may only have a few seconds.”
“What might they find? What kind of prison time are we talking about?”
“Blueprints. Stolen blueprints, I think. They did not give me all the details. But Ishukone paid me extremely well to make them disappear for a few weeks, and move them. From what I gather, the corporation may have smuggled them from some Caldari-Gallente research effort called the Crallire Project, or the Crielere Project, or something, I am not sure,” the captain explained. “But if we are intercepted before we can deliver them, CONCORD will certainly turn the blueprints back over to the Gallente, and Ishukone have already implied that they will deny any involvement and press charges against me for the theft.”
“Is there anything you need me to do before we are boarded then?”
“Don’t panic yet, the DED doesn’t know anything about the Ishukone crates, they are interested in something else… “
Before he could continue, A.D. Parrot, the ship’s analyst of 13 and a half years, arrived on the flight deck.
The captain acknowledged Parrot with a glance, and then looked at Pardoux. “Marilene, could you excuse us for a few minutes? Have you checked the hold temperature lately? Why don’t you go check on it, and be sure everything is stowed properly before the DED gets here.”
“You got it, Shabaud.” Marilene stood and headed off the flight deck, greeting Parrot in passing. “How’s it goin’, Parrot?”
“A.D.,” the captain began. “I think the gentle police lieutenant parked just off our bow may be interested in making a souvenir of ALLISON. They are about to board us.”
A.D. Parrot, as he is now known, was hired on to the crew of the Faint Memory of the Nouvelle Rouvenor II back in YC92. What he brought with him was no less than astonishing to Captain Shabaud en Issier at the time. Within days of coming aboard, A.D. Parrot had installed and brought to life an honest to goodness, working artificial lifeform that he created, and called ALLISON.
“The ALLISON” as en Issier referred to her in the beginning, was capable of obtaining information not yet in range of ships scanners. It was capable of determining the best course of action in situations that, without it, would have had career-ending consequences. In short, as time passed, “she” eventually made the Faint Memory of the Nouvelle Rouvenor II and her captain legendary in certain circles.
The captain had known the two most important things he had to know about Parrot before he brought him on. First, Parrot was not his real name. He was a man running from something, or from someone, which was okay with him. Captain Shabaud en Issier himself did not have the cleanest history with the law, and bringing someone on board that had something to hide made perfect sense when you run a ship that, more often than not, also has something to hide in its cargo bay. There is a sort of mutual protection there that en Issier appreciated.
The second thing he knew was that the ALLISON was based on some sort of stolen technology. Though Parrot never offered any details about where the technology came from, en Issier had seen and heard enough over the past 13 years that he was now pretty certain it came from Gallente research.
“We may get some excitement on my first day after all, Marc,” Dane said, back on the radio again. “I just got off with the blockade runner. They have been notified that we intend to board. Forsan believes there could possibly be some kind of illegal artificial intelligence development work onboard. He says the scanner shows the signature of some drone components that have been flagged by CONCORD.
“Are you sure your data pad isn’t upside down?” Marc replied.
“It could be that, or it could be something else. We won’t know until we see it. Please get your crew ready to check it out.”
“Acknowledged. We’ll be ready in under four minutes.”
Wow, thought Dane, that’s some progress. No wisecrack, no joke. He could get used to this.
At that moment, Forsan chirped up. “We may have a little more excitement today. We have just been notified by DED that we have been designated as response team four, one system over, at the Tourier gate. There is chatter on the radio about criminal capsuleer activity there. We could be called into action at any moment!”
“Forsan, when was the last time you heard of them actually activating the fourth response team? You do understand that for them to call on us, the fourth group, they would have already dispatched six other cruisers and two battleships to the scene? And then those eight ships would then need to call for additional backup.”
“It is just my duty to inform you sir,” Forsan said.
“Acknowledged. Just don’t get too excited about it. Let’s deal with reality and see what’s on that blockade runner!”
The Only Copy
“A.D., we are being held by the DED at this gate because their scanners picked up what they called ‘flagged drone components’ suggesting, they tell me, possible violations of artificial intelligence research, and that, so they say, gives them just cause to search the ship.”
“I see,” Parrot replied.
“We both know that the flagged components they are talking about are ALLISON, right? You stole some of those components from CreoDron, didn’t you?”
“I am sure that’s the case,” confirmed Parrot. “So are we going to run?”
“Run? I don’t think so. I don’t plan on letting them search this ship either. Just stay calm. We have a few minutes before any police are onboard.”
The captain reached over to the navigation system control panel and snapped ALLISON’s power switch off. “I want you to get ALLISON shut down and backed up. I plan on turning the components over to…”
“Backed up? What do you mean backed up? I can shut her down, but I can’t back her up. I can’t copy her! I have tried. All I get is code that talks, but no personality, no life, no ALLISON!”
“You mean she, I mean that, is the only copy? On those components?”
“I’m working on it! I just haven’t figured it out yet. I will,” Parrot replied.
“Well unless you figure it out in the next several minutes, you may lose her, A.D., I do not want to spend my retirement years in prison.”
Parrot reached for the nav panel and turned ALLISON back on. “She may as well be here for it, Shabaud, whatever happens.”
“Captain, what is going on?” ALLISON asked.
“Nothing, ALLISON,” Parrot replied before the captain had a chance to speak, “everything’s fine.”
“Should I be worried?”
“Now we’re talking!” Forsan exclaimed as he ripped off his headphones. “Lieutenant! We’ve been called, they want us to return to Yulai, at the Tourier gate asap!”
“What?” asked Dane. It was all he could say. The shock of the moment, and his simple response to it, made him lose his concentration. He made a mental note that he’d better start working on a better response in moments like these. Something more captain-ly sounding.
“It’s a criminal capsuleer, they’ve got a real live one putting up a fight! We’re in!” Forsan said, now standing in front of his console. “Let’s cut this blockade runner loose!”
“No way, Forsan. He’s coming with us! This is going to best the best first day any DED cruiser pilot has ever seen. We will both have promotions when this is over!”
“Orders, sir?” Forsan asked coming to attention. Dane could definitely get used to this.
“Get on the radio with that blockade runner, tell him to fleet up with us immediately, or we open fire, and sound like you mean it. I’ll radio Marc and have him ready his ship for warp. Oh, and tell Dannai to wake the gunners up.”
No sooner was Forsan off the radio with the blockade runner, his radio lit up again. “Sir, that was dispatch, they are ordering us to push off immediately. There are officers down in Yulai, at the Tourier gate, two DED cruisers are destroyed and a one of our battleships is taking heavy damage!”
“What?” Dane said again.
The trio of police cruisers landed in Yulai at the Ourapheh gate. They were followed, seconds later, by the Faint Memory of the Nouvelle Rouvenor II.
“Where are we going, Shabaud?” asked Pardoux taking a seat next to the captain.
“I don’t know, but when three DED cruisers invite you to fleet up, it isn’t good for your long term health to say no.”
“At least we are headed in the right direction,” quipped Shabaud. “But I have to say, being in Yulai, under forced police escort, doesn’t really have the kind of vibe I usually look for.”
ALLISON interrupted, “Captain, there have been nearly two dozen kills in as many minutes at the Tourier gate inside this system. Over half a dozen of the casualties include DED police cruisers, and one DED battleship. Please check my monitor for details.”
The four ships aligned in unison, and without so much as a glance at their local scanners, the DED cruisers warped off in the direction of the Tourier gate, with the Rouvenor in tow.
“What is she talking about A.D.?” the captain asked, swinging around in his chair to face the back of the flight deck. “I think ALLISON is going haywire. It’s impossible to destroy a DED battleship in this day and age. It’s YC106 for Bob’s sake!”
“Captain, I recommend immediate disengagement and a course correction,” ALLISON now warned louder. “A second DED battleship has just been destroyed at our destination.”
“What, Captain? What do you want me to say? I think we should do what she says,” Parrot suggested.
“You think if we break fleet with the DED, they will just say, ‘Ok fellas, fly safe! We’ll see you later!'”
“Well I don’t know what they will do,” Pardoux broke in, “but if DED battleships cannot stand up against whatever lies at the other side of this warp, then we certainly can’t.”
“Captain, a third DED battleship has just been destroyed at our destination,” ALLISON said. “I strenuously suggest that you come up with a plan. We will be arriving at our destination in approximately 15 seconds.”
“Ideas?” the captain asked.
The small Rouvenor crew sat in silence for a moment. No one spoke.
“We will be arriving at our destination in approximately 5 seconds,” ALLISON reported, in a voice that, for the first time Parrot could recall, sounded a bit nervous. “Captain, please.”
“All right ALLISON! Enough. I am dropping fleet now. Marilene, pick a celestial and get us ready for warp as soon as we land. A.D., say a prayer to Bob. But make it a short one.”
The DED trio landed approximately 6,000 meters from the Tourier gate, the blockade runner landed just 1,000 meters behind that. They could see on grid with them were two other DED cruisers, a DED battleship, and three Apocalypse class Amarrian battleships.
The Amarrian ship closest to the gate was taking fire from all three DED ships. The other two Amarrian ships appeared to be reinforcing the first with remote repair modules.
“Warp Marilene, now!” the captain commanded.
But just as the blockade runner turned to align, a bright light emanated in all directions from the Amarrian Apocalypse followed by an enormous explosion.
A large fragment of Dane’s hull came straight toward the Rouvenor, bumping it hard out of alignment, and driving it another 600 meters further from the gate.
Dane and his squad were returning fire.
“Realign! realign!” Captain en Issier yelled.
Pardoux was already on it. The Rouvenor was already responding. The ship’s warp drives were spooling up.
Just as the light before the Rouvenor began to stretch out into the distance beyond, her crew saw Lesit Dane’s cruiser disappear from their overview.