Summer's Gambit



Looking through the windshield Henry Twenty-One watched the Universe die. If someone else stood beside him, that someone would have probably  said to him: ‘Forget this nonsense, the Universe is fine’. Indeed, judging by the view from the cockpit, it was impossible to say that something was wrong. There were only asteroids around. ‘Turtle’ — an old smuggler frigate — was lurking in their shadows. ‘Perhaps, it can still get better’ — Henry thought. Always start your day with positive thoughts — as his shrink used to say. ‘But humanity is definitely done’ — Henry literally saw it suffocate, drowning in infinite space.
‘Hush, hush. That’s it, just a little bit more and the pain will go away. Peaceful sleep beckons.’
The captain (and the only member of the crew) drank from a bottle of protein coffee surrogate, coughed and winced.
Gloomy thoughts continued to find their way into his head. How many worlds have fallen? How many for the last cycle? On the news, especially Imperial ones, nobody ever mentioned it: apparently, the Hub worlds were safe and on the outskirts our brave men once again gave the Aliens some heat. Fancy that! Invaders, Aliens! Henry once considered pirates, Jericho and cybers to be the greatest danger. Now, wherever you jump, you’re bound to come across this Alien scum. Crystallids, that’s what they’re called, right?
Henry never found it important to dig into this sort of thing. His strategy was simple: see an Alien — run. Involuntarily, he glanced at the dashboard, with two shimmering lights above the words ‘Multiphase shield adapter’ and ‘Microwarp gate’. The knowledge that all the systems were in order made him calm. Even if the gates were useless  since a jump among the asteroids would be suicidal. ‘Turtle’ with its crazy speed would crash into the first rock. But one thing made him happy — the cockpit of Raptor MKII is located in the bow, which means that the pilot would not even feel pain.
Something creaked in the frigate’s belly. Henry stiffened and listened, but the creaking never came again. Should’ve checked in for maintenance…
Leaving a bottle in the holder on the dashboard, he unbuckled the straps that held him in his chair, and gently pushed forward. Zero gravity allowed him to easily soar above the workplace. He needed to stretch his legs. The smuggler, as usual, spent the night in a chair. On-board clock showed almost ten in the morning. There were still a couple of hours until the rendezvous, so it was time to check the goods. Moving along the handles inside the hull, Henry headed towards the cargo hold. He did not see much sense in so many inspections. But his employer had her own thoughts on this matter.
A faint smile crept across the smuggler’s face when he remembered about her. Though he’d only seen her once on the intercom, boy, was she fine! Her hair, the eyes, and… the smile instantly vanished from his face when he crossed the gate of the hold.

  • What are you? - Henry asked once again looking at a huge black box.
    The box, as always, did not bother to answer. Its design was grotesque. Steel body was covered with asymmetric valves, connectors — all between metal terrifying ribs. This monster was firmly fixed to the floor, the ceiling and even the walls with ceramic chains. Henry slipped easily through the web. Black matte surface of the box was covered with old stamps, barcodes and labels. The latest label belonged to the customs of the Empire, 300th department, unit Alpha. Next to the symbols and all the necessary cargo information was the signature of a certain M. Summer. Somehow, Henry had never paid any attention to it. Who was that? The smuggler has worked with this customs department and the local corrupt bureaucrats for several years. But Summer’s last name did not ring a bell.
    A small panel on the box came to life at the touch.
    Power… normal.
    Status… normal.
    Seal… 100%
    Temperature… 4 degrees Celsius.
    Network… online.
    Wait! Network online?
  • What the hell?
    Henry clicked the Network icon. A submenu showed up.
    ‘Sending data’, - the text read. Henry stared at it. Just a second later the text disappeared, and the submenu closed. The smuggler didn’t have time for a rhetorical question. In the narrow corridors of the frigate he heard the sound of an incoming message. How timely! Leaving the mysterious cargo alone, Henry went back to the cockpit. He was sure it was something important. His PDA had a special filter - it took only messages from whitelisted contacts. There was only one such contact. This means that the message from the employer…
    Henry landed back in his chair, pointed at the monitor, and the message appeared in front of him:
    ‘Attention, Mercenaries!
    Very soon my personal shipyard will launch its first fighters of Nyx class…’
    What kind of nonsense is that?
    What mercenaries? He left UMC three years ago. Even if it was a mass mailout, the computer was not supposed to accept it. His eyes skimmed over the text, trying to find at least some secret message, a hint.
    The signature. Miss Summer. So it was a she, not a he. The mysterious bureaucrat from the customs… And, apparently, his employer at the same time. The system recognized her signature and accepted the message. But what was it she needed from the mercenaries? In the message she offered a whole bunch of resources for seemingly meaningless tasks. What kind of game was she up to? And most importantly…
  • Who are you, Miss Summer?
    Henry couldn’t read the message in time. The computer started beeping and the screen showed a map with three approaching dots. Without identification signals. Henry easily read their movements. Whoever they were, they weren’t looking for him, they knew exactly where he was, and moved his way the shortest route. Every second was important. The smuggler started the engines and immediately reversed, and a second later activated the minelayer.
    Hundreds of light beads scattered where the ‘Turtle’ had just been. The lights flickered red. Through this haze Henry saw his first guest. A fighter… a command one. Bright colours, the skull and crossbones on the hull. Pirates.
    Smuggler released several charges from the coil mortar, scraped the fighter’s shield and hid behind an asteroid. He immediately started to turn the vessel. It’s better to show the enemy your back than your guts. The dot on the map accelerated. The pirate fired up his afterburner. A flash. Another second and the dot disappeared. Henry had one last minelayer charge… now he had to get out of the asteroids. He started the afterburner and directed ‘Turtle’ to the nearest clearance.
    The intercom came to life.
  • Not bad, not bad - said a coarse male voice.
    Henry pushed the PTT button on the wheel.
  • Identify yourself. Where did you get this frequency?
    The man only laughed in response. His laughter was so unpleasant that a shiver went down Henry’s back. He did not understand what was happening, but he knew he had to run.
    The afterburners were carrying him to the saving clearance. Meanwhile, the radar reflected one more dot. Someone was trying to flank the ‘Turtle’ in a big arc. No matter, Henry thought, this one wouldn’t have  enough firepower to bring down the gates. But he’d try. The next moment, the dot disappeared. Adaptive Camo? The two ships behind were gradually closing the distance. They also started afterburner. They learned nothing from the death of their comrade. ‘Turtle’ left another mine field behind it and continued flying.
    That’s it, just a little more…
    The smuggler ship jumped out of the asteroid field and started turning. He had to turn towards the nearest gate. They definitely wouldn’t catch him there.
  • Very well, - the unpleasant voice spoke again.
    A ship appeared from behind the asteroids. They were on a crash course. Henry noticed it too late, but the Pirate did not open fire. Something was clearly wrong with that ship. It looked like a fighter, but the model… Henry had never seen anything like it. However, now he did not have time to even wonder. The smuggler hit a glowing button, and ‘Turtle’ spat a gate module in front of it. Several plates detached from the module in flight. They quickly expanded. A force field that usually formed the jump gate a fraction of a second later was already visible. Henry squeezed everything he could from the ‘Turtle’.
    That’s it, just a little bit more…
    The flash blinded him for a moment. The shock wave rocked the ship. ‘Turtle’ dramatically slowed down, and Henry hit his head hard on the dashboard.
    He soon woke up to find a few floating weightless blobs of his own blood, fragments of the gate in front of the ship’s nose and four beams of long-range guns aimed at his ship.
    To be continued…

Author: P. Shabarin




  • It was about five… yes, five years ago. Back then I was still in UMC, taking part in beacon hunt. Federation scientists were moving their equipment to Troy. Imperial command decided that it was probably some kind of weapon prohibited by the Trilateral Pact. We were hired to provide navigation, the other guys were there to stop us. Business  as usual. Shooting and fun. I got hit thrice: once by the beacon, the second time — when I tried to help out my buddy Iroot (for some reason he rushed at a guard frigate alone) and finally — when I myself rushed at a long-range. But the fourth time something went wrong. You know how the system works for the Imperials, right? You get hit, and a second before your untimely demise an implant sends all your memories back to the station. They clone you, put you on a new ship and send you back into battle. The whole process is a matter of seconds, and you do not even notice that you’re living in a new body. Therefore, the ships are not equipped with rescue capsules.
  • It’s standard practice. Old but reliable. We’re also using it - said his interlocutor, pacing around the room. He was a young man, very tidily and stylishly dressed. His face was adorned with a beard and a jagged scar.
  • Only this time everything went wrong - continued Henry. - I was shot down by the beacon again. Ten seconds later, I was there again. And do you know what I saw there? Do you? Myself. The ship exploded and the system worked perfectly. But the pilot survived. I saw myself alive, but helplessly dangling in space. Oxygen was spurting from the suit, which meant there was little time left. Through the windshield, I watched my replica die, I watched myself die.
  • What did you do?
  • Tried to save myself, of course. But what I got was a torpedo hit in the port side. The long-range had his revenge. My ship was torn to pieces, just like me. And a moment before that my guys had taken a beacon. Its signal blocked our navigation, and I had to hang in there thirty-six seconds. Thirty-six. I literally saw him choking, drowning in infinite space. I spoke to myself, hoping he would hear: ‘Hush, hush. That’s it, a little bit more, and the pain will go away. You’re going to fall asleep.’
    There was a moment silence. Baron turned to the observation wall — a huge window with a view of the nearest star. Its orbit was the location of the pirate station. Henry took a sip of coffee. Somehow he was not in the mood to argue about the virtues of this drink brewed from genuine beans.
  • After that, I started flying carefully, counting each death, - he continued. - But I could not take it any more at the twentieth death. I stopped all flights, cancelled subscription to cloning, sold all the ships except one. Even with all the rebates and taxes there wasn’t enough money even for a modest life. I had to work as a technician in the hangar. But you know how a pilot feels without space. So I started smuggling.
  • Now I know why she chose you, - the Baron said staring at the void - you’ve got something to lose. Without subscription you are mortal. This means you have to take care of your life, your ship, and your cargo more than any other captain in the galaxy.
  • Never thought about it in this context, - Henry grinned, - sounds like a good slogan.
  • If we come to an agreement, you won’t have to think about it.
  • It’s out of the question - Henry declined once more. He was not going to give up the cargo to pirates. He knew he’d been spared only because Baron did not want to damage the black box. This was the reason he had not hit him then by the asteroids. Realizing this, Henry activated all of the remaining mines on board. They were set up to activate if anyone set foot inside apart from himself.
  • You can not even imagine how dangerous she is. How dangerous are those who stand behind her.
  • What do you know about Summer? - Henry did not bother with pleasantries and that seemed to amuse the Baron.
  • Not much more than you do. Nobody saw her in person. Her agents penetrated into all power structures. And I’m not just talking about the Empire. The tech that she possesses can’t even be compared to the waste that we have. Whoever stands behind Summer has tremendous power. They were here long before you and I, long before the invasion. They existed in the days of Direktorium, and perhaps earlier. Do you see what I mean?
  • Revenants are a myth.
  • Yes. And a very scary one.
    Baron remained by the window for some time, and then returned to the table. Henry once again noticed the young looks of the man. And it was amazing - the Baron had an old scar, which meant he’s had a long history in this body. Henry unwittingly ran his hand over the stitches on his face. When the wound heals, scar tissue will remind him that he is still alive.
    Meanwhile, the Baron finished messing with the desktop terminal. He took a chip and threw it on the table in front of Henry.
  • Money? - the smuggler asked.
  • And much more - pirate smiled - although there’s enough standards to buy a small fleet. Or Imperial citizenship and a plot of land. Remember my vessel? That’s ‘Nyx’. The new model, fresh from, the docks of Naberia-392. It’s yours. And the chip - is your pass through the station. We’ve got a lot of interesting stuff here. The doors are open for you.
    Henry picked up the chip and meticulously examined it from all sides.
  • So I can take this ‘Nix’ fly it to hub worlds and never engage in smuggling again?
    The Baron shrugged.
  • Do whatever you want. Just give us Summer’s cargo.
    Henry looked at his companion. He was still smiling, but there was hatred in his eyes. Sooner or later, the pirates are going to deactivate the mines and take the load. The Baron put his right hand on the table. Despite his relaxed demeanour, it was clear that he was always ready to grab a gun and shoot the tough smuggler himself. Why the theatrics then? Why make a proposal? The Baron only needed Henry to save time. He was afraid of something and was eager to rush things. You can’t say ‘I’ll think about it’ and play for time, you can not refuse.
  • Looks like a great idea to me - Henry put the chip into his breast pocket.
    The Baron leaned back in his chair. His smile took a natural shade.
  • My head’s spinning - Henry added - I could use some food, a drink…
  • Of course. Just don’t take too long.
  • I already realized that I’m not going to sleep today.
    The Baron just nodded and silently pointed to the door.
    Once he was alone, Henry decided to wander the corridors of the pirate station. He needed to think. This station was so old it had probably seen the Direktorium. Its original function was impossible to guess. Most likely, it was a fleet resupply dock or the central mining structure for the nearest asteroid belt. The one where the rendezvous had been scheduled. Strange… why did Summer chose a venue so close to a pirate base? As if she wanted Henry to be caught…
    Another door opened in front of him, responding to the chip in his pocket. Naturally, the chip had a sewn-in beacon. He couldn’t escape with it. But abandoning the beacon was out of the question - he had to use it for a diversion. But how? He couldn’t just throw it in the pocket of some pirate, could he? Reflecting on the possible ways of escape, Henry went into the hangar’s viewing corridor. Through the armored glass he looked at the hundreds of pirate ships: arriving, preparing for the raid, receiving maintenance. ‘Turtle’ was on the far side of the hangar. Apparently, in order to minimize damage in the event of an explosion. ‘Nyx’ occupied a place befitting only a Baron’s ship, on the central podium.
    Maybe he could throw the chip into one of the departing ships? Or leave it on the ‘Turtle’, and himself… no, no… ‘Nyx’ was not going to fly without a chip.
  • Damn!
    He had to come up with something. He needed some kind of distraction.
    He approached the next airlock door leading into the hangar, but it did not open. Henry swiped the chip on the door lock. Nothing happened. Suddenly, a small screen on the lock panel came alive and showed the familiar outlines of a beautiful stranger.
  • Henry - sounded the voice belonging to Miss Summer - our contract is still in force. I’ll help you escape. Go to the medical bay and put on a light full cycle spacesuit. Get on the ‘Turtle’ and fly away. My men will meet you at the rendezvous point. And one more thing: good luck, Henry.
    The screen got dark and the door opened. The smuggler turned on the spot and hurried towards the medbay. He knew where it was - that’s where he’d got the stitches. If Summer had told him to put on a suit, then he had to do it, as soon as possible. Of that he was certain. The rest remained a mystery. For example, how did she establish a comms channel with the station to send a message, or how did she know that his ship was called ‘Turtle’?
    He thought about it all the way to medbay. But no worthwhile thought in his head came to light. The small bay was empty. Few people use the services of autodocs when you can just clone a new body next door.
    Once inside, he went to the lockers with spacesuits. They were stored there in the event of a quarantine. At the same time, the light in the room blinked and turned back on a moment later, but in red. A twang of the siren was ringing in the corridors.
    Henry suddenly realized everything that had happened, all that needed to happen, and that he needed to do. Then he lost consciousness.


To be continued…


Author: P. Shabarin





A figure in a pressurized suit is leaning over Henry. The smuggler found himself lying on a medical gurney. The man above him was fiddling with the straps on Henry’s left hand, but his right hand was still free. There was no time for reflection: the gradually returning sense of hearing was disturbed by the roar of sirens. Henry used all the strength in his numb hand and hit the person somewhere in the head, then turned and hit again with his foot. The man fell down, and Henry began to unfasten his left hand. To his surprise he found himself in the same suit.


He is now on the far side of the hangar, not far from the ‘Turtle’. Chaos reigned all around him. He heard shots of kinetic carbines and squeals of combat blasters. Ships sped by, one by one — pirates were leaving the station in a hurry. Whatever happened here, Henry decided to follow their example as soon as possible. A few seconds later he unfastened the straps, and he was free. The man who’d tried to fasten him to a gurney, meanwhile, jumped to his feet and ran somewhere in the direction of the hangar entrance.


There was no time to investigate. And even more so there was no point to catch up with the stranger. Thuds and rhythmic beats of kinetic weapons were heard from the place where he’d fled. One of the pirates jumped into his ship,but pointed his guns at the hangar.


Henry reacted at the last moment, when a mad technician jumped at him. The man in the green suit was running towards him, swinging a heavy wrench. The smuggler grabbed the gurney and pushed it at the attacker. He did not even try to dodge, got hit by it and fell down. Something was wrong with the technician. Henry looked closely at him and was horrified to find terrible blisters, swollen on the man’s neck. His eyes were covered by a bloody shroud, even the whites were red, and his mouth was foaming.


Henry cursed and rushed to the ‘Turtle’. His legs were still numb, as if he had been unconscious not for hours but for years. When he reached the ship, he jumped on the ramp of the cargo hold and hit the ‘Lift’ button. Only then did he realize that the ramp should have been closed. Henry turned to face the cargo, but the black box was still in place… yet the chains holding it were torn for some reason.

  • This is not good. This is really, really bad, - he said to himself.


In the cockpit everything was as he had left it, even the bottle of protein brew. The smuggler collapsed in a chair and hit the ignition. ‘Turtle’ came to life, and the ship pulled away from the hangar floor. Henry guided it to the door, where he saw one of the pirate frigates. It was about to leave too, but suddenly changed the trajectory and released drones. The pirate was turning towards the ‘Turtle’. Henry yanked the wheel and went straight to the enemy. Pirate drones were clicking their lasers on the shield of the ‘Turtle’, but then vanished in an instant thanks to the coil mortar. Explosive shells turned them into scrap metal. Knock, knock, another blow — the smuggler was squeezing the trigger. Another pirate on an agile interceptor sped past, trying to break out of chaos that reigned in the hangar. He was caught by the blast for just a split-second, but it was enough. An interceptor was what entered the zone of fire, but just a flaming wreckage was all that was left of it. Henry’s enemy moved to position and immediately opened fire. Too late. ‘Turtle’ shields took the hit, strengthened by a multiphase adapter. The last two mortar charges hit the pirate’s hull, then the ships collided. The hull squealed, but held together. Pushing the pirate aside, Henry once again rushed for the exit. He was almost there already — where the force field was keeping oxygen from being sucked outside. But the pirate did not want to give up, he started turning once again.

  • Get away! — Henry snapped and released the minelayer.


He did not even bother to watch what happened. He brought the vessel out of the hangar and immediately deployed a jump gate. There were too many ships and debris around: jumping was risky. But Henry knew that as soon as the pirates cleared through the minefield, he would’ve had dozens, or even hundreds of ships on his tail.


This time the gates opened. ‘Turtle’ together with Henry yanked forward. Acceleration was so strong that the Smuggler was pressed into his chair. And when the jump was over, they were already far from the station. An asteroid belt was visible ahead. Henry sent the ship there.


The intercom came to life.

  • Good job, Henry, -—Miss Summer smiled on the screen — you did the right thing.

  • What the … — the smuggler stopped for a moment — what happened there?

  • My people will greet you, — she ignored the question.

  • No one is getting the cargo until I get an answer!

  • Your cargo, Henry? — Summer continued to smile, but something in her eyes changed.


Something squealed inside the hull of the ‘Turtle’ once again. It looked like the battle was not too kind to it.

  • What happened at the station? the Smuggler repeated his question.

  • The baron decided to ignore part of our deal and he got what he deserved.

  • Is that a threat?

Summer was silent. The squeal and rattle repeated. Henry realized that it was coming from the cargo hold.

  • Emperor, Bartle and Federal senators be damned, who the heck are you?

  • I am the one whose orders are always followed. That’s all you need to know.

The image of the beautiful stranger was suddenly distorted with noise and began to dissolve on the screen. A strange kind of symbol appeared instead — a pyramid with three spikes and an eye.

  • You disobeyed my orders, Henry — Summer’s voice lost all emotion, it sounded mechanical. — And now you are going to pay for it.

Henry flicked the intercom and realized that it wasn’t an incoming call. Years of flights alone made him forget what the ship’s internal comms looked like

  • Oh, no… — the smuggler whispered.

The rattle became permanent… and it was getting closer. Something was making its way to the cockpit through the ship’s wiring. The radar came on. It was showing ships hiding among asteroids. Three, five, ten, fifteen… there were at least three dozen. The broadcast was suddenly clogged with mechanical noise — those were Cybers.

  • Henry… — the mechanical voice rang out behind him — I always get what I want.

  • Oh, no, — he said, and turned on the jump gate — not this time.


Through the windshield, Henry Twenty-One was watching his own death. When the ‘Turtle’, crashing against the rocks, disappeared from the radar, he finally took off his helmet. Blood had dried up on his face. He looked at his reflection in the clear helmet visor. The stitches were split from the blow. It was pretty bad, but not as bad as what he had done to save his own skin.


There was no sense in staying. The smuggler turned his ‘Nyx’ to the system gate. Away from the infected plant, away from the asteroid belt, and away from himself. The only thing that warmed his soul, was the thought that the death of Henry Twenty-Two was instant.


The end.


Author: P. Shabarin