Cover of Defender of the Flame

Excerpt from Defender of the Flame

Book One of the Rising Flame science fiction duology
by Sylvia Engdahl

Then, abruptly, a starship loomed in front of him--huge, filling his viewscreen, an ominously strange shape unlike any ship he had ever seen. Incredibly, he had intercepted it precisely, despite having had no way of predicting the direction in which to fly. Was he dreaming this, Terry wondered, or had unconscious remote viewing led him to it . . . or, perhaps, had the other ship been simultaneously seeking him? It was much larger than Skywalker, larger even than Promise, and undoubtedly faster. Its sensors could have tracked his trajectory. The crew, whatever their mission, probably wouldn't want their presence to become known.

He had not expected anything like this. No one had thought there could ever be an intruder significantly bigger than an explorer, for the mere existence of a privately-owned starship large enough to hold more than twelve people was in itself illegal. In the years since formation of the League, Fleet had not needed to enforce its monopoly. An illegally-sized ship would have been detected during construction, or at the very least if it tried to unload cargo anywhere, so nobody had attempted to build one--and of course, undercover League conspirators could not use a Fleet ship. How had the owners of this monster managed to conceal it?

Steadying himself, Terry decided to proceed with his original plan for warning them off; it wasn't his job to deal with prior violations of League law. Setting the comm to broadcast on all frequencies, he declared, "Unidentified ship, this is FIS Skywalker. This entire system has been placed off-limits by Fleet, as maneuvers are underway here. You are required to jump at your earliest opportunity. Over."

There was no response, though it was impossible that they hadn't heard. Terry turned on the comm's vid so that they could see him and repeated the hail: "Unidentified ship, this is Lieutenant Commander Terry Radnor, captain of FIS Skywalker. You are in off-limits territory and you must depart immediately. Know that there is a cruiser present in this system that will enforce compliance. Please acknowledge, over." They had no choice but to obey; even a ship of this size would be no match for an armed cruiser.

The comm remained silent, its vidscreen blank; but the ship moved closer, almost as if they planned to rendezvous. Terry had no intention of doing so; while they surely would not blast him out of the sky without provocation, they might well take him prisoner if they could induce him to board--and he had had enough of being held captive by outlaws. What their ostensible aim might be in coming to this outlying solar system was hard to imagine; they couldn’t claim to be pirates here, nor could they masquerade as smugglers since they couldn't show themselves to sell any resources they might acquire--unless perhaps they planned to transfer cargo to smaller starships instead of approaching inhabited planets. Terry turned cold, for that made sense, now that he thought of it. A really large smuggling ring, controlled by the underworld, might be able to function that way. But in that case . . . maybe they would blast Skywalker. They would have a credible reason for getting rid of a pilot who knew more than their underworld bosses wanted known.

And if by chance they hadn't been warned about the cruiser, now that he'd revealed its presence they would investigate all the planets of the system, hoping to take it by surprise. While they couldn't win in an open fight, they could do a good deal of damage by a sneak attack. Expecting no trouble, the officers aboard Shepard would not be armed; the satellite alert wouldn't reveal the size of the intruder--they would send patrollers to meet it assuming that it would be easy to capture. If it carried high-yield weapons. . . .

Oh, God, Terry thought. Why had he again let the excitement of remote viewing override his common sense? Just as he had ignored normal caution when he entered the cave, he had rushed blindly into a situation in which he might be trapped. And yet . . . the cave experience had proved fortunate in the long run. Tristan had seemed to feel he had been guided by some mysterious inner impulse that had meaning. Might such an impulse account for his rashness this time, too? He alone now knew what Shepard could not foresee. Had precognition led him here to warn them? He must call even before learning the ship's identity; switching the comm to Fleet's frequency he started to do so . . . only to find that the comm panel was dead.

Dead! No power seemed to be reaching it. This could hardly be a coincidence, but what technology of theirs could kill just one power circuit within his ship? An EMP would have taken out everything.

The starship was still approaching, and it was even larger than he had thought because he had first seen it at a greater distance than he'd realized. It seemed headed to collide with Skywalker--maybe they meant to ram him! Frantically Terry reached for the AI console, attempting to change course. The override switch had no effect, and in horror he perceived that the other ship wasn't moving after all; Skywalker was being inexorably drawn toward it. A tractor beam? Such things existed in fiction, but not, as far as he knew, in real life. His instruments showed that the AI was fully operative; it was executing maneuvers leading not to a collision, but to a normal docking. Somehow they had taken remote control of his ship.

Where would anyone have obtained technology that could do that? If it was available, pirates would be using it, and he'd heard no reports in Fleet that any were. For a moment he wondered if Fleet was testing some secret new development, just as they were testing Skywalker, which would also account for the unprecedented design of the starship. But since it involved a crew other than Shepard's they wouldn't have picked Maclairn's solar system to do it in, not when there was a bigger secret here to protect. And in any case Admiral Frazer, knowing of his plan for patrolling, would have told him. He sat helplessly watching the viewscreen as, directly in front of him, a port opened in the starship and Skywalker was drawn through.

Copyright 2013 by Sylvia Engdahl

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